Why is Japan populist-free?

By Ian Buruma
Contemporary Japan may have its flaws, but it is now much more egalitarian than the United States, India, or many countries in Europe. By remaining a country of, by, and for the middle class, where the most affluent tend to be discreet, Japan has avoided the dangerous politics roiling developed and developing countries alike.TOKYO – 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 demagogues, 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-center newspaper Asahi Shimbun, have earned him the praise of Donald Trump’s former strategist, Stephen Bannon, who called Abe a “Trump before Trump.”
In some ways, Bannon was right to think so. In November 2016, Abe told Trump: “I’ve been successful in taming the Asahi Shimbun. I hope you will likewise be successful in taming The New York Times.” Even as a joke between two supposedly democratic leaders, this was disgraceful.
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 demagogues to be able to stir up popular resentments against foreigners, cosmopolitans, intellectuals, and liberals, there must be wide and obvious financial, cultural, and educational disparities. This was the case in Japan in the mid-1930s, when military hotheads staged a failed coup aimed at bankers, businessmen, and politicians who in their view were corrupting the Japanese polity.
The coup was supported by soldiers who had often grown up in poor rural areas. Their sisters sometimes had to be sold to big city brothels for their families to survive. The Westernized cosmopolitan urban elites were the enemy. And public opinion was largely on the side of the rebels.
Contemporary 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, symbolized by celebrity and money, it is easy to feel humiliated by a relative lack of it, of being just another face in the crowd. In extreme cases, desperate individuals will assassinate a president or a rock star just to get into the news. Populists find support among those 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 yet. 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.
People in department stores seem to take genuine pride in wrapping merchandise beautifully. Some jobs – think of those uniformed middle-aged men who smile and bow at customers entering a bank – appear to be entirely superfluous. It would be naive to assume that these tasks give huge satisfaction, but they offer people a sense of place, a role in society, however humble.
Meanwhile, the domestic Japanese economy remains one of the most protected and least globalized 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 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.
One of the more ironic consequences is that many such people in the US have chosen as their president a narcissistic billionaire who brags about his wealth, personal success, and genius. Nothing like that is likely to happen in Japan. We might learn something valuable from reflecting on the reasons why.
Ian Buruma, Editor of The New York Review of Books, is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Year Zero: A History of 1945.
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