Japan Times JBC 91 Sept 7, 2015: Why Japan’s Right keeps leaving the Left in the dust


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Why Japan’s Right keeps leaving the Left in the dust
By Dr. ARUDOU, Debito
JBC column 91 for the Japan Times Community Page
September 7, 2015

JBC has talked about Japan’s right-wing swing before. The news is, it’s swung so far that Japan’s left is finally getting its act together.

For example, over the past year historians inside and outside Japan joined retired politicians to demand Prime Minister Shinzo Abe accurately portray Japan’s role in World War II during the 70th Anniversary commemorations last month. It didn’t work, but nice try.

Or how about the decimated Democratic Party of Japan submitting a bill to the Diet that would ban racial discrimination (yes!), hate speech and related harassment? Sadly, the bill has no hope of passing, or of being enforceable even if it does (what with loopholes for “justifiable discrimination” and no criminal penalties). But, again, nice try.

And we are seeing outdoor protest after protest, with ranks swelling to numbers not seen in decades.

That’s all fine — and about time, given that people repeatedly reelected these rightists in the first place. But let’s discuss why Japan’s left has basically always been out of power (leaving aside the geopolitical pressures from Japan’s sugar-daddy busybody — see “U.S. green lights Japan’s march back to militarism,” Just Be Cause, June 1).

The left keeps losing, and much of it is their own damned fault.

As an activist in Japan, I worked with the left (as in the self-proclaimed center-leftists, socialists and communists) and dealt with its right (the center-rightists, conservatives, populists and nationalists) for decades.

Since I advocate for minority rights here, I am simpatico with the left, given their comparative tendency to view people as individuals — as opposed to the right’s reflex of seeing people as groups that are ascribed characteristics from birth.

Of course, both sides have belief systems you must subscribe to for membership. (That’s precisely what a political camp is.) Both tell stories and maintain narratives to garner public appeal. And, naturally, their organizations are clubby and cliquey. Worse, in Japan, while membership might be instant, acceptance into leadership roles often takes many years (in case you are a spy or a subversive).

Nevertheless, the right has distinct advantages that the left should be aware of, if it wants to have any hope of playing the game better.

One advantage is simplicity of goals. Basically, the rightists (as conservatives) want things left the way they are — or apparently were. The left wants change, which means it has to argue harder for it. On the other hand, the right can simply invoke the almighty power of precedent.

This sets off a vicious circle. Japan is a land that craves precedent, yet the left has little leadership precedent to cite. They can never argue that Japan has been a socialist state (even though in many areas it is exactly that), and few dare display communist sympathies (even though Japan’s appeal to historical collectivism would fit right into any commune).

“Precedentophilia” also avails the right of a scare tactic: They can argue that the left would force Japan to chart unknown territory. Rightists, on the other hand, are merely citing the tried and true: “Hey, the system worked for our ancestors in the past, right?”

And there the debate usually dies. Whenever Japan harks to the past, an element of ancestor worship seeps in. This stifles critical thinking, for insinuating that our forefathers were somehow wrong is to disrespectfully question the essence of Japanese identity. You see that even with WWII war criminals — who would have led Japan into oblivion if they had continued to get their way — enshrined as heroes at public worship sites and in popular culture.

Then there’s the leftist ideological distaste for measuring everything in terms of money. That’s a fatal error in politics. Rightists have no trouble whatsoever doing so, since they have a lot more of it. And with money, of course, comes power — and the rightists have no trouble with that either. In their inherited world, being rich and powerful for generations has normalized their entitlement to the point where they claim it without shame or self-consciousness.

But the biggest disadvantage I see in Japan’s left is an intellectual snobbery.

First, if you want to join their ranks, you must prove your ideological worth. I remember numerous times asking for assistance from leftist groups in the quest for equal rights for all. We were on the same page, yet their Young Turks grilled me about whether I had read this author or that book. Essentially, I had to pass an entrance exam — be demonstrably schooled in their canon and their lexicon — or else I would get no support.

