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Election candidate's path from postal worker to outspoken advocate for 'Japan First'

While stumping on the campaign trail for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, Mikio Okamura stands atop a van and advocates "putting the rights of Japanese citizens first," in the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji, on June 24, 2017. Even after his loss in the election, Okamura has continued to participate in the party's activities. (Mainichi)

In early June, Mikio Okamura, who had been fielded as a Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly candidate by the "Nippon Daiichi To" (Japan First Party) for the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji, welcomed me warmly to the office that he'd leased in front of Hachioji Station in preparation for the election.

"I was shocked to be selected as a candidate in the election," he said.

It was on April 1 of this year, the day after 60-year-old Okamura retired from Japan Post Holdings Co., that he joined the still fledgling Japan First Party -- not to be mistaken for the "Nippon First" (Japan First) party that former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) legislator Masaru Wakasa more recently founded and whose party name is set to be changed due to confusion and criticism.

The head of the Japan First Party is the 45-year-old former chairman of the nationalist organization Zaitokukai, short for the anti-Korean Zainichi Tokken o Yurusanai Shimin no Kai (Association of citizens against special privileges of Zainichi), which has led hate demonstrations and activities around the country.

As reflected by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, xenophobic and racist rhetoric has seen a widespread surge overseas. But what type of person in Japan, which, in the post-World War II period, has ostensibly aimed to create a society in which people of various nationalities can coexist in harmony based on its regrets over its imperialist past, would join a party that advocates putting its country and specific members of the public first, over all else?

Originally from Niigata Prefecture, Okamura lost his father when he was in junior high, and delivered newspapers to get himself into college. Following graduation, he joined the then Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, where he worked for 36 years sorting small postal packages and working on paperwork related to building new post office facilities. He lived a "bootlicker's life," he said, unable to turn down invitations from superiors to go drinking or play mahjong. At the age of 50, he took out a 35-year mortgage for a new home, but it meant he had to spend four hours round-trip every day to commute to and from work. When he became addicted to pachinko gambling, his wife cried in the kitchen as she prepared their meals.

The turning point came five years ago, when he bought a computer for his personal use. He saw online videos of the former Zaitokukai chairman cornering municipal government staff, arguing that it was "wrong" that Zainichi Koreans were eligible to receive welfare benefits. It was horrifying, but Okamura couldn't stop watching. Eventually, he began to feel that what the Zaitokukai was espousing was right.

When Okamura declined a re-employment offer from Japan Post and became a Japan First Party candidate in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, his wife and three children were shocked. His eldest daughter, aged 31, told me that she was frightened by the videos her father showed her of the Zaitokukai. Okamura's family yielded to his decision to run for public office, as long as he met a few conditions, including "never yelling," and "never telling people to 'die.'" They would absolutely not tolerate such behavior, they'd said. Okamura's niece, who works in nursing care with foreign nationals, sent Okamura a text message, saying, "What you're doing is terrible, uncle."

When he officially became a candidate, he found himself unable to get out of bed, feeling fearful. As he gained experience in stumping, however, he developed a tag line: "I lived 36 years of my life unable to say how I felt." His speeches became increasingly fervent.

In late June, after the election was officially announced, Okamura happened to run into a Japanese Communist Party (JCP) candidate as he was stumping in front of JR Hachioji Station. "You're just lining up nice-sounding but unrealistic words, like "Protect (the Constitution's war-renouncing) Article 9," Okamura screamed at his opponent. "How do you bastards intend on protecting Japan?" A video of the incident that an Okamura supporter uploaded online was titled, "Mikio Okamura awakens."

A local 64-year-old second-generation Zainichi Korean man stopped to listen to Okamura. The man's father had been born on the Korean Peninsula during Japanese rule, and came to Japan after the end of World War II. In the past, his father was unable to get National Health Insurance because of his foreign citizenship, even though he was paying taxes. The man himself was bullied in elementary school, being told to "Go back home." However, since he became an adult and entered the workforce, he had experienced fewer instances of discrimination. Through his activities as a neighborhood association executive, he'd gained the understanding of his Japanese neighbors toward Zainichi Koreans. "Why," he asked, "in this day and age, are people boldly going around the streets calling for the exclusion of foreign nationals?"

During the election campaign, I asked Okamura why he was placing blame on foreign nationals for Japan's problems. He himself had never been hurt or inconvenienced at the hands of a foreigner. In the past, he said, he had thought it only natural to provide public assistance to foreign nationals who needed it. But no matter how many times I posed this question to him, I failed to get a convincing answer. The only answer I could conjure up myself, was that his everyday sense of discontent and stagnation had led, via the internet, to the "Japan First" way of thinking. How can this flow of disgruntlement to hate be stopped?

In the end, Okamura got 2,597 votes, or approximately 1 percent of all votes for Hachioji, coming in last of all nine candidates in the city. Still, his campaign speeches continue to be watched online. (By Toshiaki Uchihashi, City News Department)

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