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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Conservatism in Japan

In a conformist culture, small-government activists take a roundabout path

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera review an honor guard before a flag return ceremony last week.

REUTERS

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, center, and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera review an honor guard before a flag return ceremony last week.

TOKYO

When Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party stormed back to power in last month’s parliamentary elections, news stories in the West described the landslide as a resounding victory for conservatives in a vote driven by economic anxiety. Voters in 2009 had replaced the long-ruling Liberal Democrats — the more conservative party, its name notwithstanding — with a left-leaning coalition that had failed to pull the country out of a prolonged decline. Now the electorate had shifted decidedly rightward, and a conservative former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was back in the saddle.

Was Japan having a Tea Party moment?

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The sumo-sized win for Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party might have reminded an American observer of the conservative surge in the United States two years earlier, when the largest Republican majority in 60 years swept to control of the House of Representatives. It was a triumph for Tea Party conservatives committed to smaller government, lower taxes, individual liberty, and free enterprise. Could something similar be galvanizing voters in Japan?

Japan certainly could use a healthy taxpayer revolt. The Japanese economy has underperformed for years, its national debt is more than twice its GDP, and its population is rapidly — and expensively — aging. Five times in the past 15 years Japan has gone into recession, and credit-rating agencies have downgraded its sovereign debt. In the 1980s, many regarded Japan as an unstoppable economic force; today it is commonplace to speak of Japan’s “lost decades” and depressed levels of consumption and investment. An “increasingly accepted” view, The Washington Post noted recently, is that Japan is “not just in a prolonged slump but also in an inescapable decline.”

It wasn’t too far in America’s past that such Carteresque malaise provided an opening to optimistic Reaganite conservatism. The tax revolt of the 1970s, like the Tea Party movement a generation later, invigorated a pro-growth, libertarian message that has become an indelible aspect of American conservative thinking. Given the rut into which Japan has been led by a succession of big-spending, heavy-borrowing governments, this should be a great opportunity for Japanese advocates of freedom, open markets, and individual initiative.

Alas, no. There is a fledgling libertarian movement in Japan — even an organization called the Tokyo Tea Party — but for the most part it seems diffident and low-key. Few seem avid to make the case that liberty is an inalienable right, or that there is rarely a better way to advance dignity and prosperity than by shrinking the scope, cost, and intrusiveness of government.

“Conservatives” may have cruised to victory in the recent elections, but as I discovered during a visit to Japan this month as a guest of the nonprofit Foreign Press Center, conservatism here has little in common with its American counterpart. Japanese conservatives tend to “like stronger government,” argues political scientist Masaru Kohno, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University. The conviction that there should be “less government intervention in economic affairs — Milton Friedman, not Maynard Keynes — that dimension does not exist here.” Even when politicians in Japan call for deregulation, he observes, it doesn’t come from a philosophical belief that smaller government is better.

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There are fiscal conservatives within the Liberal Democratic Party, but they are in the minority. Politicians feel no grassroots pressure to curb government expenditures or pay down public debt, says Taro Kono, who has been a member of parliament since 1996. The right-left divide in Japanese politics has never been about economics or the size of government. Far more intense have been the debates over foreign policy, national security, and relations with the United States.

Not even Yuya Watase, the founder of the Tokyo Tea Party, wants to talk about free enterprise or the stifling impact of high taxes. He prefers a more roundabout approach — speaking to audiences about the history of Japanese democracy, and encouraging them to think about self-government. The brash liberty arguments so characteristic of conservative rallies in America — “Don’t Tread on Me” — wouldn’t resonate with most Japanese, he said. There is simply no tradition in Japanese life for extolling personal liberty or celebrating the individual.

Perhaps this reflects the strong emphasis in Japanese culture on fitting in with the group; a famous Japanese maxim warns that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

Indeed, even the Tokyo Tea Party wants to be seen as part of a larger group. That’s why Watase chose the name he did. The term “tea party” has no historical meaning for Japanese, but it suggests that the Tokyo group belongs to an international movement, and isn’t merely a nail sticking up.

There was at least one libertarian bloom in last month’s elections: a small parliamentary faction called Your Party that unabashedly champions low taxes and less government. It has only 18 members in Japan’s 480-seat lower house, but some of them, at least, aren’t too inhibited to talk about freedom. When I ask the newly elected Hidehiro Mitani, a young and energetic lawyer, to sum up his pitch to the voters, he doesn’t hesitate: “Don’t rely on the government.”

Granted, it’s not quite as catchy as “Don’t Tread On Me.” But if that message spreads, Japan may have its Tea Party yet.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.

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