Japan at a crossroads: Popularity vs populism

| Updated: October 25, 2017 00:44:52

The Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe The Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe

When Shinzo Abe called his second 'snap' election on September 24, 2017 in only three years, it became clear popularity was not all that it is vaunted to be to stay in power. In spite of capitalising on a popularity rebound, aided no less by North Korean belligerency, Abe's announcement confounded seasoned Japanese voters, who described it as 'political theatre' (Alex Martin, The Japan Times, September 26, 2017). Meant to reaffirm his reforms, involving a tax-hike to fund such education plans as free kindergarten schooling and day-care services for kids, Abe got off to a rough start.

Going back, all three terms he has served as Japan's prime minister has raised eyebrows for one reason or another. Elected to lead the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September 2006, he became the country's youngest prime minister one week later, commanding 329 out of 475 seats, only to resign in September 2007 for reasons of health (ostensibly ulcerative colitis).

He returned to politics for the December 2012 election, with a campaign slogan promising to 'Take back Japan'; and by trouncing the incumbent Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), capturing 294 seats out of 480, he launched a vigorous reform package to further liberalise Japan under the rubric 'Abenomics'.

Amid Japan's recession two years later, Abe called a 'snap' December election to dispel the growing public call for 'Abenomics dissolution'. His successful LDP tally of 290 seats was augmented by the 35 won by a new party, Komeito (almost half of the DPJ seats, indicating, importantly, the slow evaporation of established parties, a theme so central to populist growth).

One-year shy of becoming the longest-serving post-World War II Japanese prime minister, Abe hopes he will wake up stronger on October 23, 2017 to confront the three major threats Japan faces today: North Korea's bellicosity, China's rivalry, and a still wavering economy.

Spawned by such actions as 'The Restoration of Sovereignty Day' he initiated on April 28, 2013 to mark the 61st anniversary of the end of US occupation through the April 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, nationalistic juices have curiously coexisted with Abe's neo-liberal reforms.

They further feed into a slowly growing demographic time-bomb: at least one-quarter of the 127 million people will soon be in the ever-escalating 'senior' citizen category; and by the year 2100, the current population will fall below 100 million (to about 85 million, at the concurrent rate).

Japan's emergent themes resonate with counterparts abroad: the demographic time-bomb also stares West European countries; and the spiralling nationalism, evident in both West European countries and the United States, sonorously elevates populism. Because of them, immigrants have been absorbing an unusually high public toll in many of these other countries.

With a far lower foreign-born proportion of its population (less than 2.0 per cent), Japan's populist outlets may very well be through foreign policy rather than domestic moods.

One of them could invoke measures against imminent foreign threats, a divisive issue since veterans oppose Abe's proposal to renegotiate its defence engagements overseas to give Japan more of an active military presence.

With North Korea and China ranking, in that order, as the primary foreign threats, raising the Japanese military ante has never become such a pregnant post-World War II issue as it has become now.

Leaving foreign policy aside for a moment, what is of concern in this forthcoming October 22 election may be the fine-line between nationalism and


With Abe accenting the former, demographic pressures apparently have kept him from slipping in the populist direction: on the one hand, he is inviting increasingly more international students and teachers, but on the other, immigrants continue to be kept on too short a leash to offset the demographic threat. Should he win, how he balances the two amid the post-recession recovery will accordingly become a growing concern.

One person giving two hoots to that balance is Tokyo's fiery governor, Yuriko Koike, whose Kibo no To (Party of Hope) is emerging as Abe's salient election challenger: 'Lipstick Ninja', as she is dubbed (also as Japan's 'Condi Rice' after former US National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice), is not well-known outside the country's largest city, but within it she easily squashed Abe's LDP rivals in the governor election.

To be sure, she is refraining from leading her own party, but her sound-bites have attacked 'Abenomics', and proposed 'Yurinomics' instead, largely to reform, not so much the economy, but politics itself. Her themes have been reduced to five Cs: check, challenge, change, create, and communicate.

Whereas 'Abenomics' sought, and, in its modified version, still seeks, to bring Japan into the neo-liberal 21st Century competitive playground under the 'three arrows' of monetary, fiscal, and structural policy changes (respectively unleashing expansionary, flexible, and private-sector indicators), 'Yurinomics', consisting, of reduced taxes, reformed social security, and a 'reduction to zero' campaign on several policy targets, from nuclear power to corporate donations and labour violations, places more lids than opens new space.

With Abe having to revalidate 'Abenomics' in 2014, that is, only two years of its announcement, still indicates how volatile Japan's political atmosphere remains: recessionary tendencies dominated then, for example, but perhaps the current recovery is set to intertwine with a virulent nationalism against the North Korean threats.

Even though he commands a two-thirds legislative coalition still, a widely expected victory in October 22, 2017 could still be marred by the size of that


Should the two-thirds advantage be reduced, his credentials would be at stake yet again, converting emergent populist sparks into a snowball.

Why that may be the case is due to the persisting political vacuum. The 2014 DPJ collapse was so conspicuous that the country's second-largest party has not as yet entered the election race (as of mid-October), indeed, many of its prominent members have been rooting for the Kibo no To and the kind of issues Koike is popularising.

If experiences in the rest of the world are any guide, this vacuum is disturbing: it has thus far invited largely populists. This was chronologically evident in the United Kingdom Independent Party at the time of the Brexit referendum, Donald Trump's lone-ranger successful election campaign in the United States, France's National Front waging such a determined power-scramble, and the threat the Alternative for Germany posed inside Europe's dominant country, Germany.

Without the two-thirds support-base, for instance, Abe's economic, political, and defence policies, plans, and programmes would become a hard-sell; and any fraying at the edges, such as this, automatically emboldens the opposition groups, in this case, the populists.

Extending that thought, abroad, North Korea may also be further emboldened for some overseas adventure, China may elevate its own military ante, and the United States, under President Trump,  may also retreat further into its 'America first' shell.

What an irony that would be for Abe: his 'Alliance of Hope' identity with the United States only two years ago would come back to haunt the alliance and the hope he sought, and thereby his tenure and the country he wanted to 'take back'.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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