A trembling voice white flip phone leaks: ‘My dad passed away and hadn’t paid his nhk invoice. What should I do?” Tachibana Takashi, a politician, advises the caller to ignore any requests from the national broadcaster’s notoriously strict bill collectors. After handling the call, Mr. Tachibana films a video excoriating the broadcaster for his YouTube channel. He concludes, as always, by raising his fists and shouting his party’s slogan: “nhk wo bukkowasu! (Destroy nhk!)”
His party, formerly known as the “Party for the Protection of the People nhk” (now simply the “nhk Party”), is one of many minnows with particular agendas to have entered national politics in recent years. Mr Tachibana, who founded the party in 2013, was elected to Japan’s upper house in 2019. In July, two other eccentric activists replicated the feat. One is Higashitani Yoshikazu, known as “GaaSyy”, a YouTuber and celebrity gossip. The other is Kamiya Sohei, whose right-wing Sansei-to party is anti-vax, anti-immigration and a strong supporter of organic vegetables.
The bashing of public television is perhaps the epitome of Japanese populism. “I have always hated NHKsays Kubota Manabu, a NHK Party supporter who helps people trying to dodge broadcaster bills. The country is lucky to have such troublemakers. Yet their emergence does not improve the country’s national conversation. During a recent televised debate, in which the leaders of several political parties discussed important economic and security issues, the representative of the nhk Party, Kurokawa Atsuhiko, kept bursting into song. Ishiwata Tomohiro, a journalist who covers the nhk Party, describes Mr. Tachibana’s movement as a band of opportunists making headlines. “All they want is to create their own little kingdom.”
Japan has a history of such marginal groups. The New Party for Salary Men and the cult Happiness Realization Party are among several that made it into the Diet before they caught fire. Yet, even if their success is short-lived, it serves as a warning to the country’s major parties.
It’s an indictment of how aloof, opaque and boring they are for the most part. Legislators often doze off during long speeches in the Diet. This sets a low bar for insurgents. “To be popular, you just have to be a little less boring,” says Axel Klein, a political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
The contrast is particularly striking in the election campaign. The tactics of traditional politicians, who tend to be old and gray, have hardly changed in decades. They usually drive around with a loudspeaker handing out brochures. Fringe parties make better use of social media. Surprisingly, the nhk The party has four times as many YouTube subscribers as the Liberal Democratic Party, which has ruled Japan almost continuously since 1955.
This points to a more worrying trend. Japanese voters are deeply unhappy. The turnout in the last national elections was around 50%. And young voters drawn to fringe parties are the most disappointed of all. The pdlThe share of voters aged 18-29 has risen from 46% in 2017 to 32% in this year’s upper house elections. Unless the big parties can reverse this trend, the circus behaves like the nhk could turn out to be less entertainment than a harbinger of more serious populism.■