Given the reputation of the organisation he chairs, it’s hard to know what to expect before Tadae Takubo arrives – a whiff of sulphur, perhaps. Nippon Kaigi has been called an ultra-right cult and some say it wields a great deal of influence over Japan’s conservative government. As he walks unsteadily into the room however, the 83-year-old chairman of Nippon Kaigi seems less like Lucifer than a crusty old uncle with laughably out-of-date views.
The impression is reinforced when he speaks. A former journalist, Takubo wants to revive “traditional” Japanese values and restore the powers lost by the emperor after the second world war. He believes Japanese people have grown soft and complacent, especially the young: one of the few moments of light relief during a recent press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan came when he advocated spanking naughty children.
Known in English as “Japan Conference”, Nippon Kaigi’s charter lists six key goals, including building up the nation’s military forces, instilling patriotism in the young and revising much of the pre-war Meiji constitution. Yet, Takubo bristles at accusations that he wants to take Japan right, or worse, back to the past. “We merely want this to be a normal country,” he says. “We are pulling it from extreme left back to the centre.”
In fact, Nippon Kaigi’s charter is a shopping list of blatantly revisionist causes: applaud Japan’s wartime “liberation” of East Asia from Western colonialism; rebuild the armed forces; inculcate patriotism among students brainwashed by left-wing teachers; and revere the emperor as he was worshipped before the war. Like followers of US presidential hopeful Donald Trump, they want to “take back” their country from the liberal forces they believe are destroying it.
The group’s supporters say Japan’s constitution, written during the American-led occupation of 1945 to 1952, has emasculated the country. They despise the victor’s justice it meted out, and the famous pacifist clause, Article 9, that neutered the country’s armed forces. China’s turbocharged rise means revision can “wait no longer”, says Takubo. At a Nippon Kaigi conference last year, speaker after speaker warned China’s maritime expansion presented Japan with its worst crisis since the war.
After years of mostly flying beneath the radar, Nippon Kaigi is in the news. A book on its hold over Japanese politics has sold in excess of 130,000 copies and it is the subject of several television programmes. Takubo gave his first press conference to foreign media in Tokyo, partly to dismiss the wilder conspiratorial claims about the group.
On paper, the group’s fee-paying membership is small: about 38,000 people spread over 230 local chapters. But they include the former directors of large corporations; university presidents, Self-Defence Force chiefs of staff, several party heads and at least one former chief justice. The newly-elected governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, is a card-carrying member, as is the new tough-talking defence minister, Tomomi Inada.
About a third of the Diet and well over half of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 19-member cabinet support them. All belong to the parliamentary league of Nippon Kaigi. Abe is its “special adviser”. Prominent supporters are also dotted throughout the media: Susumu Ishihara, chairman of NHK, Japan’s powerful public broadcaster, admitted in July he was “honorary adviser” to a local branch.
The group was formed in 1997. Its small office in Tokyo shares a building with Seicho no Ie (House of Growth), a right-wing religious cult and a key tributary of one of the two organisations that merged to form Nippon Kaigi, the Society to Protect Japan (Nihon wo Mamorukai) – the other was the People’s Conference to Protect Japan, or Nihon wo Mamoru Kokumin Kaigi.
Nippon Kaigi’s signature drives have helped banish much “left wing” teaching from schools and revive the tradition of singing the national anthem and standing for the Hinomaru flag. A key supporter is former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who mandated punishment for teachers who refuse to stand, face the flag and sing the anthem during school ceremonies.
In Prime Minister Abe, the group believes it finally has someone with the clout to bring the changes it wants. Abe’s Liberal Democrats (LDP) and a group of like-minded parties who support constitutional revision now control both houses of parliament for the first time since the war. “If I were in Prime Minister Abe’s position, I would be putting all my efforts into changing the constitution,” says Takubo.
A decade ago, the group collected 3.6 million signatures demanding revisions to the education law that made it compulsory to teach children patriotism. The group wants Abe to continue to visit Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, though such pilgrimages are seen in much of Asia as an endorsement of the leaders enshrined there and their war aims. Abe triggered a major diplomatic row when he last went there in 2012.
