Populism is thriving across the developed world. Yet populists do not always succeed in places that seem ripe for populism. Despite sharing many of the same problems with the United States and the European Union, where populists have dominated recent elections, Japan curiously lacks any tenable populist movement. This post will examine the mechanisms that explain Japan’s lack of populism. First, it is important to understand the similarities between Japan and European Union member states:
1) Economic stagnation: Japan has seen the same loss in factory jobs to automation or overseas outsourcing that has affected blue-collar European workers. After the stock and real estate bubbles of the 1990s, Japan fell into a state of near perpetual stagnation. As wages failed to grow, consumers decreased spending, which they further delayed once deflation kicked in, in expectation that prices would eventually fall, leading to a vicious circle.
2) An aging population: Compounding Japan’s economic malaise is an impending demographic crisis, which is even more pronounced than in Europe. In the EU, people over 65 account for 19.2 percent of the population, a number that is dwarfed by the whopping 26.7 percent of elderly comprising Japan’s population.
3) Urban-rural divide: In recent European elections, such as the French presidential election in May, we saw how Le Pen swept the largely rural and working class eastern electoral departments, while Macron won the cosmopolitan (and wealthier) cities in the south and east. Similarly, in Japan, there exists a marked prosperity gap between the nation’s urban and rural prefectures. Take Tokyo, for example, whose $43,600 per capita GDP is nearly three times that of Miyazaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu.
Despite these common factors shared with Europe, the existence of serious populist politicians in Japan has been close to nil. The Trumpian former governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara’s newly formed Party for Future Generations, for example, only managed to win one Diet seat out of a possible 717 in 2012. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister since 2012, is the embodiment of the political elite. His father was Foreign Minister and his maternal grandfather and great uncles were both Prime Ministers. Never has Abe focused rhetoric on criticism of elites, which, according Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller is one of the cornerstone criteria for populist leaders. So what gives? Why hasn’t populism taken off in Japan in the way we might expect?
The tradition in Japan of consensus politics that aims to appeal to citizens across the political spectrum is the main reason behind the lack of major current populist movement. By incorporating the concerns of would-be populists into his agenda, Abe and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been able to co-opt potential populist movements. Abe, for example, has adopted a number of policy positions that exhibit populist tendencies. By espousing these positions at the mainstream level, far-right populist politicians have failed to gain significant traction in Japan. Nevertheless, Abe’s support of elections and multiparty coalitions runs counter to Müller’s heavily anti-pluralist definition of populism. There are three major areas where Abe’s government has adopted populist leaning policies:
1) Immigration: Japan is an extremely homogenous nation, with less than 2 percent of the population foreign-born. Only 18 percent of Japanese citizens believe that refugee integration could be a success in a country as homogenous as Japan. The ruling government has listened carefully to that national sentiment, accepting a mere 278 refugees in 2016, with Abe telling reporters that Japan must look after its own citizens. While the ethics of this policy can certainly be debated, the results have meant much greater stability and the avoidance of a populist backlash against refugees, which has been prevalent in throughout the EU.
2) The power of rural voters: As Yoichi Funibashi notes, the disproportionate political power given to rural residents is a major factor in the lack of a populist base. Japan’s electoral system (controversially) gives a greater proportion of Diet seats to rural areas than it does to urban ones. This means that a vote from a rural resident is worth up to twice that of a resident from a major city like Tokyo. In order to court rural voters, politicians have enacted policies favored by low-income and elderly citizens who constitute much of rural Japan, such as doubling the social security budget since 1990 despite major national debt. In many ways, the effort to win votes smells faintly of the mass-clientelism that Müller associates with populist leadership. Nevertheless, it has been effective. The policy helped to slow the growth of poverty and disenfranchisement felt so heavily in rural parts of Europe. Japanese rural voters have a greater outlet with which to make their voices heard As a result, rural voters in Japan have continued to vote for the elite and mainstream LDP in large numbers, unlike those in Europe, who feel their interests are better represented among right-wing, antiestablishment populists.
3) Legitimization of nationalist rhetoric: Abe has embraced a conservative and patriotic agenda in his tenure as Prime Minister. Perhaps the most striking example of such chauvinism was his visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including over 1000 convicted war criminals. This type of historical revisionism has been a key component of the Abe government and speaks to his plan for a “departure from the postwar regime”. The cornerstone of this policy is the intended revision of Japan’s 1945 constitution, which prevents it from possessing a standing army. Such actions have certainly worked to appease ardent nationalists and prevented them from forming or joining more fringe political factions.
Clearly, Abe has utilized elements of populism to retain high levels of support from the Japanese electorate. Some, however, may argue that Abe has not successfully staved off the rise of populist politicians, pointing to his opposition in yesterday’s snap election, Yuriko Koike of the newly formed Party of Hope. Such a claim, however, can be easily dismissed. Koike, a LDP representative until 2016, is not a populist but simply an opposition candidate using what University of Tokyo professor Gregory Nobel calls “general-purpose pandering,” not populism, to make her case for office. With exit polls predicting Abe’s LDP to have won up to 311 out 475 lower house seats on Sunday, there is no doubting the continued effectiveness of his agenda.
While it would certainly be incorrect to call Abe a populist using Müller’s criteria, another question remains: How much is Abe’s adoption of populist-leaning policy platforms a function of his innate belief in their virtue versus political pragmatism aimed at cementing the role of the LDP and eclipsing potential political upstarts by appealing to as much of the electorate as possible? This is impossible to definitively answer. While some may point to Abe’s policies and accuse him of becoming a populist, such analysis is misguided. Abe’s continued support of Japan’s pluralist democratic system and core identity as an elite simply do not conform to Müller’s definition of populism. Abe is a nationalist who has used select populist-leaning policy positions to his political advantage.
Abe’s strategy in appeasing would-be populists has interesting implications for leaders in Europe and the United States. Should center-leaning political parties adopt populist positions in an attempt to court disenfranchised and nationalistic voters? As populist leaders continue to win elections (most recently in Austria and the Czech Republic), mainstream politicians may soon become tempted to a take a page out of Abe’s playbook.
*Photo by the Japanese Government Public Relations Office, “Shinzō Abe, Prime Minister, addressed the Cherry Blossom Viewing Party at Shinjuku Gyoen in Shinjuku Ward and Shibuya Ward, Tōkyō Metropolis on April 15, 2017” (Wikimedia Commons), Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License