China protests spur Japanese nationalists

Japanese nationalists at a Tokyo rally last week sparked by the Senkaku dispute © AFP

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Public displays of anti-Chinese sentiment in Japan are generally restricted to ultra-rightwing groups blaring nationalist slogans from loudspeakers on their black vans.

But this weekend one group of nationalists hopes to seize on tensions created by a bitter dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea with a rare demonstration of grass-roots hostility towards China.

“Ganbare Nippon”, a rightwing group whose name can be translated as “Go for it, Japan”, is organising a march past the Chinese embassy in Tokyo “to prevent the Chinese from invading the Senkaku”.

Japanese nationalists believe that China’s claims to the Senkaku – which Beijing calls the Diaoyu – show why Japan must be more assertive in its foreign policy.

Rightwing views that China’s growing power threatens Japan have been given ammunition by days of fierce anti-Japan protests in cities across China, including the looting and burning of some Japanese companies’ premises.

The Sino-Japanese dispute comes just as Japanese politics is likely to a take a shift to the right. The centre-left ruling Democratic party is deeply unpopular and on course to lose a general election most analysts expect by early next year.

The election looks set to boost Toru Hashimoto, a regional politician and vocal nationalist, and the former ruling right-of-centre Liberal Democratic party. Candidates for an LDP leadership election this month are already honing their message to appeal to growing public nationalism.

According to the Asahi newspaper, Shigeru Ishiba, a former defence minister, this week accused China of waging legal, informational and psychological warfare against Japan. Shinzo Abe, a former prime minister and another LDP leadership candidate, has declared that Japan must “make clear to the Chinese government our strong intention not to allow Chinese ships to enter (Japan’s territorial waters)”.

Many Japanese share a desire for a stronger line from Japan’s leadership.

“Japan is so meek. If China takes advantage of that we should stand firm against them,” says Emi Yamagata, an interior designer.

Aki Kaneko, a Tokyo housewife, agrees. “I want the Japanese government to be stronger,” she says. “Security should be stepped up, for example, by increasing the [number of] coast guard’s ships.”

Yet a more nationalist government policy would be likely to deepen tensions. Mr Abe’s questioning of past Japanese apologies to neighbouring countries for brutality during invasions in the 1930s and 1940s infuriates China and South Korea.

The latest dispute over the Senkakus was triggered when Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalist Tokyo governor, tried to buy three of the islands from their private owner for development. To forestall the move, the central government bought them, but China was still outraged.

And many Japanese show little interest in a nationalist call to arms. A poll by the Nikkei newspaper last month showed that 48 per cent of respondents thought Japan should respond firmly to Chinese moves on the Senkakus, while 45 per cent thought the issue should be dealt with through dialogue.

Many Japanese say the recent protests are not representative of the Chinese public. Ms Yamagata, the interior designer who recently returned from a trip to China, says people she met there, including total strangers, were very nice to her.

“It was as if the Senkaku issue did not exist at all,” she says.

Many Japanese also consider the violence in China to be a reflection of the perpetrators’ lack of information, their propaganda-fuelled education system and their frustration with their livelihoods and the growing income disparity in China.

“The looting shows that they are not happy people, which makes me feel sorry for them,” says Miki Hanba, a housewife in Yamanakako town, near Mount Fuji.

Despite wanting a more robust response from the government, Mrs Kaneko worries about the repercussions. “I want the Japanese government to be stronger, but at the same time I think we should keep calm because it’s better not to fuel anti-Japan emotions,” she says.

Even nationalist activists are hardly as fired up as Chinese demonstrators, whose recent slogans have included highly derogatory language about the Japanese as well as calls for all-out war and even a nuclear attack against Japan.

In its call for Saturday’s anti-China march, Ganbare Nippon says banners that “express racial discrimination” are prohibited.

“Let’s show the Chinese that we are much more sophisticated than them by demonstrating in an orderly manner, with enthusiasm,” says Satoru Mizushima, the group’s leader.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.