Why you should care
Because he’s a striking representative of Europe’s growing exclusionist movement.
Tomio Okamura is scanning the menu in one of those Chinese restaurants that could be anywhere in the world except China — excessive gold decoration, a fish tank in the entrance, swooning traditional music. (This one is in Prague, Czech Republic.) He selects tea and a basic cabbage salad with sliced carrots, smiling as he murmurs a Mandarin phrase to the young waitress. Now, where were we? Oh, right. “We don’t need immigrants,” proclaims Okamura, founder of the nation’s most popular far-right party, gesturing toward the restaurant staff. “The Czech Republic will be stronger if we keep our traditions.”
You might be sensing a disconnect here. It only gets stronger. We’re seated near a courtyard that houses a Thai massage parlor, a Vietnamese fast-food joint, KFC and Miki Travel, a U.K.-based travel agency where Okamura works. It’s kind of a strange place for one of the country’s most popular, and controversial, politicians to be hanging out. His former party, Dawn of Direct Democracy, rode a wave of anti-immigrant fervor into the Czech Parliament in 2013. From there, Okamura managed to piss off almost every politician and minority group in the country, eventually including other leaders of his own party. The resulting furor has him down for the moment, though far from out.
Okamura — who, as you’ve probably guessed by now, wasn’t born in the Czech Republic — is nevertheless a striking representative of Europe’s exclusionist movement. His views echo those of other right-wing movements throughout the continent, like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, which are growing in prominence by campaigning on an anti-EU, tough-on-crime and anti-immigration platform. Though unlike, say, Le Pen — who has tried to moderate her party’s image, even suspending her father from the party he founded — Okamura seems to delight in sharpening his edge.
Given Okamura’s part-Japanese ancestry and the fact that he immigrated to the Czech Republic in his 20s, his anti-immigrant stance is, well, “very ironic,” says Jiří Pehe, a well-known Czech political analyst. Okamura ping-ponged between Japan and Europe as a kid and was bullied in both places; despite that, he sees nothing untoward about suggesting that Czechs insult Muslims by walking pigs in front of mosques or burying porcine remains at the sites of future mosques. (When I ask him about those comments, Okamura insists that they’re perfectly “normal.”) He’s also unrepentant about telling the Roma, the Czech Republic’s largest and most disenfranchised minority, to pull up stakes and create their own state elsewhere.
Okamura claims he never really sought political power and even insists he had more influence before he was elected to public office. He was previously a prolific blogger and claims to have reached an average of 100,000 people with each post, covering topics from immigration (naturally) — he wrote that the Czech Republic would soon be aflush with African migrants behaving like “animals” — to homosexuality and Christian values. After running away from his Tokyo home at 18 to work as a garbageman and then a popcorn vendor at a movie theater, Okamura headed to the Czech Republic for good, where he was (naturally) a model immigrant. He eventually opened a travel company — a later venture took clients’ stuffed animals on tours around Prague (seriously) — and made appearances on TV cooking shows as an expert in Japanese cuisine.
Indeed, Okamura still speaks with the practiced emphasis and colorful phrases of a TV presenter. Back in the Miki Travel office, his booming voice and harsh rhetoric strike an incongruent note with the soft-pink-and-purple wallpaper behind him. But he’s still measured and careful, turning often to his laptop to check translations of English words he doesn’t know. A simple V-neck sweater, worn blue jeans and sneakers suggest he isn’t working in Parliament today, an impression belied by his unshakable attachment to his iPhone, which buzzes incessantly.
Okamura denies criticism that he’s nothing but a naysayer. Ostensibly, Dawn stands squarely for “direct democracy,” which boils down mostly to allowing popular votes to overrule legislatures and recall elected politicians. In practice, of course, such measures might also encourage conservative regions to discriminate against immigrants regardless of national policy — something like the way the states’ rights arguments once buttressed Jim Crow laws in the U.S. Okamura is also critical of a recent decision to accommodate some 70 Syrian refugees, a notably low number, in the country. Okamura thinks the money is better spent on the Czech Republic’s own poor or in refugee camps where the Syrians came from. “Poor Czechs should come first,” he says.
Okamura, however, has his own problems. Earlier this year, most of his fellow Dawn legislators staged what he calls a coup by leaving to form their own organization. The rebellious members said Okamura was too authoritarian — there’s that irony again, given Dawn’s promotion of direct democracy — and alleged that he used some $23,000 of party funds without approval. Okamura has since started a splinter party called Freedom and Direct Democracy. Still, his chances of seriously getting back into the game are “negligible,” says Ondrej Cisar, a professor in the department of sociology at Charles University.
But don’t count Okamura out. As our check comes, the conversation drifts toward his father, a Japanese marketer, and his mother, a power plant engineer from the Czech Republic. “I can’t be racist,” he muses. “I’m half-Japanese.”