The Greening of Japanese Politics?


When Greens Japan emerged as a national political organization in July 2012, the timing for success seemed perfect. Sixteen months had passed since the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of March 2011. The Japanese public was saturated with news of government incompetence linked to the triple disaster, fed up with mainstream politics, and, to a greater degree than ever before, eager for a transition from nuclear power to renewable energy.

The Greens promised exactly that kind of change. A grassroots party affiliated with a global network that is particularly strong in Europe, its platform centers on environmental sustainability, social justice, and the rapid abolition of nuclear power.

Missing from the Political Map?

Nearly four years later, though, the Greens have dropped out of newspaper headlines and, it seems, national politics. All 10 of the candidates the party fielded in the 2013 election for the Diet’s upper house lost, and none will compete in the national election this summer. While about 70 Greens hold local office and party membership has nearly doubled since 2012, it still numbers only 1,300. Meanwhile, donations have stagnated at around ¥20 million per year.

What happened? And what prospects exist for environmentally oriented politics in Japan? Those are the questions on my mind as I climb five flights of stairs behind a 24-hour clothing shop to reach the humble Tokyo headquarters of Greens Japan. Ishizaki Hiromi, the party’s press secretary, greets me with a cup of organic black tea from Kumamoto Prefecture and a hesitantly hopeful outlook on environmental politics—at least in the long run.

“In the past, social and political participation was extremely low in Japan. With the nuclear accident and the protests last year against the reinterpretation of Article 9 [of Japan’s Constitution] and the new security legislation, concern for human rights, democracy, and social justice has gradually grown,” he explains as I peer around the green-bedecked office.

Despite this heightened awareness of issues core to the Greens’ platform, the party has yet to see a matching leap in support for it, Ishizaki says. “In the longer term, though, our party plays an important role by simply existing. We’ve got members in place here and there around the country as members of municipal assemblies, representing citizen interests. Each of them is fighting single-handedly to protect values like human rights, pacifism, and the environment. For people like these, the Greens can be a vessel for their hope that one day someone representing their views will join the National Diet. All we can do is hold on to our vision and goals, strengthen our network, and do the steady work to expand our organization.”

High Barriers for New Political Entrants

Ishizaki admits that the picture is less rosy in the short term. He attributes the party’s total defeat in the 2013 election to a political system that is “extremely unfair” to new parties. For instance, the campaign period is just 17 days long, and political parties are required to field at least 10 candidates if they want to compete for seats in the national legislature. They must pay a fee of ¥3 million to ¥6 million for each candidate.

Hino Airō, a professor of comparative politics at Waseda University, says the gripe over high election fees is justified.

“Even by international standards, Japan is really at the extreme,” says Hino, who studies newcomer parties like the Greens in Europe and Japan. Established political parties often use government election funding to pay these fees, but the subsidies are distributed only to parties that already hold 5 seats in the Diet. (The funding comes from a ¥250 tax on every Japanese citizen that brings in about ¥32 billion per year.)

As a result, most new political parties in Japan—and there are many—are actually regroupings of established politicians who already hold parliamentary seats. “What is missing in Japan are new parties from below,” Hino says.

The Greens are a rare exception: the party emerged from a 20-year history of citizen activism at the local level and a string of attempts to draw these movements together into a viable national environmental party.

Green political movements worldwide are in principle opposed to hierarchy and power relations, though, and the broad egalitarianism they espouse can hamper their efforts as parties on national stages. As Nakano Kōichi, a professor of political science at Sophia University, points out: “They tend to rotate access to the assemblies, and that kind of horizontal orientation tends to work against actual influence or power, ironically.”

A Rosier Outlook in the Longer Term?

A broader question is whether the radical environmental message that Ishizaki and his colleagues espouse can draw major support from the Japanese public. Although antinuclear sentiment remains high, Hino is skeptical that energy issues alone will attract many votes; in Europe, he points out, the most successful Green parties have broadened their platform to include issues such as euthanasia and same-sex marriage, or linked to other grassroots networks such as the women’s and consumer rights movements.

But Ishizaki is confident that in the next few decades, environmental sustainability will supplant the economy as a priority for Japanese voters.

“Japan’s economic growth stalled in the 1990s. The older generations remember the good times, but people in their twenties and thirties, who grew up when the economy was declining, aren’t growth oriented. A lot of them believe they can have a good life without making much money, And at the same time, they are concerned that climate change will make its effects felt much more in the years to come,” he says.

For those post-growth voters, Greens Japan’s six core principles—participatory democracy, ecological wisdom, sustainability, nonviolence, social justice, and respect for diversity—just may be a winning ticket.

(Originally written in English and published on June 24, 2016. Banner photo: A scene from the July 2012 gathering to mark the launch of the new organization. Courtesy of Greens Japan.)

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