INTERVIEW/ Toru Yoshida: Let's hear it for populist politics

December 13, 2012


Is populism bad? Toru Yoshida, a researcher of European comparative politics, thinks not. In fact, he says populism, in its genuine form, is the only way to save Japanese democracy.

This contradicts the view widely held in mainstream political and media circles that populism equates to government by vulgar, unenlightened individuals. "Shugu seiji," the Japanese language calls that.

Following are excerpts of a recent interview with Yoshida:

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Question: What, exactly, is populism?

Yoshida: For all the talk about populism nowadays, there is a lot of confusion because there is not one universally-accepted definition. The word is derived from the Latin "populus," which means people. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics defines populism as a political attitude that supports the opinions and wishes of ordinary people. Populism has a rather positive connotation in the United States, but Europeans use the word in a negative sense. And here in Japan, the two most common translations of "populism" are "Shugu seiji" and "Taishu geigo," which, respectively, mean "politics by the vulgar, ignorant people," and "pandering to the masses." None of these interpretations is wrong. In fact, they are all correct in the sense that they represent various aspects of populism, which by nature, is a vague concept.

Q: Is Shintaro Ishihara a populist?

A: No. He is a far-right politician.

Q: How about Toru Hashimoto?

A: I think he is a populist.

Q: I don't see the difference.

A: Populists switch positions depending on the interests and preferences of electorates. They go for "niche issues" ignored by established political parties, and bundle them together in order to challenge the established political system. The Japan Restoration Party is being criticized for flip-flopping and lacking in policy consistency, but that is what makes it a populist party. It is the antithesis of any party or politician whose ideology is set in stone.

Q: In Japan, would you say former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was a pioneer populist?

A: No, that would be former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. When the percentage of votes picked up by his Liberal Democratic Party in elections began to fall short of 40 percent for the first time in the post-war period, Nakasone reached out beyond the party's traditional rural and industrial support base and appealed to the broader and shallower support base of more individualistic urban voters. Nakasone cast the Japan National Railways and labor unions as public enemies and scored a certain level of success by privatizing JNR.

Today, Japan's populists tend to be restricted to those in charge of local governments. Directly elected by voters, prefectural governors and municipal mayors can exercise presidential-style executive powers, and they continuously remind the public of ongoing conflict between central and local governments. Whatever leadership they exert is readily visible. If former prime ministers Nakasone and Koizumi were top-down populists, we can say a new breed of bottom-up populists has now emerged among local government leaders.

Q: The more people attack Hashimoto as a populist and call him "dangerous," the more support he secures. Correct?

A: Exactly. Populism arises from the public's distrust and the denial of the existing politics. It gains support when established political parties are seen to be inefficient and the public becomes skeptical about elitist intellectuals and the media, who merely decry and lament the current state of politics like a broken record without offering solutions. And the more these elites attack Hashimoto, the more ordinary people see it as proof that Hashimoto must be right. I must say, there are too many people who criticize Hashimoto without realizing that they themselves have contributed to the surge of populism.

Under the current political system, large parts of the society are inevitably left with no one to serve as their elected representatives. Those neglected people develop a distrust of politics. In that sense, populism is like a self-healing mechanism that corrects the problem, and, as such, it is indispensable to democracy. Populism will never go away, no matter how much we decry it as pandering to the masses or "government by the vulgar and ignorant people."

Q: Are you sure populism will never go away?

A: It will never go away. However, populism is transitory. It starts out as a rejection of the conventional political system and subsides once the conventional political system becomes able to deal with it flexibly. Think of muscles in your body. If you make the stiff muscles softer, you'll be less prone to injury. Flexibility of the conventional political system is being called into question.

Q: If populism is transitory and is good for us, then there is no need for us to try to get rid of it, is there?

A: Let me put it this way: The closer a populist party gets to the center of political power, the more it needs to get real, so to speak. When a party that won the people's support for standing up to the "other side" in the first place becomes incorporated into the "other side," the party loses its reason for existence. Unless the party proves exceptionally skilled at running itself, it is bound to lose the people's support. And the greater the people's expectations, the deeper their disillusionment, which could make them lose faith in politics altogether. That would spell out to a real crisis for democracy. To avert it, people on the side of the conventional political system must fine-tune their perception of populism and start reforming themselves.

Q: But don't populists fan the public's negative sentiment by creating an enemy? Isn't that dangerous?

