August 24, 2017 10:00 am JST
Tea Leaves

Populism fails to catch fire in Japan

Gripes from the young and fears for the future won't fuel radical politics

SHOTARO TANI

Commuters head to work in Tokyo's Marunouchi business district. So far, populist movements have not gained momentum in Japan.

Working in the Japanese media, it is hard to ignore the question on everyone's lips: "Why has anti-establishment populism spread around the world?" Equally puzzling for Western journalists, it seems, is the fact that Japan appears immune to this global trend.

After all, the country is supposedly mired in economic malaise. Inequality is on the rise: Japan has the sixth-worst relative poverty rate among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and social media sites are full of people complaining that their lives are not getting any better.

So far, however, Japan has boasted the kind of social stability that Europe and the U.S. can only envy, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe until recently enjoying solid support. Abe's shine has dulled: The cabinet's approval rating is near its lowest since late 2012, and polls suggest that an attempt to arrest the decline with a cabinet reshuffle in early August has not worked.

So is this the moment when populism starts to take off? The answer is probably no. The fall in Abe's popularity is likely due to one-off factors such as a string of scandals, along with gaffes by cabinet ministers. It is a reaction against the government's mistakes, not a sign of a popular uprising.

Japan is unfavorable terrain for populists. For a start, it lacks one of the principal drivers of populism in Europe -- the presence of large numbers of recent immigrants. It is common these days to see people from other parts of Asia working in convenience stores saying, "Arigato gozaimashita" (Thank you very much), in accented Japanese. But there is little sense among Japan's aging population that immigrants are taking Japanese jobs; the unemployment rate hit a 23-year low of 2.8% in June. This contrasts sharply with many European countries, where globalization and mass immigration are seen as tearing the social fabric.

For those struggling to get by, especially among the young for whom climbing the economic ladder seems like a pipe dream, the lack of an "other" to blame means they turn their frustrations inward, which partly explains Japan's high suicide rate. Low income is often attributed to a lack of personal effort, leading to criticism of people on welfare.

Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo, also points to the "institutionalized interests in Japan that look suspiciously on populist politics." Kingston notes that mainstream media tend to ignore the stark realities facing millions of Japanese, while the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, or Rengo, has "become a tool of business rather than an effective voice for workers."

Good enough

Most importantly, Japan's failure to nurture a populist revolt reflects its quality of life, which is pretty decent for most people. Thanks to deflation, everyday goods are relatively cheap. The crime rate is low. Basic education is excellent. The streets are clean. The trains run on time. In a book on Japan, David Pilling, the Financial Times' former Tokyo bureau chief, quotes a visiting parliamentarian from northern England who looked at Tokyo's throbbing streets and said: "If this is a recession, I want one."

Younger people like me complain over drinks about the privileges that the older generation enjoyed -- a growing economy, lifetime employment, steady wage increases. In reality, though, such complaints are a conversation-starter that lacks substance. After a couple of glasses and a good night's sleep, it is back to work as usual the next day. Admittedly, I am one of the better off in this rapidly polarizing society. I have a stable job. And for most people, there really is little to be angry about. That leaves would-be populists starved of fuel to fire their movement.

None of this means that Japan will stay quiet forever. Gross government debt is equivalent to a staggering 240% of gross domestic product. The country's potential economic growth rate is headed toward zero. And the Bank of Japan cannot buy stocks and government bonds to shore up the economy for eternity.

Even so, said Harukata Takenaka, a professor at Japan's National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, voters are more likely to respond to a "coolheaded leader" than to a Trump-style insurgent. "Someone who will say: 'You all know that this country is in a precarious state. That's why you don't spend. That's why you worry about the future. Let's think about the solutions together.'"

That sounds like a leader who could be popular, if not a populist.

Shotaro Tani, is a Nikkei staff writer in Tokyo.

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