When the new Japanese Emperor Naruhito makes his first public appearance, greeting well-wishers at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo today, there is a fear that the official images of the cheering crowds will need to be carefully framed, if not cropped. For among the multitudes of proud, happy Japanese welcoming the new Emperor and the new era with openness and positivity, a darker presence – the notorious ultra right-wing nationalists known as the Uyoku Dantai – are expected to be out in force.
The Uyoku are a familiar site on the streets of Japan's capital and are easy to spot. Dressed in WWII-era military uniforms and carrying the older, more militaristic of Japan’s national flags, they look like extras from the BBC series Tenko. Their preferred mode of transport is the customised ‘sound truck’, which they ride around Tokyo in Mad Max-style convoys screeching out imperial music – and occasionally racist propaganda – from loud speakers. Like a nightmare Keystone cops-version of right wing extremists, they are at the same time ludicrous and frightening.
There are believed to be 1,000 such groups in Japan with a total membership of 100,000. The succession of a new Emperor is of particular concern to these people, as the restoration of imperial power is one of their core beliefs – the others being a revocation of the pacifist constitution, the reconstitution of an independent military, and the restoration of Japanese sovereignty to disputed islands. A supplementary aspiration is a revision of school history textbooks to portray Japan’s record in WWII in a more ‘positive’ light, playing down episodes such as the comfort women controversy or the Nanking massacre.
While derided – or more often, just ignored – by the majority of Japanese, these groups do have importance. They serve as the vocal manifestation of a hidden but influential ultra-nationalist reactionary element in Japanese politics.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wouldn’t be seen dead alongside the weekend cosplay warriors but he is an active member of the powerful Nippon Kaigi group which has similar nationalistic aims (new constitution by 2020, new curriculum, less apologetic attitude towards WWII). Nippon Kaigi counts 40 per cent of the Diet (Japan's parliament) as members of its discussion group, and has 250 regional offices.
Another organisation that will be taking a close interest in the new emperor is the association of Shinto shrines, which represents twenty thousand places of worship in Japan and is committed to a vision of Japan based on its animist religion. As with Nippon Kaigi, and the Uyoku Dantai, the emperor is an essential element of their ambitions.
While such groups are supportive of the Japanese imperial family, it is also true that outgoing emperor Akihito in no way gave encouragement to these organisations. In fact, in his own quiet way he seems to have vexed them (and Abe) by taking frequent trips abroad (which is frowned upon) and making efforts to improve relations with Okinawa, the least supportive part of Japan due to lingering resentment from the war. It has even been rumoured that one reason for the timing of the abdication is that Akihito feared ill health might have prevented him from opening the 2020 Olympics, meaning Abe would have got the job, appearing as the de facto head of state.
Nor is it likely new Emperor Naruhito will allow himself to be used as a pawn by the rightists. The simple fact that he was born twenty years after the end of WWII, and is still youthful (by Japanese standards), outward looking and internationally minded (he spent two years at Oxford and is a committed Anglophile) will make it far harder for him to be used as a symbol of the supposedly unsettled history of the wartime period – and the scapegoating narrative – which the Uyoku obsess upon.
Naruhito already has a track record of dissent. In 2004, he took the unprecedented step of publicly criticising the powerful Imperial Household Agency, which controls the royal family, for pressuring his wife to produce a male heir. In 2015, he made what was interpreted as a comment critical of Abe and the historical revisionists when he said that it was important that WWII was remembered ‘correctly’. Alongside him will be the Harvard-educated former diplomat, new Empress Masako, who is similarly unlikely to accept a subservient mascot role.
The Uyoku Dantai may try to spoil the celebrations on Saturday with a noisy show of force. Reports of scuffles with police and republican protesters outside Shinjuku station, and racist chanting at the Imperial Palace may be a foretaste of unpleasantries to come. But if they do gatecrash the party, only time will tell whether it is a sign of trouble ahead, or a last stand by a faction that knows its relevance and influence can only weaken in the new Reiwa era of beautiful harmony.