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Three months after a shocking arson attack on a leading politician, about 800 nationalists gathered at a rally in Tokyo to give their vocal support to the arsonist.

The rally went almost without mention in the Japanese media. In the growing climate of fear and intimidation, the rising power of the nationalists has become a taboo subject.

The arsonist, a 66-year-old nationalist named Masahiro Horigome, has become a hero to many right-wingers in Japan. After his dramatic attack last summer, he was flooded with letters of support from fellow nationalists.

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Although he was given an eight-year jail sentence, he has remained unrepentant and even boastful. "I feel the greatest sense of accomplishment at this point in my life," he later wrote to a newspaper.

Violent nationalist groups are still a relatively small minority of the political spectrum in Japan, but their influence is far greater than their numbers would warrant.

They have succeeded in silencing many scholars, discouraging debate on sensitive subjects and helping shift the political mainstream toward more radical views.

Their growing influence is a symptom of a Japanese political culture that has become less tolerant of dissent on key issues of patriotism, national symbols and wartime history.

Mr. Horigome, a member of a right-wing group in Tokyo, launched his attack last Aug. 15, the anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the day when many Japanese politicians pay homage at the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 convicted war criminals are among the millions of war dead honoured.

Mr. Horigome planned to attack a business leader who had criticized the prime minister's visits to the war shrine. He bought a large kitchen knife for the attack. But then he decided that he could not penetrate the business leader's bodyguards. So he chose another target: Koichi Kato, a senior parliament member who had also criticized the visits.

He travelled to Mr. Kato's family home and poured eight litres of gasoline inside the house, then ignited it with a lighter. The politician was not at home, but his house and adjoining office were destroyed in the blaze. His 97-year-old mother narrowly escaped death because she had gone out for a walk at the time.

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The arsonist tried to commit hara-kiri, the ritual form of suicide favoured by samurai and military men, but botched the job. Police found him bleeding and arrested him.

Japan's political leaders were largely silent. The prime minister at the time, Junichiro Koizumi, took two weeks to condemn the attack. The current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, was equally slow to show any disapproval.

An estimated 10,000 people belong to Japan's hard-line right-wing nationalist groups, and their penchant for violence is increasing, according to Japanese police reports.

The militants have issued death threats and other warnings to politicians and scholars who criticize the governing authorities on nationalist issues. The left-leaning Asahi Shimbun, a major Tokyo newspaper that has criticized the Yasukuni Shrine visits, received death threats in mailed postcards this spring. Another newspaper was attacked last year by a right-wing nationalist who threw a Molotov cocktail at its head office because of its reports on the shrine issue.

Another nationalist severed the tip of his little finger and sent it to the office of a Korean group in Japan because he was unhappy with North Korea's test-firing of missiles last year.

In April this year, a yakuza gangster shot and killed the left-leaning mayor of Nagasaki. Although the incident was reportedly inspired by a personal grudge, there are close connections between the yakuza (a Japanese organized crime gang) and the right-wing nationalist groups.

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Mr. Kato, the victim of the arson attack, is now living with a police guard at his home. He still worries about the risk of an ambush as he enters his home at night. "Every time I go back home, I take special care," he said in an interview. "The most dangerous point is the final 30 metres, so I change my pace quite often and I zigzag."

Mr. Kato, one of the most senior members of the governing Liberal Democratic Party, said he is concerned about the growing threat to freedom of speech in Japan. "Ten years ago, I would have said that this is an exaggerated concern," he said. "But people are less and less willing to talk about nationalist issues or the Yasukuni Shrine. Our society has become more nationalistic, and there is less freedom of speech."

Five years ago, when he made comments about North Korea that the nationalists disliked, Mr. Kato received a series of letters containing bullets.

More recently, a prominent scholar who frequently appeared on Japanese television was sent a warning by the nationalists because they were unhappy with his comments on the Yasukuni Shrine, Mr. Kato said. "We know your children's route to school in the morning," the nationalists warned the scholar. He decided to abandon his television appearances.

There are other troubling signs of intimidation. Last year, the Japan Institute of International Affairs, sponsored by Japan's Foreign Ministry, posted an online article that criticized the rising nationalism and the official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. The article was denounced by a prominent right-wing journalist, who demanded an apology. Within 24 hours, the institute's president complied, shutting down the site and asking for forgiveness.

In another incident, right-wing activists threatened a professor who had dared to suggest that women should not be excluded from succession in Japan's imperial line. She was obliged to issue a retraction. And this summer, Japan's defence minister was forced to resign after he provoked a huge uproar by suggesting that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have helped to bring an end to the Second World War.

