Ever since Abe Shinzo’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) returned to power in December 2012, there has been a lively debate over whether Japan is shifting to the right. While some, including Abe’s closest advisors, contend that he is a pragmatist determined to pursue the three arrows of Abenomics, others point to his long record of revisionist statements and deeds before, during, and after his earlier stint as prime minister of Japan as proof that he is a ‘conviction’ politician with extreme nationalistic views. With his surprise visit to the Yasukuni shrine on December 26 2013, to mark his first year in office, the debate seems finally concluded in favour of the latter interpretation. Even now, however, Abe and his defenders claim that the visit was to pay his respects to the souls of the war dead and to renew the pledge that Japan shall never again wage war, thereby dismissing criticism that Abe is seeking to revive militarism.
I take the view that the above claims made by Abe and his friends are disingenuous, and that he is pushing Japan to the right. Furthermore, my current research focuses on the rightward shift of Japanese politics that has been occurring over the past couple of decades. In other words, Abe’s rightwing agenda is only a part (though an important part) of the rightward tendency that has been transforming Japanese politics in the recent decades. Abe may or may not push Japan further to the right during his remaining months in office, but it is important to understand that the rightward shift did not start with him, and will most likely not end with him either.
It should be noted, at the same time, that I do not take the view that Japan is alone in drifting rightwards during these past decades. Nor do I take the view that neoliberal, deregulatory reforms that give more leverage to the corporate sector (including parts of Abenomics) are contradictory to a reactionary nationalistic political stance. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I observe a strong affinity and complementarity between economic liberalism and political illiberalism –the so-called New Right coalition that guided the ‘free market and strong state’ politics of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
At a very basic level, the rightward shift has taken place because the left collapsed. The Communists and the Socialists, who together consistently secured about 30% of the seats in the Diet until 1993, are today, twenty years later, down to a mere 3%. That in itself has had the effect of tilting the political spectrum to the right. With the liberal/neoliberal Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ’s) disastrous performance in the most recent elections in December 2012 and July 2013, it looks as if the LDP is now truly the only game in town. It bears emphasising that it is not as if Japan has simply reverted back to the one-party dominance of the 1955 system. The fact that the LDP today faces no serious opposition to speak of is actually historically unprecedented.
This is not, however, the end of the story. Japanese politics of the past couple of decades has shifted to the right because the right itself drifted rightward. The LDP used to be a ‘broad church’ that included some liberals as well as ‘One Nation’ conservatives during the period of the 1955 system. It is now a much more consistently rightwing party in socioeconomic and education policy, as well as in foreign and security policy. The nature of the right went through an important transformation with the New Right coalition of political illiberalism and economic liberalism replacing the Old Right that consisted of developmentalism and clientelism.
It should also be pointed out that the rightward shift has not been a unilinear progression rightward in a single stroke. Rather, it has been a lengthy process over the past couple of decades occurring in fits and starts— and in successive waves. While there have also been reverse waves which led to periods of relative opening up, as in the government of the Socialist leader, Murayama Tomiichi, in the mid-1990s and the DPJ government between 2009 and 2012, they were invariably followed by yet another wave, shifting to the right.
In other words, the pendulum is not simply hanging from a fixed point, swinging right and left, but rather, with each swing of the pendulum to the right, its supporting point is also shifting rightward. As a result, even when the pendulum swings back leftward, as was the case when the DPJ came to power, the DPJ position at the time was still considerably more rightward leaning than that of the previous Socialist position, and perhaps even that of the leftwing in the LDP in the 1955 system. Superficially, the political system may seem more pluralistic and fragmented, but in reality the ideological parameters have been shrinking and drifting to the right.
Last but not least, the rightward shift of Japanese politics that resulted from the New Right transformation has essentially been an elite-driven process rather than a society-driven process. Social crises, real and constructed, including those caused by the disasters in 1995 and 2011, have been exploited by the conservative political elites. This has not, however been a case of Japanese society shifting to the right first, and then the political elites responding and adjusting their positions accordingly, but rather the opposite.
Certain observers point to the fact that the change of government in 2009 suggests that this rightward shift is merely imagined, while others point to the absence of a surge in nationalistic sentiment among the ordinary Japanese (for now) in order to claim that Japan is not becoming more rightwing. However, it is precisely the shifting pendulum dynamics of this elite-driven process of rightward shift that obscures the drift itself.
The New Right transformation did not take place in one stroke but rather in repeated waves that came and went, each wave pushing the parameters more and more to the right. A contemporary of Thatcher and Reagan, Nakasone Yasuhiro’s government represented the first wave in the 1980s with his privatisation drives severely weakening public-sector unions, and consequently, the support base of the left parties, while also attempting to centralise power within the government to the prime minister and his cabinet. Ozawa Ichiro more than anyone else embodied the second wave that came in the period between the late 1980s and early 1990s as he single-mindedly promoted the introduction of the Westminster model, most notably the introduction of the ‘majoritarian’ first-past-the-post (FPTP) system –the preferred electoral system of the New Right. The third wave, was led by Hashimoto Ryutaro, who presided over the financial ‘Big Bang’ as well as administrative reform in the late 1990s.
In retrospect, it was the institutionary machineries that were put in place by earlier waves, the FPTP electoral system and the reinforced power of the prime minister in particular, that enabled Koizumi Junichiro (and Abe in his first government) to form the fourth wave. It should also be noted that these ‘reformist’ prime ministers, Nakasone, Hashimoto, and Koizumi have all visited the Yasukuni shrine during their terms in office.
One year since his return to power, Abe has already instituted the new National Security Council, enacted the controversial state secrecy law, visited the Yasukuni shrine, and intends on revising the interpretation of the constitution to lift the ban on the exercise of the right of collective self-defense. The fifth wave may very well turn out to be biggest yet.
This text is an edited version of comments delivered at the ANU Japan Update on 5 November 2013, previously published in Australia & Japan in the Region, Volume 2, No 2, March 2014.
Koichi Nakano is Professor of Political Science at Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, specialising in the comparative politics of advanced industrial democracies, particularly Japan and Europe, and in political theory. He has a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Tokyo, a second B.A. in philosophy and politics from the University of Oxford, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University. His research has focused on a variety of issues of contemporary Japanese politics from comparative, historical, and philosophical perspectives, including neoliberal globalization and nationalism; the Yasukuni problem; language, media and politics; amakudari and administrative reform in Japan; decentralization; the cross-national transfer of policy ideas; and a review of the DPJ government.