The luminaries of Europe’s rightwing movements congregated on a recent spring day in Prague’s historic center to preach to their army of devotees about what they see as wrong with the continent. No to migrants. No to multiculturalism. Yes to populism.
Taking center stage alongside Marine Le Pen from France and Geert Wilders from the Netherlands was one of the more unlikely rising stars within the anti-European Union, nationalistic movements taking root in Europe: a Tokyo-born Czech businessman whose savvy use of information warfare has built his four-year-old party into a new political juggernaut.
Born to a Czech mother and a Japanese father, Okamura says he was bullied as a child both in Japan and his adopted European home because he looked different. Yet after building a successful business built on globalization, he now brands himself the posterboy for discontented Czech voters who subscribe to his message centered on illiberalism and xenophobia.
“Europeans are literally fighting for survival,” Tomio Okamura told journalists after the rally. “There is not just the threat of migration from Muslim countries but also the growing pressure from the EU to de-nationalize Europe and to create a single, multi-cultural superstate.”
Okamura’s Freedom and Direct Democracy party, the fourth-largest bloc in the Czech legislature, it vying to win its first seat in the European Union Parliament elections later in May, a victory that would underscore the swift rise of populism in the Czech Republic and similar movements across the continent that share a goal of tearing the EU apart.
Critics say Okamura and his party’s success over a few short years has been supercharged by a carefully crafted media strategy of marginalizing the country’s mainstream media in favor of his own social media channels that amplify fake news, including a strong anti-Brussels message.
Okumura’s team did not respond to requests for comment or an interview. Confronted with the obvious paradox that a foreign-born politician is pushing Czech nationalism, Okamura has been quick to bat the contradiction aside. “My mother is from Moravia! In no sense of the word am I a foreigner,” Okamura said during an online debate in 2017.
Jan Cizek, FDD’s deputy chairman in the Czech capital of Prague, denies that his party’s popularity is based on fear-mongering. He says Okamura’s strength comes from his willingness to speak the truth that people are feeling. “People all over Europe are longing for political parties that will speak the truth and defend their interests. That’s the main issue,” he said.
What’s clear is that Okamura’s undeniable charisma and media savvy has helped him capitalize on Czech social and economic divisions to build a political juggernaut.
Okamura spent much of his childhood in Czech Republic before returning to Japan after high school. There he worked various odd jobs, such as a trash collector and popcorn vendor. When he returned to the Czech Republic in 1994 Okamura opened a tourism company focusing on Japanese clientele.
He became a go-to person for Czech media about anything Japan related. Taking advantage of his new found popularity, he began to churn out books lauding his entrepreneurial skills with titles such as “The Czech Dream”, “The Art of Living”, “The Art of Ruling” or “The Art of Direct Democracy.” He became a regular on the Czech version of The Apprentice where he sat among the investors evaluating the businesses pitches.
In 2013 Okamura founded his first political party, Dawn – National Coalition, a populist Eurosceptic movement. In the Czech parliamentary election of 2013, the party received nearly 7% of votes, but the movement fell apart after two years amid inter-party disputes. Okamura was accused of funneling party money to his own companies. He denied the accusations and blamed other party members for missing funds. The police didn’t find enough evidence to pursue the case.
He then founded FDD in May 2015. With the onset of the European migrant crisis, it quickly positioned itself as the Czech Republic’s main defender against what it described as a barbaric invasion — and Okamura jumped into the disinformation business, where he fed Czech citizens a diet of hyped threats, according to media analysts.
Okamura’s talking points were simple but misleading. In a video posted to his Facebook page in December 2017 Okamura claimed that the security situation in the Czech Republic was deteriorating and the risk of terrorism was growing. Lubomir Metnar, the Czech interior minister at the time, told the Czech press that Okamura’s statement was full of false claims. He said that the Czech Republic is one of the safest countries in the world.
In 2018 another video posted by Okamura whipped up fear that a non-existent illness could sweep the country. The clip got tens of thousands of views despite medical professionals saying it was nonsense. Inspired by the events of Brexit, the FDD started advocating for “leaving the EU, the British way.”
Jonas Syrovatka, a program manager at Prague Security Studies Institute, says Okamura was a master at alarmist and misleading news.“He was making these videos where he was constantly encouraging people to leave their comments. He was doing this for three of for years, a video every week,” Syrovatka said.
The FDD’s embrace of views shared by European far-right leaders earned it the endorsement of France’s Le Pen ahead Czech national election in 2017. The FDD won 22 seats in the country’s parliament, making it the fourth-biggest bloc.
The political success added fuel to Okamura’s media machine. Okamura’s personal Facebook page has approximately 260,000 followers, while the main Facebook page of FDD has only about 33,000 followers.
Although Okamura used the mainstream media earlier in the decade to tout his business acumen and books, the party soon set a rule that members should boycott establishment news outlets, according to Kamil Papezik, the former FDD’s deputy chairman for the Czech city of Brno. “That’s one of your duties as a FDD member. You can only ask journalists to send questions via email, then you just don’t respond,” Papezik said.
Instead the party’s Facebook administrators share media articles conforming with the party’s agenda. One of the most popular news sites shared by the FDD is from Parlamentni listy, “Parliamentary Letters,” a Breitbart-esque site regularly posts sensational articles and interviews with mostly anti-establishment politicians.
Papezik says that the party works with “alternative” media outlets because they reflect the views of most FDD supporters. “They want their traditions and customs to remain the same. They don’t want to live in a Muslim Europe,” he said, adding that the alternative media are “able to talk openly about things that the mainstream media intentionally ignore because they are aligned with the leadership of the European Union.”
It was the goal of ending the European Union project that Okamura and his colleagues at the Prague rally, spent most of their time discussing. “I want the Czech Republic to leave the European Union. It is flawed beyond repair. It has to end,” Okamura said.