Last year’s political upheavals in the Anglo-American world continue to reverberate.

Whether they support or oppose the U.S.-led international economic, financial and military order, or whether they think of themselves as politically moderate or neutral, people around the world continue to ask a common question: What happened, and why?

The upending of establishment politics has especially shocked political and business leaders in the global elite. Whether in the cold, crisp air of the World Economic Forum in Davos or in the conference rooms of international think tanks, the world’s strongest supporters of the pre-Trump, pre-Brexit status quo gather to assess the damage to their power and credibility, and ponder whether what they see as an international wave of populist revolt could wash up on the shores of whatever country their own passport has been issued.

Except in Japan. Like the characters in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel about a populist revolution in the U.S. that leads to fascism, Japanese establishment figures rush to assure international bankers, mainstream business journalists, ambitious academic courtiers and titans of global industry that it can’t happen here.

Sometimes, cliches serve as the rationale: “Japan is a society based on consensus. It’s impossible for one man or woman to lead a populist revolt.”

Or: “Most Japanese understand that Japan is a small island nation without natural resources. It needs international trade, benefits from the existing international order and sees those who disagree with that view as impractical.”

And, of course, there is a lack of the kind of anti-immigration fervor that populists in the U.S. and Europe use to gain votes.

It’s true that the period between 2009 and 2012 when the Democratic Party of Japan was in power might be said to have been something of a populist revolt (in the sense that voters were sick of the Liberal Democratic Party and wanted change).

However, many DPJ (now Democratic Party) leaders had spent years in opposition politics before their party became the ruling party. They were, compared to, say, Donald Trump, political insiders, albeit governing outsiders, when they took charge.

Still, the fact that the LDP has remained in power for about 58 of its 62 years seems a persuasive reason to argue Japan is not prone to political populism. That said, there have been a number of populist movements — as well as politicians who were populist or adopted populist rhetoric — throughout the past century in particular.

Tadaatsu Ishiguro was a major figure in agricultural policy.
Tadaatsu Ishiguro was a major figure in agricultural policy. | KYODO

The Emperor, the barbarians and down on the farm

The late 19th century, a period of modernization and rapid urbanization, saw social and political slogans in Japan that were reactionary, if not always populist in the sense of the common 20th-century usage of the word.

“Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians” was the cry of those opposed to opening up Japan to the West following the 1853 visit of U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s “black ships” and the signing of the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa, which ended Japan’s 2½ centuries of self-imposed isolation from the outside world.

The slogan conveyed anger at the Tokugawa shogunate for agreeing to allow foreigners in and called for the shogun to be overthrown and the Emperor to be placed in power. It was a particularly strong sentiment in Satsuma (modern Kagoshima Prefecture) and Choshu (today’s Yamaguchi Prefecture), which supplied many leaders of the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

Passions the slogan aroused would eventually culminate in attacks by anti-shogun forces upon resident Westerners, including the murder of an English resident. After the British Navy bombarded Kagoshima in retaliation, the slogan, at least, evolved into “Rich nation, strong army.”

In the early 20th century, increased literacy rates, the spread of newspapers and rapid industrialization under the Meiji government created political and social strains among and between newly urbanized elites and workers and traditional rural societies. One reaction was the nōhonshugi movement, which translates awkwardly into English as “agriculture-as-essence-ism.”

The argument, at heart, was that Japan’s sprint to catch up to the West in terms of industrial production threatened traditional agrarian political, social and cultural norms that had developed over centuries. Nōhonshugi proponents believed these values centered on the authority of the family, the Emperor and the nation itself.

Behind romanticized ideals of life down on the farm were fears among Japan’s landlords that tenant farmers were growing increasingly militant. In the 1920s and 1930s, tenant unions, often backed by the Communist Party, grew in power, reflecting the class divide between those who worked on the farms and those who owned them. The nōhonshugi movement attempted to shift the focus of rural anger from the class system imposed by landowners to protesting the industrial commercialization of agriculture that was taking place.

Nōhonshugi eventually merged with a growing militant nationalism. There was no single prominent national political party devoted exclusively to nōhonshugi. However, its intellectual adherents became influential prewar — and postwar — figures who would continue to promote nōhonshugi’s basic values. Two especially influential men were Tadaatsu Ishiguro and Shiroshi Nasu.

Both were born in 1884. Ishiguro would become a major figure in agricultural politics in the 1930s and serve as minister of agriculture in 1940. When World War II ended in 1945, he was purged by the U.S.-led Occupation before returning to the Upper House in 1952 after the Occupation ended.

