Shinzo Abe visits Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo AFP/Getty Images

Why Is Japan Populist-Free?

Contemporary Japan may have its flaws, but it is now much more egalitarian than the United States, India, or many countries in Europe. By remaining a country of, by, and for the middle class, where the most affluent tend to be discreet, Japan has avoided the dangerous politics roiling developed and developing countries alike.

TOKYO – Even as a wave of right-wing populism is sweeping Europe, the United States, India, and parts of Southeast Asia, Japan has so far appeared to be immune. There are no Japanese demagogues, like Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, or Rodrigo Duterte, who have exploited pent-up resentments against cultural or political elites. Why?

Perhaps the closest Japan has come was the former mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who first made his name as a television personality and then disgraced himself in recent years by commending the use of wartime sex slaves by the Imperial Japanese Army. His ultra-nationalist views and loathing of liberal media were a familiar version of right-wing populism. But he never managed to break into national politics.

Hashimoto now gives Prime Minister Shinzo Abe free advice on tightening national-security laws. And therein lies one explanation for the apparent lack of right-wing populism in Japan. No one could be more identified with the political elite than Abe, the grandson of a wartime cabinet minister and later prime minister, and son of a foreign minister. And yet, he shares right-wing populists’ hostility to liberal academics, journalists, and intellectuals.

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