Japan’s New Aoyama Clan

Ryoji Iwata/Summer stroll, Tokyo

It is four o’clock in the morning in a Chinese restaurant down an alley near Uguisudani Station. Outside, the love hotels are open, but not much else. I am waiting to catch the first train across the city to the upscale streets of Aoyama, one of Tokyo’s ritziest neighborhoods.

Look down at your left palm. At the webbing between your middle and index fingers sits the Imperial Palace. This is the center of Tokyo. The forwardmost joint of your ring finger is Uguisudani. Aoyama sits atop the fleshy part of your thumb. This is even a topographic map, since Uguisudani is located in what is called the “low town”—the delta lowlands that run out to the Sumida River—and Aoyama is part of the “high town” tableland that remained desirable because building there was a guarantee you wouldn’t be washed out in the rainy season. Around your palm runs a commuter rail circuit called the Yamanote Line.

Uguisudani grew up as the edge of town, lying beyond the more respectable quarters of old Edo. Feudal lords and courtesans once flocked here. After the Meiji Restoration, when the nascent imperial state expropriated feudal landlords, it became a building site for inexpensive housing. After the war, Uguisudani developed, like many other East Tokyo neighborhoods, as a center for vice and leisure. This is a deriheru town, with escorts walking the streets and love hotels shaping the landscape. Embedded among them is the former home of Masaoka Shiki, the master of the modern haiku. Uguisudani is a spiritual microcosm for Japan. Life is doable if you can swim through the pessimism. Locals complain about kanko kogai, or “tourism pollution,” the negative effects of welcoming Disneyland-level visitor numbers to what are mostly residential neighborhoods.

Dylan Levi King/One of many love hotel alleys, Uguisudani

My end destination couldn’t be more different. While Uguisudani grew meaner, Aoyama became beautiful. The area around it became a de facto American concession, anchored by the mammoth Washington Heights housing complex. The cooperative rebuilding of Japan was centered on Aoyama. This was the place that built Japan’s Americanized postwar future. It was ground zero for urban revitalization and modernization in the runup to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The neighborhood attracted a new elite, one that had gotten rich off the rebuilding and revitalization—not only the developers swapping real estate or construction magnates pouring concrete, but also the cultural entrepreneurs they patronized. Modern Japanese culture as we know it was born in Aoyama. A brief walk, or a single stop on the Ginza Line, will take you through its cradle. Well-known areas like the architectural display at Omotesando and the fashion hub of Harajuku are within Aoyama’s orbit.

But I’m not going to Aoyama for the history. Today, I’m traveling to the epicenter of a new, 21st-century Olympics. I want to see the Olympic Stadium and get my fix of the Games—or at least, of the crowds. I’ve somehow retained an enthusiasm for the whole affair since childhood. These Games have allowed no spectators, but I can join the people that I have seen on the television news standing outside of the venues, a safe distance from the protesters that have occasionally appeared.

These Olympics are not intended for a Japanese audience. They are not even intended for the global mass of Olympics fans. The 2020 Summer Olympics are the coming-out party of Aoyama—or more specifically, of the rising class of tech-and-finance Aoyama elites that lobbied for them and who won a lot of the associated contracts. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics celebrated a new Japan, redeemed from its wartime days to become a peaceful member of the international community. This was Japan under the aegis of its postwar construction state, overseen by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The belated 2020 Olympics are likewise intended to present another new Japan: a country ready to pivot to Asia and shake off its social and economic sluggishness.

The new agenda lacks the flashiness of the athletic spectacle. Decades after neoliberalism first had its advent in the U.S. and Europe, Japan’s business class seems hard-pressed to solve any of neoliberalism’s classic problems. The best positive vision on which they have been able to agree is just more financialization, more information technology companies, more immigration, and more engagement with Asia. Over a decade since the West started to lose faith in this neoliberal strategy, Japan seems ready to embrace it.

