As a piece of political advertising, its message to dissatisfied voters is clear.

A slick video promoting Japan’s new Party of Hope shows its leader, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike, marching towards a bright future on behalf of the people.

She strides confidently past two arguing middle-aged men in suits, one with cigarette in hand, as the advertisement promises: “Farewell, fettered politics.”

At first glance, the fledgling party that is seeking to challenge Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition in the October 22 election could be seen to be appealing to populist sentiment.

Koike’s party promises to stop a planned increase in the consumption tax, tax big companies that stockpile cash, shake up the political system by cutting the number of parliamentarians and their salaries, and phase out nuclear power.

Party of Hope has even put the scourge of hay fever in its sights, with the inclusion on a list of 12 things the party aims to reduce to “zero” level.

Party of Hope has even put the scourge of hay fever in its sights, with the inclusion on a list of 12 things the party aims to reduce to “zero” level.

But Gregory Noble, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science, doesn’t see signs that Japan is about to embrace the type of populism that has been associated with the rise of Donald Trump in the United States.

Referring to Koike’s pitch to voters, which includes free preschool and kindergarten places, he said: “It’s not so much populist as general-purpose pandering; not so much setting up an enemy as just saying, ‘I’m going to buy off all your votes.’”

Noble adopts a definition of populism in which political contenders claim to speak for common people rather than corrupt, cosmopolitan elites.

Its elements usually include nativism – resisting a perceived threat to the majority’s sense of order, leading to a cultural backlash – along with anti-establishment messages and authoritarian tendencies.

People’s economic insecurity may be cited as a cause, although the drivers are mostly identity and fear.

“There seems to be a limited demand for populism in Japanese society,” Noble told an audience at Temple University Japan last week. “Social integration is high, the economy is fairly stable, and there are limited inroads of progressivism – all those things are likely to limit the demand for populism.”

Japan, like many other developed countries, is debating the upheaval to the established order in the wake of Trump’s election as US president and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.

At a separate event in Tokyo last week, Japanese and overseas-based commentators met up for a lengthy discussion about the nationalism underpinning some of this sentiment and the effect on the global economy.

Explosive anger

Hiroki Sugita, the chief editorial writer for the Japanese wire service Kyodo News, said he had visited the US, South Korea and China in recent months to gauge global trends.

“I felt that people’s anger has exploded and people who had hopes up until now were overwhelmed with anger and their hopes were crushed and that is the undertone,” Sugita told the symposium hosted by the Foreign Press Center Japan.

Becky Bowers, the Wall Street Journal’s deputy global economics editor, told the audience about two Trump voters in her family who were very different from each other.

Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

One hoped Trump would follow through on his promises including making Mexico pay for a border wall and pulling out of major trade deals. The other backed Trump as he was the Republican candidate, assuming he would not fulfill many of the more populist promises but would push for tax cuts and reduced regulation.

“I tell this story to explain that the story of Mr Trump is a story of the rise of nationalism in the United States, but it is not entirely a story of the rise of nationalism in the United States,” she said.

Dr Yoshiko Kojo, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, said that there were concerns that other countries could follow suit if the US, as the largest economic power in the world, moved towards trade protectionism.

The Brussels-based journalist Tom Nuttall, who covers European politics and economics as The Economist’s Charlemagne columnist, said the UK’s decision to leave the European Union had created conflict about what this should mean in practice.

“The vote has created this huge tension between an elite that advocates for trade and for openness and always has, and a far larger segment of the population which is tempted to pull up the drawbridge and thinks that Brexit presents an opportunity to do so,” Nuttall said at the nationalism symposium.

“I think perhaps no other country is grappling with this tension so openly and so awkwardly.”

Big in Japan?

So what about Japan? Is it fertile territory for populist politicians?

According to Noble, while there are wildcard scenarios that could push the country towards populism in the future, structural factors have limited the appeal so far. (He cautioned that nationalism and populism were not the same.)

Leaders of Japan's main political parties (L-R) Social Democratic Party leader Tadatomo Yoshida, Japan Innovation Party leader and Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui, Komeito Party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, head of Japan's Party of Hope and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, Communist Party Chairman Kazuo Shii, Constitutional Democratic Party leader Yukio Edano and Party for Japanese Kokoro head Masashi Nakano pose for a photograph at the start of debate session ahead of October 22 lower house election, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan October 8, 2017. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Leaders of Japan’s main political parties (L-R) Social Democratic Party leader Tadatomo Yoshida, Japan Innovation Party leader and Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui, Komeito Party leader Natsuo Yamaguchi, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, head of Japan’s Party of Hope and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, Communist Party Chairman Kazuo Shii, Constitutional Democratic Party leader Yukio Edano, and Party for Japanese Kokoro head Masashi Nakano pose before a debate at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan, October 8, 2017. Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon

“Supply [of populism] is potentially there – there are politicians who would be willing to engage in this kind of discourse – but demand seems to be fairly limited and there are structural reasons why that might not change as much as you might think,” Noble said at the event organized by Temple University Japan’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies.

Japan, for example, ranks comparatively low on one measure of nativism.

In an Ipsos poll conducted late last year, just one in seven Japanese respondents agreed with the statement: “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.”

In an Ipsos poll conducted late last year, just one in seven Japanese respondents agreed with the statement: “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.”

That view was backed by about one in three people polled in both South Korea and Great Britain, and by nine in 20 of respondents in the US.

Japanese sentiment was also relatively subdued on the notion that “society is broken.”

“Foreigners often complain that Japanese are xenophobic, but if you look at this poll, it doesn’t necessarily seem so,” Noble said.

“Why might that be? There are a number of firewalls against populism in Japan… basically high levels of social integration and low levels of immigration mean that the potential threat to the majority’s sense of a moral order is relatively low, and that means relatively little cultural backlash. There’s not that much to have a backlash against.”

Noble said these firewalls against populism included the perception that Japan gains from trade, employment being relatively secure even for youth, inequality being seen at modest levels, and rural areas being well represented politically.

He also noted that media outlets in Japan were not as polarized as in the US. In the mid-2000s, Noble said, there was an upsurge of anti-Korean and anti-Chinese hate speech, although this had led to the passage of legislation to crack down on the practice.

Election contenders

While Prime Minister Abe might be described as a conservative reactionary nationalist, “he’s still pretty different from Trump” or France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen, said Noble.

For example, Abe generally doesn’t demonize his enemies, doesn’t denigrate expert knowledge, doesn’t hint at sympathy for violence, and seeks international cooperation including through the United Nations, the Paris accord and the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact, he said.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend at Japan-UK Business Forum in Tokyo, Japan August 31, 2017. Reuters/Reiri Kurihara
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, not the Brexit type, attends a Japan-UK Business Forum in Tokyo, Japan, August 31, 2017. Reuters/Reiri Kurihara

While Abe wants to change the war-renouncing article of the Japanese constitution, Noble said public support for such a move seems to fall whenever he speaks about it.

Koike, a former defense minister who shares a lot of common ground with Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party on security matters, has described her new Party of Hope as a “tolerant, reform-minded conservative party.”

Koike, a former defense minister who shares a lot of common ground with Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party on security matters, has described her new Party of Hope as a “tolerant, reform-minded conservative party.”

Its platform includes a pledge to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people. Koike has been rather ambiguous on immigration policy, Noble argued.

What factors might push Japan to embrace an “us-versus-them enemies approach” in the future?

“Perceived abandonment by the US is certainly one of them,” Noble said.

This could take the form of serious and sustained criticism from the US over the trade imbalance, a US pullback from engagement in Asia, or a failure to respond to North Korean or Chinese attacks.

Meanwhile, inward foreign investment into Japan is limited at present. “If Chinese investment increases that will create more tension – I’m pretty sure of that,” Noble said.

“Already in Europe there’s a lot of unease about increasing Chinese investment… the fear that Chinese companies will buy up high-tech companies is really becoming quite serious in Germany and that could happen in Japan,” according to Noble.

“And of course there’s a much greater historical, cultural and geopolitical struggle between China and Japan, so that is worth watching.”