THE shadowy, often violent world of Japan's ultra-rightist groups comes under the spotlight this week, the latest drama in a political scandal shaking up the nation's leadership.
Former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, forced by opposition parties to testify in parliament this Thursday, is expected to explain his desperate attempt in 1987 to stop a right-wing group, Japan Kominto, from waging a smear campaign against him with loudspeakers on trucks.
Seven other top politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were cited in a court trial last month as either contacting or attempting to bribe Kominto, or Emperors' Subjects Party, to end the harassment in order to help Mr. Takeshita become premier that year.
Kominto, like many other right-wing groups, is an alleged spinoff from yakuza, or Japanese gangsters, and relies on "sound trucks" to blast nationalist messages on city streets or against targeted enemies.
For decades, ties between politicians, right-wing groups, and yakuza have been widely known. But Takeshita's testimony will bring this sullied aspect of Japanese politics to the public eye.
"The Japanese, in general, regret very much that a prime minister should have subjected himself to intimidation by yakuza in order to settle problems in an irrational way," says Masayuki Takagi, sociologist at Teikyo University and author of a 1988 book on the right wing.
"It shows that the mentality of Japanese politicians is only at the same level as yakuza," he adds.
The Japanese news media are speculating that Takeshita feared that Kominto was being used by a rival politician to reveal a money scandal in his past. But Kominto only ended up humiliating Takeshita by proclaiming him as someone "who is good at making money," a kill-by-praise tactic common to yakuza.
Takeshita's testimony will be the latest disclosure in a year-long scandal centering on a defunct trucking firm, Tokyo Sagawa Kyubin, which gave payoffs to politicians and had ties with a yakuza group. The Sagawa chief, Hiroyasu Watanabe, was allegedly asked by Takeshita's ally, Shin Kanemaru, to use the influence of the yakuza group to stop the Kominto campaign. Both Kanemaru and Watanabe are also due to testify.
Little is known about right-wing groups in Japan, Mr. Takagi says, although their origins go back to the late 19th century when they first formed in opposition to Japan's opening to the West. Their peak activity was in the 1930s under the militarist imperial rule. During the postwar American occupation, the groups were banned.
But when a strong leftist movement sprung up in Japan in the 1960s, rightist groups expanded to several hundred in number, with an estimated 120,000 members today, according to the National Police Agency. Ideology varies among the groups, but the most common themes are anticommunism and a desire for the return of imperial glory to Japan.
The most common target of rightists' sound trucks has been the Soviet (now Russian) Embassy to demand the return to Japan of four northern islands taken in 1945 by the Red Army.
In the past couple decades, politicians have used rightists, to coerce either voters or each other, Takagi says. Politicians today do not maintain such close ties to rightists, but conservative politicians would have trouble turning away a request from such groups, he says.
Kominto was established 20 years ago, and may have only 50 members, says Yukio Hori, a professor at Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai.