It’s election season in Tokyo again, which can mean only one thing: noise. Elections are a clamorous affair, from stump speeches delivered on top of vehicles in plazas, to the constant pilgrimage of campaign vans roaming around the neighbourhoods, blaring out the name of the candidate over and over again. Election rules mean that door-to-door canvassing is banned, replaced instead by mobile hubbub. It’s a strange kind of carnival, both in your face yet distant, and speaks volumes — forgive the pun — about the troubled nature of Japan’s democracy.
Part of the carnival is the role played by the joke contenders or perennial candidates, known in Japanese as hōmatsu-kōho: the weirdos and wackos, the agitators for the basket of deplorables, the flotsam and jetsam. They are a guilty pleasure loved by all but the most dour of dullards. Some are silly, like Mac Akasaka; others are more sinister, like Shōkō Asahara or Mitsuo Matayoshi.
Kōichi Toyama is one such perennial candidate. With his shaved head, black clothes and jackboots, at first glance he looks like a cross between an ultra-nationalist and a Buddhist monk. Born in 1970 in Kyushu, he apparently started off as a leftist in the late 1980s and protesting the education system before undergoing tenkō (a political recantation or conversion) while serving a prison sentence in the early 2000s. He is now a Third Positionist of sorts, a self-professed “fascist” spouting ideas with a right-wing flavour while condemning capitalism and nuclear power. He is anti-American yet pro-China and also, he claims, opposed to democracy. In short, he offers plenty to confuse the netto-uyoku.
Calling his “fascist party” Ware-ware-dan (loosely, The Us Group) and advocating a hybrid anarchism-nationalism, Toyama quickly attracted a cult following online for his election broadcast for the 2007 Tokyo gubernatorial election. It is a wonder to watch as the rabble-rouser spends his valuable few minutes deriding the entire political system: “An election is simply a festival for the majority.” After calling for the “us minority people” to rise up and overthrow the “majority”, he finishes by flipping the bird at the voters and the whole status quo. (He came eighth in the poll with 15,059 votes.)
Elaborate performance artist or quasi-demagogue? Sincere foe of the establishment or attention-seeking pranksters? The jury is permanently out on that one, though Tokyoites may have observed his vehicle once again traversing the city recently. Toyama is not himself standing in the current Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election on July 2nd, but he is using the occasion to campaign in his sound truck.
Jester or radical, figures like Toyama serve a function in the civil society. They break taboos and stir up trouble. Kenzō Okuzaki, who was made famous in the documentary The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, was another such character, driving around Japan in his van decorated with slogans denouncing the emperor. Okuzaki, though, had a personal vendetta to assuage. What is Toyama’s motivation?
Is it easier, then, to think of Toyama’s agitation more as satire than activism? He is parodying the democratic election system and its vacuous, cookie-cutter candidates in the same way that Minoru Torihada mimics and lampoons Japan’s ultra-rightists. That being said, Toyama is genuinely provocative. On his current campaign he is flagrantly calling himself a “terrorist”. With the anti-conspiracy law now passed and on the verge of enactment, there are potentially serious implications for the likes of Toyama, caricature or not.
Besides driving his somewhat battered white sound truck adorned with its bold statements (“Government of Japan, give in to terrorism!”), Toyama’s other favourite tactic is homegoroshi. Literally meaning “kill with praise”, it’s a common way for rightists to smear candidates with attacks on their reputation using innuendo. It’s basically sarcastic trolling, typically with sound trucks. His present reclamation of the label “terrorist” is surely an example of this, challenging the police to make good on the ostensible rationale for the new anti-conspiracy legislation by arresting him.
However, Toyama shrewdly operates within certain loopholes. As he hasn’t registered Ware-ware-dan as a political organisation, he isn’t breaking any laws against political campaigning. In a sense, he is just like those raucous advertising trucks that roam the streets of Tokyo with billboards. He is also careful not to claim he will actually carry out terrorist activities (which would surely bring down the swift arm of the law) and even driving around while talking into a microphone does not breach any regulations per se (unlike, say, driving while using a phone). After all, the most effective form of protest, even if wholly performative, is a smart one that can be sustained.