Then there’s the problem with narrative: Japanese leftists are oddly lazy about honing their talking points. Why? Because their ideals were handed to them in the postwar “peace Constitution.” Since then they have basically rested on their (un-won) laurels.

This became painfully obvious during the current debate on Japan’s remilitarization. Because Article 9 had been hitherto sacrosanct, the left didn’t think they had to talk about war anymore. It was simply inconceivable that Japan would ever fight one again.

The right, however, knew that undermining what leftists have taken for granted would be a multigenerational fight. And over time it got good at it.

Rightist victories have been gradual but significant, as seen in the policy creep of doublespeak — from the “Self-Defense Forces” all the way to today’s “collective self-defense.” The left just bleated that this was unconstitutional, without crafting a clearer narrative about the horror and excesses of war to capture the popular imagination. More effective were rightist scares about security threats from the Soviet Union, China and North Korea.

With any multigenerational battle comes the grooming of young successors, and at this the right excels.

Despite being blue-bloods clinging to the class structure, rightists have been peerless when it comes to appealing to those outside their class, particularly Japan’s young. (Why do you think they suddenly decided to lower the voting age from 20 to 18?)

Rightists intuitively understand that if something is to be a talking point, you have to put it in manga or anime form. Then you’ll reach even the most disaffected shut-in (who will then go online to terrorize a newfound foe).

In comparison, leftists look more like doctrinaire fossils, sniffing at all this anti-intellectualism: “Who needs to tell lowbrow stories when we have abstract principles to adhere to?”

But the right knows it needs as many people as possible parroting its talking points — for a fundamental maxim of propaganda is that if enough people say something, it becomes true.

That’s why rightists lower their standards for admission. They take just about anyone as long as they parrot. Even their xenophobes will enlist foreigners! Take a broke retired journalist, a redneck Net ignoramus or a paramilitary spook for hire, and just put their names on inflammatory Japanese publications in a language they can’t read anyway. Plus, ferreting out foreign parrots makes the right’s talking points seem more worldly.

In essence, the rightists keep their eyes on the prize: money and power. In the game of politics, that gives you the advantage every time. And when you’re wielding patronage and privilege for this long, you get good at doling it out to the underprivileged, like soup at the breadlines.

The leftists? Well, hey, they can’t even talk to one another, let alone band together against this dynamic. Intellectual schisms are historically toxic, to the point of factions killing one other (think Kakumaru-ha vs. Chukaku-ha in the 1970s). Of course, the rightists aren’t all friends either, but at least they can be odd bedfellows following a narrative under the same religion — Japan.

And therein lies the ultimate power in this game: nationalism. It’s easiest to appeal to people by resorting to patriotism. Again, it blunts critical thinking. (Even Western media handle Japan’s most bigoted rightists with kid gloves, labeling them “nationalists,” “conservatives,” even “patriots”!)

This is all much easier than using slogans about impalpable “equality,” “democracy” and “peace.” After all, money and privilege offer tangible and immediate benefits, whereas peace is a public good you only appreciate when it’s gone. And few now remember it being gone. Like it or not, the simpler narrative sells.

If Japan’s left is ever to aspire to power, it must, ironically, learn to be more open-minded, cooperative and co-optive. It must learn how to get out there, welcome new blood and convince people with a compelling story of alternatives (rather than just sit back and wait for the enlightenment of the masses, followed by an ideological litmus test). Otherwise, Japan’s left will keep on losing to the right on a past-revering, precedent-based playing field naturally slanted against them.

Leftists: Stop only learning how to argue. Learn how to appeal. Learn narrative.


Debito Arudou’s next book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” will be out in November. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears in print on the first Monday Community Page of the month. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

11 comments on “Japan Times JBC 91 Sept 7, 2015: Why Japan’s Right keeps leaving the Left in the dust

  • Great article Dr. Debito!

