First came the news earlier this month that Japan had slipped back into recession for the fourth time in 12 years. Then on Dec. 12, North Korea defiantly fired a missile that flew over Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa. Finally, a day later, the deepening dispute with China over a handful of uninhabited isles in the East China Sea hotted up with Tokyo accusing Beijing of violating its airspace for the first time ever by sending a surveillance plane into Japanese-controlled skies. (Until recently, the territorial spat had been merely maritime.) Suffice it to say that Japan has been feeling a little edgy these days—and that unease will likely manifest itself in the Dec. 16 general elections through a victory by tough-talking nationalists. The latest polls indicate that Shinzo Abe, the leader of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), will soon become Prime Minister.
The LDP and its minority partner, the New Komeito Party, may well win an outright majority (or even a two-third mandate) in the lower house of parliament. For nearly the entire postwar era, the LDP controlled the reins in Japan. The DPJ, now helmed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, came to power three years ago promising to offer a new way of doing things in a nation concerned that it was sliding into a slow decline. But ineffectual leadership and Japan’s infamous technocratic gridlock chipped away at the DPJ’s image as a fresh alternative to the LDP, which has now tried to remake itself as the face of change in Japan.
Also tapping the populist, nationalist vein is the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), a new political bloc that is running as a third-force alternative to the LDP and the current governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The JRP’s barnstorming rhetoric comes courtesy of young rebel Osaka governor Toru Hashimoto and elderly ultranationalist ex-Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. However, the most recent polls show that its support has slipped since a month ago when its novelty intrigued Japanese voters.
Japan’s turn rightward is the subject of TIME’s magazine story earlier this month, available to subscribers only:
The rise of a New Right has the potential not only to transform the way a long-pacifist Japan sees itself but also to unsettle Asia’s security landscape. “Japan’s shift to the right didn’t happen overnight,” says Koichi Nakano, director of the Institute of Global Concern at Sophia University in Tokyo. “But we may be witnessing how this move in Japan will change regional geopolitics.”
Populism can thrive in times of insecurity, when citizens are looking for an explanation for their malaise or for a convenient scapegoat:
More than a third of Japanese cannot find full-time jobs. Last year’s triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis was supposed to shake the country out of its paralyzing placidity. But little has happened since besides a flurry of civil-society activity and some well-attended antinuclear protests. If the Japanese seem uniformly passionate about anything, it’s antipathy toward a rising neighbor to the west. More than 80% of Japanese say they harbor unfriendly sentiments about China, up nearly 10% from last year, according to a survey by Japan’s Cabinet Office. “Ten years ago, I was considered an ultra-nationalist,” says Yoshiko Sakurai, a former TV anchor who has written books with titles like The Determination to Stand Up to China. “But now these are ordinary thoughts in Japan.”
The possibility that Japan may stand up more forcefully to China will have profound implications for regional peace, although politicians tend to be more feisty on the campaign stump than when in office. There are equally important domestic concerns. The country has cycled through six prime ministers in as many years, including a first stint at the top by none other than Abe, the likely next PM. Japan may pride itself as the region’s oldest democracy. But for many Japanese, there’s a sense that the compact between the governed and governors is broken, that politicians are fat cats who cannot (or, worse, don’t care to) wrest power from the career bureaucrats who actually make the country run.
Populist calls for seizing power back from the center (be it Washington or Tokyo) are nothing new. Ross Perot would recognize the brand of politics that the JRP, just one of many new parties in this election, is peddling. The JRP’s leader Ishihara knows how to make headlines, denying the Nanjing Massacre (which took place exactly 75 years ago when Japanese forces descended on the wartime Chinese capital and claimed some 250,000 Chinese lives), referring to China by a derogatory name used back when Japan was on its imperial march across Asia and refusing to accept the Japanese imperial army’s role in the mass forced prostitution of Asian women.
Still the 80-year-old Ishihara, with all his shock-jock sensationalism, doesn’t exactly mirror the sentiments of the average Japanese. The JRP’s popularity ratings barely break 10%, around the same percentage as the DPJ, which could suffer its worst showing on Dec. 16 since its founding in 1998. Despite the fact that it will almost certainly win the upcoming general election, the LDP, too, isn’t limning the popular mood, with little more than 20% support. In fact, what characterizes much of the Japanese electorate is not what it likes but what it doesn’t. More than half of Japanese voters detest Ishihara. Abe also musters unimpressive ratings.
So disillusioned are voters that up to half haven’t made up their mind as to which party they will support on Sunday, according to surveys by Japanese dailies. The state of Japan today is one in which a charismatic politician could harness public discontent and turn it into a personal platform. A rousing national ideology, as espoused by a political party, could also catalyze much-needed institutional and political reform. Sadly, the polls on Dec. 16 won’t bring much change on either front. Japan will muddle on.