The current group of conservative public figures in the United States wants to return to an age when certain middle-class values were ascendant, without acknowledging that many of those values were realized because President Franklin Roosevelt implemented progressive social policies and trade unions had real power. They maligned Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for his avowed socialist platform during the 2016 presidential campaign, but much of that platform constituted the status quo in the 1950s. Later, Ronald Reagan dismantled the government structures that made the era prosperous.
There’s a similar nostalgia at work in today’s Japanese general election. On the one hand, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to rewrite the Constitution in a bid to re-create the “beautiful Japan” he thinks existed before the country lost World War II, without recognizing that some of the qualities he admires led Japan to destruction.
On the other side of the ideological divide, some left-leaning politicians have feelings for the immediate postwar era, when the hard-won freedom of conscience was considered a precious right. And then there’s Yukio Edano, the former Democratic Party Secretary-General who just formed the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan as a tribute to relatively iconoclastic leaders who held sway in the early 1990s, like Takako Doi, when the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — which had held power continually since its creation in 1955 — was losing its relevancy.
As Sophia University professor Koichi Nakano wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, today’s election was originally seen as a two-way race between different right-wing flavors — Abe’s nostalgic LDP on the one hand and former LDP stalwart Yuriko Koike’s more media-savvy conservatism on the other. Edano’s party supposedly fills the liberal vacuum created by the collapse of the Democratic Party, whose members were not consistently liberal across its ranks anyway. In fact, many members were as conservative as Abe, which is why it was so easy for them to jump ship to Koike’s Party of Hope, especially when Koike purged it of any liberal influence.
This situation set off a conversation in the media as to what Japanese liberalism is. According to manga artist and conservative firebrand Yoshinori Kobayashi, only “stupid people” in Japan believe left-wingers are synonymous with liberals. Despite his own longing for prewar Japanese ideals, Kobayashi admires liberals for their dedication to “freedom,” which he thinks is the main philosophical pillar of liberalism. In an Oct. 7 blog post he admits to identifying more with the Japan Communist Party (JCP) — which he sees as being liberal, meaning centrist, and not “leftwing” — more than he does with the LDP or its doctrinaire brothers-in-arms Nippon Ishin no Kai. The JCP has abandoned many left-wing positions for a more practical stance.
“The JCP is changing all the time,” Kobayashi writes. “It no longer insists on abolishing the Emperor system or the Self-Defense Forces.” More significantly, the JCP is against neoliberalism and the free trade Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Kobayashi also opposes. “JCP’s policies are based on a nationalism that overlaps with conservatism,” he says, “while the LDP and Ishin support globalism and only call themselves conservatives.”
Kobayashi may be confusing liberalism with libertarianism, which, according to freelance journalist Tetsuo Jimbo, has no traction in Japan. In a discussion with veteran political operative Norihiko Narita on Jimbo’s website, Videonews.com, Jimbo says he thinks the late LDP Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa once represented the “liberal” wing of the party, though Narita makes the point that Miyazawa eventually became the standard bearer for what the media called the “new right” in Japan. Until the ’90s, the main opposition was the Japan Socialist Party, which was against the U.S.-Japan military alliance and advocated for a strict interpretation of the postwar Constitution.
Ironically, the LDP maintained power for so long because of policies that were socialist in nature. It carried out income redistribution through public works projects, which stimulated the economy until the asset-inflated bubble burst at the dawn of the ’90s. Opposition parties took advantage of the LDP’s weakness in the general election of 1993, which Narita says resembles the upcoming election in that a great deal of political retrenchment took place. The idea was to create a real two-party system, but what happened is that, due to election reform that designated one person from each party running for a constituency seat, the LDP’s traditional “faction” structure fell apart, resulting in greater power for whoever is the leader of the ruling party.
Since then, “opposition parties have become even weaker,” says Narita, “which means the media has had to act as the opposition party.” However, the press has been effectively cowed by the Abe administration. “Their fangs have been removed,” Narita says, and now there is no clear liberal force in Japanese public life.
Because there is no equivalent term in Japanese, the English word “liberal” is used. An Oct. 8 Asahi Shimbun article attempted to parse the meaning of the word and found that even Japanese dictionaries define it differently. Since both the LDP and Koike demonstrate libertarian impulses, some people are confused, and Edano has muddled matters even more by calling himself a “liberal conservative.”
If there’s anything that ideologically distinguishes ruling party conservatives, it is the idea of “individual rights,” which both Abe and Koike seem to abhor, since they equate individualism with selfishness. Pundit Takeshi Nakajima said in the Asahi that the LDP’s conservatism is inherently “paternalistic,” and as Narita told the Mainichi Shimbun, “50 percent of the population is opposed to changing the Constitution,” which, as it stands, guarantees the rights of individuals.
A person who defends the postwar Constitution may be the best way to identify a Japanese liberal.