Populism isn’t new. A wave of it generated democracy in ancient Greece, circa 500 B.C. Its modern form, born in America in the early 19th century, was a revolt against the planter aristocracy that had governed since independence in 1776. Andrew Jackson — said to be the first president born in a log cabin — was called a “jackass” by his opponents in the presidential campaign of 1828. Wiser than they, Jackson read the popular mood, decided the young country was ripe for a jackass president and gleefully embraced the epithet. The “Jacksonian democracy” that characterized his two terms in office (1829-1837) was a mass movement, as crude and unpolished as its founder. “King Mob” reigned, sputtered the elites he disgusted.

Elitism and democracy are uneasy bedfellows — more so than elites like to admit. Their claim has traditionally been that elitism would raise the masses to elite levels. Some no doubt believed it; others were merely rationalizing their own privileges. Few foresaw the dam bursting — as, of course, it has, globally. The world reels in “Trump Shock,” “Trump Revolution,” “Trump Tragedy” and its various regional equivalents.

Kyoto University professor emeritus Keishi Saeki, writing in Shukan Shincho magazine, seeks a Japanese parallel to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and finds one in Toru Hashimoto, former Osaka mayor, former Osaka Prefecture governor and co-founder of the Osaka-based national political party Nippon Isshin no Kai. Hashimoto’s outspokenness, refreshing early on, got out of hand and finally wrecked his political career. By 2015 he was a spent force, but back in January 2012, when he was flying high and seen as a future prime minister, his popularity moved Saeki to wonder “how dictatorial leaders manage to win elections.”

“To me,” he recalls writing at the time, “Hashimoto looks like a precursor.” Of what? Of “an age of dictatorial leaders.”

“Dictatorial” is a strong word. It should not be used lightly as a synonym for “strong,” as in “strong leaders.” An elected leader who can be thrown out if he or she oversteps certain bounds is not quite a dictator, as Hashimoto learned. But “dictatorial” is not the only strong word Saeki uses; another is “chaos.” That’s what he sees when he examines the world situation. He doesn’t define it precisely but implies that a level of popular frustration — due to lost jobs, lost wealth, lost status, change too rapid to be assimilated by those it doesn’t suit — can spawn anything: a Trump presidency, for instance, a 21st-century “King Mob.”

Two names are curiously absent from Saeki’s article: former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Tanaka, prime minister from 1972 to ’74, was anti-elitism personified, more so (and more successfully) than Hashimoto. Born in 1918 into rural poverty, Tanaka worked his way up from the bottom of the construction industry, got rich, spent his way into politics and prospered there too. How you regard him today will depend on whether you’re elitist or populist. The former remember him for bribery and the bottomless pork barrel; the latter, as a political mastermind whose wisdom, however inelegant, remains worth mining today — witness the spate of best-selling Japanese books about him, including one titled “The Revival of a Genius: Kakuei Tanaka’s Spiritual Messages.”

Abe is Tanaka’s remote successor but hardly his heir. Grandson of a prime minister and son of a foreign minister, he is an elite among elites, born into privilege and groomed accordingly. Trump, though solidly middle class by birth, seems more in the Tanaka mold. Yet Abe, as the first foreign leader to visit the president-elect, was quick to declare, “I am convinced Mr. Trump is a leader in whom I can have great confidence.”

That’s not anomalous, given the nature of the Japan-U.S. relationship. The two leaders have to get on, or appear to, for the relationship to continue. More remarkable is Abe’s enduring popularity with his own electorate — the latest Kyodo News poll shows his support ratings rising above 60 percent. Is the global wave of populist anti-elitism passing Japan by? If Hashimoto really was the “precursor” Saeki saw him as, what he foreshadowed was a global phenomenon but not, so far, a Japanese one.

“The anger of the ‘forgotten people,’ against the vested interests is the moving force in politics today,” wrote Gen Takano in the Asahi Shimbun late last month — referring not to Japan, however, but to the European Union and the various manifestations of anti-elitist revolt there. “And what of Japan?” the reader naturally wonders. Why are Japan’s “forgotten people” so quiet?

American and European populist rhetoric offers a clue. When it’s not damning elites, it’s vilifying immigrants and refugees: They steal our jobs, poison our culture, terrify us with terrorism. Europeans demand tougher borders, Trump promises to build walls. Ranting bombast of this sort is now mainstream political discourse — exhibit No. 1, it may be, for Saeki’s claim of encroaching chaos.

Japan, however, has few immigrants or refugees to blame, and Abe has just enough of a populist touch — “Abenomics” is masterful PR, if not masterful economics — to keep revolt at bay and the poor thinking he is at bat for them.

With few scapegoats to lash out at, Japanese seem to turn inward. Self-blame and self-pity, rather than hate-mongering, seem the dominant modes of despair here, with clinical depression threatening if not engulfing. A recent edition of the weekly magazine Spa! asks, “Which is worse — dying alone or dying of overwork?” It’s addressing the over-40 set, prey to rising levels of lifetime bachelorhood and the ruthless demands of a struggling economy. The choice as offered suggests not much to choose from. The distress is palpable, but the response so far is resignation rather than rebellion.

Back in September, sociologist Masahiro Yamada spoke to the Asahi about the surprising level of satisfaction — or perhaps, again, resignation — he finds among Japanese in their 20s, who were some of Abe’s staunchest supporters in elections last summer. Young adults are “satisfied with the present but pessimistic about the future,” Yamada said. Their main ambition seems modest enough: a full-time job. Once taken for granted, it no longer can be, with one-third of the work force now employed part-time.

Yamada sees a new social cleavage opening up between those with full-time jobs and those without. To the latter, the former will seem “elite” — suitable objects, perhaps, for populist ire, if and when it bursts forth.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.