Every other day or so, the crowded streets of Tokyo are transformed by a terrifying apparition. It comes in the form of black vans, driven at a snail's pace along some of the city's busiest roads, and manned by grim-faced men dressed in quasi-military uniforms. The trucks are mounted with loudspeakers, and from them comes earsplitting martial music, interspersed with incomprehensible slogans.
The black vans, screened by wire mesh and decorated with Rising Sun flags and angry Japanese characters, look and sound like demonic ice cream vans. But most remarkable is the behaviour of the ordinary Japanese: despite the unbearable din, the bizarre spectacle, and the traffic jams, nobody pays the vans the slightest attention.
These are the vans of the uyoku, the representatives of Japan's ultra nationalist right wing, and the reaction they provoke on the streets of Tokyo exemplifies their status in the country as a whole. Ever since its wartime defeat, Japan has had a small, and absurdly vociferous, far right. It loathes an assortment of enemies: principally communists, and those who denigrate Japan's wartime occupation of large parts of Asia. Many of its adherents have links with the yakuza, or organised crime syndicates.
But rather than denouncing them, embracing them, or even just laughing at them, most Japanese prefer simply to pretend that they are not there.
The tendency has been particularly noticeable in the last few weeks, during the escalating squabble over the small group of islands in the East China Sea called, in Japanese, the Senkaku chain. The islands, which are also claimed by Taiwan and China, became the focus of dispute in July when an uyoku group erected a beacon on one of the chain. This provoked protests from Chinese nationalists in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Two weeks ago, a protester died after leaping into the sea from a ship near the islands. Yesterday, demonstrators planted Chinese and Taiwanese flags on one of them, as 30 ships from both territories dodged patrolling Japanese coast guards.
The squabble has received scant coverage in most Japanese newspapers. The government insists, when pushed, that the islands are Japan's, but prefers not to discuss the issue. But despite official calls for calm on all sides, the issue has crept onto the political agenda.
The reason is simple: in less than two weeks, Japan faces general parliamentary elections. Six main parties are competing, and they can hardly find a significant issue to disagree on. All are in favour of welfare for the aged, gentle support for the economy, and reform of Japan's powerful bureaucracy. The outcome will depend on the effectiveness of local party machines, thrown into uncertainty by a new voting system.
Strongest among the parties is the Liberal Democratic Party which hopes to win back a full majority, and escape the feeble coalition government in which it has been trapped for two years. Last week it openly asserted Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus, and two other islets occupied by South Korea.
Since the last election, Japanese politics has taken a mild but distinct turn to the right. This month's polls will probably see the virtual eclipse of the old Socialist Party, which opposes anything smacking of nationalism.
The LDP is very likely to miss an outright majority, and will be forced to jettison its most extreme policies in order to win over coalition partners. When the election is over, Tokyo will once again be able to pretend that the uyoku are not there.Reuse content