Japan's national flag is seen at an industrial port in Tokyo
Japan's national flag is seen at an industrial port in Tokyo. Reuters

Late last week, police in Japan made an arrest in a bizarre case indirectly involving Anne Frank, the Jewish girl who was killed in the Holocaust, but attained immortality through the posthumous publication of her diary, which told the story of her family's life of hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. More than 5,500 miles away from Western Europe, and almost seven decades after Frank's death in a Nazi concentration camp, an unemployed Japanese man in Tokyo was arrested for damaging and vandalizing more than 300 copies of Frank's famous diary and related items in various public libraries and bookshops.

BBC reported that the police have only identified the suspect as 36-years-old and jobless, but that they have not yet produced a motive in the baffling case. However, Japanese media have speculated the man is mentally ill, citing that the suspect spoke in gibberish when questioned by police. The suspect has reportedly admitted to breaking into libraries and bookstores to destroy the books. Frank's diary was translated into Japanese in late 1952 and became a best-seller in the country the following year. It is well known to millions of Japanese.

Nonetheless, some voices have expressed their fears that what appears to have been a trivial incident of vandalism may reflect the actions of a small but growing far-right movement lurking beneath Japan's placid surface. The Japanese imperial military, an ally of Nazi Germany during World War II, perpetrated unspeakable atrocities across East Asia just like their counterparts in the Third Reich did in Europe. That period of military aggression has both its detractors and supporters in Japan today.

Indeed, the Anne Frank vandalism episode even spurred the Israeli Embassy in Japan to donate more than 300 new diaries and other Frank-related literature to Tokyo libraries to replace the damaged copies. At a news conference at the embassy, Israeli officials stated they did not believe that any apparent antipathy towards Frank or Jews nor any sympathy with Nazism reflected the views of most Japanese people. Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese government’s chief cabinet secretary, characterized the vandalism as "shameful" and vowed Japan would not tolerate such acts.

But the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the U.S.-based Jewish human rights group, expressed its shock at the vandalism spree, calling it a “desecration” and a “hate” crime. "The geographic scope of these incidents strongly suggest an organized effort to denigrate the memory of the most famous of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis in the World War II Holocaust," stated Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. "I know from my many visits to Japan, how much Anne Frank is studied and revered by millions of Japanese. Only people imbued with bigotry and hatred would seek to destroy Anne's historic words of courage, hope and love in the face of impending doom. We are calling on Japanese authorities to ... deal with the perpetrators of this hate campaign.”

Japan does indeed have numerous, mostly fragmented and splintered far-right groups who, among other things, advocate hatred toward the country's Korean minority, express unremitting animosity toward China, and glorify Japan's imperialist-military past (which ended in 1945 after 77 years). While a very small number of extremist Japanese espouse explicit Nazi philosophy, including a group calling itself National Socialist Japanese Workers Party, anti-Semitism and a hatred of Jews do not form the core of Japanese far-right ideology. (There is, after all, virtually no Jewish presence in Japanese history.) But Japan’s far-right have many other targeted enemies. Following Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, as the country was forced to relinquish its military ambitions and capability, any lingering romanticism for the imperial period went underground. In the postwar period, small right-wing, anti-Socialist groups still existed, often linked to organized crime figures (notably Japan’s notorious Yakuza mafia) and some conservative politicians.

By the 1980s, extreme rightist thugs paraded through city streets in vans blaring patriotic slogans and broadcasting military music on bullhorns and loudspeakers. They frequently staged protest demonstrations outside the Chinese, Korean and Russian embassies. Such organizations also seek to revise the current negative image of the imperial period in schools, while hurling venom toward socialists, liberals, pacifists, feminists and unionists. Not surprisingly, right-wing extremists also demand that Japan fight to keep territories like the disputed Senkaku islands, which China also claims. Given the umbrella term “Uyoku Dantai,” thousands of individual right-wing groups in country boast some 100,000 members nationwide, Japanese police estimate.

