Making Japan great again

The implications of Shinzo Abe’s landslide election win

Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia

International relations, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia

30 November 2017

The long-dominant Jiminto party’s crushing victory signals a shift back to Japan’s militaristic and authoritarian traditions, Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia writes.

On 22 October, Japan re-elected Shinzo Abe, handing the Jiminto (Liberal Democratic Party) and its junior coalition partner Komeito more than 60 per cent of the seats in Japan’s lower house of parliament. The Jiminto has dominated the Japanese political landscape since 1955 and, at the turn of the 2000s, the tandem Jiminto-Komeito became inseparable.

For much of its history until the end of the Second World War, Japan’s political system was one of authoritarian ‘military-civil’ absolutism. Following the post-war occupation, the Japanese were pushed to adopt a multi-party system. Japanese society divided into conservatives, communists, socialists, trade unionists and some religious associations (e.g. Soka Gakkai).

As Japan grew more prosperous, the conservatives (including the Jiminto) expanded their electoral base. It is a base which is anchored in Japanese culture and is marked by the philosophical doctrines that frame life in Japan – namely Japanese-style Legalism, Confucianism and Buddhism – and are captured in the work of post-war intellectual Shuichi Kato.

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Jiminto embodies the long Tokugawa Shogunate tradition of management inspired by Japanese-style Legalism and Confucianism, while Komeito represents Nichiren’s Buddhist moral values. Komeito is a people-centred political party with a compelling religious background that mainly serves the community and provides the state’s social services, while also encompassing Jiminto warrior-like politics. This is why the popular base supports this balanced duo – it perfectly embodies their aspirations.

The association of Jiminto and Komeito gives the impression of political pluralism. However, the Japanese multi-party system is only a front. The other political parties merely serve as a backdrop for democracy because they are crushed by the significant weight of the Jiminto-Komeito coalition. One indicator of Japan’s flawed democracy is that it has undergone a significant regression in press freedoms. According to Reporters without Borders, its country ranking has descended from 22nd in 2011/2012 to 72nd in 2017.

Even if new political parties emerge, like Yuriko Koiko’s Party of Hope (Kibo no To), they do not change political reality. Koiko herself is only a facet of Abe in the sense that they share the same conservative ideological basis. The difference between Abe and Koiko lies in the way they implement their solutions to the different problems facing Japan, and not on substantial differences in policy.

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The timing of the election was decided by what is happening in Japan’s immediate environment: a combination of the escalation of the North Korean threat together with the Trump effect; as well as the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Abe wanted to take advantage of Chinese politics to advance his electoral themes and strengthen his power – a strategy not new in Japanese politics.

Mao’s victory in China in 1949 pushed the US to strengthen the Japanese conservative camp by renouncing the complete dissolution of the zaibatsu business conglomerates, which the US saw as a means to halt communism through reindustrialisation. The Korean War reinforced this conviction that Japan should be in the hands of conservatives who are not hostile to the US.

What happens in China is of great interest to Japan because it influences what happens in Japan, and vice versa. Indeed, both countries use the same tactics, acting like shadow boxers; each using the other to make gains. While the Chinese justify their military budget and tactics by presenting Japan as an enemy that is strengthening its military capabilities, Jiminto strengthens its popular base by talking up Chinese and North Korean threats. Clearly, Abe, an experienced strategist, chose the timing for the dissolution of parliament to make the most of this confluence of events.

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The popular base likes Abe because he dares to express out loud what many Japanese people are thinking quietly. It is noteworthy that what Japanese people exhibit outwardly is not necessarily what they think. In Japanese, this distinction is known as honne (a person’s true feelings and desires) vs. tatemae (the behaviour and opinions a person displays in public). In this light, it is clear that a significant part of the population wants the country to quietly detach itself from its American tutelage, instead seeking militarisation and the freedom to again become a power on its own.

The Empire of the Rising Sun is no exception to the rise of nationalist movements all over the world. Abe’s desire for the country to become militarily autonomous in defence matters accords with popular desires. To his supporters, it is of the utmost importance to regain the honour of becoming an independent ‘adult’ and to put the country back on the world stage. Having to endure the ‘castrating’ Article 9 of its Constitution, which renounces war as a sovereign right and prohibits Japan from maintaining armed forces, is seen as a longstanding national humiliation. Revising the Constitution will open the door for this long-awaited change.

Japanese nationalism is exacerbated by Confucian-related cults, including a new cult of the descendants, as ancestors can inspire election results and the appointment of new leaders. This is the case for Shinzo Abe, whose grandfather was Japan’s prime minister, as was his grandfather’s brother. Considering that Abe has now been elected for the fourth time, it is reasonable to ask whether Japan is heading for a cult of personality, as is the case in China.

Japan increasingly gives the impression of a single-party authoritarian regime that takes the outward form of a democracy. In reality, it is a ‘legal authoritarian’ regime where the ‘dictatorship of the majority’ prevails. With the strengthening of authoritarian governments all over the world, it is well worth observing to see if Japan will join their ranks.

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