Climate change is not much of a social issue in Japan. Even in the wake of three recent weather-related disasters, there has been little discussion across the political spectrum that climate change contributed to them. In Europe and the United States, left-leaning groups demand action to mitigate the effects of climate change, which they say is the result of human activity, while right-leaning groups tend to dismiss human impact and even question whether climate change is real. 

In a discussion that appeared on the Aera Dot website on Oct. 23, associate professor Kohei Saito of Osaka City University said that one of the reasons Japan has not addressed climate change is that the average person has yet to be affected by it, even though weather-related disasters have increased in frequency and intensity. 

In developed nations, climate change exacerbates economic differences: The top layers of society spend money to shield themselves from its effects while the bottom layers are defenseless. Saito points out that Tokyo, which is relatively wealthy, managed to survive the recent typhoons without much damage, while regional areas and vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and the poor, were disproportionately affected. So-called climate change deniers complain that addressing the problem will hinder growth. Progressives in the United States who advocate for change propose schemes such as the Green New Deal, whose goal is to support growth and sustainability.

The Green New Deal is a signature plan of left-wing populism, a movement that is only now gaining traction in Japan, mainly through the ascendancy of Taro Yamamoto, the founder and leader of Reiwa Shinsengumi, which is less than a year old. Saito says in Japan complex issues are the realm of elites, who tackle such problems “from the top down.” Meanwhile, climate change in developed nations is being addressed from the bottom up, meaning that grassroots organizations are seeking proactive solutions. Populism follows a similar dynamic. Right-wing populism is associated with charismatic leaders latching on to dissatisfaction among the general public and then exploiting that dissatisfaction. Left-wing populism is more about social movements gaining momentum and then finding a leader who will help them achieve their goals. With right-wing populism, once the leader is gone, the movement dissipates until someone else revives it, but with left-wing populism, leaders are immediately replaceable. It’s the actual issue that matters.

In this regard, Yamamoto’s label as a left-wing populist is problematic, and not just because he doesn’t seem interested in climate change. In his regular Tokyo Shimbun column about weekly magazines, Hiroyuki Shinoda reviewed the Nov. 5 issue of Newsweek Japan, which featured a series of cover stories about Yamamoto. He said Yamamoto’s popularity represents “resistance” to the monolithic power of the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In one of the Newsweek Japan stories, however, filmmaker and writer Tatsuya Mori characterizes Yamamoto as someone who makes decisions unilaterally, not unlike Abe. 

In another Newsweek Japan essay, former Mainichi Shimbun reporter Satoru Ishido analyzed Yamamoto’s leadership style, which clearly moved voters in last July’s Upper House election, resulting in a surprising number of victories for Reiwa Shinsengumi. When the media started describing Yamamoto as the standard bearer for left-wing populism in Japan, supporters complained. In Japanese, populism can generally be translated as “taishū geigō shugi,” which implies blind obedience.

In the Aera Dot interview, Saito doesn’t characterize Yamamoto as being left wing, but he does find him more credible as an opposition force because he fields candidates who have direct connections to the positions he advocates, such as recruiting people with disabilities to fight for disabled causes. Most opposition parties simply recruit the same kind of elites the ruling party puts forth. Saito thinks Yamamoto’s strategy aligns with the bottom-up philosophy of left-wing populism. 

Ishido sees contradictions here and, in the interview that accompanies his Newsweek essay, he asked Yamamoto directly about his “political stance.” Yamamoto answered that he considers himself neither right wing nor left wing but rather a “freestyle” politician, adhering to no core ideology but motivated by the need to confront vested interests in both ruling and opposition parties. This style leads to confusion. As Saito points out, most of Yamamoto’s policies revolve around economic inequality, and yet he isn’t interested in climate change. He is suspicious of increasing blue-collar immigration, as he believes it would depress wages for Japanese workers. He also supports the imperial system but in the sense that he sees the emperor as the father figure he never had in his own life, having been raised by a single mother. 

In 2013, he caused a scandal when at an imperial function he handed Emperor Heisei a letter about his opposition to nuclear power, which used to be his pet issue. In last July’s campaign, his main gripe was against the consumption tax hike. In fact, he has advocated for coal as the transition energy source toward renewables in Japan, a position that dismays environmentalists. 

Yamamoto’s charisma, polished by years of experience as a professional actor, is what gives him his populist edge. At present, he himself occupies no seat in government, but he plans to field around 100 candidates in the next general election and, if he’s as successful, as he was last July, Reiwa Shinsengumi could have a profound effect on Japanese politics. The question no one is able to answer at the moment is what kind of effect it would be. 

When Ishido mentions during his Newsweek Japan interview that other parties don’t appear to want to work with him, Yamamoto remarks that opposition parties are happy just to be the “perennial opposition.” Reiwa Shinsengumi can only get bigger at this point, he says, so it doesn’t matter who he works with as long as he achieves his goal.

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