Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian and Nationalist Trends in Japan and Taiwan

The KMT’s presidential candidate, Han Kuo-yu, held a momentum party about 350,000 people in the Triple Happiness Water Park in New Taipei City, Taiwan on September 8, 2019. Photo: Ricky Kuo.

Please cite as:

Pretorius, Philip Christo & Sithole, Neo. (2024). Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian and Nationalist Trends in Japan and Taiwan. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 5, 2024.   https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0053                

 

This report offers a summary of the tenth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian and Nationalist Trends in Japan and Taiwan,” which took place online on February 29, 2024. Dr. Dachi Liao moderated the panel, featuring insights from four distinguished panelists.

Report by Philip Christo Pretorius & Neo Sithole

This report provides a brief overview of the tenth event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping European Populism (MEP) panel series, titled "Various Facets of Populist, Authoritarian and Nationalist Trends in Japan and Taiwan" held online on February 29, 2024. Moderated by Dr. Dachi Liao, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Political Science at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan, the panel featured speakers Dr. Toru Yoshida, Full Professor of Comparative Politics at Doshisha University in Japan, Dr. Airo Hino, Professor, School of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University, Dr. Szu-Yun Hsu, Assistant Professor, Political Science, McMaster University, Dr. Jiun-Chi Lin, Postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Marketing Communication, National Sun Yat-sen University.

Panel moderator Dr. Dachi Liao began the panel with an overall assessment on the various facets of Populist, Authoritarian and Nationalist Trends in Japan and Taiwan. In this assessment, she identified four populist figures, two from each country, before going on to define “populism” to allow for a mutually clear and understood definition to be used throughout the panel session. 

According to Dr. Liao, the underlying assumption/common understanding of populism and populist studies globally is based on the permanent division between the ‘elite’ and the common people. She highlighted three important facets for her conceptualization of the populist phenomenon: the provocation of a “social cleavage,” charismatic leaders that can stir anxious moods towards the social cleavage, and the use of an emotional and colloquial communication style. 

Next, Dr. Liao provided various factors that he believes to be causing the populist trend, including economic, political, cultural, institutional and technological, while from the drawing scholarly works of Michael J. Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit, and Ernesto Laclau’s Populism: What’s in a Name?

Ending this opening presentation, she highlighted that although the populist trend has a positive effect on policy change and power restructuring, it has also caused a political breakdown and polarization within society. With the definition of populism established, Dr. Liao made a preliminary comparison between Japanese and Taiwanese populist trends indicating that in her research she found that economic factors were a stronger driving factor for Japanese populism, compared to the political nationalism found in Taiwan, and that she found Japanese institutions were more authoritarian in design compared to Taiwan’s Liberal Democratic institutions.

Dr. Toru Yoshida: “The State of Populism in Japan: A Comparative Perspective”

Dr. Yoshida highlights the distinction between Japanese populism and its Western counterpart, emphasizing that the Japanese national government already leans towards social conservatism and economic protectionism, unlike many Western governments. However, Dr. Toru’s research reveals that ‘populists’ in Japan tend to adopt a more politically moderate stance compared to Western standards. Rather than embracing authoritarian or hardline views typical of Western populism, they often take a centrist approach to political issues.

Dr. Toru Yoshida’s presentation focused on a comparative perspective between the state of populism in Japan and other countries, especially those of the West. He highlighted that in Western politics the key difference between right-wing and left-wing populism, these being that right-wing populism presents itself as politically nationalistic/nativist, socially conservative and authoritarian while left-wing populism is more politically cosmopolitan/progressive and socially inclusive. However, Dr. Yoshida commented on how both share the common trait of being economically protectionist. 

In his analysis of populism in Japan Dr. Yoshida highlighted that although populists in Japan practice the ‘good people’ versus the ‘evil elite’ discourse used in Western settings, they are usually elected through local-level politically reformist campaigns that have a pro-market stance. As these findings contrast what is found in the West, Dr. Yoshida investigated this further through two research questions: Why are Japanese populists mainly regional politicians; and why are they politically reformist and economically liberal? 

As an answer to both questions, Dr. Yoshida hypothesizes that populist politicians are elected on a local level due to the proportional representative electoral system and that local governments are seen as “protectors of the people” against the “corrupt elite” of the national government. This is the result of local politicians seeking institutional reform as a strategically rational way of trying to win the vote of independent voters who often support neo-liberal reform policies and have low confidence in politicians and national institutions. 

