Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is Japan’s most ideological postwar prime minister, pushing right-wing policies on numerous fronts that trample on postwar norms and values. He has been able to do so because he has the Diet in his back pocket, but how did this tectonic shift in Japanese politics happen?
Back in 2009 when the Democratic Party of Japan swept into power, it looked like the Liberal Democratic Party was on the ropes, discredited because of the manifold socio-economic problems it had unleashed, and rejected because it did not seem to have any fresh ideas about coping with Japan’s 21st century challenges, especially concerning the revival of the economy. Back then Abe also seemed a spent political force, a man ousted by party elders following a drubbing in the 2007 Upper House elections, a time when he earned the dismissive appellation KY, or kūki yomenai (can’t read the air), because he appeared to be clueless and out of touch with what voters cared about.
Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University who recently published the book “Ukeika Suru Nihon Seiji” (“Rightward Shift of Japanese Politics”), argues there have been five phases in the resurgence of right-wing politicians.
Phase 1: From the late 1980s, as the Cold War faded, Japan experienced a neoliberal change across the policy spectrum. The left (Japan Socialist Party and the labor unions) failed to cope with the resulting challenges, heading into terminal decline.
In retrospect, during the 1990s, there were some landmark developments on the history front, most notably the 1993 Kono statement regarding the “comfort women” and the 1995 Murayama statement regarding Japan’s war responsibility. But this overdue reckoning with history ignited a right-wing backlash of denial and vitriolic attacks against scholars and pundits promoting reconciliation based on Japan assuming war responsibility and atoning for past misdeeds.
Phase 2: As the JSP was replaced by the neoliberal DPJ as the main alternative to the LDP, the latter’s own liberal wing was next to fade into oblivion. The establishment in 1997 of hard-core reactionary groups such as the Japan Society for History Textbook Reform and Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference) helped propel this process. Meanwhile, the LDP’s leadership was still controlled by old-school moderates such as Ryutaro Hashimoto and Keizo Obuchi, but behind the scenes the LDP was shifting rightward as the baton was passed to the next generation.
Phase 3: Junichiro Koizumi, who served as prime minister from 2001 to 2006, applied the coup de grace to the moderate wing of the LDP and promoted the next generation of more right-wing leaders such as Abe and Taro Aso, accelerating the shift to the right. However, the LDP was kept in check by the DPJ, especially after Ichiro Ozawa joined it in 2003. He was the architect of an electoral strategy that helped the DPJ eventually come to power in 2009, one that targeted the negative consequences of the LDP’s neo-liberal reforms.
Phase 4: When the DPJ fell from power in 2012, a new one-party dominance emerged without any check on the right wing of the LDP — the JSP, the moderate wing of the LDP and now the DPJ were all gone.
“The right-wing clique that was a marginal force in the mid-1990s is not only mainstream, it is pretty much the only game in town in the Diet,” Nakano says. “This is how we ended up with the New Right coalition of neoliberal corporate domination combined with reactionary and revisionist nationalists gone mad.”
Phase 5: The recent episode surrounding Abe’s security legislation, however, galvanized civic movements that were born after the nuclear power accident in 2011.
“Japanese politics is potentially going through a renewal from the civil society up, but this is a race against the clock in many ways, as the autocratic tendencies of the LDP government is showing its full force in an attempt to put an end to postwar democracy as we know it,” Nakano says.
So why has this apparent rightward shift happened? With regards to the LDP, Nakano explains that there have been several factors behind the move since 1997.
The first is generational turnover, as those with direct war experience were replaced by politicians born after World War II, complicating war memory and reconciliation initiatives.
Secondly, in a post-Cold War and post-bubble economy Japan marked by neoliberal orthodoxy and a public deficit crisis (particularly once Obuchi failed to spend his way out of stagnation), there was a shift away from interest-based pork-barrel politics to ideology-based mobilization in the LDP.
“Put very simply,” Nakano says, “the voting and money-gathering power of the public-works sector has sharply declined, and the mobilization capacity of the religious right became that much more important.”
Finally, the first-past-the-post election system introduced in 1996 has also contributed to the LDP’s shift to the right, particularly as its new main rival was the union-backed DPJ, sharpening the ideological divide.
However, the LDP’s dominance is misleading, and not only because of the disproportionate-representation problem of the electoral system that the Supreme Court deems is in a “state of unconstitutionality.”
“Voters have not necessarily shifted to the right,” according to Nakano. “Between 2000 and 2014 there were 11 national elections (Lower House and Upper House combined), and except in three of the four elections, Koizumi led the LDP and did somewhat better (20 to 25 percent), the LDP’s share of the votes among all the voters (including those who abstained) fluctuated between a mere 13.5 percent (2010 Upper House election, which the LDP ‘won’ against Naoto Kan’s DPJ government) and 18.1 percent (the 2009 Lower House election that Aso lost, which put the DPJ in power) in the proportional representation sections.
“In other words, the erratic nature of the single member district system gave a huge advantage to the LDP, and as long as the opposition is unpopular and/or divided and the turnout is low, the LDP can continue to win disproportionately by simply consolidating its core support.”
Thus, in my view, the recent announcement that opposition parties plan to back a united slate of candidates against the LDP may make the 2016 Upper House elections more interesting. But this depends on the parties remaining united and getting out the vote. Getting them to bury their differences and back strong candidates against vulnerable LDP candidates is exactly what Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs) has been advocating. SEALDs successfully mobilized demonstrations against Abe’s security legislation, tapping into the public’s anxieties about his right-wing agenda, one that includes the state secrets legislation, bypassing constitutional procedures in “revising” the Constitution by Cabinet fiat and legislative legerdemain, lifting the ban on arms exports, patriotic education, building new Okinawan bases and restarting nuclear reactors.
SEALDs is counting on public anger about the threat to liberal democratic values to boost voting turnout, while Team Abe is hoping that voters will forget, or get over it, by focusing the campaign on economic issues and sprinkling handouts to mollify or woo key constituencies. Just as in the 2014 election, the “bad Abe” pushing a reactionary agenda will take a holiday while the “good Abe” associated with “Abenomics” will take center stage.
Even though it’s Abe’s election to lose, with Abenomics fizzling and a united opposition, there might just be a grass-roots backlash against the lurch to the right at the top.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.