The Roots and Realities of Japan’s Cyber-Nationalism

Politics Society

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.

In Thrall to a Matrix Worldview

The big question is how a significant number of affluent, middle-class urbanites have fallen prey to the anti-Korean, anti-mainstream media ideas circulating in cyberspace.

A clue to their psychology can be found in the 1999 science fiction hit The Matrix. The premise of the film is that humanity is actually asleep, and what most people believe to be reality is only an elaborate dream world fabricated and controlled by intelligent machines. The plot unfolds as the film’s hero “Neo,” a computer programmer, awakens from the dream, learns the truth, and joins the rebellion against these nonhuman overlords.

In a close parallel to the premise of the Matrix, Internet right-wingers talk about “waking up” to the patriotic, anti-Korean truths that the powers that be (primarily the mainstream media) have taken such pains to conceal from the people. Only on the Internet, they believe, is it possible to lift this veil of falsehood.

Such, then, is the mentality of the Internet right-wingers. Still, it is legitimate to ask what would make relatively educated urbanites vulnerable to such nonsense.

Filling a Historical Vacuum

The short answer is that history education in Japanese public schools is woefully inadequate, and instruction on modern and contemporary history is particularly sparse. Under Japan’s entrance examination system, students lacking even an elementary knowledge of modern Japanese history can gain admission to (and hence graduate from) a reputable four-year university. As a result, there is little opportunity or incentive to foster historical literacy regarding modern Japan.

The curriculum is particularly sketchy when it comes to World War II, including its causes and aftermath. Anxious to avoid controversy and debate, Japan’s education administrators have opted to rush students through a sharply abridged history of the 1930s and 1940s. Consequently, a surprising number of educated middle-class Japanese are virtually ignorant of circumstances surrounding Japan’s invasion of northern China, its establishment of a puppet state in Manchuria, its military campaign in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, or the immediate postwar years under the US Occupation—although virtually everyone knows about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The inadequate teaching of history in the schools leaves gaping holes where anti-Korean and ultranationalist myths can later take root and grow, nourished by the cant that flows in such abundance over the Internet. This is the basis for the alternative reality to which the Internet right-wingers eventually “awaken,” much like Neo in The Matrix.

Relationship to the Postwar Right

Where, then, did such online demagoguery originate to begin with? Quite simply, it spilled out from Japan’s postwar Right, which traces its history much further back than the 2002 World Cup.

Right-wing intellectual discourse in the postwar era was also a highly ingrown, self-contained phenomenon, a kind of pseudo-aristocratic salon centered on two forums: the daily Sankei Shimbun, which emerged as a national newspaper in the 1950s, and Seiron, a monthly magazine of political and social commentary launched in the 1970s. Both supported a very ideologically oriented right-wing conservatism that rejected mainstream views of World War II as a distortion of history perpetrated by the victors (beginning with the Tokyo war crimes tribunal).

An important turning point came with the establishment in 2004 of the independent web-based Japanese Culture Channel Sakura. This was an organized effort by the political Right to exploit the new media, making use not only of satellite television but also of such Internet video-sharing services as Youtube and Niconico to reach a new and younger audience. The Japanese Culture Channel Sakura was the bridge across which the ideas of the postwar political Right, previously confined to a few outlets in the print media, found their way into cyberspace.

But the medium impacts the message, as we know. The migration of right-wing discourse from print media to new media altered the very nature of the content, and the limited comprehension of a less intellectually cultivated and literate audience created further distortions. The theoretical foundations of the postwar Right eroded within the milieu of the Internet, but before anything could be done about it, the two communities began to merge into one another. Although their historical origins are distinct, they are now inextricably intertwined, and the anti-Korean, anti-Chinese, xenophobic tendencies of the Internet right-wingers are often on display.

Twilight of the Cyber-Nationalists

But the era of unfettered cyber-nationalism and xenophobia may be drawing to a close. Under the second administration of Abe Shinzō, the government and the courts are taking a distinctly hostile stance toward these extremists. In November 2014, the Ministry of Justice launched a public campaign to stamp out hate speech. And the following December the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Korean school in Osaka that had sued the extremist group Zaitokukai for broadcasting hate speech outside the school.

As governments around the world move to criminalize and ratchet up the penalties for hate speech, the Abe government faces a serious challenge. Unless it moves to quell the rising epidemic of ultranationalist bigotry propagated over the Internet, it could face a damaging loss of global prestige even as it strives to assume a more proactive role in international security.

Meanwhile, in October 2015, the Party for Future Generations—the sole representative of the Internet right wing on the national political stage—lost its meager foothold in the House of Representatives when both of its members rejoined the LDP. Left with just four members in the House of Councillors, the party would appear to be on the brink of dissolution.

These developments suggest that the twilight of the Internet right-wingers is not far off. Some predict that the xenophobic ultra-nationalism that has taken hold in cyberspace will gradually be displaced by a more moderate, common-sense brand of Japanese conservatism—one in touch with the real world, not just an Internet version of it. Disturbing as the voice of cyber-extremism may be, its influence on Japanese politics and society remains limited, and its heyday is nearing an end.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on November 17, 2015. Banner photo: Demonstrators on Tokyo’s Ōkubo-dōri avenue call for the expulsion of ethnic Koreans, April 21, 2013. © Jiji Press.)

Abe Shinzō Korea right wing Internet hate speech