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.

Whether that formula has any chance of taking off in Japan is hard to say. The Happiness Realization Party failed to win a single seat in the last parliamentary election, held shortly after its founding, in 2009, though it managed to field 337 candidates and win more than 1 million votes. For its part, the Tokyo Tea Party expected to draw 10,000 people to its next rally. Both groups may benefit from the present moment of unique ferment in Japanese politics. The nation’s political order was upended in 2009, with the ouster of the Liberal Democratic Party—which had governed Japan for all but a year since 1955 and which, despite its name, was the more conservative of the two major parties. Since then, the liberal coalition that promised reform has been unable to govern effectively, cycling through three prime ministers in as many years. Now the country’s continuing economic difficulties seem to be stirring up a sort of populist sentiment rarely seen in Japan.

It is precisely this sentiment that the Japanese delegation was hoping to stoke upon its return home. Witnessing the cheering crowds and standing ovations for politicians such as Marco Rubio and Mike Huckabee, Watase and Aeba were impressed above all else by the activist fervor and sense of spectacle pervading CPAC.

“You have many superstars who can attract the audience by their speech,” Aeba said. “We don’t have stars in Japanese politics. When our politicians speak, people feel tired and bored.”

The Japanese conservatives have networked assiduously with their American role models during this and other visits to Washington. Earlier in the week, they had snagged a private audience with Herman Cain, and had come away extremely impressed by what they called the “powerfully simple idea” of his “9-9-9” tax plan. On earlier visits, Aeba had befriended Sharon Day, the co-chair of the Republican National Committee (he got himself named as an official adviser to the RNC on Asia-U.S. relations), and attended several of the anti-tax leader Grover Norquist’s famous “Wednesday meetings” of conservative activists.

But the Tokyo Tea Party does not embrace all aspects of America’s conservative legacy. Watase told me that he is less than inspired by the example of the original Boston Tea Party: “They threw away the tea, which is very valuable,” he said disapprovingly. “Japanese people value tea. We would never throw it out; we would save it.”

He thought for a moment longer. “Also,” he said, “it would be green tea.”