Japan’s firewall against populism

In a world buffeted by populist tides, Japan has avoided turbulence. Are there lessons to be learned? asks political scientist Tina Burrett.

This is not another article about the spread of populism. Rather, it’s an article about how to avoid it. As populism infects democracies across the globe, Japan remains perplexingly immune. What accounts for its resistance to the virus? The conundrum is more peculiar given Japan’s almost three decades of economic malaise, its ageing population and precarious security situation.

Despite North Korean missiles, stagnant wages and a growing generation gap, there has been no significant economic or cultural backlash against Japan’s political status quo. The reason, as Doshisha University professor Gill Steel explains, is that ‘the factors pushing populism elsewhere are less evident in Japan’. Unemployment and crime are low, while cultural homogeneity and societal consensus are high. Inequality, while on the rise, is relatively low compared to the US and Britain. As a result, there is little demand for populist alternatives to the establishment.

Although more often a consequence of accident than design, Japan’s firewall offers other societies lessons on combating populism. Of course, other states cannot simply replicate Japan’s social norms – and they may not want to. Japan’s 20th-century experiences with militarism, war and nuclear attack have until now deterred public support for nationalist causes. Furthermore, Japan is a more collective society than most other established democracies. Social solidarity was particularly evident in the response to the devastating 2011 tsunami. But Japan’s collectivism also breeds a less desirable quality: deep suspicion of diversity. While the country’s cultural exports like manga, anime and bestselling video games boast a rainbow of diverse characters, real Japanese society perpetuates myths of biological and cultural uniformity.

Despite having the world’s oldest population, immigration is far lower than in other industrialized countries. In 2017, only 1.8 per cent of Japan’s population were born overseas, compared to 12 per cent in France, Germany and Britain. Curbing immigration deprives Japan of the cultural and economic benefits brought by greater heterogeneity. But as Yoshi Funabashi, chair of the Rebuild Japan Initiative, points out, ‘the absence of large numbers of immigrants also reduces the appeal of populism’, which in Europe feeds on fears of competition for jobs, wages and public services. Japanese society has its flaws. But in prizing equality and solidarity over individualism and self-interest, it has avoided the fragmentation that is often a precursor to populism.

No backlash

Populism remains a poorly defined concept. The label has been attached to leaders as ideologically diverse as Hungarian Prime Minster Viktor Orbán and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Academic Cas Mudde argues that populist movements ascribe anti-establishment positions, while fetishizing the wisdom of ‘the people’, whose will is represented by a charismatic, often autocratic, leader. Populist leaders connect directly and emotionally with their followers, while disregarding established political procedures. They promise to protect the people against external enemies that the current elite has failed to vanquish. Populists seek to mobilize ordinary citizens against the existing elite by challenging the rules of the game.

There is no better example of a leader successfully defying the norms of political conduct than Donald Trump. The US president rose to power by exploiting a widespread backlash against economic and cultural globalization, commonly perceived as the twin causes of falling wages and rising crime, and the decline of America’s manufacturing sector.

Grey power on the streets of Tokyo. Self-worth in Japan is defined by having a place in a collective enterprise. PASCAL MANNAERTS / ALAMY
Grey power on the streets of Tokyo. Self-worth in Japan is defined by having a place in a collective enterprise.
Photo: Pascal Mannaerts/Alamy

But in Japan, almost 30 years of wage stagnation have not precipitated a similar backlash. Despite being eclipsed by China as the world’s second-biggest economy in 2010, economic insecurity has not swelled support for populism. As journalist Ayako Mie argues: ‘Most voters are relatively happy with the current system because in their day-to-day lives, the economy “seems” OK.’ Unemployment remains low (2.5 per cent in 2017). A shrinking population means that despite many Japanese firms moving production to lower-wage economies overseas, there are still labour shortages in some domestic sectors.

More importantly, among government and business elites there is a consensus for maintaining close to full employment. Many of the jobs eliminated in the name of efficiency in more neoliberal economies survive in Japan. In Japanese department stores, uniformed attendants operate the elevators and organize queues for them. White-gloved station managers wait alertly on the platforms of Tokyo’s busy metro and overground rail stations, blowing their whistles once all passengers are safely packed aboard. At night, they help drunken salarymen off the last train and into taxis to make their way home. Construction workers too old for heavy lifting warn passing pedestrians and cyclists of potential trip hazards. These positions not only provide employment, but also the glue of self-worth and communalism that binds Japanese society. By eschewing a race to the bottom, Japanese corporations enjoy greater public trust than their US or British counterparts.

The picture, however, is not all rosy. Underemployment is persistent, with many Japanese people, especially women, in temporary or part-time work, when they would prefer permanent full-time employment.

Slow to change

The slow pace of social change also plays a part. The empowerment of women, sexual and ethnic minorities – which fosters support for populism among individuals losing status in other countries – has not happened in Japan; in 2015, the government granted refugee status to only 27 people.

Japanese policymakers have kept economic globalization at bay, using tariffs and other measures to protect domestic producers, especially in agriculture. Consumers have been willing to pay higher prices for imports to maintain Japan’s trade surplus. Internationally, there is strong demand for Japanese food, fashion, cars and cameras. Rising living standards among Japan’s Asian neighbours provide new markets for Japanese goods. Japanese voters have little reason to blame foreigners for their economic woes. Identity politics centring on class, religious or ethnic cleavages do not feature in elections.

Collective national identity, however, does. In recent years, Japan’s government has taken a nationalist turn. Prime Minister Abe became one of Japan’s longest-serving leaders by tapping into voters’ national pride. But by tethering his nationalist appeals to plans for economic reform, Abe stole the thunder of populists such as Shintaro Ishihara, the former governor of Tokyo, who ran a public campaign to buy the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the ‘Daioyu’ and claims as its territory. Abe has undermined the appeal of regional populists and prevented their national breakthrough by promoting his own brand of rightwing patriotism, while simultaneously protecting public spending. Austerity measures, which have been contributing to populism’s surge in Europe, are not the Japanese way. Japan has not responded to deflation and economic stagnation by slashing social welfare spending. Rather, the government has bought political stability by doubling the social security budget since 1990. Government debt reached a staggering 253 per cent of GDP in 2017. But few recognize the need for change. As journalist Ayako Mie says: ‘The Japanese people are like a frog in a pan of boiling water. They don’t know they are slowly dying.’ They may yet take the plunge into populism’s frigid waters when things get too hot.

Japan’s mainstream media shuns sensationalism and supports the status quo. Although more often serving the interests of the state than those of the people, Japanese journalists’ cosy relations with government figures deprive populists of the publicity that inflated support for characters like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. Japanese media also does not promote a culture of individualism that measures human worth in fame and fortune. To be sure, Japan has a celebrity culture. But self-worth is defined less by celebrity and wealth than by having a place in a collective enterprise and by doing one’s job well. Affluent Japanese do not flaunt their money. High inheritance taxes and comparatively low executive pay make Japan more egalitarian than many other advanced economies. The salaries of Japanese CEOs are a tenth of those paid by US companies. A sense of personal humiliation, fanned by populists elsewhere to fuel resentment against economic elites, is not widespread in Japan.

Reclaiming the nation

The Japanese case suggests that meaningful employment, an emphasis on social equality and a sense of national pride can hold back the populist tide. Progressive politicians often ignore the importance of national identity to voters, dismissing such sentiments as anti-cosmopolitan and potentially prejudicial. When moderates disregard defining the nation, extremists fill the vacuum. In part, the Remain campaign lost Britain’s EU referendum by basing its appeal primarily on national interests and not national identity.

The factors that have saved Japan from populism so far may undermine its stability in the future. A society suspicious of overseas talent, and one that undervalues women’s economic contributions, will fall further behind in innovation and productivity. The swelling of public debt to fund the welfare state is unsustainable. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s large majority encourages the government to overstep its constitutional limits. Academics and journalists opposing the government’s rightwing interpretation of Japanese national values face harassment.

Yet left-leaning social movements are appearing to challenge the establishment’s nationalist framing of Japanese identity. These groups include Japan’s #MeToo movement and a new party aimed at protecting Japan’s commitment to pacifism, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. These movements’ aims signal a more genuine form of populism: to deepen political participation and define a new collective will of the people. Should they succeed in their ambitions, then the rest of the world may look to Japan, not for lessons on avoiding populism, but on how to build a progressive populism compatible with inclusive politics.

Tina Burrett is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Sophia University, Tokyo.