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Out of Japan: Racists cast a shadow on the Rising Sun

TOKYO - The impromptu Iranian bazaar in a park in central Tokyo is under threat, as was mentioned in this column two weeks ago. But the threat is now coming from a particularly nasty group of neo-Nazis, who unashamedly use swastikas and racist language to get their message across.

The embers of wartime fascism recently rekindled in Germany also seem to smoulder on in small pockets of Japan. And the government is slow to stamp them out.

The bazaar in question is a gathering of thousands of Iranian labourers in Yoyogi Park that takes place every weekend. They barbecue kebabs and sell each other videotapes of Iranian films, newspapers from Tehran and cheap clothes. It functions as a social club for these men who are far from home, working without visas and trying to save some money for their families in Iran.

The Japanese government knows they are here - it even calculates the number of illegal foreign workers month by month - but up to recently has tolerated them as a source of cheap manual labour.

According to the latest statistics from the Immigration Bureau of the Justice Ministry, there are 293,000 foreigners illegally in Japan. And because they have no working visas, neither the government nor their employees has to pay for their medical insurance. Very convenient.

But now the Iranians are under attack. Although they are spread through Tokyo and the surrounding suburbs, the gathering at Yoyogi Park has become something of a touchstone for the Iranian presence because it is so visible and concentrated. Whenever television crews want to get footage for a story on the 'foreigner problem' they send their cameras down to the park.

'Recover Yoyogi Park for the Japanese', 'Drive out foreigners staying illegally in Japan', 'Protect our environment' read posters, which have a large swastika in the centre. They have been put up in the past two weeks by an organisation that calls itself 'The League of State Socialists', saying it is inspired by the thought of Adolf Hitler.

'People coming from various countries are causing confusion in Japan, where culture and tradition have been treasured,' a leader of the league was quoted as saying in a Japanese paper. 'Public safety is precarious in the United States because different races with different religions live there.'

This is a familiar refrain, even with mainstream Japanese politicians, who frequently point to Japan's homogeneity as the reason for its low crime rate and high economic growth rate.

In addition to the swastika poster campaign, a number of 'sound trucks', vehicles with powerful loudspeakers, have been cruising around Tokyo in the past few weeks calling for foreigners without visas to be expelled. A law was passed last year limiting the sound levels of these trucks but the police, who have long-standing if informal links with many of these right-wing groups, have been slow to crack down on the decibel dreadnoughts.

What is most distressing, however, is the lack of any government reaction. Just as the German government was slow to take action against the neo- Nazis, giving rise to suspicions that the prejudices expressed by the fanatics were shared in part by more moderate members of society, so too in Japan the government seems happy to allow the racist rhetoric to continue unhindered.

Last week, the Labour Minister, Masakuni Murakami, effectively supported the neo- Nazi campaign. He said the government could not ignore these foreigners, 'first of all Iranians', who overstay their visas, because if they did not find a job they might start committing crimes.

This, really, is the crux of the matter: unemployment. While Japan's economy was booming, it was suffering from a labour shortage, and could soak up tens of thousands of Iranians as well as South-east Asians to do the jobs Japanese no longer care for. But now the unemployment figures are starting to creep up as the recession bites, and there are fears the Iranians could be taking jobs away from Japanese.

Extremist groups have frequently been used to 'shape public opinion' when the government does not want to get its hands dirty. The Iranians are starting to get worried.