Dr. Yoshida highlights the distinction between Japanese populism and its Western counterpart, emphasizing that the Japanese national government already leans towards social conservatism and economic protectionism, unlike many Western governments. However, Dr. Yoshida’s research reveals that ‘populists’ in Japan tend to adopt a more politically moderate stance compared to Western standards. Rather than embracing authoritarian or hard-line views typical of Western populism, they often take a centrist approach to political issues.

Dr. Airo Hino: “The Nature of Populism in Japan – Japan as an Uncharted Territory of Global Populism?”

‘Populism’ in Japan has often been connected to ideas and policies which are seen as pandering to the electorate with short-term benefits, and is reflected in the language where ‘populism’ appears together with ‘taishū-geigō’ (literally meaning ‘pandering to the masses’) in more than half the articles published since the 1990’s. As a result, ordinary people have become accustomed to seeing the two ideas used together, thus resulting in an overall negative connotation of ‘populism’ today.

In his presentation Dr. Airo Hino looked to disprove the underlying assumption that Japan is free from populism and immune to the spread of it. By using historical examples, Dr. Hino highlighted that Japan has not only experienced populism before but suggests that these experiences have prevented the surge of fully-fledged populism

Following defining how populism is analytically perceived within the country, Dr. Hino unpacked how populists in Japan reduce politics to common populist tropes of the ‘ordinary people’ versus the ‘elite,’ the morally good versus evil, and friends versus enemies, and in the process exploiting the mass media using this dramatic ‘theatrical style’ of rhetoric. Using this analytical framework as a basis, Dr. Hino displayed how certain populist politicians have used this theatrical rhetoric in campaigns both in the past and continue to do so now.

Continuing his presentation, he argued that populism is not only an analytical concept, but a frame which has shaped Japanese politics since the 1990’s. To do so, Dr. Hino graphed references to “populism” and “populists” in Japanese newspapers and academic journals that indicated four waves of populism first emerging during the 1990’s in the era of “reform politics.” 

Populism’ in Japan has often been connected to ideas and policies which are seen as pandering to the electorate with short-term benefits, and is reflected in the language where ‘populism’ appears together with ‘taishū-geigō’ (literally meaning ‘pandering to the masses’) in more than half the articles published since the 1990’s. As a result, ordinary people have become accustomed to seeing the two ideas used together, thus resulting in an overall negative connotation of ‘populism’ today. 

Continuing this line of argument, Dr. Hino brough up that due to a series of scandals in the 1990s, criticism and attacks of the central government increased in parallel with anti-elite sentiments, all resulted in the positive perception of populism, leading into the Koizumi era of neo-liberal reforms where Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi presented himself theatrically as a hero batting entrenched interests. 

Dr. Szu-Yun Hsu: “Populism in Taiwan, Rethinking the Neoliberalism-Populism Nexus”

Dr. Szu-Yun Hsu contends that Taiwan provides a notable example of the integral state, established by the KMT regime following World War II. Initially, Taiwan operated under a developmental model that significantly boosted its economic growth. However, come the 1980s, the state faced dual crises: economic stagnation and challenges to political legitimacy, prompting the need for extensive restructuring. This effort entailed the adoption of neoliberal reforms aimed at rejuvenating the economy while concurrently aiming to uphold political control and social stability.

Based off her most recent article on the neoliberalism-populism nexus, Dr. Szu-Yun Hsu’s presentation looked at finding the correlation between economic liberal globalization and rise of populism, especially amongst the working class who are more inclined to elect populist leaders. Here Dr. Hsu begun by explaining what she conceptualizes as the ‘neoliberalism-populism nexus’ which is explained to be the popular view that contemporary populist is an outcome of neoliberal globalization and the economic grievances attached to it (which then creates the inclination towards populist leaders for the working-class). 

However, Taiwan’s experience complicates this narrative, something that prompted Dr. Hsu to reevaluate the relationship between neoliberalism and populism by asking “can neo-liberalism rise from populism?” and is populism a consequence, counterforce, or constitutive component of neo-liberalism? 

