Tokyo-born Czech nationalist revels in his rising influence
Tomio Okamura backs ‘Czexit’ and opposes Islam and immigration
Tomio Okamura, the anti-Islam and Eurosceptic leader of the Czech Republic’s Freedom and Direct Democracy party, which came fourth in parliamentary elections in October. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
With its foaming pints of beer, plates of pork and dumpling and walls covered with pictures of old Prague, Stare Casy is a typical Czech pub in the Gothic heart of the country’s capital.
The beer hall’s name means “Old Times” in Czech, and it seems like an apt place to meet a nationalist leader who has successfully fanned and fed upon his compatriots’ fear of “losing” their country and its traditions to a corrupt elite, a meddling European Union and Muslim immigrants.
But Tomio Okamura makes for an unlikely far-right firebrand.
Born in Tokyo to a Czech mother and half Japanese, half Korean father, Okamura collected trash and sold popcorn before going into business. He has run a travel service for cuddly toys – taking photos of clients’ teddy bears in front of Prague landmarks – and appeared on the local version of Dragons’ Den, as well as writing books on cooking, politics, self-help and his own unusual life.
In October he enjoyed his most striking success, when his Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) took 10.6 per cent of votes and fourth place in elections that were won by the Ano party of populist billionaire Andrej Babis.
The rise of anti-establishment groups rocked the Czech political establishment, and turned Okamura (45) from a marginal extremist into someone with hopes of influencing how his country is run.
Okamura is now a deputy speaker of the Czech parliament, his SPD colleague Radek Koten is the new head of the chamber’s security committee, and on Saturday Czech president Milos Zeman will address their party’s congress.
Okamura says he was only sharing the advice of a political ally 'on what Czech citizens who don’t want Islamicisation . . . could do under current law'
Zeman is drumming up support for his re-election bid in January, but Okamura has not yet endorsed a leader who shares his hostility to Brussels and its efforts to relocate Muslim refugees among member states.
Four main principles
Okamura says he wants a Czech president who agrees with the SPD’s “four main principles”: support for “direct democracy” and a law allowing referendums; an anti-Islam policy; opposition to migration; and a strong sense of patriotism.
Mingling prejudice and conspiracy theory, Zeman has claimed that Europe’s migration crisis is part of a plot hatched by the Muslim Brotherhood, and that refugees will impose sharia law wherever they settle, cutting off thieves’ hands and stoning unfaithful women.
For his part, Okamura has suggested on Facebook that Czechs walk past mosques with pigs and dogs – unclean animals for Muslims – and boycott kebabs because their vendors might be helping to finance terrorism.
Okamura says he was only sharing the advice of a political ally “on what Czech citizens who don’t want Islamicisation . . . could do under current law”.
“This advice might look funny but it is serious. What is not serious about public opinion? Is the only thing that is serious an elite movement or a movement in parliament?” he asks.
Okamura offers “direct democracy” as a way to give power back to Czechs who are disillusioned with their own elite and with waiting for the prosperity that they hoped would follow EU accession in 2004.
It is also his proposed defence against supposed threats like radical Islam, even though Muslims make up only 0.1 per cent of the Czech population, and the country has accepted just 12 of the 2,691 refugees assigned to it under a failing EU quota scheme.
EU migration policy
Okamura says EU migration policy is a danger to his country, and laments the need for anti-terror measures that have seen concrete blocks placed around Prague’s Old Town Square.
He wants a referendum on EU membership and would vote for “Czexit” and, like other far-right party leaders around Europe, he supports US president Donald Trump and denounces western sanctions on Russia for its aggression in Ukraine.
The Czech mainstream media calls me xenophobic and racist. But how can I be racist, when I have these eyes and I am half yellow?
Babis, who was appointed prime minister this week, strikes a more moderate tone, but early votes in the new parliament suggest he has agreed to co-operate with the SPD and Communists in the face of hostility from more mainstream parties.
The billionaire is suspected of misappropriating EU funds, and analysts think his Euroscepticism could gain a harder edge if a prosecution proceeds and he needs the help of the far right and far left to install his government and pass laws.
Okamura, meanwhile, seems to be enjoying his growing influence.
“They are my friends, nice people,” he says with a smile, while using his heritage and mandate to dismiss criticism of his intolerant and populist views.
“The Czech mainstream media calls me xenophobic and racist. But how can I be racist, when I have these eyes and I am half yellow?” Okamura says.
“The current political oligarchies and elites say the idea of direct democracy is extremist. But what is extremist if it is voted for by the citizens?”