As Japanese head to the polls Sunday, Shinzo Abe is expected to become Japan’s prime minister for the second time.
The election takes place as nationalistic sentiment is on the rise, and while the country remains locked in a bitter dispute with its chief rival, China, over islands both countries claim.
‘Pride And Honor’
Back in mid-August, when dawn was breaking over the East China Sea, sea gulls circled boats filled with about 150 Japanese activists as they approached a rocky island, part of a chain that both Japan and China claim as their own.
The Japanese call them Senkaku; the Chinese, Diaoyu.
Suddenly, Satoru Mizushima, leader of nationalist group called Ganbare Nippon!, or Go For It, Japan! wrapped a rope around his waist, slipped into the green waters and swam toward shore.
Battered by waves, Mizushima climbed up the coral shoreline and — in his eyes — reclaimed the island for Japan.
Mizushima says he planned the landing as a response to a group from Hong Kong that had earlier landed on the island and claimed it for China.
Back at his office in Tokyo this week, Mizushima says more is at stake than an empty rock in the East China Sea.
“This is not just about having a small island taken away,” Mizushima says. “It means Japanese national sovereignty as well as pride and honor are taken away.”
Few ‘Friendly Feelings’ Toward China
The dispute exploded in September after Japan’s government bought several of the islands. Anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted across China, horrifying most Japanese.
But Mizushima was delighted. He saw it as a wake up call for his countrymen to the threats Japan faces.
“Japanese people are too peace-oriented,” Mizushima says. “I want China to take more actions, like invading the Senkaku Islands and organizing demonstrations in China and burning Japanese factories. So I want to thank China for doing it.”
Mizushima’s island landing was a political stunt, but many analysts say Japan’s rightward tilt is real. A recent poll showed a record 81 percent of Japanese do not hold “friendly feelings” towards China.
Even some on the right worry about growing nationalism. Kunio Suzuki, an advisor with Issuikai, a far-right political group that honors Japan’s imperial family and traditional culture, was against Mizushima’s trip to the island.
“That’s dangerous,” Suzuki says. “I think the whole society is shifting to the right. The more right-wing people have a louder voice.”
Years ago, he says, many people supported Japan’s pacifist constitution –- which renounces the right to go to war. But these days, Suzuki continues, “there are many people who think the constitution is bad, it should be changed and we should change from a self-defense force to conventional military.”
Legislatively, that would be very hard to do in Japan. And it wouldn’t go over well in East Asia, which still has terrible memories of Japanese aggression during World War II.
A number of factors seem to be driving rhetoric to the right in Japan. Japanese people are exhausted with the country’s interminable economic problems. Suzuki says they’re also tired of the country’s revolving-door leadership.
“Japanese leaders don’t even last a year in power. They have no capability to deal with foreign affairs,” he says. “This trend increased after Democratic Party of Japan came into power … so people became frustrated and found the DPJ useless and weak.”
Events in recent days have only compounded that sentiment, as the island nation’s neighbors have appeared to taunt Japan. On Wednesday, North Korea fired a rocket over the Japanese island of Okinawa. And Thursday, Japan said a Chinese government plane flew near the disputed island chain, which Japan effectively controls.
But some analysts say much of the right-wing rhetoric is coming from Japanese politicians — and that most ordinary Japanese remain politically moderate.
“The nationalist reaction is mostly related to the elite here,” says Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus. “I think at the grassroots level, there hasn’t been much of a reaction. We haven’t seen anti-Chinese demonstrations outside the embassy. We haven’t seen Chinese businesses affected or smashed or boycotted.”
On the streets of Tokyo this week, people were more interested in talking about domestic issues.
“I’m against increasing military power,” says Nobutaka Hannuki, a 30-year-old who works in marketing. “What they should do now is restore the tsunami disaster area.”
Nearly two years after the massive earthquake, much of Japan’s northeast coast has yet to be rebuilt.
Hannuki, who spent six months in the country’s self-defense force, is worried his country could spark an arms race. If Japan builds up its military, he says, he expects other nations to do the same in what is becoming an increasingly dangerous neighborhood.