TOKYO Former Japanese general Toshio Tamogami has a dream: fed up with bowing to China and the United States, patriotic politicians form a new party that puts national interests first, bolsters the military and rewrites the pacifist constitution.
"In Japan, there are pro-China politicians and there are 'conservatives', but almost all of those are pro-American and say 'let's do what America tells us to do'," said Tamogami, a former air force chief of staff who was sacked in 2008 for writing that Japan was ensnared into World War Two by the United States and was not an aggressor in the conflict in Asia.
"We need to have a political party that brings together 'pro-Japan' politicians. If we don't, Japan will simply continue to decline," said Tamogami, who for the past two years has headed the nationalist group "Ganbare Nippon" ("Stand Firm, Japan").
Tamogami's dream of an influential new nationalist party appears a mostly forlorn hope for now, analysts said, but right-wing groups of that ilk are already pushing mainstream parties to the right.
Hoping to grab public attention, Tamogami's group will sponsor a trip next month by parliamentarians, local lawmakers and others to waters near a chain of islets in the East China Sea at the heart of a worsening feud between China and Japan.
"By doing this, we want to raise the public awareness of the Senkaku Island issue," Tamogami told Reuters, using the Japanese name for the islands, known as the Diaoyu in China, located near rich fishing grounds and potential maritime oil and gas reserves.
The islands dispute could easily fan smoldering nationalist sentiment among Japanese worried about their declining global status and glum economic future.
"I don't think the group would have much clout but it can successfully push the debate to the right," said Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano.
"Hashimoto has the same impact ... So-called moderate parties get dragged along," Nakano said, referring to popular Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, whose Ishin no Kai party plans to bid for seats in a national election due by September 2013.
Ishin no Kai has not fleshed out its stance on security issues beyond stating support for the U.S.-Japan security alliance, but nationalists number among its supporters.
DEFENDING THE ISLANDS
Sino-Japanese tension over the uninhabited islets has heightened since Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said this month the government was considering buying them from their private owners rather than let Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, a harsh critic of China, proceed with a similar purchase plan.
Tamogami said he favored Ishihara's plan to buy the islands rather than the central government's taking possession. "If the central government buys the islands, they will forbid Japanese nationals to land and just wait for China to come and take it," he said.
Commenting on recent incursions by Chinese vessels into the disputed waters, Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto said on Friday that it was legally possible to mobilize Japan's military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, to defend the isles.
"Action by the SDF is secured by law in cases where the Japan Coast Guard or police cannot respond," Kyodo news agency quoted Morimoto as telling a news conference.
Despite growing links between Asia's two biggest economies, experts say simmering nationalism among Japanese worried about their country's fading global status and stagnant economy can easily clash with its mirror image in an assertive China, where memories of Japan's past military occupation run deep.
Ties between the two countries went into a deep chill in 2010 after Japan detained the skipper of a Chinese trawler whose boat collided with two Japanese patrol boats near the islands.
"I think this should be a matter of concern for policymakers in capitals around the world," said Andrew Horvat, director of the Stanford Center in Kyoto.
"We have a rising China, a Japan trying to maintain its (global) position and no clear-cut means by which the dispute can be settled and worse, by which the resources of the area can be shared in an orderly and equitable manner by all parties."
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)