The lack of novelty or real hope hardly matters in a country where the political pessimism is thick enough that you can feel it in your bones. An entire generation grew up with post-bubble malaise punctuated by the occasional national crisis. Aoyama, at least, offers a stable vision for the future—and Abe proved that some patriotic rhetoric can carry an aging political toolkit pretty far. The stands may be empty and the population indifferent, but national honor demands that the show must go on.

Dylan Levi King/Traffic disappearing overnight, East Tokyo

The Aoyama Olympics

Even this Chinese restaurant in Uguisudani is paying homage to the Games, with judo highlights repeating on the TV above the counter. Judo has helped the local image of the Olympics. Kawamura Takeo of the LDP was probably correct when he asserted that every gold medal won by Japan would translate into votes for his party.

We should all allow ourselves to indulge in spectacle. Of course, I understand that the Olympics functions as a clearinghouse for international blood money. These Games were no exception. Despite funneling money to International Olympic Committee members and their families through a Singaporean firm called Black Tidings, the advertising giant Dentsu won important contracts for running the Games. It’s impressive that a Japanese firm can still pull off international graft. But that money went into the pockets of corrupt Senegalese businessmen, not mine, so I can attend with a clean moral slate.

I realize that holding the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic is foolish. But I buy the argument for Tokyo gritting its teeth and hosting the Games anyways. It would have been too costly and too embarrassing to try to shut it down. Even without the Games, there were dire predictions that Japan would be hitting record daily infection numbers through the summer. Now, at least, the nightly newscasts can move on to healthy patriotism and athletic bodies.

But my enthusiasm is unpopular, so I keep it to myself. I’ve seen the polls. The other day, I noticed a pair of office ladies muttering angrily to themselves when they caught sight of a man in an Olympics jersey and lanyard. They were surprised that anyone from the Games had been allowed out of their bubble. 

Dylan Levi King/The Skytree, completed as a symbol of modern Japan and now a symbol of the unglamorous Shitamachi, East Tokyo

In the circles I move in, I’ve heard open hostility toward the Olympics for years. For left-leaning politically active young people in Japan, the opposition is not so much to the Olympics as a global corruption machine. Instead, they want to deny a source of legitimacy to the ruling LDP. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP), the only genuinely left-leaning party of consequence, has called for the cancellation of the Games. There is agreement among my friends that lean to the right, too. Representing nationalist opinion beyond lukewarm LDP patriotism, the Japan First Party held a well attended anti-Olympics rally in Shinjuku this month. Most far-right political rallies in Tokyo these days seem astroturfed by American interests, with demonstrators carrying anti-China posters that look like the work of exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui. But the anti-Olympics march by Japan First seemed genuine enough. The goal for the right is not to disrupt the Olympic Movement, but to shake up domestic politics.

Of course, most people have no interest in politics, or in speaking with me about them. For them, the Olympics are simply embarrassing. Abe Shinzo dressed as Mario is slightly revolting. When I mentioned the opening ceremonies to a friend over drinks earlier in the month, he paused and picked up his phone to confirm my claim that the postponed Olympics were going ahead. He had forgotten about them. 

But the Games themselves are, like the pandemic, the setting rather than the event. They are only a small part of a larger effort to steer Japan out of its current pessimistic state, much like the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were only a sideshow in a program of national rejuvenation and the cementing of LDP power. The 1964 Olympics preparations, beginning in the 1950s, unleashed public spending on infrastructure. This money was partially circulated back into the coffers of the LDP and its politicians.

Sitting here in Uguisudani, I am surrounded by the legacy of 1964. The concrete aesthetic of 1964 is why Uguisudani looks like it does. It gave us the “brutal aesthetic order of serial reproduction of easily constructed grey buildings.” Here, at least, the neon beautifies them.

Dylan Levi King/Where love hotels stand beside apartment towers, Uguisudani

The great Japanese sociologist Osawa Masachi calls the period from 1945-70 the Era of Ideals. The 1964 Olympics were a manifestation of this era, a sign to the international community that Japan was now part of the liberal international order. But the building projects that began in the late 1950s also poured the foundation for the modern Construction State. The LDP itself effectively became the political wing of construction firms.