An Australian journalist named Walter Hamilton, who has covered Japan for more than 30 years, once dismissed the country's fascists as marginal and irrelevant fanatics, far out of touch with mainstream thought. But he has now revised his view.

Writing on Eureka Street, Hamilton said that in the present atmosphere, “the danger comes … not from the shady bellicose fringe, with its links to the yakuza and their fellow travelers, but from the political mainstream, supported by a broad shift in public opinion. Bellicosity is fast becoming an approved style of public discourse.” Indeed, after more than 20 years of a paralyzing and demoralizing economic malaise and a rapidly aging population, a weary Japan has re-elected a right-wing nationalist named Shinzo Abe as its prime minister. While Abe is certainly no far-right extremist, he has appealed to conservatives and rightists by pressing for the upgrade of Japan's defense machinery, honoring the war dead (including war criminals) at the controversial Yasukuni shrine, and spewing aggressive rhetoric against an ever-more powerful China. “The Japanese have been living, as it were, under a dark cloud, battered by falling real incomes, confronted daily by the impact of an ageing population, and disillusioned by the responses of their political leaders,” Hamilton wrote. “A proud and industrious people, they are appalled by the thought of descending to second-class status. The assumption, prevalent among outsiders, that Japanese would accept their 'inevitable' decline, was just plain lazy.”

Such a climate could create a fertile ground for the resurgence of right-wing, sloganeering nationalism, especially among Japan's disillusioned and alienated youth. As such, Hamilton suggests Japan has reached a “tipping point.” “The ideological stasis that has characterized Japanese public life for 70 years [since the end of World War II] is giving way,” he explained. “Old restraints and taboos are toppling and what will emerge when the dust settles is hard to predict.” For some Japanese, nostalgia for the glorious days of the imperialist era offers an antidote to contemporary doldrums and decay.

Shihoko Goto, the Northeast Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., commented that it's difficult in any country to estimate the number of extremist groups, left or right. “Suffice to say, [in Japan] it's a very small minority,” she said. “But worrisome extremist comments are not only easier to share [on social media and the Internet], but they are also gaining greater sympathy. The [Sochi Winter] Olympics have brought out some extremely disconcerting comments, for instance.”

Perhaps the most well-known far-right figure in Japan today is Toshio Tamogami, the 65-year-old former chief of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, who recently lost his bid to become governor of Tokyo, although he attracted some 611,000 votes in the election, or 12 percent of the electorate. Most telling, Tamogami scored very well among young men. Tamogami even suggested during the campaign that he had Abe's backing, although the prime minister supported another candidate, former Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Yoichi Masuzoe, who won the gubernatorial race. “Probably, my policies are the closest or have the highest affinity to [those of] the Abe administration’s,” Tamogami said at a press conference just before the election. “In regard to how we view history, how we view the nation, I believe that fundamentally we share the same idea, which is that Japan is not such a terrible or demonic country compared to other nations of the world.”

Although the far-right thus far casts a small shadow over Japan, some observers worry this is only the beginning of a larger movement. “The [Tamogami] election result is another indication that the rise of the right wing in Japan is real -- it’s not just propaganda from China. It is a very worrisome trend,” Yu Tiejun, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies, at Peking University, and a guest lecturer at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, told Time magazine.

Tamogami was dismissed from his military job six years ago after writing an essay that not only denied Japan's culpability in war crimes during the imperial period, but also claimed that an international “communist conspiracy” that also involved the U.S. and China had “tricked” Tokyo into entering World War II. Tamogami has even enjoyed the support of some celebrities, including right-wing novelist Naoki Hyakuta, a friend of Abe and a member of the board of governors of the national public-funded broadcaster, NHK (and who was appointed by Abe himself). Hyakuta has alleged, among other things, that one of the worst atrocities in human history, the wanton murder and rape of Chinese citizens by Japanese soldiers in Nanking, China in 1937-1938 was a lie.

Incidentally, Katsuto Momii, the NHK’s new director-general (also hand-picked by Abe), defended the Japanese military's use of Korean “comfort women” (females forced into prostitution during the occupation and wartime), citing that such practices were commonplace around the world. He was later forced to retract his statements after he was brought before the Diet (national legislature).

