OSAKA – Foreign media and overseas Japan experts largely use 19th- and 20th-century labels to describe Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and current Japanese politics led by his Liberal Democratic Party — “right-wing,” “hawkish,” “conservative” and “nationalist.”
Japanese and the Japanese media either use and agree with, or strongly disagree with, Japanese language equivalents of these words to describe Abe and the political leadership.
But in the second decade of the 21st century, is it time for political scientists and the media to use other terms in both languages that might better describe the current situation?
People use a variety of English-language terms to describe Japanese politics, but what do such terms really mean?
There is the literal meaning and then there is the implied meaning. Literal meaning can be significantly different depending on the source of the definition.
For example, “right wing” is defined by the Oxford Online English Dictionary as “the conservative or reactionary section of a political party or system.” It notes that the terms “right wing” and “left wing” originated in France’s late-18th-century National Assembly, when noblemen sat to the president’s right and commoners sat on his left.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary for English learners defines right wing as “the part of a political group that consists of people who support conservative or traditional ideas or policies.”
A “nationalist” is defined in the same dictionary as “a member of a political party or group advocating national independence or strong national government.”
“Hawkish” is defined in the Oxford online dictionary as “preferring to use military action rather than peaceful discussion in order to solve a political problem,” while the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a hawk as “one who takes a militant attitude and advocates immediate vigorous action, a supporter of a war or warlike policy.”
And what about “conservative”?
Here, things get more confusing, because the term is much broader. Again, Merriam-Webster defines “conservative” as “tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions, marked by moderation or caution, or marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners.”
Oxford says a conservative is “averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values.” But, in a political context, it says a conservative is someone “favoring free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.”
Which of these terms are used by mainstream foreign media and overseas commentators to describe Abe and Japanese politics?
U.S.-based AP and U.K.-based Reuters both used “conservative” to describe Abe, although AP added that he is “pro-big business,” probably to distinguish him from many American conservatives who try to appeal to owners of small businesses.
India-based Asian News International has described Abe as a “conservative hawk,” as did America’s National Public Radio.
The Economist’s online edition wrote that Abe’s Cabinet was “scarily right-wing,” and the U.K.-based Sky News called Abe himself “right-wing.”
The New York Times described Abe, after last year’s Lower House election, as a “nationalist,” while CNN said he was seen as “hawkish, with a nationalistic bent.”
British Broadcasting Corp. described Abe as “a hawkish, right-of-center” leader following the Lower House election, and then as “a right-wing nationalist” shortly afterward.
And a Time magazine correspondent, writing online before Abe’s February trip to Washington, said the U.S. president’s priority with the Japanese prime minister “ought to be making sure that Abe’s right-wing fantasies don’t wreck (U.S.-Japanese relations) entirely.”
Abe’s supporters sometimes insist he is more traditionally conservative than right-wing. Others say his rhetoric might be right-wing, but he is governing not as a hawk but as a pragmatist. And even some critics say he’s a conservative surrounded by right-wingers. How are these labels justified?
By the company Abe and his Cabinet keep, by the political and social philosophies they espouse, and by the actions they take in Japan and abroad.
Before taking office in December, Abe belonged to seven Diet groups that supported issues that had long been dear to Japan’s right-wing and conservative movements.
He also lent his name to an advertisement last year in the United States denying the “comfort women” were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military.
Abe’s Cabinet includes members who belong to organizations supporting everything from opposing a female emperor and equal rights for women to denying the Nanjing Massacre took place or that Japan bears any responsibility for the comfort women. These groups also promote patriotism and spiritual education, reminiscent of the prewar Emperor worship.
Abe’s economic policies are meanwhile widely viewed as being more along the lines of traditional LDP politics than the kind of free market fundamentalism often associated with some political conservatives in the U.S. and elsewhere.
What about other politicians and parties, like Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) and its co-leader, Toru Hashimoto?
Until facing a storm of criticism for his recent comments about the comfort women being necessary and his advice that U.S. Marines in Okinawa should visit sex establishments more, Hashimoto was seen, variously, as a populist, a nationalist, a fascist, a libertarian, and, especially by many American-style capitalism supporters, who praised him as Japan’s bright new hope, as “pragmatic.”
Hashimoto’s rhetoric often echoes that of Abe and Nippon Ishin co-leader Shintaro Ishihara. But on other issues, notably Japan’s relations with China, he has sounded more cautious. Unlike Abe and Ishihara, he also does not consider amending the Constitution as an urgent issue.
So is it fair to use “conservative” or “right-wing” when describing Japan’s political landscape today?
Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University and an expert on changes in Japanese political parties, says the old terminology of right and left is not completely obsolete and to regard Abe and Hashimoto as anything other than rightists is dishonest.
At the same time, he refers to the shift in Japanese politics today as the New Right phenomenon to distinguish the current generation of politicians from the group that ran Japan through much of the postwar period until the early 1990s.
Still, given that Abe and the LDP’s campaign slogan last year was “torimodosu,” or “take back Japan,” the most appropriate label for Abe, his Cabinet, Hashimoto and Ishihara might be “nostalgists,” according to Nakano.
“The LDP has become more elite, and we’ve seen a lot of people who entered politics simply because they were born into the right family,” Nakano said.
“They don’t mingle with ordinary Japanese. Their constituency might be in Yamaguchi Prefecture, but they were born and raised in central Tokyo, went to private schools, and perhaps spent a couple of years in, say, Washington, D.C. They can’t understand what’s going on with ordinary Japanese society, and they are nostalgic for Showa Era Japan because they have no idea what’s going on in today’s Japan,” he said.
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