Populism has recently become a buzzword in the international political scene, and political actors feel frustrated when they try to reconcile its consequences. As such movements change the nature of modern democracy, political actors are left with the question: how might we prevent populism?
Populist parties are driving forces in parliaments in Austria, Belgium, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Turkey and Switzerland . Moreover, populist movements have a footing in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, France, and virtually every Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nation . In the United States, President Donald Trump was elected arguably using populist rhetoric.
Based on the examples above, it almost appears as though countries are bound to face sweeping populists movements that will change their society and government. However, one country that has been effective in warding off populism is Japan. At this moment in time, Japan has been effective in discouraging populism.
So how did Japan curtail the tide of populism?
Japan is unique from other OECD countries because of its close positioning to authoritarian China and Russia. Japan also has the world’s third largest economy and accounts for 6.10% of the global economy . Japan, however, is also remarkably homogenous, democratic and has low levels of immigration. These factors, along with others, have led some authors to suggest: Japan hasn’t avoided populism, but was ahead of the curve in adopting policies popular among modern populist movements such as restrictive immigration, and limited global militarism .
Overall, these policies actually represent the Japanese government’s ability to respond to citizen preferences. Japan’s government responsiveness might offer insight as to how other countries might handle and respond to current and future populist movements.
Populism: Definition, Causes and Concerns
Populism is a political action that appeals to people who feel their concerns and needs are being ignored by the current establishment. The prime motivation of such action is to motivate people to reject pluralism thus securing the will of “the pure people” in the future .
Consequences of populism might include reform of judicial systems, reduction of civil liberties , or the erosion of democracy into an authoritarian regime . However, the most troubling aspect of populism is the idea of removing opposition from the realm of thought, discussion, and elections. Such sentiments might lead to the loss of civil liberties for minority groups or the nation as a whole.
Japan: a populist’s dream?
Analysis of Japanese government stability and lack of a modern populist movement is not without controversy. Some authors have suggested that the conservative domination of the government and associated policies make the country populist .
Generally populist create a mentality of “the pure people” vs. “the corrupted elite” . A lot of modern populist movements in the western world has been characterized by being anti-immigration and anti-globalism .
Japan certainly has multiple cultural and structural factors that have helped ward off populists, that ironically have been admired by conservative populists, such as Steve Bannon . Modern populism in the West seems to have roots in 2008, after the recession which brought major deflation and economic hardship in the US and Europe. The recession left many citizens in these countries feel as though they were neglected by their government. The 2008 recession has led some far-right populist groups to call for the expansion of security nets .
Japan had a similar economic collapse in the 1990s. The Japanese government responded by doubling the social security budget. Although the decision has been criticized for causing economic stagnation, it has been credited for increasing political stability .
Japan’s immigration policies have also been very restrictive. In 2015, out of 7,500 people who applied for refugee status in Japan, only 27 were approved . In 2017, only 20 of 20,000 were approved . Only 1.5 % of the Japanese population is foreign-born. These conservative immigration policies have helped preserve a homogenous population and stability thus blocking rising xenophobia which often aids the rise of populism .
Furthermore, Japan has been cautious with other aspects of globalism. Until 2015, military action in the country was restricted to Self Defense Forces . Making Japan’s involvement in foreign conflict almost non-existent. Even with changes to the military policy, which were met with protests, Japan will only deploy forces if their close allies are attacked .
Japan has effectively navigated globalism: generally avoiding the parts which have caused concerns in other nations while still participating in global trade—allowing the country to become wealthy.
Though conservative populists might admire the policies of Japan, Japan can hardly be considered having a populist government. As previously mentioned, populist’s strive to eliminate pluralism in the country .
Though the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been the dominant party in the government over the past 50 years, nine different parties are represented in the country’s legislature . The party has lost control of the government in 1993-94 and 2009-2012 . LDP is favored in Japan because the party is generally responsive to the needs of the collective of Japan. They are popular, but not populist .
Furthermore, LDP has been successful in quelling populist movements, such as Zaitokukai—which aimed to end alleged privileges to Koreans in Japan —by cultivating patriotism and protecting the welfare state .
Economist Arthur Brooks has suggested the rise of populism, in America at least, was a result of groups and individuals feeling despair because they were not needed . The concept of “being needed” spans across multiple economic and social barriers, the low unemployment rate in Japan  as well as multi-generational families , are examples of factors that contribute to Japanese citizens feeling needed.
In short, the plurality of Japan feels as though they are being heard and taken care of . Governments around the world should strive to cultivate this kind of responsiveness, with respect to minorities, if they wish to quell or hold off the rising tide of populism.
Japan’s policies aren’t without criticism. The welfare state is rapidly expanding public debt: which might lead to instability in the future . There are concerns about labor deficits, that could potentially be solved with increased immigration. Japan has recently begun increasing immigration but does so quietly .
Danger of Populism for Japan
Of course, Japan is not completely immune to the effects of populism. As noted previously, populism is changing the global scene. Modern populist movements generally advocate for hyper-nationalism and a reduction of globalism and participation in the “new world order” .
Much of Japan’s economic success and political stability can be attributed to globalism. It has been able to trade freely and avoid excessive military spending because of its close ties to America’s geopolitical power.
As populist movements encourage states to withdraw from the international scene, Japan will have to adjust to meet domestic and international needs. It will be interesting to see if/how Japan reacts to such departures, and how those actions will affect Japan’s political stability in the future.
*Photo by 21st Century Global Dynamics, “Japanese Constitutional Principles as a Bridgehead to Global Democracy”