Politics May 2012

Can the Tea Party Take Japan?

Tokyo conservatives look westward for inspiration.

Once a year, at a Marriott just a few blocks from the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C., the Conservative Political Action Conference convenes its own, somewhat less exotic menagerie of economists, activists, lobbyists, and ministers, plus several hundred college students who fancy themselves tomorrow’s Sarah Palins and Karl Roves. CPAC, as it is nicknamed, is the kind of conference where you can join the NRA, pick up a DVD about the Tenth Amendment, and buy a tiny rubber fetus as a souvenir. If you’d been there this year, you might also have noticed, wandering among the booths, a rather conspicuous delegation of three neatly groomed Asian gentlemen in dark suits. They were visiting from Tokyo, but they weren’t there to sightsee. They had come to learn the secrets of the American conservative movement, in hopes of taking that knowledge home and using it to transform Japan’s drab political landscape.

Early one Saturday in February, as the conference entered its third and final day, the three men sat down in the Marriott’s dimly lit bar to compare notes on what they had seen so far. Behind them, a man dressed in full Founding Fathers drag, complete with wig and tricorne, strolled past; at an adjacent table, two young men with CPAC badges were loudly comparing their hangovers. Speaking through an interpreter, the delegation offered its consensus on the presidential candidates whose speeches they’d taken in at the confab. Rick Santorum was deemed admirable but insufficiently macho; Newt Gingrich appeared to be possessed of “strong character,” an attribute that Jay Aeba, a charismatic 45-year-old with swept-back hair, illustrated with a punching gesture. Mitt Romney was found clever but untrustworthy: “The more he tries to explain, the more doubt I have in my mind,” Aeba said, as his compatriots nodded in solemn agreement.

Aeba, one of the leaders of Japan’s right-wing Happiness Realization Party, was accompanied by Yuya Watase, the founder of the Tokyo Tea Party; their interpreter, a Happiness Realization Party official named Yuki Oikawa; and Bob Sparks, their American political consultant. Together, they said, they were on a mission to export American-style conservatism—the gospel of small government, low taxes, and free enterprise—to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Why does Japan need a conservative movement? “That is a very important question,” Aeba said. “As you know, Japan has been suffering from a bad economy for many years. What is worse, at the moment, the current administration is aiming to raise the [sales] tax again, from 5 percent to 8 percent, and then 10 percent. If we allow them to do that, the Japanese economy will end.”

Watase, a tall, thin 30-year-old with rimless glasses, large teeth, and floppy hair, jumped in. After bemoaning what he said were rising numbers of overpaid public-sector workers, he darkly declared that Japanese people who work for private companies are now “actually slaves of the government.” If they had gathered nothing else from CPAC, the Japanese conservatives had clearly internalized the American right’s language of alarmism and crisis.

The Tokyo Tea Party uses the same slogan as its American counterpart—“Taxed Enough Already”—and even goes by the same name (though I was assured that there was no danger of confusion with the traditional Japanese tea ceremony). Aeba’s Happiness Realization Party, meanwhile, is the political arm of a new-wave religious movement called Happy Science, whose founder claims to be a reincarnation of the Buddha. The Happies, as they are called, envision a Japan that is at once more muscular on the world stage—they propose eliminating the constitutional ban on waging war—and more religious at home. “The best analogy would be the Christian Coalition, Buddhist-style,” Sparks offered helpfully.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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