Today I went to Yamamaru Park, a pleasant and leafy park in Saitama-Shi, a mid-sized city within commuting distance of Tokyo. It had a public hall that was hosting an arm wrestling meet, and there were all these guys with huge muscles, some enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon with their wives and children. There was another group in the park today: the police. Uniformed, plain clothes (you could tell they were cops because they wore armbands that said so) and riot police wearing helmets and body armor.
Then there was another group: the Zaitokukai, a far-right group known for their hate speech demonstrations in Shin-Okubo, a Korean neighborhood in Tokyo.
Around seventy of them gathered today, with their forest of Japanese flags and signs displaying grievances. After a rally in the park, they marched out into the streets of Saitama-Shi calling for the end of friendly ties between Japan and South Korea.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and the South Korean Embassy are not in Saitama-Shi; they are both in Tokyo, thirty kilometers away.
This was the third time I had witnessed a Zatitokukai demonstration, and I was beginning to recognize faces. Perhaps some of them were beginning to recognize me.
The signs that they displayed were milder than the very violent ones I'd seen before. But Makoto Sakurai, the Zaitokukai's chairman, still spilled hatred of Koreans via his bullhorn. He and his followers marched through Omiya's streets with the protection of the police. There were so many officers marching with them that it looked as if the police outnumbered the demonstrators.
What I fear is the day in which crowds cheer on the Zaitokukai. Today wasn't that day; the people of Saitama-Shi treated the Zaitokukai in the manner most Japanese treat far-right groups -- with total indifference. And the Zaitokukai wasn't doing anything to bring that day closer. The woman with the biggest bullhorn spoke in a mocking and irritating voice, using language that might make sense to similar-minded far-righters on an SNS but to nobody else. And screaming hysterically at counter-Zaitokukai demonstrators in front of a department store isn't going to win the hearts and minds of shoppers, either. The Zaitokukai seems to be a group that does not want or does not understand what it takes to gain real power. Any comparison to Hitler or even David Duke is ridiculous when it comes to the Zaitokukai.
So why pay attention on a bunch of losers with bullhorns? I do because it brings forth what allows groups like the Zaitokukai to be. While Japanese treatment of ethnic minorities has always been abysmal, political groups based on racial hate never gained the kind of visibility gained by the Zaitokukai. In Japan of 2013, expression of hatred towards the Korean or the Chinese is a solid part of the common discourse. Education didn't do its job as well as it should have, and both the media and the politicians add fuel to the fire rather than to extinguish it. Never-ending territorial disputes and arguments over Japan's actions in World War II aren't helping, either. When I look at the Zaitokukai's members, I see average-looking men and women I see everywhere else. Perhaps if Japan hadn't lost its standing as an economic superpower and a sense of stagnation hadn't stained almost all aspects of Japanese life, they wouldn't be spewing hate. Hell, I might have joined Sakurai and his group if I'd come across the wrong tweet at the wrong time. Or would that be the right tweet at the right time?
I keep an eye on the Zaitokukai because it is a barometer. Their Shin-Okubo demonstrations usually gather around a hundred participants. Will the day come when the number becomes a thousand? Ten thousand? Nobody knows, and I can't bat an eye.