Nasu, a close friend of Ishiguro’s, was heavily influential in agricultural politics during the prewar years. He would enjoy a postwar career as an ambassador to India and Nepal, promoting agricultural reform to boost production.

Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka chats with U.S. President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1973.
Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka chats with U.S. President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1973. | KYODO

Tanaka’s outside influence

Japan’s immediate postwar era saw the country rebound from the devastation of war. Special emphasis was placed on rebuilding and modernizing the manufacturing capabilities and transportation infrastructure of major cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

By the early 1970s, the social and economic gaps between these cities — especially Tokyo — and the rest of the country were widening at a rate that alarmed those who remembered the urban-rural gap of the prewar years that had inspired the militarists. What many wanted was a leader who understood the problem and would work to redress it. Enter a Niigata politician named Kakuei Tanaka.

Born into a poor rural family in a part of the country people on the Pacific Ocean coast viewed as remote, isolated and backward, Tanaka rose to become a populist hero.

With a strong support base in Niigata Prefecture called the Etsuzankai, or “Niigata Mountain Association,” Tanaka is credited (or blamed) with perfecting, if not inventing, what would become the “construction state.”

Depending on your view, this meant a policy of central government funding for public works projects in order to improve the lives of those living in rural Japan, or one of pork-barrel projects of no redeeming economic or social value (especially to people in cities) that resulted only in political bribery and corruption, thus ensuring Tanaka and his political cronies would remain in power.

In some ways, Tanaka’s philosophy and policies toward rural Japan echoed the romantic idealization of rural life as seen in the prewar nōhonshugi movement. However, these were combined with a hard-nosed, practical desire on Tanaka’s part to make Tokyo’s cosmopolitan bureaucrats, who despised the prime minister as an uneducated rustic outsider who hadn’t graduated from an elite university, remember that they were servants of the people.

In 1972, with the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and the Osaka Expo of 1970 seen as having improved life in both cities, Tanaka unveiled his plan to remodel the Japanese archipelago. He called for a new network of roads, bridges and high-speed train rails. The trains, he vowed, would link smaller cities with populations of between 300,000 and 400,000 people to Tokyo or Osaka, thereby creating a more economically and demographically diversified country.

In addition, national pension benefits significantly increased and medical care for the elderly was expanded under Tanaka. In 1973, a law was passed that provided medical costs to those suffering from pollution-induced illnesses, with businesses nationwide forced to cover the costs, although many environmental groups charged that the law was too easy on corporations. Such initiatives were often seen as having at least a populist bent.

It was also under Tanaka’s leadership that Japan passed three laws encouraging local governments to host nuclear power plants by offering them generous long-term subsidies that could be used to build modern roads, sewage systems, hospitals and community centers, as well as fund medical care and social welfare needs.

Cash-strapped local governments that met the technical requirements for hosting a nuclear power plant but were years, sometimes decades, behind Tokyo and Osaka in terms of modern infrastructure signed up.

Nuclear power came to be seen as a cheap, environmentally friendly electricity source that benefited not only urban consumers but also people in the towns and villages that hosted the plants.

Tanaka was plagued by political scandals throughout his career and, ultimately, fell victim to a 1976 bribery scandal involving U.S. aircraft manufacturer Lockheed and its attempts to sell its planes to All Nippon Airways. He was arrested and found guilty but appealed to the Supreme Court, where his case was pending before he died in December 1993.

By the 1980s, much of the general public was sick of Tanaka’s “money politics” and their feelings were sometimes reflected in popular culture. A 1985 video game called “Gonbe no Aimusori” features a Tanaka-like politician being chased through a series of mazes by men in black suits and dark sunglasses. The hero increases his strength to punch them out by collecting gold bars that lie along the paths.

Tanaka’s influence, however, continued throughout the 1980s and ’90s as those who had once been his political allies assumed power. But Tanaka, an outsider, had a LDP faction that included men who would become seen as the ultimate political insiders. By the early 21st century, a new kind of populist-flavored politician who could bring jaded voters to the polls was needed.

U.S. President George W. Bush poses for a photo alongside Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at Camp David near Thurmont, Maryland, in 2001.
U.S. President George W. Bush poses for a photo alongside Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at Camp David near Thurmont, Maryland, in 2001. | KYODO

The Koizumi years

“Look at these crowds. And I’m a politician, not an entertainer!”

Thus spoke Junichiro Koizumi during the spring of 2001, as throngs of admiring men and women followed him around during the LDP’s presidential campaign, which decided the new prime minister. Koizumi, something of a maverick, was also the leader of the reform faction of his party. His media charisma and promises to destroy the LDP in order to save it won him the post, where he introduced a number of bureaucratic reforms that were popular with urban voters in particular, especially schemes such as privatization of the postal services. Koizumi also made no apologies for his support for prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a break from tradition.