During the succeeding Era of Fiction (1970-1995), economic growth fueled political arrogance, only for the popping of the asset price bubble economy to snuff that arrogance out. Since then, Japanese politics has centered around various attempts to escape the Era of Impossibility (1995-present). All around me is the infrastructure of one such attempt.

There are few contemporary narratives about the country to draw on. At present, Japan is far less important than it was in 1964. It’s a steadfast, serene part of the American empire. When interim Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide made the cover of Newsweek in April, the media described him as the “ally in chief.” But this narrative molds Japan into a character crafted to explain the threat from China and to give us a moral lesson about standing up to totalitarianism. This doesn’t help us to understand Japan.

If the 1964 Olympics were about national pride, setting construction firms free to blanket the archipelago in concrete, and the LDP consensus, the 2020 Olympics are about international consciousness, re-heating the real estate market, and empowering a new elite, along with the more dynamic sectors of Japanese society that they represent. These Games are the project of that new elite to remake the city and the country in their image—wealthy, international, and egalitarian. And the home of that new elite—geographically and spiritually—is again in Aoyama.

The intended audiences for these Games are the old and new business classes of Asia, the region’s increasingly mobile labor force, and legions of investors and tourists. The goal is to show that Japan is a stable, welcoming place for foreigners and their money. It’s a message to the world that Japan no longer fits the stereotypes of arrogant 1980s financial superpower, basketcase post-bubble ethnostate, or nuclear disaster site—no, now you can play softball in Fukushima, even if the restricted zones remain uninhabitable!

This is a vision of the future in which Japan is no longer an American client state, but a Pacific economy oriented toward Asia. It can welcome the investment, tourism, and immigrants that will reinvigorate the economy and allow Japanese egalitarianism to be restored. Tokyo will become a true global city, competing with San Francisco and London as a location for the wealthy to park their money.

The Aoyama Program is a new direction and the Olympics is its spectacle of choice. This is the work of a new and rising class of business elites. We can call them the New Aoyama Clan.

Dylan Levi King/Remnant of the 1980s building boom, Uguisudani

The New Aoyama Clan

The Aoyama Clan’s story goes back to the period when Japan was entering the first of three consecutive “Lost Decades.” Its members include people like Masayoshi Son, the billionaire CEO of SoftBank. He made his fortune investing in international digital platforms, like Alibaba and Yahoo!, and has invested heavily in cutting-edge artificial intelligence, biotech, and Internet of Things ventures through his Vision Fund and Vision Fund II. SoftBank’s SB Northstar fund has recently dumped cash into acquiring a multibillion-dollar stake in Roche. They have also wagered heavily on cryptocurrency, putting money into projects like Mercado and Bullish Global. Masayoshi has become an occasional critic of old politics, especially on the issues of denuclearization and the slow response to developing alternative energy infrastructure.

Mikitani Hiroshi is another member of the Clan. He launched Rakuten as an e-commerce platform in 1997, growing it into a digital and fintech giant. He helped shape Abe Shinzo’s deregulation campaign through the Industrial Competitiveness Council, but broke with the leadership when they were unable to follow through on key planks. Mikitani split from the Japanese Business Federation (Keidanren) after they proved uncommitted to denuclearization and other big ideas and joined the Japan Association of New Economy (JANE), leading the charge for a more permanent immigrant labor base. He proved it could work: Most of the software engineers at Rakuten are now foreign and the official business language is English.

Mikitani and Son embody the New Aoyama Clan, a wide range of players in finance and digital technologies, who are mostly but not exclusively based in Aoyama and environs. If Chiyoda City is Japan’s old power center—the Bank of Japan, the Imperial Palace, and old-money corporate headquarters—Aoyama is its new power hub, home to more dynamic industries with a global reach. Around two million workers across Japan are employed in leading technology sectors and nearly that many in finance. Leaving aside Toyota and Honda, which could be thought of as tech companies in their own rights, the economy’s most valuable firms—NTT, Sony, KDDI, Recruit Holdings, Mitsubishi UFJ, Fast Retailing, SoftBank—are in tech and finance.