    The Japanese left? Bookish, insular, navel gazing would be elitists, with no connection (nor interest in) human rights or activism.
    The citizens rights movements of the 60’s were essentially ‘bought off’ with Ikeda’s ‘income doubling policy’, and have never returned.
    The Japanese ‘left’ is (as you say) bookish, insular, navel gazing elitists, who seem to regard the whole thing as an extremely long hypothetical exercise. They have resigned themselves to the role that the right has cast them in, and regard it as their ‘safe’ ‘territory’ to which they alone are allowed access. As a result of existing in a bubble insulated from reality, they not only have next to zero mass appeal, but also increasing paranoia about their own irrelevance that makes them often more averse to change than the conservative ruling elites.
    In a sense, the ‘left’ is a symbolic representation of an aspect of the appearance of democracy, the existence of which the LDP knows it needs to maintain the pretense that Japan is a democracy, and that people have choices (when in fact it isn’t, and no such choices exist). The left accepts this, and are happy to be the ‘official’ radical left-wing figures and intellectuals because they know that they are playing a role for the benefit of the LDP’s pretense at democracy, and that their own positions and power is protected by that system.
    The last time I saw the JCP newspaper (2012) it had a front page rant about protecting Japan’s inherent territory (the Senkaku’s) from the ‘invading’ Chinese. At a time when the JCP should have been calling out Ishihara and the LDP for deliberately setting out to undermine the DPJ government so that the LDP could ‘take Japan back!’, the JCP instead bought into the xenophobic historical amnesia and paranoia. Total fail of credibility.

    Maybe the housewives and students protesting nuclear power and security legislation will be able to motivate and enable the creation of more powerful forces against the LDP. I hope so. But I think that it is more likely that the existing left-wing interest groups will seek to co-opt grassroots movements so that they can use them as leverage for slightly more power and prestige in the LDP’s ‘pretense of democracy’ system (at which point the grassroots activists will be totally sold out, disillusioning grassroots activists for a whole generation).

    And, (while I’m on the subject of grassroots activism) some Japanese associates in import businesses recently remarked that they think the protests against the security legislation, the trouble over the Olympics, and the continued lack of success of Abenomics will soon force Abe to step down, as if this would signal his defeat and the defeat of his agenda. Such political naivety beggars belief; Abenomics has already made his elite friends richer, increased the gap between the rich and the working poor (and the number of working poor), and accelerated the transfer of assets from the masses to the few in Japan. The ‘trouble’ over the Olympics is far from a problem at all for Abe and his fascist cronies; bribes and under the table deals were all made at the tax-payers expense, and now the whole circus of bribes starts again from fresh (last I heard, the logo debacle had cost the tax payers 46 million, and then add the expenses for the cancelled stadium, and all the contract cancellation fees that the J-government now has to pay). Business is good for Abe and his friends!
    And then there is the security legislation. Abe would never quit because of protests, no matter how big they are. Nor would he quit over public opinion. He has shown at every turn that not only does he not care about the rights of the public or the systems in place to protect them from government, he in fact holds them as being in contempt for not agreeing that his personal baggage induced vision for Japan is the right way that things should be, and always have been. I suspect that he wants to step-down, and avoid blow-back for his failing economic lies, and protests would be the perfect excuse. In fact, like his grandfather Kishi, I think he wants to give the appearance of being forced out of office by some ‘vocal and over-represented protesters’, who were ‘assisted by the left-wing media’, who ‘don’t represent the majority of the people’. Poor Abe, forced out by left wing idiots who ‘don’t understand’ that his agenda had their best interests at heart. He will go out a right-wing martyr, and have to accept no responsibility for all the corruption he’s been a part of, all the inequality he’s created, and taking Japan’s international relations and image to a post-war low.

  • In any country, the right is feel-good, morning musume, empowerment, might is right. The left is always less pleasant because it involves looking at harsh realities. Especially in Japan, the left can’t be popular.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I think the article gives readers a curve ball–especially to those who like to jump down on your throat.

