Why has Japan not had a populist uprising

John Plender sought in a recent Financial Times article to answer the question of why Japan has not had a populist uprising, as so much of the Western world has.   One of the possible factors he mentions – the lack of much immigration – was of course immediately taken up in the comments section by various Brexit supporters.

Weeding through the comments and looking at those from people who are actually Japanese or have lived or live in Japan gave some further possible answers and also prompted me to add a few of my own:

Japan already has a nationalist, nativist, populist government

Shinzo Abe – on course to be the longest serving Prime Minister in post-war Japan – is openly nationalist, elected on a ticket of making Japan not “great” again but “normal” – not just to get the economy growing, but also as in being able to defend itself.  He was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after his election.

On the immigration front however, his government has quietly been making all kinds of exceptions to the rules in allowing immigration, in particular sectors that are suffering labour shortages, such as the care sector (elderly and childcare).  More Asian immigrants, on company traineeships, have been arriving – although there has been controversy over whether they are just cheap, exploited, temporary labour in disguise.

Different histories of immigration

It is true that Japan has not had any large scale immigration, for more than 2000 years.  Some Chinese and Korean immigration happened before and during WWII and this remains controversial to this day as much of it was forced labour.  Many ethnic Chinese and Koreans have not taken up Japanese nationality.  Koreans in particular have been the targets of occasional abuse from far right groups.

But to see this as a lesson for the UK would be a failure to see the utterly different starting points for the two countries.  98% of the Japanese population is Japanese.  Whereas across Europe we have been migrating around each other’s countries for more than 3000 years, and more recently large scale migrations from former colonies and war zones – most countries in Europe have over 10% of the population who are not “native”.  If you want to go back to ethnically homogenous nations, then some elaborate and intricate ethnic cleansing will have to happen.  I for one will be suspect, as by German definitions, I am an immigrant as my mother was not born in the UK.

The cultural argument

A subtle point was made in one of the FT comments, lost on the Brexiteers perhaps, that because Japan does not have a large immigrant population, immigrants cannot be blamed by Japanese people for any woes they may have.  Indeed, one of the strongest cultural characteristics of Japanese people is their urge for self improvement, to the point of blaming themselves or pointing to other’s personal failings, rather than blaming the economy or politicians or the “elite”.

The economic argument – why Donald Trump might be right

Although income inequality is rising in Japan (and surveys show it is the number one concern for Japanese people – whereas in the UK it was immigration and for the US it was terrorism), unemployment remains low.  The workforce is shrinking and the population is ageing.  Japan leads the world in robotics yet has retained a strong manufacturing base.  Real wages have not increase much, rather decreased over the past few decades.  The rate of post retirement employment is high.

Initially I was repelled by the bullying way Trump seemed to have forced Ford to rethink its plans to expand manufacturing in Mexico and instead increase production in its Michigan factory, but as another comment in the Financial Times points out, these decisions are hotly contested inside multinationals too.  Many managers would rather keep production in their home base, or near the target market if there is sufficient incentive or momentum to do so.  The success of Nissan and Toyota factories in the UK shows that the UK could have kept more of its manufacturing base, if we had the management capability and will to do so.  Robotics create jobs too, if companies are prepared to invest.

The economic argument part 2 – why Theresa May might be right

One of the factors behind Japan’s relative economic stability and a lack of economic and social disenfranchisement amongst the Japanese “working class” has been the lifetime employment system that still prevails in the larger Japanese companies.  In exchange for being multi-skilled generalists, willing to relocate where necessary, Japanese companies offered security of employment right through to retirement and often beyond.

It is generally felt this system – put in place after WWII to deal with labour shortages – has reached the natural end of its life.  The number of workers on short term, insecure contracts has been rising steadily.  However, I have felt for many years now that it should not be thrown out wholesale in favour of Anglo Saxon shareholder value based capitalism, and despite many adjustments, it still persists.

The downsides of the system have been that while it works in times of economic growth, in times of low growth, when you might want to shrink middle to senior management cohorts, or the shopfloor workforce, you can’t and end up with a large number of expensive, underemployed managers and workers, which are a drain on morale, barriers to change and of course, costly.

Secondly, because people are secure in their jobs, and generalists, there is a lack of clarity about expectations and performance management.  Loyalty is rewarded and pay is seniority based rather than performance based.  Consequently many Japanese employees have found themselves proving their dedication by working long hours, rather than trying to be as productive as possible in a normal working day.  This has resulted in it being almost impossible to have a two career family, as it is just not practical to have children and have both working until late at night every day, however good the childcare provision is.  Furthermore, the mental stress caused is clear, as illustrated by the recent suicide of an overworked graduate recruit at Dentsu, the Japanese advertising giant.

Thirdly, Japanese corporate governance has been poor, as the company executives are mostly lifetimers who cover up for each other, and don’t realise when the company is behaving perversely, because they have no experience of other corporate cultures.

The Japanese government response to these pressures is in part to legislate, but mainly to put pressure on Japanese companies themselves to reduce overtime, hire and promote more women and improve their corporate governance.

The view which still persists in Japan is that companies themselves have obligations to society – both to the people they hire and to contribute in terms of taxes and corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability.

Although I was not happy to be accused of being a “citizen of nowhere” by Theresa May, looking at the context of what she was saying – which was in part about the social obligations global businesspeople have – and the clumsy suggestion from Amber Rudd that companies should tally up their non-native employees, I acknowledge that there is a point to be made that companies in the UK need to take more responsibility for who they hire – British and non-British.

The education argument

The UK’s economy is now 80% services based, but this should not mean that companies should get away with zero hour contracts and pressurising British workers with the threat of using cheaper temporary labour from the EU. They should indeed be offering apprenticeships and job security but also multi-skilling opportunities to counterbalance that.  They should help and expect their workers to relocate or retrain them (or as in Japanese factories, spend time on cleaning and maintenance if production has to be ratcheted down) rather than simply shut down and fire.

We need better managers and companies willing to invest in training and technology, but the UK also needs a better educated workforce to begin with.  That’s where government does have a role, as all the evidence shows early intervention in children’s education is the most effective in reducing later inequalities.  And that’s probably the final factor in Japan’s lack of a populist uprising – a highly skilled, highly educated workforce.

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