In his 2003 book on Japanese-style populism, political scientist Hideo Otake contrasted Tanaka’s populist ideology with Koizumi’s. Tanaka was focused on interest-led populism, the basic tenets of which were local interest-led politics emphasizing redistribution of the overly Tokyo-concentrated wealth to local areas. In this model, elite Tokyo University bureaucrats — and politicians they are close to — are the enemies of the common people in rural areas.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2004.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2004. | KYODO

Koizumi, however, represented, in Otake’s view, a new form of neoliberal populism that aimed to break up the cozy relationship that had developed between politicians around the country, protected industries and bureaucrats who supported them — the so-called iron triangle that was a result of the kind of interest-led populism Tanaka had represented. Neoliberal populism embraced privatization of government services as well as deregulation and bureaucratic reform.

Koizumi served in office for five years, masterfully manipulating the television media in particular. His conservative views on issues such as Japan’s wartime responsibility mattered less to many than his efforts to get the domestic economy moving again by battling the entrenched political and bureaucratic system. In addition to the privatization of postal services, the LDP passed 82 of the 91 bills it submitted to the Diet during Koizumi’s term, often bills promoting neoliberal economic and financial reforms. Upon his retirement in the autumn of 2006, his successor was Shinzo Abe, whose appeal was anything but populist.

Toru Hashimoto celebrates the launch of Nippon Ishin no Kai in 2012.
Toru Hashimoto celebrates the launch of Nippon Ishin no Kai in 2012. | KYODO

Toru Hashimoto and the Ishin movement

In late 2007, not long after Abe left the prime minister’s chair for the first time, Osaka’s business and political leaders faced a problem. Tensions within the local LDP chapter were threatening to rip the party apart. The gubernatorial election was just weeks away but no traditional candidate could be found. With no other choice, local leaders backed a political novice and establishment outsider, Toru Hashimoto, a popular and eloquent, if brash, young lawyer (then 38) and television personality.

Hashimoto was a hybrid mix of the local interest-led populist ideology that Tanaka’s rural supporters had appreciated and the urban, neoliberal populism programs that Koizumi had pitched to urbanized voters. He had conservative, right-wing views about society that endeared him to the old men and women in the LDP.

However, Hashimoto also advocated a form of independence from Tokyo that endeared him to nonaligned voters, and those in Osaka who saw Tokyo’s bureaucrats and status-quo mentality as being at the root of all their problems.

Hashimoto’s fiery attacks on political opponents and media critics on social media in particular signaled that something of a generational shift in politics had occurred, at least in Osaka. Over the next eight years, he would serve as Osaka governor and mayor, and as founder and leader of a local political group and a small national political party. He would use populist attacks against “big government” — namely, Tokyo — and appeal to Osaka’s local pride to rally support for two ideas backed by area corporations and younger Osakans: merging the city of Osaka and Osaka Prefecture, and eventually overturning Japan’s prefectural system and replacing it with quasi-autonomous regions, including a Kansai region.

Hashimoto would end his political career in 2015 having failed at both and with his national Nippon Ishin no Kai party unable to gain much support outside its Osaka base. However, he is still personally popular with many younger voters. Earlier this month, during a speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Hashimoto explained his populist appeal, at least in Osaka, in generational terms.

“There are three generations in Japan today,” Hashimoto said. “The first generation experienced World War II and categorically denies prewar Japan. The second generation grew up during the Cold War and is a bit open to the values of prewar Japan.

“For my generation, the third generation, which consists of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who experienced the war, it doesn’t matter if it’s prewar or postwar values. We base our perception on what is rational. We see some beauty in the prewar aspects of Japan and we wish to continue these traditions,” he said. “But as far as how the political system has altered after the war, we also accept the postwar system as it is.”

If Hashimoto’s analysis of this “third generation” is accurate, might it produce the next populist leader? Government figures show just over half of the country lived in or around Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka as of 2015. With continuing depopulation in the countryside, the number of urban dwellers in the coming years is predicted to rise further. This will occur as the percentage of elderly rapidly increases and the number of younger Japanese decreases.

Thus Hashimoto’s generation, and the one after his, will have to address the political, social and economic needs — and fears — of a growing number of elderly, urban-based voters. Future political leaders will adjust their rhetoric and policies in this new reality in Japan, a country where policies now considered populist or anti-establishment may be seen in just a few decades by the majority of Japanese as common sense. It, whatever “it” might be, could happen here.

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