The progressive insurgent is making significant headway in the polls
Japanese politics has a reputation for conservatism and consistency — and rightly so. The centre-right Liberal Democratic Party has governed Japan for 61 of the last 65 years, regularly reinventing itself to suit the needs of the nation. The Japanese state is nearly synonymous with the LDP’s party machinery.
However, all political cultures have their heretics. The most dynamic of these is Taro Yamamoto, the Battle Royale star-turned-politician who leads the Left-wing Reiwa Shinsengumi party. Reiwa combines the anti-nuclear and pacifist traditions of the Japanese Left with the social progressivism and firebrand style of their Western counterparts. Since its foundation in 2019, Reiwa has made significant headway, taking three seats at the 2021 elections and recently polling as high as 7%.
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Not since the university protests of 1969 has Japan seen mainstream, anti-establishment Left-wing populism. The Japanese Communist Party, which itself took 7% of the vote at the last elections, couches its policies in strict adherence to the constitution. Since 2004, the JCP has even made its peace with the country’s Imperial Household. Other Left-of-centre parties situate themselves even more firmly within the LDP consensus — in doing so, they have been able to extract occasional concessions.
Reiwa, by contrast, shuns any such détente. In 2013, Yamamoto presented an openly critical letter to Emperor Akihito at a garden party. Political leaders roundly condemned the move, which was seen as a violation of the Emperor’s constitutionally enforced apoliticism. Among Yamamoto’s critics was Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii, who suggested that his young rival “[doesn’t] understand the constitution”.
While Yamamoto cut his teeth with the anti-nuclear lobby, his time as Reiwa leader has seen him champion the gamut of progressive causes. His views on LGBT rights, public services, and the minimum wage are taken wholesale from the Democratic Socialists of America. In June of this year, he even physically attacked members of the Government over plans to tighten immigration laws.
Listen to the former actor speak, and the influence of American Leftists like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is inescapable. Despite the fact that the level of income inequality in Japan is around the OECD average, he regularly employs the language of “the one percent”. His rhetorical style and political philosophy owe more to Occupy Wall Street than to the Zengakuren and other icons of the Japanese Left. In turn, he appeals mostly to young, urban voters in Tokyo, rather than to more traditional centre-left voters in areas like Hokkaido and Shikoku.
Reiwa could not have emerged in the pre-Internet age. It is a creature of globalisation, which moulds itself to its Asian context. It combines the pet causes of international social liberalism with unfamiliar political tactics: the result is a party that sits uncomfortably with its domestic political allies.
It remains to be seen whether Yamamoto has the political acumen to take his movement into the mainstream. For my money, it seems more likely that a viable challenger to the LDP will emerge from the Right, in opposition to the managerialism and moderation of the Kishida government.
However, Reiwa serves as a reminder that we live in a world defined by the cultural dominance of the United States. As the world gets smaller, American political trends will continue to cross language barriers and cultural divides. If it can happen in Japan, it can happen anywhere.