BY PHILIP BRASOR
SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES, JUN 25, 2016
Former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s first-person “biography” of late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, “Tensai” (“Genius”), remains atop best-seller lists. It is interesting to note that when Tanaka was alive Ishihara berated him as a crude opportunist. The years have obviously tempered his view, or perhaps Ishihara’s own political career helped him appreciate how an uneducated hick without connections could become the most powerful man in Japan.
The incident that caused Tanaka’s downfall, the 1970s Lockheed bribery scandal, received greater coverage overseas than it did in Japan, and one of Ishihara’s favorite themes as a public figure has been how Japan should resist foreign pressure and assert its position as a world power. Takashi Tachibana was the journalist most instrumental in exposing Tanaka’s money politics, but it was foreign press attention that made the former prime minister’s actions impossible to ignore — even in Japan.
A similar situation surrounds the rise of the right-wing lobbying group Japan Conference (Nippon Kaigi), which has received close scrutiny by the likes of the U.K. newsweekly The Economist, Australia’s ABC News and other prominent foreign media over the past year. The Japanese press has shown less interest.
In April, freelance journalist Osamu Aoki talked about “grass roots conservative movements” on TBS radio, and mentioned the overseas fascination with Nippon Kaigi, which counts among its 38,000 members Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, half his Cabinet and a good portion of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Local reporters tend to think of Japan Conference as a cult, and thus some have characterized the foreign opinion that Abe and his government are “under the thumb of Japan Conference,” as Aoki put it, as being akin to conspiracy theory. Nevertheless, citing how the foreign press helped advance the prosecution of Tanaka, Aoki says Japan Conference could be another big story the Japanese press is missing “even though it’s right there under its nose,” and so he plans to publish a book on the organization next month.
If Aoki is hoping for a scoop, he’s too late. In April, a writer named Tamotsu Sugano published “Nippon Kaigi no Kenkyu” (“Nippon Kaigi Research”) which sold 126,000 copies in less than two months. The book purports to be the most detailed study of the group ever written, but its popularity is chiefly due to Japan Conference’s reaction. The organization’s founder, Yuzo Kabashima, wrote to Sugano’s publisher, Fusosha, asking it not to print the book. Fusosha ignored the request. Weekly magazine Shukan Post then called present and past members of Japan Conference asking why they hated the book so much. Most refused to comment. One professor who belongs to another nationalist organization told the magazine that Sugano’s report is “beyond the pale,” a “pile of lies” based on anonymous sources. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he is quoted as saying. “Whatever I say will benefit the book.” That seems to be exactly what happened.
Interviewed on the web news channel DemocraTV, Sugano admitted that he is ideologically right-of-center and did not write his book “to be critical” of Japan Conference. He just noticed that the mainstream press was not covering the group. The book is based mainly on a series of articles he wrote for the Japanese Harvard Business Review, which attracted no attention from Japan Conference when they were originally posted online. “Japan Conference members are old men and women who don’t use the internet,” he said. When the book was slated for print publication, Japan Conference finally took notice, but it thought Fusosha was a right-leaning imprint and could thus be easily persuaded. Sugano says Fusosha publishes anything “that can make money for them.” Their biggest-selling book in the same format is a study slamming the nuclear power industry, hardly a conservative position.
Sugano chronicles the group’s origins in the early ’70s. Several founding members belonged to the student wing of the religious group Seicho no Ie at the time, and its main purpose was to counterbalance the leftist student movement. After graduation, this group established its own right-wing organization, Nihon Seinen Kyogikai, which eventually merged with another like-minded group in 1977. This organization morphed into Nippon Kaigi in 1997.
Japan Conference’s formidable organizational skills have influenced government policy, especially with regard to the legality of the national anthem and flag, the definition of the “Japanese family,” the direction of education and the Constitution, which they want to change. But Japan Conference is not “conservative” in Sugano’s eyes. Its interests are purely reactionary in that they were formulated in response to left-wing interests.
So he interrogates its motives. Six lofty goals are listed on Japan Conference’s website. The first is to uphold Japan’s “beautiful traditions,” which he interprets as reestablishing a strict social hierarchy under the Emperor. Japan Conference says it wants to create an education system that “fosters a Japanese sensibility,” which Sugano says means getting rid of the teachers union, Nikkyoso, the Japanese right’s bete noire. Japan Conference aspires to contribute to world peace, which means elevating the Self-Defense Forces to the position of a national military and, according to Sugano, “bullying peace-loving liberals.”
The author believes none of these ideas merit deep thought. Except for the Self-Defense Forces’ change, most citizens would probably find them regressive. In fact, that’s the reason Seicho no Ie, which now boasts 520,000 followers, has come out against the LDP in next month’s election. Because of Sugano’s book, the religious group felt compelled to explain that it rejected politics in the ’80s, and told Shukan Post that it doesn’t support the present administration or Japan Conference, which is “stuck in the past.”
Sugano doesn’t think Japan Conference is as powerful as foreign media make them out to be, and he may be underestimating them. This lobbying group’s effectiveness lies in its ability to remain cloaked in anodyne sentiments. Sugano’s book reveals it still longs for a Japan that didn’t lose World War II — a country that doesn’t exist.