🔮 Uncovering the realities of populism in Japan

Japanese media and academics continue to link populism with specific political positions. Yet studies show that this is not the case. Masaru Nishikawa raises the fundamental question of whether populism exists in Japan

According to the ideational approach, populism is an ideology that divides society into the 'pure people' and the 'corrupt elites'. Politics is an expression of the will of the former.

In their opening piece for this series, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti identified and debunked three common ‘myths’ about populism. The first is that populism is synonymous with the radical right. According to Zulianello and Guasti, ‘scholars have largely dispelled this myth. However, the media still commonly uses populism as a synonym for a specific form of the phenomenon: the (populist) radical right’.

Japanese media, pundits, and even some academics still support the view that populism in Japan is associated with specific political positions

Yet, Japanese media, pundits, and even some academics still support the idea that populism in Japan is associated with specific political positions, such as regional identity or neoliberalism. Even if these specific political ideologies adhere to the definition of populism, their features only represent a subsection of populism.

The myth remains

Japanese media have characterised various politicians as populists, including Shinzo Abe, Toru Hashimoto, Yuriko Koike, and Junichiro Koizumi. These politicians are usually right-wing. Japanese newspapers define populism as simply ‘politics in which political leaders pander to the common people’.

Media articles generally emphasise that populism is based on economic disparity. They assert that populism is specific to the right wing, and to low- and middle-income groups. They also maintain that populism is usually predicated on xenophobia. And they invariably conclude that such right-wing populism endangers Japan's democracy.

Japanese newspapers define populism as simply ‘politics in which political leaders pander to the common people'

This way of understanding populism cannot adequately capture its basic character of ‘pure people’ versus ‘corrupt elites.’ What the media and pundits describe as ‘populism’ may not deserve to be called populism at all.

Deconstructing the myth

Several studies show that this myth is no longer sustainable, even in Japan. To examine the relationship between populist attitudes and voting behaviour among Tokyo residents, we conducted a survey using the populist attitudes scale developed by Agnes Akkerman and Anne Schulz.

My research showed that populist attitudes do exist in Japan, as they do in the West. However, I found that those who voted for Yuriko Koike and the Tokyo First Party were less populist than those who supported other parties.

My findings indicate that we cannot link support for populism with specific political positions. Mitsuru Matsutani's research also points out that economic dissatisfaction, political distrust, and specific political positions do not support populism in Japan.

Likewise, Axel Klein examined the Reiwa Shinsengumi, a Japanese political party often described as having elements of ‘leftist populism’. When he analysed the party from an ideational point of view, he found it did not meet the conditions of populism.

Populism is not necessarily identified with certain political positions in Japan

The All Okinawa Movement is a regional independence movement led by Governor Onaga of Okinawa Prefecture. Ken Victor, Leonard Hijino and Gabriele Vogt claimed that it was a form of populism. However, Klein argued that this movement did not fit the populist label either. Again, this supports the view that we cannot necessarily identify populism in Japan with certain political positions.

What causes these misunderstandings?

There are various academic definitions of populism. However, Japanese populism studies either do not follow them closely or use different definitions in their analyses. Gill Steele noted that using a Japan-specific definition of populism can obscure what populism is and calls for, which may lead to confusion and (unnecessary) controversy.

This is why some cases are categorised as ‘populist’, even when it is not clear whether they truly are. It's also why the Japanese media – and some academics – understand populism to be associated only with a particular political position in Japan. It may be why this myth persists in Japan.

Populism in Japan: does it exist?

Let me raise a fundamental question, one that has been the topic of much debate in Japan. Is there really anything worthy of being called ‘populism’ in Japan?

As I suggest above, in Japan, populism is not associated with any particular political position. To put it more boldly; in Japan, neither right-wing nor left-wing populism exist.

But do Zulianello and Guasti’s ‘agrarian populism’ or ‘valence populism’ exist in Japan? We will not know until we undertake more thorough research.

12th in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Masaru Nishikawa
Masaru Nishikawa
Full Professor (Tenured), Department of International and Cultural Studies, Tsuda University, Tokyo

Masaru is interested in comparative politics, computational social science, Japanese politics, and American politics.

Using different methods, he has studied interrelated topics in different countries and time periods, theoretically and empirically.

In particular, he focuses on American democracy and affective/ideological polarisation.

Additionally, he has studied the impact of the rise of populism on democratic politics in the US, Japan, and other countries.

He also works on the impact of misinformation/ disinformation (e.g. conspiracy theories) on democratic politics, such as in Japan and the US.


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