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U.S. and Japan elections: scary in their own ways

American political campaigns can be frighteningly tribal while fear of the foreign permeates polls here

by

Special To The Japan Times

Happy Halloween. Let’s talk about something really scary: elections in the United States and Japan.

I say scary because these countries are the No. 1 and No. 3 largest economies in the world, not to mention representative democracies considered too big to fail. Yet the way things are going is truly frightening.

Let’s start with election campaigns in the U.S., since they are probably very familiar and fresh to readers:

The U.S.: Two tribes go to war

American elections are full of energy and debate — if anything, too much debate. Imagine the regular political ferment within the Washington, D.C. Beltway being expanded to the otherwise ignored American heartland. Now squeeze all that frenzied activity into an artificial duopoly of only two political parties. Then watch them dominate political discussion for at least one year out of every four.

And it only intensifies after those parties nominate their presidential candidates. Witness the “crazy season,” where for a frenzied three months before Election Day practically all other news gets crowded out by political rumor, intrigue and slander.

By then the duopoly has devolved into trench warfare, with no common ground in sight. American media, which profiteers from portraying the race as a virtual tie, stack their opinion panels with paid shills from both sides to create a false equivalence of issues: “Gut feelings” get equal time with verifiable facts.

This trickles down to the individual level, where people swap “talking points” in order to “win or lose” debates instead of having actual conversations. Facebook friends wind up blocking each other as content becomes the mere swapping of links from opposing political blogs.

This has happened in every recent election, but 2016’s has been egregious in terms of tribalism. One nominee gets caught bragging about his sexual predation and his supporters try to dismiss it as excusable, if not somehow normal. At the same time, the other nominee struggles to garner support because she didn’t cleanly succeed in every project she took on. This proved Bill Clinton’s pithy adage: “Democrats want to fall in love. Republicans just fall in line.” Hillary isn’t loveable enough. Trump’s lines are extremely fallible.

Still, this style of tribalism has a longish history. America’s elections since Richard Nixon have often been about “appealing to the base” — trying to secure the support of 51 percent of the country and ignoring the rest. It has split a country as diverse as the U.S. along fault lines of race, class, religion, region, lifestyle and age — on top of the naturally occurring divisions between liberal and conservative.

And then, after candidates, parties and media have brought out the base instincts of society, what do they seek to do? Promote a post-election promise of “healing” and “reunifying” the country. That’s a bit rich, because three years later, the cycle repeats.

Meanwhile, Japan’s leaders sit smugly by, chuckling at America’s divisions, and thank the gods that Japanese society lacks the headaches ascribed to minorities or immigrants. But Japan has its own electoral issues and, if anything, they’re more damaging to society.

Japan: fear of the outsider

I talked in last month’s column about Japan’s status as a virtual one-party system. As I’ve mentioned in past JBCs, this is because the decimation of Japan’s left wing since the 1990s has produced polarization in a different ratio: Instead of a 50-50 split, it’s more a 98-2 division, with rampant public bashing of non-Japanese (who make up close to 2 percent of the population), not to mention bashing Japanese who might dare to support foreign nationals. Both in election season and out, the Japanese people’s fear of foreigners is fed for political gain.

In incidents since 2000, Japan’s politicians have called foreigners “bad” (furyō), “heinous” (gokuaku), “sneaky thieves,” “murderers,” “rapists,” “genetically and ethnically criminal” — even “illegal” (fuhō) simply for existing in Japan. Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara set the precedent, capitalizing on the National Police Agency’s fanning of fears of a (fictitious) foreign crime wave to win several terms in office. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi then expanded on it to include foreign nationals in his antiterrorism campaign platforms.

Administrative policies that resulted from these slogans aimed at restoring Japan’s “safety” and “security” in ways that overtly excluded foreign nationals from the body politic. They not only encouraged racial profiling by the general public but also effectively reserved human rights for Japanese only.

Yes, there was a left-of-center blip in the late 2000s, when the Democratic Party of Japan campaigned for more inclusive measures toward Japan’s foreign residents, including suffrage in local elections and a human rights bill. However, these plans were easily shot down by rightists because they would have given rights to North Koreans.

Remember, Japan’s age-old left-wing counterweight, the Japan Socialist Party, had already been obliterated by public outrage after the party took a skeptical stance on North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens decades ago. Later, the DPJ’s sudden soft stance toward foreign nationals (including friendly overtures toward a China that had just overtaken Japan economically) helped sweep hardened xenophobes back into power.

These days xenophobia in Japan’s political campaigns is quite normalized. In high-profile elections one independent candidate or fringe-party leader (sometimes more) fearmongers about the outside world. They don’t get elected, but they do get votes and can campaign using hateful invective without so much as a “tut” from otherwise strict election boards. They overtly advocate that foreigners be increasingly policed, if not expelled. Or they’re more subtle: Japan should remilitarize — to guard against China or North Korea. Or Japan’s (allegedly foreigner-free) past glories must be recaptured. Even already-elected representatives get into the act, questioning the loyalties of opposition politicians by pointing to their “foreign roots” — as has happened recently to Renho, the current leader of the country’s largest opposition party.

All the while, Japan continues to bring in hundreds of thousands of foreign laborers (sorry, “trainees”) to save the nation’s struggling industries. This on top of the permanent foreign residents who have been here for generations at the invitation (if not the compulsion) of the Japanese government. The LDP is even planning to expand the foreign “trainee” program and bring in even more dirt-cheap workers. Why? To construct venues for international events that wind up traumatizing the public, provoking scares about attracting terrorism, hooliganism and crime to Japan’s erstwhile “safe” society.

Oh, the irony. Not so long ago, Japan’s election slogans and policy proposals aimed to show everyone how developed, “Western” and open-minded to outside influences Japan was. Remember the era of kokusaika (internationalization) in the 1980s? Now, public policy seems to bring in the outside world so that politicians can capitalize on public fear.

A letter to both sides

In sum, both the U.S. and Japan’s recent elections have been about pandering to public fears instead of promoting constructive or progressive policies. Cynically speaking, that’s understandable: Fearmongering is really quite normal worldwide and voters are easily mobilized by it. In recent history, the U.S. has seen successful elections for John F. Kennedy vs. the Soviets, Nixon vs. the counterculture, Ronald Reagan vs. the arms race and George W. Bush vs. the terrorists. True to that playbook, we have Trump vs. Mexico and the Islamic State group (and versus his own fear of losing). And Trump’s xenophobia alone has arguably been as bad as Japan’s haters.

However, there is one major difference between these two electorates, especially when it comes to the effectiveness of promoting xenophobia. In the U.S., not only does one major party overtly defend the foreigners doing America’s dirty work, but the national narrative (“a nation of immigrants”) in fact promotes it. Clinton effectively used it in her campaigns to vanquish the Big Bad Wolf.

In Japan, however, foreigners remain the wolf at the door. Foreigners are used in Japan to stoke fear, while in America, on one half of the debate, at least, they are used to fight it.

As Japan’s economy continues to age and stagnate, with its democracy unable to correct imbalances through immigration, it’s ever clearer which scare tactic is doing more lasting damage to society. Scary stuff indeed.

This is the conclusion of a two-part series comparing elections in the U.S. and Japan. Debito’s latest book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” is out now. Twitter @arudoudebito. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp