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Different generations have different ideas about what “reformist” means: Waseda prof. Endo Masahisa

  • September 3, 2021
  • , Asahi , p. 15
  • JMH Translation

Interviewed by Takaku Jun


In every election season, people talk about the ideological differences between the parties, such as “conservative vs. liberal” and “right vs. left.” While we may be able to choose a side, not many of us can explain what these labels really mean. Is Japanese society conservative or liberal? Do these labels actually mean anything?


Asahi Shimbun: These days, it seems harder to clearly understand what these ideologies mean.


Endo Masahisa: Labels representing political dichotomy such as “conservative vs. liberal” or “conservative vs. reformist” are tools for understanding the characteristics of political parties.


In the 2017 Lower House election, Kibo no To (the Party of Hope) launched by Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko aspired to be a “tolerant, reform-minded conservative party.” At the time, the “liberal” members who were left out of the Kibo no To formed the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. Not only voters, but also politicians and political parties attached labels to themselves and each other. Essentially, this is fine as long as these labels indicate the society’s conflicts and clearly indicate which side the person or party stands on the issues.


Asahi: You mean that the meaning of the labels can change depending on the societal conflicts?


Endo: That’s right. The words “conservative” and “liberal” are used in Western countries, but what these words emphasize varies from society to society.


Asahi: Then what is the main conflict in Japan?


Endo: Past opinion polls show that in Japan, ever since the end of the WWII, the axis of the political identities has been on whether to protect the Constitution and on national security issues. There has been no real change in this regard since the time when the 1955 political order was established through the formation of the Liberal Democratic Party on the right and the reintegration of the Japan Socialist Party, previously split, on the left. In Japan, the differences between the parties’ economic and social policies have had little to do with ideological labels. However, in the past ten years or so, the situation has become more complex: a clear difference has emerged between certain generations in distinguishing which parties are conservative and which are reformist.   


Asahi: What do you mean?


Endo: I asked people to place political parties on a spectrum between “conservative” on one extreme and “reformist” on the other. People in their 50s and older categorized the Liberal Democratic Party as conservative and the Japanese Communist Party as reformist. However, many in their 40s and younger put the “conservative” label on the JCP, along with the LDP, and identified Nippon Ishin no Kai as a reformist party. I noticed this tendency for the first time in 2012 and have repeatedly conducted the study over the years, finding the same tendency every time.


In short, the two generational groups think of the terms “conservative” and “reformist” in different contexts and attach different meanings to the words. For the younger generation, “reformist” is not a word specifically understood in the context of Japanese political developments after the WWII, but rather carries the same meaning as “innovation,” as in “technological innovation,” which literally means change. For them, the JCP is conservative because it wants to maintain the status quo by insisting on “not changing the Constitution” and “not raising the consumption tax,” etc.


Asahi: So there are two different political conflicts represented by the same set of words. Why did Japan end up in this situation?


Endo: Japanese people in their 40s and younger experienced an era of “innovation” in the 1990s when they were in their late teens and early 20s. Japanese society underwent significant changes then, one example being the introduction of single-constituency districts. During that time, the traditional concept of “reformist” was replaced by “liberal” and “innovation” as new concepts used to contrast with “conservative.” The traditional concept of “reformist” was born out of “the season of politics” in the 1960s. Those in their 40s and younger who didn’t experience or study that particular era don’t share the same understanding of the word.


Asahi: Do you think voters are more inclined to vote for conservative candidates these days?


Endo: There is no data that clearly indicates conservative tendencies in recent voters. Rather, the voters are becoming more liberal leaning. I analyzed results of the World Values Survey and found that more people who consider their own political views to be “middle of the road” appreciate diversity and call for greater tolerance. Even after the second Abe administration was launched, this tendency continued to deepen.

Asahi: What is the dividing line in the political debate between parties today?


Endo: On the party level, the issue is whether the party advocates constitutional reform or not. However, issues identified by the voters over 50 as the axis of inter-party confrontation are different from those identified by the younger generation. These two groups are on different platforms, and in that sense, traditional “labels” are no longer relevant. Meanwhile, as far as data is concerned, no extreme changes have been observed in the Japanese people’s political consciousness. Therefore, if the opposition parties fail to join hands because of their differing views on the Constitution, they will be unlikely to take control of the government under the current election system.


Asahi: It sounds like no change is possible as long as the issue is about the Constitution.


Endo: Not necessarily. A different outcome is also possible. Japanese society is increasingly positive about allowing different surnames for married couples and same-sex marriage. These social issues, as opposed to constitutional and national security issues, could give new meaning to political labels. Our society may be in transition.



Endo Masahisa, born in 1978, is an associate professor at Waseda University who specializes in voting behavior and public opinion. He authored “Ideology and Japanese Politics” with Willy Jou as well as other books.

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