The New Aoyama Clan is powerful, but not omnipotent. It cannot sweep away the old politics of Japan, like the corruption, bribery, and patronage appointments at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). It might fail in some of its initiatives to change Japanese professional culture, as with Kono Taro’s attempts to stop the use of fax machines and hanko stamps in business and government. But this is, in a sense, busy work. What the Aoyama Clan cannot remedy, it can circumvent. A new Digital Agency, staffed by private sector hires, might serve them better than reliance on the old bureaucracies. Fintech and e-commerce might not rule the country, but they are useful power bases from which the New Aoyama Clan can increasingly sideline the LDP and its patrons from the most dynamic sectors of Japanese society. The old politics might remain, but it will sound increasingly hollow.

Unseating the LDP, even in its decrepit modern state, is no easy task. In Nathaniel Bowman Thayer’s classic study of LDP politics, How the Conservatives Rule Japan, the most illuminating quote comes from a party worker in Hiroshima: “The Liberal Democratic Party is a ghost. It has no feet.” The JCP drew support from workers, their unions, and left-leaning intellectuals; the Komeito drew support from Soka Gakkai, one of many new religious movements in Japan; the LDP’s main source of power was the construction industry, with other factions within the party defined by their source of income in the private sector. Local power bases were more important than a nationwide organization, with candidates and their koenkai support groups taking in money through private sector donations and pork-barrel spending. The LDP has remained in power for all but brief periods since 1955, thanks to these entrenched systems, successfully rigged to ensure the party’s continued rule.  

Dylan Levi King/Mitsui Fudosan completed Park Court Aoyama The Tower in 2018, with the best units going for ¥10-13 million, Aoyama

Despite that rigged system, LDP power has continuously faded. The oil shocks of the 1970s shook the construction industry and other key private sector players that funded the LDP. A real estate boom through the 1980s helped revitalize the construction industry, even if there was less government spending, but the bursting of the asset price bubble thwarted its continued growth.

Intraparty factional struggle and the need to compromise with opposition and coalition partners provided for some dynamism and allowed for the major parties to reorient. Currently, Komeito acts as kingmaker in the Japanese coalition government. A program of privatization, monetarism, deregulation, and austerity has been the major response to three decades of suffering. After the asset price bubble burst in the 1990s, a string of lesser disasters followed suit, including the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2008 financial crisis, and the Fukushima earthquake, and the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant meltdown of 2011. These decisions might have salvaged what was left of the Japanese economy, but they also saw the state’s power reduced. This was a permanent move away from the developmental state model that had seen the state and corporate sectors closely linked. Post-Toyotist neoliberal restructuring increased social and income equality, with close to half of all workers now in precarious “non-regular” positions. 

These reforms were also a major step in demonstrating the hollowness of the old order. They revealed that the infamous nationalism of the modern LDP was only ever performative. In reality, LDP leaders were incapable of even amending the constitution written for them by American liberators seventy-four years ago. They dumped more money into building the Japan Self-Defense Forces into a legitimate military, but only with the blessing of the U.S. Abe went to commune with the war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine, enraging Seoul and Beijing, but loosened restrictions brought in more foreign workers to address chronic labor shortages.

While Europe and the U.S. coped with their refugee crises, stories made the international news about Japan accepting forty-four refugees in 2019 and fifty-one in 2020. But this is performative too—just ask the thousands of Kurds in the housing projects of suburban Tokyo, who have not been given refugee status but “Special Permission to Stay.” The weakened yen helped increase tourism from a 2000s-era trickle of about four million inbound trips a year to a torrent of thirty-one million visits in 2019. Descriptions of the LDP as a collection of vicious ethno-nationalists or neo-imperialists are just not credible when the population is declining and the general mood of everyone under retirement age has been prolonged national malaise.

