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Economic practices that explain why populism hasn’t taken off in Japan

Earlier today, you will hopefully have read Peter Franklin’s fascinating piece on why blue-collar, anti-immigrant populism has not yet appeared in Japan despite over two decades of economic stagnation. I think the argument is basically sound but want to offer some further thoughts on the curious case of Japanese populism.

Japan has seen various populist parties and figures arise over the last decade, but they tend to be more urban than blue-collar and economically upscale.

  • The Your Party, for example, was a classical liberal party that existed from 2009 until 2014 and received 4% in the 2009 election and 9% in 2012.
  • The Osaka-based Japan Restoration Party received 20.5% in the 2012 election pursuing a strongly nationalistic agenda; its successor, the Japan Innovation Party, received over 15% in the 2014 election. The Osaka wing of the JIP fielded candidates under a new name in last year’s election and received over 6%.
  • Finally, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike formed a new party just before last year’s vote, Kibo no To, which received over 17% of the vote and struck nationalist and populist themes.

These figures are not dissimilar to what parties striking nationalist or classical liberal themes have received in European elections in recent years.

These results underscore how much Japan’s election and party system influences our perception of their politics. Japan elects most of its representatives in single-member seats where a plurality of the vote carries the day. The opposition is fractured into many parties who have yet to agree on a common campaign to unseat the ruling Liberal Democratic-Komeito coalition. Thus, many opposition candidates often compete in a district with one candidate supported by both coalition parties. This means the LDP-Komeito-backed candidate wins the vast majority of these seats even if they do not have a majority of the vote.

Some seats, however, are elected via proportional representation on a regional basis. Here, the LDP-Komeito coalition is much weaker. It has not obtained a majority of the PR vote in any of the last four elections, garnering only 46% in last year’s race. If Japan had Germany’s system, we would have been treated to speculation as to how the LDP would form a government with one of the opposition centre-left or populist competitors.

Japan has chosen economic policies which protect social cohesion rather than the maximisation of growth

The complete absence of any left-wing populist party, however, is a very notable feature of Japanese politics. The Japanese Communist Party has not gained significantly in strength over the two-plus decades of economic stagnation and slow growth. Nor has a Japanese equivalent of Syriza or Podemos arisen to champion an assault on capitalism or inequality. Some of this is explained by Japan’s more egalitarian distribution of wealth, but other cultural factors probably also contribute.

Japanese culture rewards leaders who think of benefiting the whole regardless of the personal cost to the one:

  • Japanese labor practices, which strive to cooperate with workers rather than confront them and their unions, helped prevent the rise of a strong socialist or workers’ party.
  • Japanese companies reacted to the 1990s economic crash by keeping many employees on salary even though they had nothing useful to do.
  • Japanese banks famously refused to account for their bad loans, which would have forced many firms under, to maintain their relationships.
  • The government reacted by borrowing tremendous amounts of money to keep spending up and continue expensive subsidies to rural and small-city interests. The government’s debt-to-GDP ratio now stands at a dizzying 250%, up from less than 70% before the market crash of the late 1980s, almost twice as high as Italy’s.

In the western view these acts hindered the country’s ability to recover and resume growth but perhaps to the Japanese way of thinking this was simply the cost of maintaining social cohesion.

Japan also lacks a tradition of open challenges to power from a popular movement. No peasant revolt or military challenge came close to succeeding during the over 250 period of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868). The modernisation of Japan was initiated when a faction of nobles forced the Shogun out during the Meiji Restoration: an ensuing military resistance by supporters of the Shogun was quickly crushed. The subsequent rapid Westernisation of the country was pushed from above rather than pulled from below, unlike in the West where liberal ideas were pushed from outside power structures and often resulted in revolutions or rebellions (think 1689, 1776, 1789, or 1848).

Populism arises when a segment of voters feels so ignored by existing political discourse that it loudly embraces an extreme alternative. Japanese culture, abetted by its political system, minimises such dissent and sidelines it when it does arise. Until the Japanese elite, under Western economic pressure or through the influx of Western ideas, abandons this practice, Western populism is likely to remain powerless in Japan.

Also on Japan from the UnHerd team

Listen to Japan's military aspirations. They are an echo of 150 years ago

By Allan Mallinson