Among the many English loanwords used in Japan that can create confusion, especially among Americans, is “yankii,” derived from “Yankee.”
In Japanese usage, it does not mean a resident of the Northeast United States. Nor does it refer to a member of a certain New York baseball team that generates both adoration and loathing. Rather, the term is used to describe a certain type of person.
Depending on who is speaking, a yankii is, variously, a rebel, an outcast, an anti-intellectual, a gangster, a trailblazer, a paternalist or a sentimental traditionalist.
In the political arena, a yankii politician is something of a populist.
Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto is often labeled a yankii, as are many of his followers outside Tokyo who seek more local autonomy and despise anyone who reeks of cosmopolitanism and intellectual elitism.
“The roots of yankii politicians lie among Japan’s rural elite,” said Jun Yonaha, an associate professor at Aichi Prefectural University who has written about the yankii phenomenon in Japanese politics.
“Unlike, say, the leaders of the Meiji Era, they didn’t go to the University of Tokyo (called Imperial University back then) and then become nationally well-known. They were locally famous and addressed local concerns.
“The classic example of a yankii politician is former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka,” Yonaha said.
Tanaka, who served as prime minister from 1972 to 1974, was born into poverty in rural Niigata and dismissed as hopelessly crude and uneducated by political and bureaucratic elites and intellectuals.
But the man who would become known as the “Shadow Shogun” was immensely popular with his constituents.
His grand plan for remodeling Japan via central government subsidies for rural areas, including decades of funding for towns that agreed to host nuclear power plants, created strong loyalty among local voters and other rural politicians who became his allies. It also led to pork barrel construction projects, a culture of collusion — and corruption — between the construction industry and local legislators, and the environmental destruction of the countryside.
Tanaka fell from power after becoming caught up in the Lockheed bribery scandal. But the construction state and the money politics he left behind, as well as a squad of loyal acolytes in the Diet, ensured his influence continued for decades afterward.
Is Hashimoto the nation’s most prominent yankii politician today? On the one hand, like Tanaka, he is from a hardscrabble background, blunt, sure of himself, loud and opinionated. He portrays himself as an Osakan David battling the mighty Tokyo Goliath. He makes no secret of his disdain for intellectuals, academics, journalists and their theories of government.
On the other hand, and unlike Tanaka and many rural politicians, Hashimoto is urban born and bred and graduated from prestigious Waseda University. He is known as a cost-cutter, not a builder of public works projects. His main goal of integrating the city and prefecture of Osaka has long had the support of Kansai’s business leaders, although Tokyo bureaucrats are wary.
“Hashimoto is actually an elite politician. He is a lawyer. So, I get the impression he’s exaggerating the yankii aspect of his personality for effect,” Yonaha said.
Tamaki Saito, a professor of social psychiatry and mental health at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture, traces the Japanese yankii antipathy toward intellectuals, in particular, to the group mentality of wartime Japan, when people believed until the end that Japan could defeat America if it had sufficient spiritual strength. This, rather than a belief in learning for the sake of learning, is at the root of the yankii anti-intellectualism.
“These types don’t put a lot of importance on the liberal arts and knowledge. They don’t really respect those who are learned or logical. Emotionally understanding each other is much more important,” Saito said.
Yankii politicians may be respected for their outspokenness and empathy for ordinary voters from nonelite backgrounds. However, when it comes to strategic, long-term planning or thinking about things other than local wants and needs, yankii politicians have less to say.
This is particularly true in defense and diplomacy, where yankii-type politicians often have little interest in affairs of state because, for them, “Japan” really means “the villages in the area of Japan I represent” — an attitude that does not encourage either geopolitical strategic thinking or diplomatic finesse.
Perhaps the ultimate yankii political project, then, is the proposed regional bloc system that would eliminate the current 47 prefectures and turn them into nine to 13 semiautonomous regional blocs, with Tokyo responsible for little more than defense, diplomacy and disaster relief.
But unlike, say, elements of America’s tea party movement, at the end of the day Japan’s yankii-type politicians, even if they like the idea of the regional bloc system, don’t really want to secede from the central government.
“These politicians talk about the importance of local government autonomy. But when it comes to the question of how to maintain it, they say independence from the central government can’t be realized,” Yonaha said.
Are there even any true yankii politicians left? Rural populist types in the Kakuei Tanaka vein? Not really.
Today, a large portion of Japan lives in megacities like Tokyo, Osaka or hyperurban environments. Communications technology, as well as all of those airports, roads, bridges, bullet train lines and other infrastructure projects built decades ago by yankii politicians, have brought once remote rural areas of the country closer, in all senses, to the large cities.
Hashimoto’s Nippon Ishin no Kai political group, though liked in certain rural parts of Kyushu, Shikoku and Tanaka’s old home prefecture of Niigata, is, in fact, often made up of wealthy urbanite or suburbanite professionals who care little for the problems of the farmers, fishermen or small merchants who formed the base constituency of yankii politicians until fairly recently.
But yankii culture persists and politicians ignore it at their peril.
Saito has identified the more general attributes of yankii thinking that politicians exploit to gain voter support, regardless of their true background. And here, while there are clearly similarities between yankii-type thinking and that of Japan’s conservatives and ultra-rightists, there are also fundamental, and important, differences.
“Yankii types are conservatives who support self-reliance and self-help. There are many who provisionally support rearming Japan. But this has to do with the idea of being militarily self-reliant,” says Saito.
“Strangely, there are actually few yankii types who appear to be warmongers or xenophobic. As they hate ideologies and theories, I think the possibility they will tilt toward the extreme right or fascism is low,” he said.