Dylan Levi King/A volunteer patrols around the Summer Olympic Games, Aoyama

Then came the pandemic, which has unburied a whole host of things that nobody wants to talk about. Lockdown supporters blamed the Japanese constitution for not permitting a tough response. The string of half-measures had little effect, apart from immiserating “non-regular” employees. The suicide rate for men and women under thirty has begun to tick up. The country’s fragile social security system looks even less sustainable. Experts warned that the healthcare system was under severe stress—or that it had already collapsed. Vaccination was hampered by limited supply and logistical issues. Lack of trust in the LDP regime is approaching unanimity.

Both Masayoshi Son and Mikitani Hiroshi have made the most of this ideological collapse. Masayoshi Son made headlines this summer skewering the government over its inability to carry out an effective pandemic response. More concretely, SoftBank and Rakuten are both running their own alternative vaccination programs. Rakuten Group and Rakuten Medical have quite effectively sold the idea of their Kobe Model, a data and IoT-driven initiative that looks nothing like the government bureaucracy’s own troubled programs.

The pandemic has, in other words, demonstrated the real difference between the greying LDP on the one hand and the New Aoyama Clan on the other. The factions within the LDP are mostly dead players, going through the motions but incapable of changing their strategy. The New Aoyama Clan is well-coordinated and enacting a more compelling vision, leveraging power grounded in sectors of Japanese society which are actually producing economic value and employing its youngest members.

Like the LDP, the New Aoyama Clan is not a monolith. Nor are they strictly distinct from the LDP itself; the New Aoyama Clan represents a power base both within the LDP’s factions and beyond them. It extends through the mass electorate but also to the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), and rival business groups, as well as lobbies and think tanks. The New Aoyama Clan built the digital economy in Japan and they have made themselves indispensable to the entrenched political and economic elite. Given that no credible opposition is on the horizon and that the LDP has an effective bureaucracy, the Clan is willing to work with them. But their goals of economic restructuring, increased immigration, more foreign workers, and geopolitical realignment are much larger than those of most politicians.

As I finish my chukadon in Uguisudani, I flick through the Japan Ahead 2 slide deck from the JANE. This combination of a business federation and a think tank is preparing for a “social system revolution.” Chaired by Rakuten CEO Mikitani Hiroshi, and featuring members drawn from the tech sector, including Mercari, Google Japan, CrowdWorks, and even Dentsu, the New Aoyama Clan has the expertise and the muscle to carry it out.

Dylan Levi King/A man on the Ginza Line reads the sports section, Aoyama

Into the New Japan

You can see the future from Uguisudani, whether you realize it or not. After years of underperforming, real estate might finally be a sound investment again. JANE has given its own proposals to get land and property prices up. Developers are reaching out to previously untouched areas of East Tokyo. This is a station on the Yamanote Line, after all. Tokyoites might balk at moving to Uguisudani, but the young people moving in from the hinterland couldn’t care less.

I catch the first Yamanote Line train of the morning. These days, my Tokyo is restricted to the local neighborhood, but I used to do this every day. My first job in Tokyo was working in a sleazy subterranean nightclub in Roppongi, arriving at dusk and staying until the sun came up. Seeing all the nighttime workers—the bar girls, the touts, the dancers, the bouncers—stagger on at Roppongi Station, I know there’s nothing to be envied. Some bars remain open, flouting regulations, but the crowds aren’t what they used to be.

I transfer only once, to the Oedo Line at Daimon station. Both trains are nearly empty. I’m the only one that gets off at Aoyama-Itchome Station.

More than anything, Aoyama reminds me of the Kitsilano neighborhood in Vancouver, where I once rented a garden suite in a grand old house that had been carved into apartments. In both places, there’s an uneven collection of concrete-and-glass palaces built in the 1980s and 1990s, the more avant-garde cubes that followed them, and then the older homes that in Vancouver date back to the turn of the last century and which in Aoyama date back to the 1950s and 1960s. Both places have a clear identity—warm, welcoming, and cultured, but not in an overbearing way. The cute bakeries, French restaurants, and austere boutiques of Aoyama look like they could have been airlifted from the West Coast, too.

