The Latin morpheme liber (free) has a lot to answer for. Take the word “liberal,” which represented a fairly clear political position until American “conservatives” demonized it. But liberals are not “libertarians.” The former are seen to favor government schemes that guarantee the welfare of the populace while the latter are strictly hands-off. Then there’s “neoliberalism,” which describes economic policies that advocate free trade and open markets, ideas that may or may not be supported by liberals. In fact, neoliberalism probably receives more love from “neoconservatives.”

In Japan this morpheme, translated as jiyū, is just as confusing, especially since members of the country’s main conservative (hoshu) party are called, in English, Liberal Democrats, though they are neither “liberal” in the popular sense of the word or particularly “democratic” if you consider that the party’s current president — and likely next prime minister — Shinzo Abe wasn’t selected by the people. For that matter, neither was the present prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, who heads the actual Democratic Party of Japan.

The liberal-conservative dynamic should be in play now because of the upcoming Lower House election, but it isn’t. For the past six months the foreign press has speculated about Japan’s “turn to the right,” as the Washington Post calls it, mainly in relation to the territorial disputes with China and South Korea, which have led to a call for beefing up the Self-Defense Forces and revising the Constitution to do so. These are pet concerns of Abe, but they aren’t necessarily disagreeable to Noda. On Oct. 31 Noda announced that the DPJ would be taking a “centrist” route, though a few days later Tokyo Shimbun theorized that if the LDP wins the election then the DPJ will “become more conservative” and wondered if there is any liberal movement at all in mainstream Japanese politics right now. Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada’s new Tomorrow Party of Japan is being characterized as the primary liberal force in the election, though, despite the participation of former LDP and DPJ don Ichiro Ozawa, the party isn’t fielding enough candidates to make a real difference, and the inclusion of another “third force,” the conservative Japan Restoration Party (JRP), will likely neutralize any potential effect the Tomorrow Party could have. The most Kada can hope to do is provide an outlet for liberal viewpoints, mainly with regard to nuclear power and family issues.

It should be noted that in the recent U.S. presidential election, traditional liberals despaired over President Barack Obama’s own centrist tendencies, thus giving rise to the opinion that in realistic terms — meaning policies that are actually carried out — there was little substantive difference between him and challenger Mitt Romney. But the situation in Japan is different, especially when you look at the parties that always offer liberal viewpoints, the Social Democrats (SDP) and the Communists (JCP). It’s assumed that a good portion of the electorate supports the kind of social policies those two parties continually push and which the LDP rejects. The DPJ took power in 2009 with a nominally liberal “manifesto” that was slowly abandoned in the face of bureaucratic intransigence. In that election, public support for liberal policies translated into votes for the DPJ, but not so much for the SDP or JCP. Recent Kyodo News surveys find that only 2-3 percent of the electorate plan to vote Communist, and even less for the SDP. One pundit told Tokyo Shimbun that it has to do with the names. Communism and socialism have been discredited since the end of the Cold War, and trade unions have seen their memberships decline.

The JCP might do well to jettison the “communist” moniker, but even the SDP has trouble calling itself “socialist” in a country where the leading conservative party championed the concept of big government from the 1950s, when it ascended to power, until the turn of the century, when the Junichiro Koizumi administration went on a privatization kick. Fundamentally, “conservative” means tight fiscal measures, but the LDP was always about subsidizing farmers and spurring growth with public works projects. Mizuho Fukushima, the head of the SDP, delineated the liberal-conservative divide in an interview with Tokyo Shimbun by saying that the former prioritizes “vulnerable citizens” while the latter favors big business. The LDP is “liberal” only in the original libertarian sense and then only libertarian in social policy. Individuals are expected to be responsible for themselves, but institutions and corporations get plenty of help.

The conservative slant is almost completely a cultural thing, and last week’s issue of Aera characterized Abe’s brand of conservatism, as well as that of the JRP, as being romantic in nature. Changing the constitution is not going to be easy and will necessitate diverting attention away from more pressing issues, like the economy and voting disparities. The LDP was booted out in 2009 because people were frustrated with its policies, and those policies haven’t changed in the meantime. All it’s done for three years is wage war on the DPJ, a strategy that seems to have worked.

But if you want to understand what “conservatism” means in Japan, you should ask a true reactionary, and in a very entertaining interview in the Asahi Shimbun, Kunio Suzuki, the leader of the extreme right wing organization Isui-kai, says he is not happy about the “rise of Abe and (JRP leader Toru) Hashimoto.”

“The right wing is meaningless if it’s the majority,” he says, waxing nostalgic for the days when he and his left wing counterparts in the student movement were actually at each other’s throats. But now that the left wing is insignificant, the right wing has no reason to exist. “There’s no difference between the DPJ and the LDP,” says Suzuki. “Politics today is simply a contest of who can scream the loudest.”