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The Roots and Realities of Japan’s Cyber-Nationalism

Furuya Tsunehira [Profile]


The prevalence of anti-Korean and anti-Chinese hate speech on Japanese websites has raised concerns about the spread of a virulent strain of right-wing cyber-nationalism in Japan. Furuya Tsunehira traces the rise of Japan’s “Internet right-wingers” and dispels some myths about their identity and potential impact.

Japan’s “Internet right-wingers” (netto uyoku or netto hoshu) are a new breed of neo-nationalists who interact almost entirely within their own cyber community, shut off from the rest of society. Their most conspicuous characteristic may be their harshly anti-Korean views, but they also share a fierce animosity toward China, the mainstream media (with the notable exception of the ultraconservative Sankei Shimbun), and the so-called “Tokyo Trial view of history,” with its acknowledgment of wrongs committed by Japan before and during the war.

The results of a survey that I conducted at the beginning of 2013 indicate that the average age of Japan’s Internet right-wingers is around 40. Some 75% of them are male, and they are concentrated in major urban areas, particularly the Tokyo-Kanagawa region. Their average annual income is slightly higher than the median for their age, and most are graduates of four-year universities.

This profile of the typical Japanese right-wing netizen contradicts that theory that the young and economically dispossessed are at the heart of the recent surge in xenophobic right-wing extremism. In Europe the rise of ultra-rightist groups, including the National Front in France, is often traced to disaffected low-income and unemployed youth, whose frustration has found expression in a xenophobic backlash against immigrants. In the early years of this century, some Japanese analysts concluded that the same economic and social forces explained the rise of this country’s Internet right-wingers, and the idea quickly rose to prominence. Even now, it plays an important role in the worldview of such ultra-conservative commentators as manga artist Kobayashi Yoshinori. As it turns out, however, the theory lacks any basis in fact.

As we have seen, Japan’s Internet right-wingers are predominantly middle-aged, middle-class urban dwellers (concentrated in the capital region). Their numbers are estimated at between 2.0 million and 2.5 million at the most. This figure is based on the roughly 600,000 votes garnered by ultranationalist candidate Tamogami Toshio (a favorite of the right-wing online community) in the spring 2014 Tokyo gubernatorial election and the 1.42 million ballots cast for the Party for Future Generations (which endorsed Tamogami and likewise attracted enthusiastic support among Internet right-wingers) in the proportional-representation component of the December 2014 House of Representatives election. (The party won two Diet seats as a result.)

Backlash over the 2002 World Cup

The origins of Japan’s cyber-nationalist phenomenon can be traced to 2002, the year Japan and South Korea jointly held the FIFA World Cup. As World Cup fever swept the nation, Japan’s mainstream media kept up an almost manically upbeat tone despite the perception (particularly among those of a nationalistic bent) that the South Korean team was playing dirty and getting away with it. This frustration found an outlet in Internet bulletin boards and other online forums.

With the mainstream media avoiding any comments or coverage critical of the event or of the Koreans, disgruntled fans turned to the Internet, which they regarded as the only medium free from the constraints of official policy or political correctness. The episode fueled a deep distrust of the mainstream media, particularly with regard to coverage of South Korea, and helped set the anti-Korean, anti–mainstream media tone that was to become a defining feature of Japan’s Internet right-wing community. Illustrative of this lineage and its enduring impact is the fact that years later, participants in the Internet-organized anti-Korean demonstrations of 2011 and 2012 (about 10,000 for all demonstrations combined) descended not on the South Korean embassy but on the Fuji Television Building in Odaiba, Tokyo. (They were protesting what they regarded as excessive South Korean influence in the network’s broadcasting policy.)

As this analysis indicates, it is a mistake to equate Japan’s new wave of right-wing nationalism with the xenophobic extremism that economic hardship and immigration have fueled among Europe’s low-income youth. Japan’s new wave of right-wingers consists of relatively computer-literate middle-class men who sought an outlet for their indignation regarding the predominantly upbeat and conciliatory representation of South Korea in the mainstream media. Poverty was not a factor.

Dilemma of the Unrepresented Right

As a result of these origins, the movement was confined to cyberspace and consequently lacked any organized political party capable of representing its views at the national level. Japan also has its cyber-leftists, but the Left has long enjoyed political representation in the Diet through the Japanese Communist Party (which captured about 6 million proportional-representation votes in the 2014 general election) and the Social Democratic Party (1.3 million votes), which have a long tradition of involvement in national politics. The pent-up frustration of rightists who lacked legitimate political representation via a party of their own is doubtless part of the reason right-wingers came to dominate political discourse on the Internet.

Without a party of their own, Japan’s right-wingers have tended to throw their support behind individual politicians representing the hawkish right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party (including Prime Ministers Koizumi Jun’ichirō, Asō Tarō, and Abe Shinzō). It was only in the run-up to the 2014 general election that a party specifically targeted to the non-LDP Right emerged on the national scene and provided a means of quantifying that segment of the population at the national level.

The dilemma of the Internet right-wingers as a bloc without a political party found vivid expression in their support for non-LDP maverick Tamogami Toshio (as opposed to LDP candidate Masuzoe Yōichi) in the April 2014 Tokyo gubernatorial election, as well as in their almost unanimous support for the upstart PFG in the general election the same year.

  • [2016.01.21]

Born in Sapporo in 1982. Completed a degree in history at the faculty of letters, Ritsumeikan University. Writes principally about the Internet, Internet right-wingers, the mass media, and anime. Works include Netto uyoku no gyakushū (The Internet Right-Wingers Strike Back), Wakamono wa hontō ni uyokuka shiteiru no ka (Are Young People Really Tilting to the Right?), Netto uyoku no owari: heito supīchi ha naze naku naranai no ka (The End of the Internet Right-Wing: Why Doesn’t Hate Speech Disappear), and Sayoku mo uyoku mo uso bakari (The Left and the Right Are Both Full of Lies).

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