Turning to East Asian cases of populism, Dr. Hsu highlights that experiences are diverse in East Asia because there are indeed elected neo-liberal populist leaders, but also anti-neoliberal popular movements such as the Candlelight Movement in South Korea and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, which highlights that the connection between neo-liberalism and populism isn’t as clear cut as one would believe.  

In analyzing these dynamics, Dr. Hsu utilizes the integral state concept and non-reductionist class analysis derived from Gramscian and Marxist theories. The Gramscian integral state emphasizes the dual objectives of facilitating capitalist economic accumulation and securing political legitimacy for the governing authority. It contends that capitalist accumulation and political hegemony are interlinked, and crises in one domain often trigger disruptions in the other, leading to volatile socio-political relations.

According to Dr. Hsu, the manifestation of the integral state is most evident in Taiwan, where it was established by the KMT regime in the aftermath of World War II. Initially, Taiwan operated under a developmental model that effectively propelled its economic growth. However, by the 1980s, the state encountered dual crises – economic stagnation and political legitimacy challenges – necessitating a comprehensive restructuring effort.

This restructuring endeavor involved the implementation of neoliberal reforms aimed at revitalizing the economy while simultaneously seeking to maintain political control and social stability.

Dr. Hsu also delved into the post-restructuring period that witnessed the emergence of two forms of populism in Taiwan: liberal populism and neoliberal populism. Liberal populism, exemplified by movements such as the 2006 "Red Shirt" movement and the 2013 "White Shirt" movement, focused on moral outrage and demands for political reform. However, it failed to address structural causes and ultimately reinforced the existing power structures.

Dr. Juin-Chi Lin – “How Professionalized Are Parties’ Populist Communication Strategies on Facebook? An Observation the 2024 Taiwan National Election”

Dr. Juin-Chi Lin and his colleagues have delineated populism within a communication framework, emphasizing core tenets such as people-centralism, anti-elitism, and the restoration of popular sovereignty. They assert that this ‘campaign professionalization’ is frequently associated with the involvement of experts during election cycles. However, Dr. Lin contends that such professionalization is more intricately tied to technological innovations. To effectively engage with voters on social media platforms, political parties must prioritize professionalizing their communication strategies.

Dr. Juin-Chi Lin’s talk focused on a practical approach of investigating populism, specifically the use of populist rhetoric in elections on social media, centrally in the increased interest overall in how parties communicate to their voters, and thus investigating the language used by mainstream parties in building a relationship with its voters on online platforms is an important starting point in investigating the professionalization of populist communication.

To do this Dr. Lin and his colleagues established populism through a communication framework with key ideas such as people-centralism, anti-elitism, and restoring popular sovereignty. This ‘campaign professionalization’ was explained to often be linked to the role of experts during the election cycle, but Dr. Lin argued that campaign professionalization is instead linked to the technological innovations, and to establish a good relationship with voters on social media, parties need to learn how to professionalize communication. 

Therefore, through the integration of different communication styles, negative and emotional communication have been found to best reinforce populist messages. Using this framework, Dr. Lin’s team investigated if they could find certain trends in the communication styles used by parties during the 2024 Taiwan election. To do so, Facebook posts from December 2023 to Mid-January 2024 acted as the preliminary starting point for their investigation. Dr. Lin used key examples from his finding in the presentation to highlight his argument, starting with the DPP who’s first post featured gratitude for the people, and emphasizes personal characteristics of leaders. In the second example, the party used the negative style of communication, focusing on national sovereignty, and criticizing the KMT. The DPP particularly emphasized their opponents as the “elite” and as the enemy, using the corruption crisis to polarize the people against them. In a final example given during the presentation the DPP focus on one of their candidate’s charisma – emphasizing her positive features as ambassador to the United States.

Similarly, when investigating the KMT political party, Dr. Lin’s team also focused on people centrism, restoring popular sovereignty, and have a sociable style of communication. In a first example, Dr. Lin presents an advertisement where KMT emphasizes that they care about the people, specifically focusing on the anecdote that one of their leaders went to shake hands with everyone he met, looking after the people, and that KMT’s candidates are professional and seeks to improve people’s lives. 

They also made anti-elite posts, strongly criticizing the DPP, asking voters to elect the KMT for the chance to change politics in the next four years. Dr. Lin concludes by giving attention the major communicative characteristics of mainstream parties including people-centrism, restoring popular sovereignty and anti-elitism.

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