Japanese politics and new media: Lessons from the recent election


The 2016 upper house election has come and gone and the results are pretty great for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). With several additional seats in his coalition, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now has the support needed to push forward on revising the constitution. Abe is finally in a position to do what many Japanese political leaders have sought for decades.

How did the LDP accomplish this? Does the Japanese public actually support constitutional revision? It is hard to say. Perhaps the LDP win is just the natural ebb and flow of Japanese politics. After all, the LDP has been the majority party for almost all of Japan's post-war history. Is this particular victory really anything new?

One important thing about this election is that it was a referendum on Abe. He has been in office for some time now and his views on the economy and the constitution are well known. For voters to hand more power to his party and its allies constitutes a significant endorsement.

Another reason that this election is significant is the fact that it is the first to include 18- and 19-year-old voters. Westerners assume that younger people tend to be more leftist in their political ideology. Yet exit polls showed that younger voters favored the more conservative LDP.

Is it because Japanese young people are more conservative? I think here the word “conservative” is a misnomer. Conservatism is associated with traditional social values and a belief in small government. Right wingers in Japan believe somewhat in the former and not really at all in the latter. Abe and his hawk supporters are not pushing for limited government. What's more, Abe's administration has also very actively tried to encourage women to work more, which suggests that they aren't exactly trying to turn back the clock on gender equality.

It is not conservatism at play here but rather nationalism. Call it a kind of “Japanese Exceptionalism.” Most Japanese believe their country is unique and need not fall in line with every global trend or agenda. As the stagnant economy and population decline problems have festered, anxiety about the future seems to have convinced more young people that Japan needs to look out for its own. Feeding this tendency among younger voters is the fact that they make greater use of non-traditional media.

Many Japanese young people are no longer relying on NHK and the mainstream newspapers for their daily news. Many don't even have a TV. Like their Western counterparts, they are increasingly turning to the Internet and alternative media to learn about the world. They are reading Line blogs for entertainment news, checking Livedoor for breaking stories, and watching YouTube for analysis.

On the subject of analysis, YouTube is chalk full of political discussion. Dig around and you can find channels of all different political affiliations. Left wing stations such as SEALDS focus their attacks on Abe while many nationalist channels are harshly critical of South Korea and China. There are also more popular middle of the road channels such as Kazuya Kyomoto's “Kazuya Channel.” Boasting 350,000+ subscribers, Kazuya puts out thoughtful, polished commentaries almost every day. His views fall into that default sort of soft nationalism I described a few paragraphs back, though his comments section tends to be more hardcore. There are a number of other news commentators on YouTube as well, such as Takeda Tsuneyasu and RandomYoko. Many are at least mildly right of center politically, including the above mentioned.

RandomYoko makes for an interesting case to examine as one of the relatively few women in this category. She takes a page from more extreme Western political YouTubers. She follows Breitbart News and supports the far-right Nihon no Kokoro Taisetsu ni Suru Party (PJK). She routinely condemns communists and leftists in her videos. She gained some notoriety recently for making English language videos wherein she enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump. I discovered her while researching my previous article on Trump and spoke with her briefly just after the upper house election.

“I am a fan of Prime Minister Abe because he is a true conservative and a master of compromise,” she says of the current Japanese leader. At the same time she worries that he “compromises too much,” and she hopes that the PJK “pulls Jiminto to the right.” Discussing her media appearances and popularity surge following her English language Trump videos, she says, “Nobody had done that before. There are many [Japanese] people who can speak English but those people...are influenced by Western culture so they are not going to be nationalistic.” She suggests that typical Japanese people are fairly nationalistic but not very interested in politics, and so her hope is to get more people paying attention.

The growing popularity of YouTubers like RandomYoko does not in itself necessarily evidence a general rightward political shift throughout the country. It does however show that the political right in Japan has significant support among young people and in non-traditional media. In the Western world, the left is more social media savvy than the right. When it comes to hashtag activism, YouTube campaigns, and Facebook protests, liberals have always been more organized than conservatives. This is not so in Japan. While there are cases of social conservatives being put in check, the political and cultural left do not really dominate Japanese internet media. Japanese teenagers who support Abe and the LDP are part of mainstream youth culture. By contrast in America, if you were a teenager and supported George W Bush, you were seen as a bit odd.

Still, we should be careful about making too many broad statements about political trends going into the future. Though young people supported the LDP, voter turnout was around 55%. It is hard to enthusiastically claim a mandate when nearly half of the electorate stays home. Turnout has long been underwhelming in Japanese elections due to a general lack of interest in political matters.

The booming Japanese economy that lasted for decades after WW2 likely helped cultivate the modern era of political indifference. Who cares what the government is up to when you have record economic growth year after year? The malaise of the 1990s changed things, and now with the rise of alternative media, there are more outlets catering to the socially and politically disaffected. With more incentive to care about politics and more outlets for expression, Japanese people, particularly the young, may finally be paying more attention to their society's leadership.

This is a good thing. Japan is not some Utopian civilization where people can afford to be ignorant of what their government is doing. More people paying attention can help drive reform. A more engaged population combined with more competition from online media can also encourage traditional news media to more aggressively hold public figures accountable. When people see a major news outlet unquestioningly parrot the official party line of the ruling administration, and then turn and see an eloquent YouTuber thoughtfully dissect it, it is no wonder that the latter starts being seen as more trustworthy. A more assertive media combined with an engaged population is a recipe for a functional democracy.

© Japan Today

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Most have been told that they are special and unique (just as Americans are told that USA is the greatest) and they believe it to a certain extent.

America also prides itself on it's diversity and welcoming of different cultures though... But it has it's fair share of sheltered xenophobes as well.

I don't follow Japanese social media, so this article was kind of an eye opener. I might just check out some of the Youtubers mentioned. RandomYoko's endorsement of Trump already has me worried though.

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Well we Japanese put it mildly quite sheltered and xenophobic. Most have been told that they are special and unique (just as Americans are told that USA is the greatest) and they believe it to a certain extent. Japanese TV and media always create an "us and them" view of the world and Japan. Even food and health products are designed for "Japanese bodies and minds". Politics in the near future will be about nationalism and protectionism against a China who will probably be more powerful in 10-20 years.

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