It’s the aesthetic embodiment of the New Aoyama Clan: recognizable because it is international, distinct because it is the chosen style of every global city’s rising bourgeoisie. Unlike in Uguisudani, the future looks much nicer here.

Dylan Levi King/Ads above Gaiemmae Station, Aoyama

The boutiques in Aoyama seem like slightly happier places to toil than the love hotels that employ the deriheru of Uguisudani. The staff is often made up of young people from China, Korea, or Russia. The demographic situation means that there is no longer a reliable supply of young Japanese workers. The remaining ones are rarely fluent in the languages spoken by their potential co-workers, managers, or clients. 

The remaking of Aoyama is heating up the property market, but the process is slower and less disruptive than in Uguisudani as well. The new developments and concrete spires looming over the old homes on the back streets still stand out. Land prices are going to recover pre-pandemic levels and, if everything goes according to plan, shoot up. It’s hard to find room to put in a new house, let alone a luxury apartment development. It took the Mori Building Company 14 years to piece together the hundreds of lots required to build Roppongi Hills. Even Mikitani and Son were forced to build new properties on the edges of Aoyama.

I move on to Gaiemmae Station and from there, I make my way to the Olympic Stadium. I am joined by other people making the pilgrimage. I have hazy memories of my father taking me to see the site of the Barcelona Olympics in the summer of 1992. I was in Beijing in 2008 and Vancouver in 2010. I even went to London right after their Olympics. Just like at those Games, I am here just to take in the spectacle. I sympathize with the gawkers.

I can tell that they came from outside Tokyo. There’s a certain look. Maybe it’s the suntans—the particular type of bronzing Tokyo girls get in sunbeds never looks quite natural. These gawkers are mostly young couples with kids. On Sundays in Tokyo, most kids spend the day with their dads, usually the only day off he’s got all week.

I stop when a family asks me to take a picture of them in front of the Rugby Ground. Mother and father are wearing baseball jerseys, Under Armor, and Crocs. Their daughter is in a pink sundress. I ask what they’re here to see. They have taken the train in from Kasukabe, twenty miles north of Tokyo in Saitama, the father says. I ask in Japanese but he answers in English. He says that he wants his daughter to see the Olympic Stadium, then they are going to Meiji Jingu and Yoyogi Park. It was probably my halting Japanese that made him switch languages, but I comfort myself that maybe he was just caught up in the Olympic atmosphere of internationalism.

I walk as close as I can to the Stadium. But I can tell gawkers are not too welcome. Police and volunteers glower at me.

Cruising in their flat blue-painted police vans and loitering around buses with wire mesh over the windows, the police remind me of security forces in nations less developed than Japan. I don’t want to deal with the busybody private security guards, either, all older men in mismatched uniforms, wiping sweat off their necks while they patrol. I’m sure nobody is taking note of me, apart from the arrays of surveillance cameras. But I begin to get paranoid about the prospect of having to show my papers and delete the pictures on my camera.

The mood around the Stadium makes it feel as if I’ve stumbled upon something not intended to be seen by the general public. Perhaps this is born out of holding the Olympics in a city that’s hostile or indifferent to the Games.

I am back on the train before most of the city is awake.

Dylan Levi King/Olympics posters by neighborhood students, Aoyama

Society 5.0

The future is easier to roll out in Uguisudani, at least when it comes to heating up the real estate market and bringing in tourists. But a key part of the Aoyama Program—reducing social stratification—could be more difficult.

Through the 1990s and 2000s, spending on social welfare increased, but the benefits have shrunk. Opposition parties in Japan have come and gone over the years, but nearly all have had in their manifestos some stab at social welfare reform. As with support for denuclearization and for maintaining demilitarization, social welfare is a lost cause.

The JANE Japan Ahead 2 scheme is in line with what Keidanren has proposed: Make Japan wealthy again, then figure out what to do about the social divide afterward. One of the first steps is the reform of the corporate tax system. Lowering corporate taxes and would free the private sector up to restore the nation’s fiscal health. The personal tax burden would lighten. Corporate philanthropy would help fill the gaps. Like in the old days, new construction has a legitimizing role. When you walk through the neighborhoods along the Ginza Line, the real estate ads look like those in Aoyama as well.

