Tokyo Stories: Black van man gets ready for the greatest grudge match on earth

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The Independent Online

My wife and I laugh about it now, but at the time it was about as funny as a trip to the dentist: a couple of years back, a group of ultra-nationalists warned us to shut up. We were hosting a local radio show and had just returned from a trip to Nangking in China, site of a notorious massacre by the Japanese imperial army at the end of 1937.

My wife and I laugh about it now, but at the time it was about as funny as a trip to the dentist: a couple of years back, a group of ultra-nationalists warned us to shut up. We were hosting a local radio show and had just returned from a trip to Nangking in China, site of a notorious massacre by the Japanese imperial army at the end of 1937.

After visiting the museum that commemorates the incident, reading the testimony of hundreds of survivors and looking at countless photographs of corpses, we said that it is impossible to deny what happened, adding that those who do should pay a visit there themselves. We were thinking of politicians like Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who calls the massacre a "Chinese lie".

The shaven-headed patriots, who are usually busy blocking traffic in militarised black sound trucks inscribed with love poems to the Emperor and screaming right-wing dogma at indifferent pedestrians, took umbrage at this smear and paid the radio station a visit. To our amazement, the shaken station director wrote us an on-air apology that said we had behaved "anti-socially", the same Japanese phrase used to describe Bill Clinton's shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office.

Afterwards I was told that ultra-rightists here have a well-earned reputation for intimidation and violence against those they don't agree with. I also learned that while most people consider them low-life thugs, the low-lifes can always take comfort from pronouncements by pillars of the establishment. Time and again Japanese politicians have recorded "gaffes" that have thousands of dim, shaven heads nodding in agreement across the country.

I was reminded of all this again this week, when NHK, Japan's equivalent of the BBC, became embroiled in a censorship scandal over a 2001 programme about "comfort women", the estimated 200,000 women across Asia forced into sexual slavery by the imperial army during the Second World War. NHK had been treated to a standard ultra-rightist package: a visit, carrying the implied threat of violence, and an eardrum-shattering serenade by dozens of black vans. The programme was duly altered beyond all recognition.

This week, thanks to a brave NHK producer, Japan learned that the rightists had heavyweight support: Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, who rang the day before the programme was due to go out. Abe, who is tipped to become prime minister after Junichiro Koizumi steps down, said he thought the programme was "biased".

Time and again, surveys show that young Japanese know little about war-time history, an issue that enrages much of the rest of Asia. Last year, millions of Japanese TV viewers watched stunned as a riot broke out in Beijing after Japan won the Asian Cup soccer final against China. "Why do they hate us?" was the subtext in much of the discussion that followed. Now they know who to blame.

The ghosts of the past will also be haunting the stands of Saitama Stadium for the first of two World Cup qualifiers between North Korea and Japan early next month, a fixture that the term "grudge match" hardly begins to describe.

The North has been the target of 28 months of vitriol in the Japanese media since Kim Jong Il admitted that his spies abducted Japanese citizens in a bizarre plot to train language teachers and spies - meaning more of those black vans. "A great many rightists will surely come to the stadium," said a police official last week. The second qualifier is scheduled for June in Pyongyang, where Japan is hated for kidnapping thousands of North Koreans during the war and for aligning itself with Uncle Sam since.

When Japan played there two decades ago, 80,000 spectators in identical Mao-type suits fell silent at every Japanese touch of the ball. This time around, North Korea is rumoured to be nursing a nuclear bomb, Tokyo is threatening Pyongyang with sanctions, and Governor Ishihara says Japan should declare war. None of this has stopped one optimistic Japanese travel agency from organising trips to the Pyongyang match. So far they've had 10 inquiries.

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