Commentary / Japan

Signs of the far right in Japan's politics

The race is on to elect the new chief of the opposition Democratic Party, with Seiji Maehara and Yukio Edano, who both served in key positions in the Democratic Party of Japan-led government, vying for leadership of the No. 1 opposition force. Whoever of the two should win the race in the vote on Friday, however, there’s little hope that popular expectations of the DP will significantly rise. A lot of people do hope that there will be a political force that can serve as an alternative to the Liberal Democratic Party. But it seem quite hard to dispel people’s disillusionment with the existing opposition parties.

Some within the opposition camp, including Goshi Hosono, who recently quit the DP, appear to lay hopes on the Nippon First no Kai (Japan First), a national-level political movement by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who led her Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party to victory in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race in early August. But citizens who have sought political reforms in this country have also experienced the hollowness of political realignment that was pursued as if in search of the blue bird of happiness over the past quarter century.

It remains to be seen how different Nippon First will be from all the “new parties” that have come and gone like bubbles. But it does seem that the movement has the potential to create a major boom because it is driven by the extremely popular Koike. Therefore, it is necessary at this stage to scrutinize whether the movement is desirable for Japan’s political democracy.

First of all, the name Nippon First in itself sounds undemocratic and signifies the negation of politics. The group was obviously named Nippon First on the recognition that Japan is being given a “secondary” importance, but to what Japan is being subordinated? Its members ideally calling for “Japan first” could amount to a sheer xenophobia. Also, the name seems to be based on an idea that all the people and regions that constitute this country share a common, single set of interests. That is of course not true — Japan encompasses various interests at home that collide and compete with each other, and there is no single set of self-evident national interests. Politics is indeed a process that mediate between the divergent and conflicting domestic interests to build a consensus. So, the blatant use of a name like Nippon First points to the denial of politics in itself.

A recent series of events concerning Koike and her Tomin First party is also suggestive of the nature of people behind the movement. In particular, Koike’s refusal to deliver a message for Koreans massacred at the time of the Sept. 1, 1923, Great Kanto Earthquake — which her predecessors have customarily did — shows what political values they stand for. It is a fact that in the chaos that ensued the deadly earthquake, false rumors spread that Korean residents were throwing poison into wells, leading people at large to form vigilante groups to kill the Koreans — and that public authorities contributed to their actions. Looking squarely at the history of the massacre, to learn about the precarious nature of mass psychology and the need for adequate response by the government, is all the more important given that Tokyo faces the risk of yet another major disaster in the future. That Koike refused to issue a message to mourn for victims of the massacre could be construed as a sign that she sympathizes with a revisionist view of history that seeks to deny that the massacre ever took place. It can be said that the Tomin First party and Nippon First group, which rally behind such a politician, carry the risk of developing into a far right, xenophobic political force.

Koike’s move may resonate with the perceived lack of sensitivity for human rights on the part of U.S. President Donald Trump, who blamed “both sides” when a clash between white supremacists and citizens protesting them killed one and injured 19 others in Charlottesville, Virginia. A major difference between Japan and the United States, however, is that Trump came under severe criticism from political circles and the media for his failure to take a clear stand on the issue of human dignity. Here, the media does not go after a politician even when he or she makes remarks that run counter to humanitarian values if that politician is quite popular.

If the unaffiliated swing voters, in their quest for a new political force, are going to be drawn to a right-wing politician who may disregard human dignity and basic human rights, the decline in popular support for the Abe administration might usher in an even worse scenario for Japan’s politics.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professsor of political science at Hosei University.

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