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Japan's progressive upstart rattles political establishment

Newcomer's party could shake up national election that lawmakers expect next year

Reiwa Shinsengumi party leader Taro Yamamoto speaks during a campaign rally in July. Yamamoto has been compared with progressive U.S. lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- The leader of a small political party with just two seats in the upper house of parliament is emerging as a credible threat to Japan's political establishment.

Taro Yamamoto, 45, who heads the Reiwa Shinsengumi party, is rumored to be contemplating a run in the Tokyo gubernatorial election slated for next July. Some in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party reckon he could mount a serious challenge against the reelection of incumbent Yuriko Koike if all opposition parties rally behind him.

The Reiwa Shinsengumi also stands to win seats in a lower house election that sitting lawmakers increasingly believe Abe will call next year. 

Yamamoto, a former TV personality and actor, entered politics in 2013, when he was elected to the upper house by opposing nuclear energy. The Reiwa Shinsengumi party, which he set up in April this year, produced two lawmakers in an upper house election held just three months later.

In that upper house election, Yamamoto campaigned on unabashedly populist messages, such as abolishing the consumption tax and immediately halting all nuclear reactors, garnering over 900,000 votes, a record for an individual politician. Because he put his name third on the proportional-representation candidate list, he himself did not make the cut this time, but the candidates that were first and second on the list were elected, both of whom have severe physical disabilities.

He has continued to enjoy solid support ever since, receiving speech requests across the country. Sitting on cheaper, unreserved seats on shinkansen bullet trains in traveling from city to city, he readily agrees to take selfies with supporters, which are promptly spread through social media. His popularity may be compared to that of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC, a freshman congresswoman from New York who pulled off a spectacular primary upset by defeating a 10-time Democratic incumbent.

Some see Taro Yamamoto mounting a credible challenge against the reelection of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike next year.

Reiwa Shinsengumi is believed to have raised over 400 million yen ($3.65 million at current rates) through crowdfunding in the run-up to the upper house election. Even now supporters offer donations after listening to his speeches.

Among his ardent fans are those in the so-called lost generation, who had the misfortune of having to find jobs during the economic stagnation that followed the bubble economy of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and younger urbanites in their 20s or 30s.

"Young people probably see Yamamoto as an advocate who can express the anxiety or frustration toward society that they are feeling," says Megumi Ushikubo, a commentator familiar with social trends.

"Many in their 20s or 30s were raised by parents who held a deep apathy toward politics and grew up thinking it was useless to get politically involved or fight against the system," she continued. "Even before getting married, they are already worried about money for their kids' education but they are not motivated to do something. Yamamoto is the person who will act on their behalf."

In fact, Reiwa Shinsengumi's policy platform says it aims to create a society where people can live without anxiety about the future, promising to cancel student debt.

"It is commendable that they promised to use tax money for paying back student debt," said Tokai University Vice Chancellor Yutaka Tsujinaka.

He is also impressed by the party's pledge to increase the number of civil servants.

"According to an OECD survey, the number of Japanese civil servants is roughly one-third the average number among member nations," said Tsujinaka. "With too small a government, the people are unlikely to feel they are getting what they are paying for in taxes, and just feel the burden of tax payments," he continued. "A sufficient number of civil servants and adequate funding are necessary to provide necessary public services."

Yamamoto's ideas for funding such services seem to go against traditional textbook economics. He advocates abolishing the consumption tax and providing monthly cash payouts by issuing new government debt. His ideas are based on the modern monetary theory gaining traction among some scholars in the U.S. and elsewhere. The theory holds that nations with sovereign monetary policies are not constrained by revenues when it comes to spending because they can print as much money as they desire. But many economists warn that such a move would cause hyperinflation.

Is Yamamotonomics a far-fetched pipe dream?

"Given that Japan and other developed nations are struggling with low inflation, financial markets may react positively to giving cash handouts to cause inflation," said Yukichi Shimosato, an analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities. The party promises that debt offerings will stop once the 2% inflation target is reached, but Shimosato points out that unlike monetary policy, fiscal policy is inflexible. "The policy could become out of control."

The popularity of Yamamoto also reflects the inability of existing opposition parties to respond to voter frustration.

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