GLOCOM Platform
opinions debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
October 23, 2006

Conservatism, Long in Shadows in Japan, Starting to Take Root

New political paradigm may be emerging as Abe takes helm as first premier born after WWII, leader with most serious nationalist mindset

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Councilor for the Foreign Press Center Japan)

Being "conservative" has long been an unsavory thing in this country. Conservatism has been a suspicious or even dirty word in postwar Japan, and conservatives tend to be equated with being "reactionary," presumably to progressivism and liberalism, the social ethos that has dominated postwar years. The "Liberal Democratic" Party, which has ruled Japan for most of the postwar period, does not carry a connotation of conservatism, and contrary to popular opinion, the party has actually not been conservative in its policy agenda or in its implementation.

The philosophical foundation of European conservatism is considered to have been laid out by Irishman Edmund Burke in reaction to the chaos and excesses of the French Revolution.

In essence, his conservatism focuses on preserving things of the past worth passing down to future generations, and creating innovations in a gradual manner that does not wreak havoc on them. It is by no means against progress or innovation, but calls for achieving them in an orderly way without losing what is valuable from the past.

From this viewpoint, it is possible to say that authentic conservatism has never taken root in Japan because its nation-building, since the start of its modernization after the mid-19th century Meiji Restoration, through to the rapid economic development of the late 20th century, has been so high-pitched and marked by continual spectacular change - including its rise as a major military power followed by the devastation of a traumatic war and the phenomenal postwar rise to an economic powerhouse.

Conservatism in this country, therefore, has always been accorded a negative meaning, considered only a hindrance to progress, serving special interests at the expense of public welfare or of advancement of society as a whole. It has more often than not been coupled with being "reactionary," making "conservative and reactionary" a common phrase in Japanese.

Liberal vs. progressive

Political scientists and the media call the Liberal Democratic Party and its allies the "conservative camp" but as the name suggests, the LDP is a "liberal" party, and was actually so until recently, doling out public funds generously in various forms - subsidies, tax breaks, public investments and the like - to every corner of the country and population, thus achieving a marvelously egalitarian society.

Traditional postwar opposition forces, represented by the erstwhile Japan Socialist Party, were always called "progressive" rather than "liberal" in Japanese political terminology. In the political landscape of the Cold War period, opposition parties antagonized the ruling LDP largely in terms of the ideological spectrum where they positioned themselves at the leftist end, more anti-American and accommodative toward the Communist bloc.

In domestic policies, the leftist-oriented opposition forces were outperformed by the so-called "conservative forces" in the liberal policy agenda, meaning that "conservatism" in the real sense of the word has been weak in postwar Japan. Ironically, the opposition forces, supposedly anti-conservative, were even more conservative in their outlook on the domestic agenda.

Even in the run-up to and during World War II, as American historian John Dower points out in "Embracing Defeat," his book on Japan in the wake of the war, the Japanese were obsessed with constant change and construction in their country and in the region they wanted to dominate.

Aside from politics, Japan has hardly been a country of social conservatism. Changes in lifestyles and family values, among other things, have been carried out at mind-boggling speeds since the era of high economic growth and ensuring affluence.

Conservative forces and writers, therefore, have been lackluster when it comes to rhetorical or ideological substance and power. They are usually characterized by crude verbal assaults on liberal forces, having failed to foster a genuine conservative ideology since they are not clear on what sort of values of the Japanese past should be protected and preserved. They are inclined to play up to crude chauvinism or nationalism, and are frowned upon by a majority of the public.

In such an atmosphere, politicians have preferred to avoid branding themselves "conservative" as it evokes a rather unsavory or unattractive image. In elections, both LDP and opposition Democratic Party of Japan contenders associate themselves with "reform," "innovation," "progress" or other notions that point to change.

Takashi Tachibana, a veteran journalist whose muckraking article precipitated the downfall of then powerful Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka in the early 1970s, said that Shinzo Abe, Japan's newly installed prime minister, is the first serious nationalist and conservative leader in the postwar period.

Traditional Values

It is already clear that he is more ideological and value-oriented than his predecessor and mentor Junichiro Koizumi. For all his flamboyance and assertiveness and what was widely regarded as "destructive" instincts, Koizumi was not ideological. His failure to elaborate on or articulate sufficiently his actions and words, such as regarding his visits to Yasukuni Shrine, was proof of this. On his controversial shrine visits, he refused to explain beyond that it was a "matter of the heart."

In contrast, Abe appears intentionally to care for conservative and historical values. This is evident from his willingness to stress the importance of family, community, nation, history, tradition, culture and the like. He seems to take more than passing interest in these matters and is not just paying lip-service to them. Abe is also distinct among postwar prime ministers in openly questioning the postwar tendency to demonize Japan's prewar history as an entirely wrong and dark period that should be cast aside and forgotten.

However it remains to be seen how his conservatism and nationalism will square with globalization and his administration's apparent embrace and pursuit of American-style market capitalism.

In his first policy speech before the Diet, Abe, who was born in 1954, made much of the fact that he was Japan's first prime minister born after World War II. This should not be underrated, as it emphasizes the fact that he represents those generations without the trauma of the Pacific War and the devastation and poverty it wrought, and such generations constitute the majority of the population today.

Given the lingering memories of deep trauma that have gripped those who knew the war and its consequences, which really divided this country's history, comparable to the Great Depression or Sept. 11, 2001, for Americans, Abe's emergence as a leader could represent a whole new political paradigm.

(Originally appeared in the October 16, 2006 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications