TOKYO: Park Jeong-hun always found Japan a reasonable place to live; a place where, as a second generation Korean, she rubbed along well with her neighbours.
But when her non-profit group tried to put on a dance to showcase their heritage in the cosmopolitan city of Nagoya, things unexpectedly turned ugly.
City officials received a visit from two respectable-looking men proffering business cards and saying they were there to protest at the mounting of Park's Korean dance.
Footage posted on the Internet shows the mask of civility soon slipping, as the men let out a volley of racist abuse at a city official.
“I had to cancel it for the children’s safety,” Park said.
Observers say this kind of incident, while not typical in Japan, is becoming more common as a strain of robust nationalism grows.
Bruised by a row with China over a set of islands that both sides claim, and a spat with South Korea over another bit of disputed real estate, the Japanese public is feeling less neighbourly.
A recent government survey found only 18 per cent of those polled had a positive view of China, down more than eight percentage points in a year.
Just two out of five Japanese felt positively about South Korea, down from three in five. And ahead of the December 16 general election, mainstream politics is rushing to accommodate this rising hawkishness.
Former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara is dusting down his China-bashing rhetoric after joining forces with the stridently populist mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, to form a party they hope will challenge the establishment.
Ishihara told journalists he wanted to rewrite Japan's “ugly” constitution, a sacred cow for many who cherish its pacifist clause.
One-time prime minister Shinzo Abe is back at the helm of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, pledging to look at putting bureaucrats on the Senkakus to bolster Japan's control of disputed islands China calls the Diaoyus.
He has promised not to compromise “even one millimetre” over Japan's territory, and said he would look at boosting the status of the country's already well-funded military.
His call to change the name of Japan's military from jieitai (Self Defence Forces) to kokubougun (National Defense Force), is a bit of semantic slight of hand that translates poorly but indicates his direction of travel — towards a constitutional rewrite.
The election looks set to be an unpredictable affair, with most commentators saying they expect no overall majority for anyone.
But whatever coalition emerges is likely to be less than dovish, say observers.
Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda warned in an interview with the Financial Times against the headlong rush to the right.
“This kind of (ultranationalist) atmosphere or mood is emerging... and it's possible that tough talks could captivate the public, but that would be the most dangerous thing for the nation,” he said.
Law enforcement officers say they are seeing a rise in membership of extremist groups, and — more significantly — a change in the kind of people who are joining.
Takuji Norikane, who heads up a division keeping watch on political extremists for the National Police Agency, says the old-style rightists in their quasi-military uniforms and the black vans blaring martial music were easy to spot.
“Nowadays we have these rightwing civil groups that take to the streets wearing normal clothes,” Norikane said.
“Civil groups with rightwing ideologies are active across a wider geographical region of the country, and the number joining their ranks is swelling.”
Norikane said many of these groups clothe “extremely nationalistic and xenophobic ideas” in the language of civil rights.
One group, under the name “Zaitokukai”, uses the Internet to organise demonstrations where people gather to shout slogans calling for immigrant “roaches” to “die”.
Journalist Koichi Yasuda says with more than 12,000 claimed users, the group's site is a breeding ground for opinions that would not look out of place among Europe's fringe right.
“They have a similar nature to the neo-Nazis in Europe,” said Yasuda, author of the prize-winning book “Netto to Aikoku” (Internet and Patriotism).
“The forums they use see a lot of calls for 'immigrants' to leave the country,” said Yasuda, noting many members are seemingly ordinary people — businessmen or housewives.
Takeshi Nakajima, associate professor of politics at Hokkaido University, says a mood of “neo-liberalism” is rising in Japan, which is not dissimilar to the Tea Party movement in the US.
“Neo-liberalism advocates a political agenda of small government and self-responsibility,” he said, citing the rise of Abe and Hashimoto. “A natural result of this is that it widens the economic gap and therefore fuels nationalism.”—AFP
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