    I wouldn’t be surprised with the current status of the left. Even though we don’t see many political issues turning into what is so called “culture wars,” or the clash of political ideologies Thomas Frank describes in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” my impression is that the left in Japan seems to alienate themselves from, rather than engage in, the public controversy. There are some exceptions like C.R.A.C.C, anti-nuclear movement, or anti- Okinawa US military base. But, none of those has reached to the level of ACT-UP, Opt-Out, Black Lives Matters or any progressive movements that have gained substantial public awareness salient enough to elicit civil disobedience in a way to disrupt political/legal institutions or intimidate the powers-that-be(i.e., billionaires, corporate news media, etc.).

    Whether at local or national level, there’s clearly something missing in Japanese left–in terms of rhetoric, democracy, and deliberation. One thing they don’t seem to understand is that protesting is an act of civil disobedience–not a mere repetitive call of public slogan. Many local/national unions supporting Japanese and non-Japanese workers tend to seek concessions while negotiating with employers–rather than disputing over the range of collective bargaining rights (which is understandable in Japanese context). We see some court cases in the news, but they usually end up in out-of-court-settlement. Activists who joined in Saburo Ienaga’s +20-year history textbook lawsuit were disbanded after the trial ended in his partial victory–like Otaru Onsen lawsuit.

    It’s great to have a newly emerged youth group like SEALDs for their effort to initiate and sustain their action against the Abe regime. The fact that many college-age students are out in the street for rallying gives us some hope. They could make something different from conventional leftist—or end up being another one-hit wonder that will be slipped out of one’s mind. Since, they are not the same as College Republican, ACLU, League of Women Voters, or any public organizations that make public advocacy campaign on regular basis, it’s getting very important to figure out how to organize their activity in coalition with other allies to create and sustain current movement in a lengthy period.

  • @Loverilakkuma,civil disobedience-Japan has little of a tradition of this, having not gone through revolutions like eg. France, or even The British Public versus Thatcher’s Poll tax, or crash helmets for Sikh motorcyclists. Having said that, Russia-the country Abe’s Japan is imitating IMHO- had three revolutions and these days civil disobedience is also not hugely effective these days, though it does visibly exist. I think that is because of power distance cultures, the role of individualism, and other factors.

    Saw a 1989 Young Jump cartoon which spoke volumes at the time. It contrasted students in Tiananmen, and the public watching them avidly (in the cartoon, anyway), to students demonstrating in Japan, and the J public ignoring them. I have oft wondered why. The point of the cartoon was perhaps to suggest the students were acting foolishly, but I interpreted it differently from my Japanese friends, in a critique of the selfish, short sighted, ” I am all right Jack” attitude of the middle class inspiring Japanese public.

    And that is where Japan sees itself as “western”, and why postmodernists like Debord would say revolution in Japan is impossible, as there are too many dreamy day consumers living their middle class dream.

    Destroy the middle class, take away their savings and their spending power, as Abe is doing (thank you, Abe you useful fool, as Lenin would say) and you may get meaningful change- as happened in Russia a hundred years ago which at the time had only a tiny middle class.

    Other than that, I think “WA” and Confucianism plays a role, and the propaganda since the installment of the 1955 System of LDP virtual disctatorship, to emphasize citizens duties to the state (e.g. you MUST pay this tax) rather than individual rights (disputing the validity or usefulness of a seemingly unfair tax).

    There is little concept of challenging “bad” laws, because as we often hear here, “because it is a rule” and to ask “WHY is it a rule” just makes any conversation go round in circles.

    Disappointed even the JCP have fallen to blowing a nationalist trumpet vis a vis China, but I suppose they have to show they are independent of any Beijing directed Communist internationale.

