What’s behind the rise of Japan’s Sanseito, a far-right party that loves Trump and hates immigration?
- Among its members is pastor Ayako Lawrence, whose husband was born in Japan, to British preachers
- The Sanseito party, set up in March 2020 and big on social media, seems to have already found a firm following among younger voters
Those same observers were particularly taken aback that Sanseito’s policy platforms – extremely conservative, anti-globalist, anti-immigration, in favour of a complete rewrite of the constitution and sharply increased defence spending – found such a firm following with the electorate, especially younger voters.
The party’s policies have drawn parallels with those of the “America First” campaign laid out by Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 US elections.
Sanseito Secretary General Sohei Kamiya – who won the Diet seat – responded to the issue in a media interview this month by saying: “There is no question about it. We do not mean to care only about Japan’s interests. But right now, we must revive Japan ahead of other countries.”
Trump’s campaign rhetoric also echoed with Lawrence, a 52-year-old translator and pastor who lives in Sendai, in northern Japan, and won a very respectable 5.8 per cent of the vote in her first election. It was not enough for victory, but the support she received has spurred her political ambitions, she said.
“I was never attracted to politics at all before, but then ... I began to get interested when I heard Trump speak when he was a candidate,” she told This Week in Asia.
“And then I looked at how what he was saying was reported by CNN and the other mainstream media, and I was shocked. I realised that the media was being used as propaganda to make people reach certain conclusions,” she said.
Lawrence, married to a man born in Japan to British parents, follows the Sanseito party line that the coronavirus pandemic was an international effort to “control” the population and that vaccinations and wearing a mask should not be required or even encouraged.
Sanseito’s name directly translates as the “suffrage” (right to vote) party in English but prefers the name “Party of Do It Yourself!”. It was set up in March 2020 and Lawrence joined in June last year. The Sendai office only opened in April this year, making the level of support it attracted in the city remarkable.
Lawrence believes the use of YouTube and other social media platforms to spread Sanseito’s political mantra has been a big help, particularly in reaching younger and first-time voters, but she also feels that it has won over disillusioned supporters of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Lawrence says Sanseito has been labelled an “organic right-wing organisation” on the grounds that one particular policy is to increase oversight of the chemicals and pesticides permitted in Japan’s food.
According to Sanseito campaign literature, while Britain only allows 21 chemicals to be used in foodstuffs, the figure in Japan is an eye-watering 1,500. Lawrence believes that is why cancer cases are increasing in Japan while being brought under control elsewhere.
Sanseito wants defence spending immediately increased to at least 2 per cent of GDP – up from around 1 per cent – and wants Japan to rely less on other nations for its own national security.
Lawrence also supports the party position on banning immigration, rather surprising given that her own husband, a pastor at their church, is the son of British preachers who came to Japan to spread the word. The couple have two daughters.
“We believe that worldwide, immigration has become weaponised,” she said. “Immigrants are being sent to other countries and they’re welcomed because it’s ‘politically correct’, but very soon that country is going to lose its form and national identity.
“And when they have the right to vote and there are more foreigners than Japanese...” she trails off.
While some have suggested immigrants might be the solution to Japan’s shrinking population, Lawrence is strongly opposed. The simple solution, she says, is dramatic improvements in the national economy so young people can afford to get married and have larger families.
Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Tokyo’s Sophia University, said the media and established parties needed to take a good deal of the blame for the rise of such an extremist party.
“They have been very strategic in using social media to get their message across and they have preyed on young people, largely because this sector of the public is relatively ignorant about politics,” he said.
“The established parties have tended to be more boring in their electoral campaigns, while the media’s coverage has been utterly uncritical,” he said. “The media tend to treat all the parties the same, they do not ask questions of their achievements or policies, they just ‘cut-and-paste’ the comments that they are given.
“Older people are better able to connect the dots about parties’ performances, but young people in Japan are not able to critically analyse what they are given,” he said. “That’s not their fault, it’s a result of a lack of knowledge and poor political education and the digitalised and terribly fractured political space that we see now.”
Upon close examination, many of Sanseito’s policies lack “coherence and consistency”, Nakano said, and the party has got this far thanks to its slick and exciting use of social media.
“I do not see it growing significantly larger in the future,” he said. “Sanseito has taken a lot of the votes that went to the NHK Party last time,” he added, referring to the populist single-issue party founded in 2013, its original goal being to oppose license fees for national broadcaster NHK.
Nakano said while he thought Sanseito “will still be here in three years, I expect them to be very marginal. And in 10 years, if they still exist, even more marginal”.
Lawrence, however, is confident that by the time the next election comes around, Sanseito will be in an even stronger position than it is now.
“I think the LDP benefited from ‘sympathy votes’ after former Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe was shot just before election day, but Sanseito now has three years to prepare for the next election and I think we will see a dramatic difference in this party,” she said.