Why you should care
He’s a striking representative of Europe’s growing exclusionist movement, and he’s rising despite detbacks.
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, leader 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 a strange place for one of the country’s most 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. So in 2015, he split from the party and formed another one, Freedom and Direct Democracy – known as the SPD. Since then, his – and his party’s – popularity have only grown. Ahead of the country’s 2017 legislative elections, Okamura was polling as the nation’s second-most popular politician after the man who eventually became prime minister, Andrej Babiš. The SPD won 10.6 percent votes in its first national elections, and with 22 seats, is the third-biggest party in Parliament, where Okamura is now deputy speaker.
Okamura — who, as you’ve probably guessed by now, wasn’t born in the Czech Republic — is a striking representative of Europe’s exclusionist movement. His views echo those of other right-wing movements throughout the continent, from Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, to the new government in Italy, all of which have prospered on an anti-EU, tough-on-crime and anti-immigration platform. But 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 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. As the name of his party suggests, he says he 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.
The Czech Republic has for the past five years largely resisted the E.U.’s roadmap for individual countries accepting refugees. In 2017, it accepted only 67 refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. But even that’s too many for Okamura, who 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 has had his own problems. In 2015, most legislators from his then party staged what he calls a coup by leaving to form their own organization. The rebellious members said Okamura was too authoritarian — ironic, given his promotion of direct democracy — and alleged that he used some $23,000 of party funds without approval. When Okamura emerged from that crisis to start Freedom and Direct Democracy, his chances of seriously getting back into the game appeared “negligible” to Ondrej Cisar, a sociologist at Charles University.
But Okamura has fought back to reach greater prominence than ever before. He’s not done – and he knows his image will be key as he plans his next political leap forward. 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.”