Even as a wave of right-wing populism is sweeping Europe, the United States, India and parts of Southeast Asia, Japan has so far appeared to be immune. There are no Japanese populists, like Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi or Rodrigo Duterte, who have exploited pent-up resentments against cultural or political elites. Why?
Perhaps the closest Japan has come was the former mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who first made his name as a television personality and then disgraced himself in recent years by commending the use of wartime sex slaves by the Imperial Japanese Army. His ultra-nationalist views and loathing of liberal media were a familiar version of right-wing populism. But he never managed to break into national politics.
Hashimoto now gives Prime Minister Shinzo Abe free advice on tightening national-security laws. And therein lies one explanation for the apparent lack of right-wing populism in Japan. No one could be more identified with the political elite than Abe, the grandson of a wartime cabinet minister and later prime minister, and son of a foreign minister. And yet, he shares right-wing populists’ hostility to liberal academics, journalists and intellectuals.
Postwar Japanese democracy was influenced in the 1950 and 1960s by an intellectual elite that consciously sought to distance Japan from its wartime nationalism. Abe and his allies are trying to quash that influence. His efforts to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution, restore pride in its wartime record, and discredit “elitist” mainstream media, such as the left-of-centre newspaper Asahi Shimbun, have earned him the praise of Trump’s former strategist, Stephen Bannon, who called Abe a “Trump before Trump”.
So one might say that elements of right-wing populism are at the heart of the Japanese government, embodied by a scion of one of the country’s most elite families. This paradox, however, is not the only explanation for the absence of a Japanese Le Pen, Modi or Wilders.
For populists to be able to stir up resentments against foreigners, cosmopolitans, intellectuals and liberals, there must be wide and obvious financial, cultural and educational disparities. Japan may have its flaws, but it is now much more egalitarian than the US, India or many countries in Europe. High taxes make it hard to pass on inherited wealth. And, unlike in the US, where material prosperity is flaunted, not least by Trump himself, the most affluent Japanese tend to be discreet. Japan has surpassed the US as a country of the middle class.
Resentment feeds off a sense of humiliation, a loss of pride. In a society where human worth is measured by individual success, symbolised by celebrity and money, it is easy to feel humiliated by a relative lack of it, of being just another face in the crowd. Populists find support among resentful faces in the crowd, people who feel that elites have betrayed them, by taking away their sense of pride in their class, their culture, or their race.
This has not happened in Japan. Culture may have something to do with it. Self-promotion, in the American style, is frowned upon. To be sure, Japan has a celebrity culture, driven by mass media. But self-worth is defined less by individual fame or wealth than by having a place in a collective enterprise, and doing the job one is assigned as well as one can.
The domestic Japanese economy remains one of the most protected and least globalised in the developed world. There are several reasons why Japanese governments have resisted the neoliberalism promoted in the West since the Reagan/Thatcher years: Corporate interests, bureaucratic privileges, and pork-barrel politics of various kinds. But preserving pride in employment, at the cost of efficiency, is one of them. If this stifles individual enterprise, then so be it.
Thatcherism has probably made the British economy more efficient. But by crushing trade unions and other established institutions of working-class culture, governments have also taken away sources of pride for people who often do unpleasant jobs. Efficiency does not necessarily create a sense of community. Those who now feel adrift blame their predicament on elites who are better educated and sometimes more talented — and thus better able to thrive in a global economy.
— Project Syndicate, 2018
Ian Buruma, editor of the New York Review of Books, is the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.