Is Japan Drifting to the Right?
JSPS Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Tokyo
It is widely believed in the Western and Asian press that Japanese politics is drifting to the right. This belief has strengthened after the LDP regained power in late 2012 and the subsequent electoral victories the Abe administration has enjoyed.
Japan’s drift to the right is a concept that has been brought up in various situations. Yet, what this “drift to the right” means in Japan’s context is unclear. Is it society as a whole that is leaning to the right, or is it just the government, or some elements of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party? More so, is Japan really leaning to the right? And if so, how is that a problem for its people, and neighboring countries? There is no plain and simple answer to these questions.
Before I continue further, let me be clear about one basic point. That is, what constitutes the ideological left-right political spectrum is totally different in the US, continental Europe, China, Japan, etc. Generally speaking, many economic policies that are considered rightward are considered closely related to neoliberal economics. Some concrete examples that are compatible to rightward policies include the notion of small government, scaled-down economic regulations, and liberalization of global trade and investment.
On the other hand, to lean to the right in terms of social policy is associated with the inclination to value tradition. In the Japanese context, this might be negative attitudes toward policies such as the right to hold dual surnames in families, or the improvement in the social status of children born out of wedlock.
In regards to national security, those on the political right are generally considered to be hawkish, and advocators of expansionist policies. Furthermore, as a nation defeated in World War II, Japan also provides a unique political landscape where the attitude toward modern history serves as an important divider of the left and right. However, these trends do not necessarily emerge as a set package, and there are cases in which groups that are deemed to be on the right may actually be advocating a leftist issue.
Even in the conservative camp alone, the historic divide between “anti-American” or “pro-American” right-wingers has been clear. In fact, conservative groups actively claim that “group so-and-so is not authentically conservative” to differentiate themselves from other groups. While the realists who place importance on practical interests frequently find solutions by seeking after some sort of middle ground, forces that focus on ideologies and ideals constantly face internal strife.
On the left, however, despite the differences between groups on where to compromise between ideals and reality, there seems to have been a general consistency among the ideologists on how they view their ideals. In the economy, left-wingers are open to big government. In social issues, they are receptive to freedom of individual choice and new values, albeit some exemptions in the name of equality. They are most likely doves when it comes to national security, and are against any deviation from the “orthodox” recognition of post-war history.
If so, we may be able to define the “right” as the political position that is “anti-left”. Right-wingers may agree with the left on individual policies, but still hold a general sense of aversion toward the leftists. Today’s alleged right wingers originated and grew to hold power as a result of the left-wingers forcing them to reveal their political identity and preferences by taking a loyalty test or “fumie*1” over sensitive controversial issues.
For example, until former PM Koizumi visited North Korea, and Kim Jong-il admitted the whole abduction incident as a historical fact, the left-leaning media and intellectuals claimed that those who made a fuss about the abduction issue were most likely right-wingers and “dangerous”.
An interesting trend becomes apparent when determining whether Japan is actually drifting to the right or not in individual policies. First off, nobody in Japan advocates small government. The tone in the Nikkei newspaper is probably closest to this trait, but this is still very moderate when compared to its global peers such as the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal. There is no movement in Japan that could be compared to the Tea Party in the US, nor to politicians like George Osborne in UK’s conservative government who boldly advocates highly austere fiscal policies. There are many fiscal hawks in Japan’s Ministry of Finance, but they seem to focus on balancing the budget in the context of big government.
There was a symbolic scene in a Japanese debate show where Harvard Ethics Professor Michael Sandel appeared as a guest that in showcasing the unique political culture prevailing in this country. In this show, Prof. Sandel lashed out at former Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications, Heizo Takenaka, labeling him as a cold-blooded capitalist. However, the responses coming back from Dr. Takenaka were disarmingly moderate and not as radical as the professor initially expected. Even Dr. Takenaka, who is believed to symbolize the right of Japanese economic policies, is considered middle of the road at best by American standards. The economic right-wingers that Prof. Sandel is up against in the United States simply do not exist in Japan.
The structure is similar in social policy. For example, there are forces in the United States that are using conservative values to try to undo individual rights established in the 1960s and 70s, and they are actually succeeding in some states. The Pro-lifers who deny the right of pregnant women to abort their pregnancy is an example of this. Another example might be exposing students to doctrines of Christianity in public education by forcing them to participate in school prayer.
It’s no secret that there are forces that resist the revision of traditional values in Japan as well. A typical example of this would be the provision regarding “illegitimate children” that remain in the Civil Code. Nevertheless, forces that try to deny the various achievements in postwar democracy practically do not exist in Japan. There are no forces that seriously advocate the return to the traditional family system, which limits the rights of children other than first-borns, and the same goes for equal rights for women. Even the long-term care insurance system, which faced all-out criticism from conservative groups at time of introduction, has been firmly established in society within the short span of just 10 years or so since its inception.
Regarding national security, the Abe administration has increased its defense budget prompting some to claim that this is proof that the government is drifting to the right. However, this just means that the budget, which has been decreasing for more than 10 years is bottoming out. The reality of peace in the post war era is that it was achieved through nuclear deterrence by aiming nuclear missiles at each other. If that is the reality of the international community, there are no hawks in Japan. Extreme views exist in any society, but rarely do you see mainstream politicians and intellectuals advocate the introduction of offensive weapons such as nuclear arms, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines, etc. The advanced military technology Japan is most aggressive in introducing is missile defense. Even though there are issues regarding consistency with existing international laws, it is essentially a defensive weapons system.
I think it should be clear that there is actually broad consensus on the direction national policies in Japan. This might be the “medium benefits for medium burden” in terms of welfare system, respecting basic human rights and individualism in social policy, and maintaining a military force primarily for defensive purposes. Although paradoxical, this is why “history issues” become an important point to focus on and a major area to define Japan’s shift to the right.
I hope this is not misunderstood, but the reason why the interpretation of history becomes such a core issue is because it does not do much harm. As a defeated nation, Japan accepted some constraints in order to return to the post-war international community. These constraints were perhaps inevitable during the lifetime of older generations who actually experienced the war, and perhaps shared a certain level of moral convictions to serve a restrictive role. In this context, we understand that Japanese politicians, regardless of whether they were right- or left-wing, had in common a sense of atonement for actions committed against China until sometime after the war ended. However, now that 70 years have passed since the end of WWII, it is quite difficult for current Japanese population to give in to the said constraints, which actually have nothing to do their experiences and responsibilities of individuals.
Most claims of Japan’s shift to the right are linked with historical recognition. This must be objectionable for Chinese and Koreans, and an uncomfortable position for the United States to be placed in. There is likely some negative chemistry why a liberal leaning administration like the current Obama administration becomes critical of the conservative label placed on the Abe administration, as it reminds of the hardline conservative opposition faced at home. This sort of rebound can be felt regardless of the actual degree of conservatism behind the Abe administration’s policies.
The friction arising in the network of personal connections between Japan and the United States is caused by each entity trying to win a battle of internal strife. When foreign friends of mine talk of Japan drifting towards the right, I have explained in most cases that there is nothing to worry about, based on the reasons I outlined above. Japanese conservatism, which is being represented by the current administration, is built upon the foundations of the fruits of post-war democracy, which are firmly embedded in the people of Japan today.