Is Tomio Okamura the acceptable face of racism in the Czech Republic?
Born in Tokyo to a Czech mother and a Japanese-Korean father, Okamura’s life story is a rags-to-riches tale that’s seen him go from a north Bohemia children’s home to become a successful, self-made businessman.
His political career, which he launched with a successful Senate campaign in 2012, isn’t quite so inspiring.
In response, Štefan Tišer, leader of the Romani political organization Strana Rovných Příležitostí (“Party of Equal Opportunities”), argued that Japanese-born Okamura had less right to live here than the Romanies he wanted to deport.
Okamura’s proposal was one of a series of headline-grabbing ideas, apparently designed to appeal to the more xenophobic sections of Czech society.
He followed this up by visiting racist murderer Vlastimil Pechanec in prison in January of this year.
Pechanec is serving a 17-year sentence for racially motivated murder, having stabbed a Romani man to death in a disco in Svitavy, a town in the Pardubice Region, in 2001.
After initially being sentenced to 13 years, Pechanec, a repeat offender, took his case to the appeals court in 2003, where judges added another four years to his sentence.
Okamura, however, claims that the case was “politically manipulated”, and wants a retrial.
“If someone comes to [the Czech Republic] to work, then they should work, if they find a job,” the Úsvit party leader told parliament in March. “But if they don’t have work, they’ll just have to return home and not leech off our [benefits] system.”
None of this would be particularly worrying if Okamura was on the fringes of Czech politics.
But his party, Úsvit přímé demokracie Tomia Okamury (Tomio Okamura’s Dawn of Direct Democracy), received 6.89% of the vote in last year’s general election, becoming the sixth-largest party in parliament, with 14 seats.
In January, a STEM poll named Okamura the Czech Republic’s third most popular politician, with 64% of respondents regarding him either “favourably” or “very favourably”.
Since then, however, Úsvit’s support has dwindled, dropping to around 1% according to a CVVM poll carried out earlier this month.
Two high-profile scandals, one involving party-funding and one involving a controversial candidate, haven’t helped their cause.
In April, Reflex magazine published an article alleging that Okamura is using his political party to help himself to millions of crowns of taxpayers’ money.
Reflex claimed that Okamura has been invoicing Úsvit, which has only nine party members, for non-existent media and marketing work.
As a parliamentary party, Úsvit is due to receive more than 122 million crowns in state funding.
Okamura denies the allegations and, as of April, said he was considering legal action against Reflex over the article.
(In a separate dispute, a Prague 7 court ordered Reflex to publish a formal apology to Okamura this month, after columnist Jiří X. Doležal referred to him as “Pitomio” — a portmanteau of “pitomec” (“idiot”) and “Tomio”.)
Separately, Úsvit announced in January that Klára Samková, a celebrity lawyer who represents Okamura, would lead the party at this weekend’s European elections.
It was a surprising decision. Samková has represented Romani defendants in several high-profile cases, and has light brown skin, dark hair and dark brown eyes — physical characteristics often associated with Romani people.
In April, this prompted Okamura to bizarrely claim on his Facebook page that Samková “doesn’t have a drop of Romani blood” in her body.
Ultimately, however, Samková’s business dealings proved more problematic to Úsvit than her ethnicity.
On May 6th, public radio station Radiožurnál reported allegations that Samková was involved in a scheme to defraud the Česká spořitelna bank.
Four days later, Okamura announced that she would be dropped from Úsvit’s list of candidates.
Okamura’s own finances remain something of a mystery.
For starters, he’s isn’t the owner of the business he’s mostly closely associated with, Miki Travel Prague.
Instead, the firm — a travel agency for Japanese tourists visiting the Czech Republic — is 100-percent-owned by GM Communications Limited, an obscure British-registered company.
Okamura does, however, own Mebius s.r.o., a Czech company that provides travel guide and translation services to Miki Travel Prague.
He also co-owns Japa Foods, a small chain of Prague shops that sells Japanese specialities.
Okamura’s reputation is largely based on his media appearances, initially as spokesman and vice-president of the Asociace českých cestovních kanceláří a agentur (Association of Czech Travel Agencies) and later as one of the judges on Den D, the Czech version of Dragons’ Den.
Since then he’s written or co-written a series of bestselling books, among them the autobiography Český sen (“The Czech Dream”), the business book Umění vládnout (“The Art of Ruling”), and the Japanese cookbook Velká japonská kuchařka (“The Big Japanese Cookbook”).
Given his recent political fortunes, it’s probably a good thing that he’s got something to fall back on.