Counters poster 1The far right is on the rise the world over and Japan is no exception. A resurgent nationalism has long been a worry as the memory of wartime folly fades and the young, manipulated by fears of the nuclear threat from North Korea and frustrated by a stagnant economy, are duped by the messages of unscrupulous forces who convince them the cause of all their troubles is an easily scapegoated minority. Lee Il-ha’s documentary Counters (카운터스) takes a look at the deeply entrenched xenophobic racism directed at “Zainichi” Koreans and the counter protest movement against it which finds itself divided over the question of violence.

The main focus of Lee’s documentary is the enigmatic leader of the “Otoko-gumi” (lit. “men’s group”, a noticeably yakuza-esque name) – former mob boss Takahashi. Unlike many of the “Counters” who turn up to disrupt right-wing rallies, Takahashi identifies himself as a right-winger who venerates the Emperor and the Imperial past but cannot tolerate the unfettered bullying of those who shout vile racist statements while preaching the glory of Japan. A former yakuza, Takahashi himself had originally been taken in by the falsehoods spread by men like Sakurai – the virulently racist leader of Zaitokukai which makes the dubious claim that Zainichi Koreans are somehow “privileged” thanks to special residency arrangements originally set up to avoid the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to account for all the Korean (and Taiwanese) residents who arrived as Japanese citizens during the colonial period. Though he had harboured doubts about the anti-Korean propaganda he’d been hearing, it wasn’t until he had the opportunity of a straightforward conversation with an activist that he came to realise that it was all lies and the guys on the other side had a point after all.

Later, one of his comrades describes Takahashi as an old school yakuza – the kind that thinks it’s his job to protect people and stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Takahashi evidently doesn’t like bullies or liars and was brought into the struggle by witnessing an old lady in kabukicho crying after a protest. His methods are, however, those of the street. Running Otoko like a gang he determines that the best way to silence the racists is to rough them up so they’ll think twice about coming back.

This places places Otoko at odds with the mainstream Counter movement which is committed to non-violent protest and social change through outreach and education. Though their aims share much in common, the Counter organisation fears becoming with associated with Otoko because of its less savoury elements – not only the violence itself but Takahashi’s criminal past and ties to the yakuza. If the Counters want to be taken seriously as a legitimate protest group, they have to be careful to present a professional, diplomatic image. Meanwhile, Otoko is free to shake things up without needing to think too hard about anything much beyond crushing the racist right.

Another activist engaged in building a shelter for oppressed minorities – not just Zainichi Koreans but Ainu, Brazilian-Japanese, LGBTQ+ etc, admits as much when he attempts to probe the paradox of Takahashi’s liminal status in the political world. The progressive movement has long been bound by its own principles and progress has been slow. Like it or not, Otoko seems to have created a shift in the political landscape no matter how one might feel about their methods. Takahashi corrals his men into building the shelter by day, but is a frequent visitor to the Yasukuni shrine in the mornings. Nevertheless, he remains an unlikely ally at the side of all oppressed peoples including transgender men and women and the LGBTQ+ community.

Lee imbues his footage with the true punk spirit, spinning back from Takahashi’s violent clashes to a whimsical jazz overshadowing the shadiness of government while playing heavily with on screen text and effects which occasionally trivialise the action as in Sakurai’s failed showdown with the Mayor of Osaka who proves once and for all that he won’t have any of Sakurai’s nonsense in his kind and welcoming city. The level of vitriol on show is truly shocking with heinous, violent statements offered by ordinary young women turning on the kawaii to call for the deaths of a persecuted minority while middle-school girls influenced by right-wing fathers preach atrocity in the streets (tacitly confirming the veracity of various other atrocities the right is usually keen to deny). The long awaited anti-hate speech law may finally have been passed, but there is still much work to do. The Sakurais of the world aren’t giving up, but neither are the Counters. A timely reminder that now more than ever resistance is the key.


Counters was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)