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Ideational Populisms in Japan – Reconceptualising “Populism-Free Japan”

An elusive and contested concept, populism’s thin-centredness makes it difficult to define in specific terms; its application in one state or system may take on a wholly different form in another, or even coalesce into an alternative ideology. Yet it is undeniable that the last twenty years have seen the persistent rise of populist ideologies, organizations, and actors in the broader context of globalization backlash and increased nationalism. Scholars of populism primarily identify this movement with European nations and the United States, glossing over cases of other developed states and even claiming that some have “dodged” the populist bullet entirely. Japan is frequently cited as an example of this phenomenon. Yet a nuanced approach is necessary when examining the political trends associated with this nation. Drawing upon Mudde and Kaltwasser’s conceptualisation of the three ideal-types of populism, an ideational study of Japan’s contemporary political landscape reveals that while the nation has largely avoided the major emergence of xenophobic populist actors and organizations, it has not been entirely free of transitory socioeconomic based populist trends (Mudde and Kaltwasser; 2017). Mudde and Kaltwasser’s ideational definition of populism is used here as the framework through which to examine potential Japanese populisms; it can be defined, briefly, as a “thin-centred ideology that drives a distinction between a “pure people” and a “corrupt elite.” The concept empirically expresses itself through three ideal-types: agrarian-type populism (first-type), socioeconomic populism (second-type), and xenophobic populism (third-type).

There appears to be a broad international and domestic consensus that Japan has neatly sidestepped the anti-globalization populist wave that has surged across Europe and the US in the past twenty years. The virtually uninterrupted dominance of a single party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since its establishment in 1955, reassures a majority of onlookers. The party is described as one of “moderate conservative” principles; its actors appear to respect the international liberal democratic order and refrain from reactionary, polarizing rhetoric. However this dominant discourse minimalises any potential nuance – contemporary Japan cannot be simply declared “populism-free.” Nevertheless, using the ideational distinctions drawn between three ideal-type populisms, one can argue the country has not been subject to third-type xenophobic populism. Two main factors explain this apparent absence: a lack of sufficient demand-side conditions, and closely linked negative supply-side conditions. Whether or not these are organic or have been maintained or even deepened by the incumbent government however remains debatable and raises the question of the legitimacy of Japan’s liberal structures.

First, the lack of xenophobic type populism on the contemporary Japanese political landscape stems primarily from resoundingly negative demand-side conditions, that is to say the demand for populist leaders or parties among the average Japanese voter has remained relatively low over the course of the past twenty years. This negative demand-side is intrinsically linked to the supply-side: the LDP’s political model of state protectionism has shielded Japanese society from the consequences of globalization and liberalization. Socioeconomic disparity is often identified as the primary cause of populist views amongst the general public, however in Japan this has been tempered by government-implemented limits placed upon the mechanisms of global liberalization (Hijino; 2020). When neoliberal reforms began to transform the 1980s global economy under Reagan and Thatcher, Japan proposed an alternative and seemingly equally efficient economic model, that of the “developmental state” (Johnson; 1999). Restrictive trade policies continued to be implemented as part of LDP’s official agenda to protect domestic businesses and banks from global competition. Despite underlying motives including corporate privileges, pork barrel politics and bureaucratic strongholds, these policies were effective in limiting income inequality and the development of the Matthew effect dichotomy which generates populist demand (Buruma; 2018). Although attempts were made to implement neoliberal reforms in the 1990s, mid 2000s and late 2010s (Big bang reforms, Koizumi’s privatization attempts, Abe’s trade liberalization with the TPP negotiations), foreign onlookers continue to identify Japan’s economy as the “most protected and least globalized in the developed world” (Ibid).

This protectionism also translates to the Japanese demographic. Ethnically, religiously, linguistically, Japan is one of the most homogenous societies in the world (Solomon; 2016). This is not only a cultural belief but a reality; foreigners make up just under 2% of the total Japanese population, with 90% of immigrants of Asian ethnicity (Ibid). Again, this is largely due to the government’s restrictive and arguably protectionist policies, in this case regarding immigration; despite a steady demographic decline since the 1980s, the LDP has maintained a limited open immigration policy. However, this homogeneity cannot be perceived as entirely enforced by government regulation, but instead should be interpreted as a widespread mindset that is reflected in and reinforced by the governing party’s policies. Culturally, the Japanese appear content with this homogeneity and “collectivist culture" (Ibid). Abe’s 2018 implementation of new residency rights for low-skilled foreign workers was purely national-interest based, aimed at tackling demographic, labour-shortage issues, with no demonstration of openness to any other form of immigration (Lind; 2018). Although levels of immigration are low, in 2018 56% of voters believed the current number of immigrants was at an optimum level, and just 20% thought it should increase (Hijino; 2020). Despite this potential cultural aversion to foreigners, the sheer lack of immigrants in Japan provides very little basis for widespread xenophobic discontent. In 2018, 15% of Japanese voters felt that their jobs or culture were threatened by immigrants, a percentage much lower than the US or European countries (Ibid). It therefore becomes apparent that the demand-side is not substantial enough to generate xenophobic populist sentiment amongst the Japanese electorate.

