Tattooed conservative pushes difficult topics in Japan

In the doldrums of the June 25 elections, a nationalist grabs the political limelight.

At least once a month Kenichiro Watanabe dons fatigues modeled after the uniforms of the Japanese Imperial Army, and drives around central Tokyo in a bus covered in rising sun flags and nationalist slogans.

Most recently, he spent the day lambasting politicians over the bus's ear-splitting PA system. The target of his ire: the suspected flow of money from Japan to the North Korean regime in Pyongyang, which launched a missile over Japan in 1998.

Lounging in a recliner in his office in a Tokyo red light district, Mr. Watanabe is the first to admit he has an image problem. The military regalia aside, he's missing a pinkie, and sports a tattoo covering his upper arms and most of his torso - both hallmarks of yakuza gangsters. Well-muscled characters mill around his office, and on the wall above Watanabe there is a photograph of him alongside one of Japan's most powerful mobsters.

Many Japanese consider Watanabe a thug, and a reminder of their nation's imperialist past. For his part, however, Watanabe insists his ties to the Japanese underworld are a thing of the past and that these days he is a plain-vanilla patriot.

"The yakuza have territory," says Watanabe, who heads the Dai Nippon Issei no Kai, or Greater Japan Truth Society, and is a prominent figure in the Japanese right-wing movement. "They control Roppongi or Ginza, and are trying to make money. We don't have turf. Most of our members are self-employed. When we're campaigning, we have to pay for fuel for the buses and buy our own lunches. We don't get money for being right-wingers. We don't get donations. But it makes sense. It's worthwhile because we're working for the country."

But it's also true that many yakuza gangs formally register with the government as right-wing political groups to avoid police scrutiny under a tough anti-mob law passed in the early 1990s.

In any case, with less than a week to go before Japan heads to the polls to elect a new government, most mainstream politicians are involved in a large game of mud-slinging. Meanwhile Watanabe is one of the few politically active Japanese discussing the major issues that will shape their nation in the decades to come. How should it counterbalance a resurgent China, handle a volatile Russia, and deal with North Korea? What should it do about soaring juvenile crime, and the moribund economy?

Since he dissolved parliament earlier this month, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has said little about any of these issues. Instead, he has spent most of his time wedging his foot in - or removing it from - his mouth.

Recently, Mr. Mori referred to Japan as a "kokutai," or national polity, a word with overtones of the wartime ideology Japan used to justify its colonization of Asia. Mori dismissed his outburst as a "slip of the tongue."

Maybe he meant foot. In any case, even senior members of his Cabinet dressed him down for using the word. Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said that while he didn't think the statement warranted the uproar it caused in the press and among opposition lawmakers, "I would not say the remark was proper."

Mori's gaffes have damaged not only his own standing but also that of his Liberal Democratic Party, and its two coalition partners, the Buddhist-backed Komeito Kaikaku Party, and the New Conservative Party. According to one opinion poll published earlier this month, their combined support has dropped 5 percent to 37.5 percent since Mori took over in April. That puts them neck and neck with the four major opposition parties (which are already hinting at forming their own coalition) and could make it hard for Mori's coalition to get a majority of the 480 seats up for grabs on June 25.

It what was seen as a last minute bid for votes, Mori said on Sunday he was considering a supplementary budget for the fiscal year - to give the economy a boost, if needed. Japan has already spent heavily to pull itself out of its worst postwar slump, with its biggest budget ever for this fiscal year and incurring the heaviest debt burden of any industrialized country.

Japan's economy grew a robust 2.4 percent in the first three months of this year from the previous quarter, but there remain widespread doubts about whether that growth is sustainable.

With the race so close, politicians have dropped nuanced debate in favor of attacks to the jugular. As Kiichi Miyazawa, the avuncular finance minister, said earlier this month, "There will be no true debate." He was commenting on the lack of discussion about the economy, but might as well have been referring to the entire campaign.

It is against this background that conservatives such as Watanabe seem like a breath of fresh air. His right-wing organization has no candidates running in the election. Like lobbyists in the United States, it tries to influence policy from behind the scenes. But driving around in his bus recently, he talked at length and with knowledge about the major issues facing Japan today.

Watanabe says that mainstream politicians are "slovenly," interested only in enriching themselves and their families. The media is dominated by former left-wing radicals, intent only on criticizing the government and with no mind to examine solutions to Japan's woes. Russia is untrustworthy, he says, and is unlikely to ever return the four islands it seized from Japan in the final days of World War II. China exaggerates the scale of the 1937 Nanking massacre for political means. To buoy its diplomatic bargaining stance, Japan needs nuclear weapons.

"For sure, Japan is under the US nuclear umbrella," he says. "But like India and Pakistan, Japan needs its own nuclear weapons. Only then would the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, and the rest of the world take it seriously... Japan needs nuclear weapons as a tool of diplomacy."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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