Are Japanese voters getting more extreme?
To what extent does Japanese politics reflect the attitudes and beliefs of its people? There is an argument that while nationalist conservatives occupy some of the highest positions of power, some of them using these positions to express their skepticism about the atrocities of Imperial Japan, they must to some extent speak for the sake of it. of the electorate – or even on behalf of the whole country. If this language and behavior worsens, intensifies, or becomes more aggressive, it must also reflect a growing extremism in the popular sentiments of Japanese citizens. This is not an entirely unreasonable argument – similar nationalist and extremist shifts in the US, UK and elsewhere have been backed by strong political bases of support.
The problem with applying this logic to Japan, however, is that there is little evidence that these views, despite all the attention given to them, actually represent the perspectives of Japanese citizens – even the Japanese. citizens who vote for the very parties that support these views. On the contrary, the broad feeling of the public – and the desire of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party not to lose its support – has made it possible to control the most important ambitions of the nationalists who have so far proved more resilient than in d other democracies facing similar situations. challenges.
Over the past decades, many liberal democracies have found themselves in power with extremist, and often reactionary, parties. The United States has witnessed a marked shift to the right of the Republican Party and its constituents, with election laws and governance structures ensuring their continued contribution to politics even when they were not in power, while the UK has experienced partisan fragmentation which has forced parties to tinker with it. support from groups which may include some with extreme views. France and Germany, for their part, saw growing support for extremist parties like the National and Alternative Rally for Germany. In any case, the nationalist right wing has successfully exploited “culture war” issues like immigration, religion, LGBTQ + rights, etc., but their relative success has always depended on larger structural issues in their political systems. Even where these parties did not achieve electoral success, they still managed to find a reliable base of support and change the tenor of the debate.
There is an assumption, especially among foreign observers, that because politics in the United States and other Western democracies are becoming more and more extreme, it must be a global wave affecting people as well. other liberal democracies – like that of Japan – and that it must also manifest itself in the same way as Western democracies, with demagogic populist leaders, anti-immigrant sentiment and an opportunistic deepening of cultural warfare divisions. While many researchers have indeed observed what they describe as a shift to the right in Japanese politics, the reality is more complicated (as one would expect in a situation where the LDP has been described, not unfairly, as the “most successful socialist party in the world”). It is true that the PLD has moved to the right, but its turn has been much less spectacular than the conservative parties of other countries. For Japanese politics to become truly extremist, voters would have to embrace not only the LDP at large, but also the nationalist agenda of its more conservative members. Instead, as the Japanese right wing attempted to launch a “crop war” program, voters refused to take the bait.
Japanese voters, on the whole, are not as ideological as hard-line PLD supporters and are much less interested in issues of nationalism or cultural warfare than those on the right-wing PLD. While Japanese politicians may follow textbooks similar to those of their foreign counterparts who attempt to distinguish themselves through appeals to values - for example, Boris Johnson, like Abe Shinzo to some extent, has relied on appeals to nationalism (and fractured opposition) to maintain electoral dominance – a main difference is that Japanese citizens do not largely reflect these differences in terms of values. Japanese voters prioritize economic stability and social order (defined in the survey questions as living in a peaceful society where laws are upheld) and have not shown much willingness to follow the priority values of the people. political elites (usually freedom and equality). Even morality and patriotism, while often favored by LDP candidates, are not favored by LDP voters themselves. Some conservative actors within the LDP are trying to use issues of patriotism or nationalism to ignite part of their base, but it’s not a base big enough to do anything on their own – which means that they depend on the cooperation of other parts of the LDP support (not to mention the general public) to elevate their prospects.
Moreover, despite the LDP’s continued electoral strength, some underlying evidence suggests that the party’s dominance in the decades following the 1994 electoral reforms was more fortuitous than structural. Election volatility has increased since the 1990s, as re-election rates have risen from 80% to 50%. In the United States, electoral volatility has collapsed as polarization has caused voters to become more attached to their party, while the reverse is happening in the United Kingdom, where volatility has increased, voters British people looking for new parties to identify with. In Japan, independents remain a significantly large part of the Japanese electorate, sometimes up to 35%. The DPJ won in 2009 in part by uniting the support of these independent voters – and when the DPJ lost power in 2012, the power of these voters was shared among a myriad of third parties.
The problem for the opposition since then is not only that voters do not see it as a credible standby government, but voters have not been able to forge strong ties with the opposition parties being given the lava lamp of constantly changing parties, party names and other brands – in layman’s terms, it’s hard to invest in a party that might not be there after the next election. As the University of Tokyo’s Kenneth Mori McElwain notes in a 2014 article, voters need to be wooed by a party consistently and repeatedly. If the opposition continues to coordinate in the elections and continues to provide an ideological alternative to the LDP, as seems to be its strategy so far, the opposition can still overcome this obstacle. At the very least, just being competitive could change the dynamics – historically the PLD has retreated to the center when its electoral hopes are in jeopardy.
Of course, just because extremism is politically limited does not mean that there are no extremist actors who can exert significant influence. Harassment by right-wing trolls, for example, is a real and important problem, and nationalist actors continue to have a significant weight in the PLD. For foreign observers in Japan, confusion may arise as to whether commentators give more weight to the intentions of these actors, or to the effects they actually have. Neither can really be ignored. Focusing only on intentions means ignoring the very meaningful controls over their actions by Japanese institutions and the public; while focusing only on the effects tacitly – and perhaps naively – means to assume that these controls will continue to hold up as they always have.
However, much of the narrative of deepening extremism in Japan has been grafted onto a framework that does not fit. While Japanese conservatives are certainly becoming more ideological and more invested in cultural warfare issues, they have found an audience much less receptive to their message than has been the case in the US and UK. Japanese nationalists and revisionists have found an audience that can be tolerant of their positions, but which is largely unmoved by them and instead continues to focus on valence issues like economics and infrastructure – a contrast hitting with the success of extremists in other democracies. This may not stay true forever, but for now – and unlike the US, UK and many countries in the EU – Japan has managed to more or less hold extremism at bay. . The Japanese case challenges the narrative that the malaise of extremism has naturally spread to all liberal democracies; recognizing that Japanese voters have successfully resisted extremism will help us better understand what has gone wrong in other countries.