Moreover, contemporary Japan’s relative economic stability and low levels of inequality provide an infertile breeding ground for populist demand-side conditions. Since the immediate Post war period, the Japanese population has enjoyed a massive improvement of the average standard of living due to sustained economic growth and extended peace. Despite an increasing Gini inequality coefficient over the past 25 years, Japan’s socioeconomic disparities differ from those of its Western counterparts, in that they do not reflect a division created by the top 1% of the income ladder but instead can be explained by a transformation of the labour market (Solis; 2019). Despite an increased hiring of non-regular workers (38% of the workforce in non-regular employment), the majority of this group are not in precarious financial states; many are college students or are part of “core families” where one member generates a subsistence wage (Solomon; 2016). This creates little opportunity for the formation of “left-behind” communities frequently swept up in populist movements. High taxes limit wealth inheritance, furthering limits on socioeconomic divides and reinforcing Japan as the “country of the middle class” with its cultural disposition towards wealth modesty (Buruma; 2018). Additionally, the government’s welfare system (for example the social safety net targeted at aging population) tactically addresses major socioeconomic concerns and subdues tensions before they erupt. In this manner, socioeconomic demand-side conditions limit the potential emergence of populist movements.

Historical and cultural factors also inform these negative demand-side conditions. While Ha-Joon Chang rightly underlines the risk of identifying cultural stereotypes with political and economic developments, there is a case to be made for the Japanese people’s pacifism and caution towards nationalist, xenophobic discourse (2007). This can be interpreted as a result of Japan’s Pre-war expansionist and militarist political agenda and its consequences. In the immediate Post-war period, intellectuals did not just advocate the adoption of a democratic system but also strongly rejected the pursuit of nationalist policies dating from the Pre-war period. A 2015 poll found that 74% of respondents claimed they continued to support Murayama and Koizumi’s war responsibility statements and apologies, highlighting the fact that nationalism, at least in the form of war revisionism, does not hold much appeal amongst the general Japanese public (Hijino; 2020). The nationalist demand-condition for xenophobic populist politics therefore appears to be lacking, further explaining the absence of such a movement within Japan.

Concomitantly, the supply-side also appears to present inadequate conditions for the long-term emergence of nationalist or xenophobic populist political figures and organizations. Structural factors within the Japanese political system, primarily the electoral and factional systems, as well as the governing party’s long-term hegemony, make it difficult for new opposition parties or political actors to emerge, let alone those proffering anti-establishment populist discourse. While efforts have been made in the past twenty years to dismantle structures facilitating one-party dominance, the LDP’s maintenance of power or influence is virtually ensured by a combination of factors, most prominently the iron triangle system, a weak, ideologically fragmented selection of opposition parties, and a lack of trust in alternative governments (Scheiner; 2005). Until the mid-1990s electoral reform, the party has been perceived as an “internally competitive political system in its own right” due to its system of habatsu (factions) which ensured inner party pluralism (Ampiah and Stockwin; 2017). Left-wing and right-wing factions coexisted and vied for influence within the party, thus responding to the issues of voters across the full political spectrum while maintaining an overall moderate conservative political stance and successfully presenting itself as a broad catchall party (Solomon; 2016). Systems of checks and balances also allowed LDP officials to veto the PM’s policy initiatives, thus preventing the risk of authoritarian excesses. When the 1994 reforms limited this internal pluralism, thus risking the rise of increasingly radical right-wing parties outside of the party, the subsequently implemented majoritarian electoral system and campaign rules became sufficient barriers in preventing populist leaders and new parties from entering the political arena. As a result, to this day there are few radical right-wing parties in JP that promote economic xenophobia nativism and reject international institutions (Kijino; 2020).

The supply-side is also tempered by the existence of a relatively objective, neutral press and media network. Due to government influenced kisha (press) groups, Japanese press tends to be quite unified. While this could present a risk with regards political control over public opinion, mainstream press balances out this potential threat through its position as a large shareholder in the market. As a result, news is generally reported as it happens and avoiding sensationalist discourse. As opposed to media moguls in Western states who capitalize on polarizing discourse, the Japanese press supply-side limits the spread of xenophobic mistruths, thus constraining the potential emergence and rise in influence of nativist populist actors or groups.