A: That is not necessarily true. For instance, the Tea Party movement in the United States is a form of populism, but it is grounded in the spirit of the United States Constitution and it challenges the Barack Obama administration for constitutionally valid reasons. Many advanced democracies are built upon a basic principle which remains absolute and inalienable: for the Americans I believe it's their Constitution, and for the French it's their Republic. Populism in the United States and Europe today is a political movement that demands fulfillment of that basic principle. Obama constantly quotes the U.S. Constitution when he addresses the nation because the Constitution is what all American citizens believe in.

But the Japanese lack this kind of constitutional principle or idea. Neither the emperor nor the Japanese Constitution is one. Unfortunately, we have a history of lacking an ideal rallying point. That is why in Japan people can be mobilized only when they are shown an enemy to attack and defeat, be that the reactionary old guard or the bureaucracy, depending on circumstances.

Let me digress a bit. After the earthquake of March last year, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that our country was facing the need for a second post-World War II national reconstruction. I thought it was pathetic that he could only talk about postwar reconstruction when our country had suffered one of the worst disasters in human history. And what did the rest of the nation do? Everyone made a big deal of "kizuna," human ties, which had the ring of soppy, inane ad copy. It told me about the pathetic, mediocre populism we can expect in our country.

Q: Since we lack a unifying basic principle, will we ever be able to deal wisely with populism?

A: This may sound counterintuitive, but I think the only way for us to go is to practice populism completely and thoroughly in the true sense of the term. Having no basic principle, our starting point must be for every one of us to really think through what sort of society we want to live in and what sort of politics we deserve. Not knowing exactly what we deserve, we are dealing with politics with the mindset of fickle consumers: if we don't like something, we start shopping around for something else, and we wear out politics in the process. This is why populism in Japan today is about offering voters—as consumers—what they seem to like, so they can get satisfaction, but for a short period of time.

But politics ought to be something that guides the people by enabling them to look beyond their immediate personal desires and aim for decent and more universal goals. For democracy to function correctly, the nation needs political leaders who are capable of redefining the people's personal desires into a new representative form. And I think the leaders who can reform the rigid conventional political system in the right direction are populists who don't belong in the system.

Q: But wouldn't we be in serious trouble if we became determined by our collective psychology to blindly seek a leader who promises to change society with one blow?

A: The real problem lies in the fact that after the end of the Cold War Japanese politics came to include the corporate mentality of glorifying efficiency and bold decisions, with the result that successful corporate executives became the role models for political leaders. The current crop of populists who happen to be the heads of local governments fits this category, and those individuals are definitely not what political leaders are supposed to be.

A genuine political leader is capable of spinning a narrative that inspires and guides people. Obama's "one America" is precisely the sort of story that can bring all citizens together when government, which once had popular support because it could distribute profits, no longer has profits to distribute. I think political leaders today are expected to express what their people stand for, rather than represent them.

Q: Isn't that why Shinzo Abe and Shintaro Ishihara talk about "beautiful Japan" and "strong Japan?"

A: Both Abe and Ishihara are only preaching to the choir, so their narratives don't have the power to inspire the rest of the nation. What I'm talking about are leaders who are political architects—those who can spin stories that unify people from across society and take them to new dimensions, and implement policies, both foreign and domestic, that will make the nation grow.

I believe truly great corporate executives—think Honda Motor Corp. founder Soichiro Honda, for one—must have had stories to tell their workers to inspire them. But when I think of Hashimoto and populists like him, I can only imagine them as sweatshop owners who motivate their workers with the fear of getting their bonuses cut. Hashimoto's populism is based on the politics of criticism. But if a populist leader who is a true political architect were to appear, I think he or she could restore hope and faith in politics among people who feel disenfranchised.

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Toru Yoshida is an associate professor at Hokkaido University. He specializes in comparative European politics and the history of French politics; his published works include "Popyurizumu wo Kangaeru" (Discussing populism) and "Nidai Seito-sei Hihan-ron" (Critique of the two-party system). He was born in 1975.

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Toru Yoshida: "Ideal politicians don't just exist on their own. We bring them into existence because we desire them." (Photo by Yasuhiro Sugimoto)

Toru Yoshida: "Ideal politicians don't just exist on their own. We bring them into existence because we desire them." (Photo by Yasuhiro Sugimoto)

  • Toru Yoshida: "Ideal politicians don't just exist on their own. We bring them into existence because we desire them." (Photo by Yasuhiro Sugimoto)
  • Toru Yoshida (Photo by Yasuhiro Sugimoto)
  • Toru Yoshida (Photo by Yasuhiro Sugimoto)

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