American University

Japan Evades Populism but Sets the Stage for Future Trouble by Riham Amin

Over the past two decades nations around the world have collectively fallen into the hands of populist leaders. From the long-lasting global stronghold of the United States the developing upheaval of Venezuela, populism has managed to grow across various political histories, economic standings, and global poverty lines. Among the most successful that have avoided the growing turbulence is Japan, a nation that lands higher than most of its Western peers on the freedom scale with a score of 96/100 (Freedom House). Its unique blend of leftist policies and right-wing leadership has allowed it to circumvent the pitfalls that encourage populist uprisings. With a prime minister that embodies the “establishment” and an aging population unbothered by the globalization that threatens other dominant ideologies, Japan finds itself in a distinctive position of present safety that may be the cause of future turmoil.

The leading factor of populism’s traction in recent years is the rise of globalism. Western powers have seen a significant increase in immigration, which corresponds directly to growing tension among nationalists. Anti-immigrant sentiment is a hallmark in the platforms of major populist leaders, attributing the popularity of Trump, Le Pen, Orban, and others. Japan has not had to face such divisive issues on this front as the nation has altogether avoided globalization to the scale of other prosperous nations. With only 1.8% of its people being foreign born (compared to over 10% average of other successful economies) the largely homogenous population has had little friction over identity politics. Rather than a debate over nationalism, the concept is widely accepted and promotes a collective national identity. Though seemingly benefitting from the lack of diversity, Japan also misses out on the benefits of a heterogenous population, including economic growth.

Although examples of globalized communities have proven to result in economic growth, it is important to note the ways Japan has established working models of economic equality over the years. In line with its anti-globalization ideology, taxes are high on imported goods, a policy that citizens generally take in stride for its promotion of domestic growth. Accordingly, there are high taxes on inherited wealth, making it difficult for capital gains of a small portion of the population to skyrocket. Distribution of wealth garners little political unrest as heads of companies earn approximately ten times less than those in countries like the United States. Contributing to the sense of peace is the low unemployment rate, although this is in part due to an aging population leading to little competition in the job market as well as the existence of seemingly superfluous jobs unseen elsewhere in the Western world. Overall, Japan can showcase an egalitarian economy while ignoring the looming threat of future fallout.

The price of such economic and political stability comes in the form of an enormous national debt; upwards of 1,100 trillion yen. Since the 1990’s Japan as doubled its social security budget to keep up with its increasingly senior population. Similarly, cultural ideals of economic prosperity encouraging collective enterprise comes at the price of little to no individual enterprise. As self-worth is characterized through being a part of a cohesive unit rather than a successful individual, there is little stimulation to the economy in personal incentives. While Japan may now be experiencing a stable economic era, its approach cannot be sustainable in the long term.

Coexisting with these leftist strategies is a strict leadership bordering the line of autocracy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe comes from well-known political family and remains largely unopposed despite anti-democratic practices. He’s been known to disparage the free press, even encouraging Trump to do the same in America. Having run on a nationalist platform, the homogenous population saw no problem in his anti-immigration stance despite the growing labor shortage. Leaders possessing the same qualities are expected to meet with resistance, but Abe enjoys a consistent approval rate above 50%. Without the outrage of a sidelined population he is able to pass his policies under the guise of benefitting the people at large. Carrying out right-wing symbolic nationalism while maintaining a satisfied welfare state has allowed him to create a docile environment that cannot be sustained.

Populism depends largely on resentment politics, usually as a result of social progression. Most Western economies had to focus on the inclusion of the increasingly diverse population over recent decades which caused agitation among nationalists who felt abandoned by their parties. As social reforms made for more democratic opportunities for women and minorities, those accustomed to being in positions of power rallied behind leaders who promised a return to traditional ways. Japan has faced no such problems as it hasn’t deviated much from tradition. A majority of Japanese women remain in part time positions and the few minorities there are have little chance of climbing the soft hierarchy. Slow social progression may have saved Japan from populism but remains in a crutch in a stable yet stagnant economy.

