With his spiky hair and skinny suits, Yoshinobu Tomiyama is on a quest to change Japan. In a country where politics is often the preserve of older folk, Tomiyama is a relatively youthful 41-year-old running in the country's Dec. 16 parliamentary elections. His biography brims with unorthodox choices, like moonlighting as a comedian and self-financing his studies in the U.S. and Britain unusual for the average Japanese. Tomiyama's childhood hero was a roving samurai who helped overthrow the ruling shogun and propel a long-isolated nation into the modern age a political revolution known as the Meiji Restoration. Now Tomiyama has joined a new political bloc called the Japan Restoration Party (JRP) for his inaugural electoral run. One of his solutions for reinvigorating his stagnating homeland is to rebuild a Japan that draws succor from its past, despite the country's reflexive self-flagellation for its defeat in World War II. "For years, our government has had no vision," he says, downing coffee on a break from campaigning. "We need to be proud of what Japan is and where it came from. We need to show the world we can stand up and lead."
In November, Toru Hashimoto, Osaka's young rebel mayor, joined forces with Shintaro Ishihara, the reactionary ex-governor of Tokyo, to form the JRP that Tomiyama belongs to. With its maverick, nationalist message, the JRP has jolted the political establishment. Hashimoto and Ishihara seem to delight in lobbing political grenades. The Osaka mayor, for instance, has asserted that there's no proof the Japanese imperial army sexually enslaved women in Asia. Ishihara, for his part, maintains that the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in which Japanese soldiers went on a killing and raping spree in the war-torn Chinese city never happened.
That the JRP, a popular political party, is sounding extreme shows how Japanese nationalism is no longer the domain of fringe activists. More to the point, the rhetoric of the JRP, which by some estimates is running second in the polls, is being echoed by the likely winner, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which controlled power for most of the postwar era. Its leader Shinzo Abe is now poised to become Japan's next Prime Minister, replacing current PM Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). (Japan has endured six Prime Ministers in as many years.) "We are going to win back Japan and build a strong country, a prosperous country," says Abe, whose party has chosen "Restoring Japan" as its campaign slogan. (Sound familiar, Hashimoto- and Ishihara-san?)
On Dec. 3, Abe, who served as Prime Minister for precisely a year from September 2006 to September 2007, vowed that one of his missions would be "to protect our territory and beautiful waters." Abe was referring to a long-simmering dispute with China over a handful of islands in the East China Sea that in recent months has erupted into a potential flash point, with increasing brinkmanship by both sides. "The trend of nationalism is inevitable in Japan," says Ryuji Yoneda, a member of Zaitokukai, a radical Internet-based group with about 12,500 members, ranging from housewives to part-time workers, that organizes jingoistic protests across the country. The rise of a New Right has the potential not only to transform the way a long-pacifist Japan sees itself but also to unsettle Asia's security landscape. "Japan's shift to the right didn't happen overnight," says Koichi Nakano, director of the Institute of Global Concern at Sophia University in Tokyo. "But we may be witnessing how this move in Japan will change regional geopolitics."
The Nationalist Card Japan once prided itself on being prosperously middle class, but it has been in an economic slump for two decades. Outwardly, many citizens still lead comfortable lives. Yet national debt stands at twice the size of the economy, exports have dropped dramatically, and Japan teeters on the edge of another recession. More than a third of Japanese cannot find full-time jobs. Last year's triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis was supposed to shake the country out of its paralyzing placidity. But little has happened since besides a flurry of civil-society activity and some well-attended antinuclear protests. If the Japanese seem uniformly passionate about anything, it's antipathy toward a rising neighbor to the west. More than 80% of Japanese say they harbor unfriendly sentiments about China, up nearly 10% from last year, according to a survey by Japan's Cabinet Office. "Ten years ago, I was considered an ultra-nationalist," says Yoshiko Sakurai, a former TV anchor who has written books with titles like The Determination to Stand Up to China. "But now these are ordinary thoughts in Japan."