Abe has already partially satisfied a key demand of his Nippon Kaigi supporters – that Japan end the shameful apology diplomacy of the post-war years. The nation’s gold standard mea culpa, issued by socialist prime minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, has been overlaid by a carefully worded but ambiguous statement in which Abe stopped short of offering his own words of remorse but said Japan “must not let…generations to come…be predestined to apologise”.
Supporters have campaigned against anything that shows Japan’s wartime behaviour in a bad light, bombarding exhibitions on war crimes with petitions and phone calls. They claim records of Japanese crimes are exaggerated or false and that China has used these claims to wage a long battle in America to distort views of the war, with the goal of weakening the US-Japan alliance.
Takubo will not be drawn into the specifics. “All countries that have gone to war – it is natural that they have different views of history,” he says. He refuses to condemn Japanese war crimes, or even say the war itself – as most Japanese believe – was a monumental mistake. “Some parts were wrong and some parts were correct,” he says. “You cannot say that one side is all good or all bad.”
Critics say the influence of Takubo’s group over the government undermines many of the key planks of Abe’s platform. With great fanfare, Abe has declared a policy of putting more women into leadership positions. But many Nippon Kaigi supporters are anti-feminist and want women to adopt roles as mothers and homemakers. “Abe led the backlash against feminism and gender equality in the early 2000s,” says Tomomi Yamaguchi, a cultural anthropologist at Montana State University.
The revisionist element of Nippon Kaigi’s agenda, meanwhile, presents problems for the United States, which wants Japan to take a bigger share of its defence burdens. Washington issued a rare rebuke after Abe’s Yasukuni visit. But otherwise, much of the far-right agenda slips past US politicians, says Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a professor of modern Japanese history at the Australian National University. “They don’t really see how this will play out in East Asia because they need the US bases [in Japan],” she says. “The Abe administration doesn’t think there was anything wrong that Japan did in the war – they just think it was unfortunate that they lost.”
Abe’s victory in last month’s general election has moved him closer to his constitutional goal. He now has, in theory, the long-coveted super majorities in both houses required before asking voters for their approval to change the constitution. An LDP draft calls for rewriting Article 9 to recast the country’s Self-Defence Forces as a conventional military. The draft also calls for sweeping changes to virtually all 103 articles of the 1947 constitution that would tip the balance away from “imported” individual rights and toward duties to the state.
Getting those changes past the public will be a struggle. For one thing, few Japanese seem to support them. Public polls consistently show most Japanese have little interest in the Nippon Kaigi agenda. Most show no appetite for abandoning Japan’s pacifist stance, restoring the emperor’s powers or instilling patriotism in the young. Over a decade ago, an attempt to push revisionist history and civic’s textbooks, backed by Nippon Kaigi (and right-wing newspaper, the Sankei) into high schools failed miserably when fewer than 1 per cent of schools adopted it. Pacifism has sunk deep roots and there is little bedrock support for such a backward-looking agenda.
Abe ducked debate on the constitution during the election campaign, and for good reason. A pre-election survey by public broadcaster NHK found only 11 per cent of respondents saw it as a greater concern than bread-and-butter issues. Surveys consistently show that the pacifist constitution, which many Japanese believe has kept their country out of wars since 1945, is popular.
Even if the prime minister can herd a motley crew of political allies in both Diet chambers, he must put any changes before the country in a referendum, which he may not win. The LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, a Buddhist party, has already signalled it does not want to tamper with the pacifist clause. Many speculate, therefore, that Abe may try instead to reinterpret existing legislation – or simply leave the issue alone.
Ironically, it is Takubo who fears that the prime minister his group has championed is getting cold feet. “He’s afraid of losing support and doesn’t want to provoke China,” he says. “But he must be strong, for the sake of his country.” Whatever happens, history is on the side of Nippon Kaigi, he insists. “I believe the constitution will be changed. It is just a matter it time.”
David McNeill teaches political science at Sophia University in Tokyo
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story referred to Nippon Kaigi’s English name as “Japan Foundation”. This has been amended to “Japan Conference”.