  • @ Baudrillard #5

    Japan has a long tradition of popular people’s demonstration of dissatisfaction against authority (very briefly);
    The late Edo era saw massive repeated violent demonstrations against the bakufu due to the failure of bakufu economic policy. This left many starving, and would have destroyed the state. Fortunately for J-nationalists, Perry arrived and opened Japan, allowing the ‘official’ narrative to be that Edo era Japan was some ultimate ‘perfect’ version of a pure Japan before the gaijin ‘forced’ it to change.
    In the Taisho era there were many protest movements, but they were crushed by militarism and the brain-washing of a national narrative of Japaneseness; enka was originally a form of political protest set to music (making it easy to remember) imported from China, but J-government laws and self-censorship reduced it to soppy ballads.
    In the 50’s and 60’s there were many anti-government groups that demonstrated and even rioted for social pregressiveness, but they have been white-washed from the official narrative that takes a smug, self-aggrandizing pleasure from incorrectly believing that such things don’t happen in Japan because Japan is the most ‘modern’ and ‘advanced’ country that has ‘wa’ that NJ can never have.
    The Japanese have been well trained to look down on those who fight for their rights as being an embarrassment- a kind of ‘not in front of the gaijin’ attitude.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @ Baudrillard

    Actually, Japan has its own tradition of civil disobedience including labor movement, environmental protest, and proletariat movement from in the late 19th century to the early 20th centuries. Despite the rise of nationalism, Japanese people at that time was pretty much engaged in activism despite the risk of police arrest and torture. And there was even an anti-war movement during the wartime. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiyoshi_Miki).

    @Jim Di Griz,

    Quite. These shady pasts are the ones that will be buried in the first place. A tradeoff for modernization and capitalism.

    Jeff Kingston wrote a report on SEALDs in his recent article.


  • Thanks, I stand corrected yet “the ‘official’ narrative to be that Edo era Japan was some ultimate ‘perfect’ version of a pure Japan before the gaijin ‘forced’ it to change.” is a kid of warped postmodern lie wrapped in J nationalism.

    Completely in denial of their own history.

  • @ Baudrillard #8

    IIRC, you should check out Vlastos; The Mirror of Modernity.
    There’s a chapter by Gluck (again, IIRC) where she exposes the myth of the image of Edo-era Japan as the last perfect Japan precisely because it is a nationalist tool that blames the gaijin for ruining proper ‘Japaneseness’, whilst at the same time concealing the humanitarian and economic disaster that the Edo-period had become- a disaster that would have led to the total collapse of the state had Perry not arrived (a total game changer). The myth protects Japanese pride from reality, and allows them to denigrate their NJ saviors at the same time. You can see why this myth has been repeatedly grasped, and so doggedly held onto.

    @ Loverilakkuma #7

    You are absolutely right; there is a tradition of Japanese who have stood up and spoken out against every evil of the modern Japanese state from the start of the Meiji-era (and this is to say nothing of things like the Christian persecutions that pre-date that). The problem is that the US Reverse Course’s retention and ‘rehabilitation’ of fascist imperialist elements and facilitation of the LDP has ensured that those who crushed efforts at dissent are still setting the rules. And still telling the Japanese that ‘We Japanese don’t speak out against evil government because we have harmony’, effectively.

  • In related news, following the launch of Japan’s first post-war aircraft carrier in Aug 2013 (the Izumo, named after an Imperial Japanese Navy cruiser), this month saw the launch of the second of the class, the Kaga (named after one of the aircraft carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor).

    Not surprisingly, given the unconstitutional security bills being rammed through the Diet right now, this didn’t get any press coverage in Japan.
    Not surprisingly, given that the aircraft carrier’s name-sake launched the air attack on Pearl Harbor, the western media isn’t covering this (after all, their leaders just got through counter-factually praising Abe for being an a staunch ally who is really, really sorry about the war).

    Seriously, how would anyone feel if the Germans launched a new warship, the Bismark? How about Tirpitz? Graf Spee?



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