A nuance must be introduced in the claim that Japan has entirely lacked supply-side nationalist populism over the past twenty years; the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while far from a populist or a xenophobe, did incorporate elements of a nationalist nature into his administration’s agenda during both of his tenures. While Abe’s second tenure was perceived by many as an effective reorientation of Japan’s economic system through his Abenomics policy, allowing Japan to cast off its status as the laggard amongst highly industrialized economies, critics have argued his economic policy was nothing more than a “distraction” enabling him to implement a nationalist “radical right-wing” agenda of historical revisionism, constitutional reform, and militarism (Ampiah and Stockwin; 2017). Several aspects of Abe’s 2012-2020 administration can be defined as bearing nationalist and even illiberal traits: his alignment with far-right groups and ideologies so as to secure his re-election, his enactment of the illiberal and unconstitutional Designated Secrets Law, his efforts towards constitutional reinterpretation through the Collective Self-Defense Act… (Ibid). While it may be hyperbolic to claim that these were evidence of a “twisting” of democracy, Abe’s administration certainly pushed conservative politics towards far-right ideologies (Ibid). In this manner, while Abe himself did not fulfill the criteria of ideological populism, he can be perceived as having satisfied any potential demand-side for far-right nationalist politics during his tenure, thus leaving no room or need for newcomers on the third-type populist scene.

In this manner, it appears clear that neither the supply nor demand side offer conditions promising to the development of third-type populist views or groups in contemporary Japan, this primarily owing to government intervention in limiting the effects of globalization. Nevertheless, while Japan may be considered essentially immune to this form of populism, this does not mean it has not experienced bouts of populist “fever”; these, however, fall more within the category of second-type socioeconomic populism.

While this second-type of socioeconomic populism is primarily used by Mudde and Kaltwasser to describe the rise of both left and right-wing reactionary governments in Latin America throughout the 20th century, the ideational concept can also be applied to Japan’s brief populist “winds” or “fevers” (2013). Indeed, the agendas of Latin American neoliberal populist leaders of the 1990s coincide with those of Japan’s neoliberal reformists in the 2000s. In this variation of populist discourse, the targeted “elite” are always defined vaguely. Rather than corresponding to a specific ethnic or social group, they are more often linked to the government - the bureaucracy, vested interest groups, the “wasteful public sector” - and are identified as the cause of socioeconomic issues (Hijino; 2020). However, without a deeply rooted ideological basis and specifically defined scapegoat, the demand-side support remains temporary and ultimately wanes, leaving the supply-side resourceless in its attempt to expand to a national scale. This has been exemplified by local politician Toru Hashimoto. Serving as the mayor and governor of Osaka from 2008-2015, Hashimoto mastered the media through the art of the serial-tweet, relying on heavily combative rhetoric and periodic scandals to mobilize the fuwatto shita minni (floaty will of the people) and maintain voter interest (Ibid). Pushing for neoliberal reforms, Hashimoto created a long list of elitist “enemies”, ranging from the central government and Tokyo ministries to local public servants and overly critical media. Ultimately, he failed to parlay his party’s local influence into a national power base, as have countless other local populist-leaning political actors. The populist supply-side has therefore so far been unable to maintain enough momentum to establish a nationally institutionalized support system and retain power on the long-term.

The one exception to this regionally-constrained socioeconomic populism would be Junichiro Koizumi, who served as Prime Minister from 2001-2006. Using a “strategy of dramatized politics”, media control (snappy sound-bite filled interviews and email newsletters), and a constructed “outsider” image, Koizumi mobilized the “floating voters” and injected new life into the Japanese political scene (Ibid). While his neoliberal policies and implementation methods were in no way contrary to the liberal democratic order, he did rely on campaign strategies that can be identified as populist, most notably his sensationalist rhetoric (he vowed to bukkowasu (bust up) his own party) (Ibid). Ultimately his polarizing discourse was his undoing, in that it was used against him to criticize the government’s excessive market fundamentalism. These political figures all shared populist tendencies in their combative rhetoric and reactionary agenda for socioeconomic reform, however the absence of radical xenophobia in their discourse and evident respect of liberal democratic values and political pluralism shows the limits of Japan’s variety of populism. These movements have been circumscribed in temporal and geographical scope by their limited ideational success; recognizing the limits of the Japanese public’s tolerance towards extreme, polarizing discourse, the populist supply-side has had to adjust itself accordingly.

In conclusion, despite an absence of major xenophobic populist waves, socioeconomic populist trends have emerged periodically in contemporary Japan. Though limited in their scope, appeal and success, these trends are crucial in underscoring increasing public dissatisfaction and deepening rifts with the nation’s democratic order. The juxtaposition of age-old problems (low voter turnout, weak civic enthusiasm, corruption) with new challenges (an economic recession predating the pandemic and the issue of the pandemic itself) indicate that the effectiveness of Japan’s democratic system has been pushed to its limits. In the wake of PM Abe’s resignation, the Suga administration has pledged continuity and stability, which, according to record high support for the incumbent premier, appears to be what the Japanese majority want. But is this in effect what Japan needs? One potentially positive break between the two administrations lies in Suga’s explicitly more open stance to immigration. This would enable Japan to tackle its demographic and labour supply issue; however, following the pattern of Western liberal states, the introduction of this ultimate, long-resisted stage of globalization may finally trigger the xenophobic populist backlash that Japan has avoided until now. Populism may not be the greatest threat to contemporary Japan’s democracy, but its periodical emergence must serve to alert the incumbent government of underlying issues within the nation’s systemic political framework and highlight the need for reform if Japan is to prevent future crises.



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