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Historical revisionism is becoming more popular here. A new film denying Japan's role in the Nanjing massacre, the slaughter of thousands of Chinese civilians by soldiers in Japanese-occupied Nanjing in 1937, is being promoted in Tokyo. There is growing support for the view that the Nanjing massacre was a hoax. More than half of Japan's cabinet ministers have supported a political forum that calls for reform of Japan's history textbooks to play down or deny Japan's wartime atrocities.

Earlier this year, dozens of Japanese parliament members bought a full-page advertisement in The Washington Post to deny that Japan had coerced the so-called "comfort women" to provide sex to Japanese soldiers in China and Korea during the war.

Prime Minister Abe has brought some of these views into the political mainstream. At one point this year, he publicly cast doubt on the evidence that the comfort women were coerced into sexual slavery. Mr. Abe later apologized for his statement, but refused to acknowledge Japan's responsibility for running the brothels during the 1930s and 1940s.

Within the past 10 months, Mr. Abe has won parliamentary approval for several of the long-standing demands of nationalists. He upgraded the role of Japan's defence agency, making it a full-fledged ministry for the first time since the Second World War. He passed a law on "patriotic education," requiring students to sing the national anthem and stand at attention when the national flag is raised. And he took the first steps toward eliminating the pacifist clauses from Japan's postwar constitution.

As these issues enter the mainstream of government policies, some right-wing groups have become more extreme in an effort to grab the spotlight, Mr. Kato said. "They have become more and more violent," he said.

One of the biggest problems, Mr. Kato said, is Japan's failure to make an honest appraisal of its military expansionism from the 1890s to the 1940s. There is no museum in Tokyo that takes a neutral look at Japan's 20th-century history. The vacuum is filled by a well-financed museum at the Yasukuni Shrine that portrays Japan as an innocent victim and courageous victor.

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The museum gives a patriotic right-wing version of the entire period of Japanese military expansionism. It boasts that Japan achieved "victory after stunning victory" in the "Greater East Asian War" from the 19th century to the 1940s.

The museum never acknowledges that Japan invaded any other Asian country. To explain the Japanese occupation of northeastern China in the early 1930s, the museum blames China for fomenting an "anti-Japanese movement" that obliged Japan to send in its soldiers.

To explain the Japanese takeover of Beijing and Shanghai in 1937, the museum blames China for provoking Japan with various "incidents."

To explain the widening of Japan's occupation of China in the late 1930s and 1940s, the museum puts the blame on the "terrorism" of the Chinese Communists and the "prevailing anti-Japanese atmosphere" in China. It gives only a brief mention of the thousands of Chinese killed in the Nanjing massacre in 1937, describing the massacre this way: "The Chinese soldiers disguised in civilian clothes were severely prosecuted."

The museum also blames the United States for the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Its exhibit on Pearl Harbor is headlined: Japan's Quest For Avoiding A War.

Nationalist groups in Japan

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Japan's uyoku dantai, or nationalist groups, have long identified themselves with several simple messages: They oppose communism. They want to renounce the pacifist constitution they believe was foisted on Japan by the United States. They want to build up the armed forces and imbue Japan's young people with a greater sense of patriotism. Since the fall of communism, that message has refocused on other goals, some of which are shared by the current government. Modern uyoku dantai:

Chuko-Juku Aikoku Renmei: A significant right-wing group, of which arsonist Masahiro Horigome is a senior member. It calls for the liberation of Asia from American and European imperialists.

Issui-Kai (One Water Association): A prominent group, established in 1972, that seeks to persuade people that Japan should unashamedly embrace its imperial past. Led by politics teacher Kunio Suzuki, the group does not sport a belligerent revolutionary mantle and appeals to many Japanese intellectuals.

Nihon Seinensha (Japan Youth Society): One of the largest groups, with 2,000 members, it was founded in the 1960s and is thought to be linked to a Japanese underworld group. Since 1978, members have constructed two lighthouses and a Shinto shrine on the Senkaku Islands, a collection of uninhabited islets claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.

Tatenokai (Shield Society): A private militia in Japan founded by the right-wing author Yukio Mishima, whose real name was Kimitake Hiraoka, in 1967. In an unusual move, the Tatenokai was granted the right to train with the nation's armed forces, the Jieitai. In 1970, a group of Tatenokai briefly seized control of the Jieitai's headquarters and attempted to rally the soldiers to stage a coup d'état and restore imperial rule. When the attempt failed, Mr. Mishima committed ritual suicide. The group still exists, although its membership is small.

Sources: the Economist, Far Eastern Economic Review, Kyodo News, japan101.com

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