Should Japan be recognized as a model for avoiding a dangerous movement even the most powerful democracies have fallen into? It certainly boasts a secure economy and a content population unencumbered by globalization’s upheaval of national standards. As populism gains traction in every corner of the world, Japan can proudly say its democracy remains unscathed. However, beneath this shiny exterior is a country submissive to a right-wing politician using antidemocratic methods and an economy burdened by low competition and an aging population. A bordered nation has no room to grow in an increasingly global world market and a homogenous people have little grounds for social progression. While Japan has avoided the pitfalls of populism, its approach to 21st century politics is no success story for democracy.

Burrett, Tina. “Japan’s Firewall against Populism.” New Internationalist, 6 Feb. 2019, newint.org/features/2018/12/17/feature-japans-firewall-against-populism.

Buruma, Ian. “Why Is Japan Populist-Free?” The Japan Times, www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2018/01/22/commentary/japan-commentary/japan-populist-free/#.XIBPKIhKjD5.

Funabashi, Yoichi. “Japan, Where Populism Fails.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Feb. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/opinion/japan-where-populism-fails.html.

Photo: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, shouts traditional “Banzai (long life)” cheers with lawmakers and members of his ruling Liberal Democratic (LDP) Party during its annual convention at a hotel in Tokyo, Sunday, March 5, 2017. (Shizuo Kambayashi / AP)

2 Comments

  1. Markyle West

    April 23, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    I agree that Japan has managed to maintain its democracy in a modern political climate in which populism is on the rise. I think that Japan’s most ominous problems lay in the combination of their very powerful leader in conjunction with the aging population and the massive national debt. Too often apolitical factors are overlooked in their roles in the political climate; If Japan’s democracy backslides, I think it will be due in most part to the apolitical factors that you pointed out. If the Japanese economy collapses, Abe will be in a favorable position to further secure power. Despite his adherence to political traditions, and his lack of populist traits, Abe has a ton of power in the Japanese political stage nonetheless. It will be interesting to see how Japan solves its current problems, and how Japanese politics will evolve in such an uncertain timeline in Japan’s history.

  2. Zitian

    May 3, 2019 at 8:07 am

    Greeting, Riham Amin:

    I agree with your general insights on Japan evading populism because of its largely homogenous society structure. But I do believe that, your argument on Abe “having run on a nationalist platform” deserves more elaborations regarding the evasion of populism.

    There is no doubt that Abe has been a right-to-center politicians. After the proposal of 2012 constitutional revision, Abe has been moving toward the right-wing based on a traditional understanding of political spectrum. However, one of the key reasons that Japanese democracy can evade the danger of populism is the ambiguity of political factions within the Japanese political establishment.

    Namely, the definition of right and left has never been clear.

    On one hand, the so-called “Abe-conomic” bears both neo-liberal and developmentalist agenda: tax-cut for large cooperation, strengthening governmental investments on social security, and stimulation packages for regional economy. These policies are both a perpetuation of Japanese state-orientated developments, and an improvement of strengthening non-public sectors. Ruling party and the opposition have rooms of negotiation over specific agenda of address domestic economy, rather than being polarized over ideologies.

    On the other hand, political disagreements over domestic and foreign policies are even more unclear. Politicians who support the abolition of peace constitutions are divided between pro-China or pro-U.S. platforms. Politicians who deny Japanese war crimes are also divided over the constitutional revision. Specifically, Abe, who is known to be a pro-U.S. prime minister, is also seeking a friendly relation with China. These partisan divisions do not necessarily make Abe as a “nationalist,” and certainly do not create a clear-cut stand-off in Japanese politics.

    Therefore, the absence of populism in Japanese democracy is not only a result of democratic resilience, but also a practical division that political actors disagree over specific policies rather than ideologies. These presences of division give room for political negotiations and contain voters’ resentments sequentially.

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