Perhaps the most bizarre statements from an NHK board member came from Michiko Hasegawa, who wrote an essay that praised an extreme nationalist named Shusuke Nomura who committed ritual suicide in 1993 inside the offices of the mainstream liberal Asahi Shimbun newspaper to protest their critical reporting of his organization. Hasegawa wrote: “It is only to God [that] human beings can offer their own lives [to]. If it is devoted in the truly right way, there could be no better offering. When [Nomura] committed suicide at the Asahi Shimbun headquarters 20 years ago, he … offered his death to God.”

Not only did Nomura kill himself by shooting himself in the stomach, but prior to his death, he said a prayer for the emperor, to which Hasegawa gushed: “His Imperial Highness, even if momentarily, became a living God again, no matter what the ‘Humanity Declaration’ says or what the Japanese constitution says.” Hasegawa was referring to a moment in Japanese history in 1946, when, in the wake of a devastating defeat and demands from victorious Allies, Emperor Hirohito renounced his status as a living “divinity,” whereas emperors had formerly been worshipped as deities. But Japan’s postwar constitution declared that the emperor was only a “symbol” of the country, but bestowed with no political power. By the statements of support for Nomura, Hasegawa likely wants to peel back those restrictions in the Constitution and restore the exalted status of the emperor. Clearly, Abe seeks to tilt the NHK’s bias towards the right.

Now, as one of the emerging voices of Japanese ultra-nationalism, Tamogami has called for halting or reducing immigration and restricting foreigners from voting, while staging large public rallies. “The Japanese people are losing their pride in their country, because we have taught our children a self-deprecating Japanese history,” Tamogami shouted to a crowd during his campaign, the Japan Times reported. Demagogues like Tamogami have some analysts concerned. “It is going to get worse,” Michael Cucek, a Tokyo-based political analyst and research associate at the MIT Center for International Studies, told Time. “This [Tokyo governor] election was [really] a fundraising and membership drive for Tamogami. We should expect that his rallies, which were merely attracting thousands, will now attract tens of thousands.”

Consider the tensions in the Shin-Okubo neighborhood of Tokyo, an area with a high concentration of minority ethnic Koreans. In recent months, anti-Korean protesters, including belligerent ultra-nationalist demonstrators carrying megaphones, have regularly appeared in the area. The Washington Post reported that some protesters have threatened Koreans, warning them to “go home or die,” while vowing to “flatten this neighborhood” and build a gas chamber in its place. “Japan is right now at a crisis point,” said politician Yoshifu Arita, who wants new laws to regulate such hate speech. “A situation like this -- people getting so publicly hostile -- never happened in the seven decades after the war until now.”

But Ryosuke Nishida, an associate professor at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, does not believe the ultra-right can ever gain significant support across the nation. “They [far right] use the Internet heavily, so the sympathy for Tamogami on the Internet stands out. They comment and re-tweet each other often. But they are not the majority,” Nishida told Time.

Another leading figure of Japan’s far right is Shintaro Ishihara, an elderly novelist and former governor of Tokyo who has spoken out against both Communist China and The United States. “I cannot allow myself to die until my Japan, which has been made a fool of by China, and seduced as a mistress by the United States, is able to stand up again as a stronger, more beautiful nation,” Ishihara told reporters in 2012 after he resigned as Tokyo governor. Like Tamogami, Shintaro’s strident nationalist tone has appealed to some young Japanese men longing for a return to prosperity and prestige.

Goto noted that far-right groups remain fragmented, however, and have no dominant central figure for the movement to coalesce around. “Still, the more nationalist the broader national [political ] conversation becomes, the easier it is to acknowledge views that had not been mainstream until now,” she added. “The allure of nationalism is strong among the underemployed and socially vulnerable. But it's strong too in those who long for a return to the 1980s and early 1990s, when Japan's global standing was clearer… [Expressing] views about needing a 'strong' Japan is now politically acceptable and indeed wanted by many.”