This is one of the clearest flaws in the plan. LDP nationalism is only performative and the New Aoyama Clan are not particularly patriotic either. Additionally, neither group is ideologically preoccupied with social welfare. Rejuvenating Japan’s fiscal health by connecting it out to people and money from elsewhere in Asia is a good idea, but austerity can’t end in the near future. Those “non-regular” employees brought even lower by pandemic states of emergency, economic hard times, and the evaporation of tourism won’t see the benefits for many years.

Tokyo remains somewhat affordable, especially compared to other Pacific Rim metropolises. The postwar building boom, three decades of limited economic growth, and fear of repeating the sins of the asset price bubble have kept rents low. This is the only way that “non-regular” workers can remain within an easy commute of Central Tokyo. Low rents have also stopped Tokyo from becoming a cultural dead zone, since they still allow young people a certain freedom to screw around. But heating up of the property market threatens all that.

It’s not hard to imagine prolonged malaise metastasizing into resentment. It’s hard to say what form that would take in a country so thoroughly depoliticized, but foreign investors and immigrant workers would make easy rallying points.

Another crack in the facade of an international, wealthy, and healthy Japan appears when contemplating the neighborhood and American allies. The Aoyama Program relies on orienting Japan away from the U.S. Suga might have been the “ally in chief” during his tenure, but the business elite has long seen the need to pivot to Asia. China is already Japan’s largest trading partner. The Japan Center for Economic Research has revamped its forecasts to take into account China’s quicker recovery after the pandemic, projecting the economy of its neighbor will eclipse that of the U.S. in nominal GDP by 2028-2029.

A close relationship with the U.S. could eventually become a liability. Possibly even more than its own trade war with South Korea, Japan has felt the negative effects of the prolonged chill between China and the U.S. A recent deal between Rakuten and China’s Tencent raised American eyebrows, which encouraged the LDP to streamline a national security review process for investments. They have also bowed to pressure to relocate supply chains from China to other locations in Asia. But that’s a natural step, given the rapid development of manufacturing in Southeast Asia. If China remains Japan’s largest trade partner, the location of its factories won’t matter much.

U.S. attempts to draft Japan into fantasies like defending Taiwan will make warmer relations with China difficult. Throwing in with Quadrilateral Security Dialogue partners Australia and India is fine, as long as it doesn’t aggravate their enemies. But Japan’s American partners are getting dangerously close to asking for more. The direst scenario might see Japan losing its protected position under the Western military umbrella. Coming out from under American protection and influence would probably require a change to the pacifist constitution and more careful cultivation of neighborly relations.

From the Aoyama perspective, the ideal position would be for Japan to further link itself economically, if not politically, to rising economies and traditional partners in Asia. China and South Korea are among the largest sources of new foreign workers, tourism, and investment in Japan, followed by Southeast Asia.

It’s not all rosy. Based on economic policy, but also on unaddressed wartime grievances, the ongoing South Korean-Japanese trade war does not bode well for a pivot to Asia. The old politics might be hollow and the nationalism performative, but Japan will need to send the message that it will not imperil relations with its East Asian neighbors for domestic gain.

There are also local politics to worry about. These currently matter very little in Japan, as long as they keep producing LDP majorities that are open to new ideas or whom it is possible to sidestep, but that is not an absolute guarantee.

The criticisms leveled at the LDP over their pandemic response mishandling don’t suggest that the New Aoyama Clan will try to force them out, but that they will hound them into submission. Mikitani might call the Olympics a “suicide mission” and then run his own vaccination scheme, but he doesn’t intend these headlines to completely discredit the LDP. Rather, he wants to bend the leadership to his vision.

Dylan Levi King/Pedestrians walking from Uguisudani Station to a nearby residential neighborhood, Uguisudani

For the time being, there is not much danger of a political alternative. The united and invigorated opposition faces an uphill battle despite running against the least popular LDP regime in years. Partially united under the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) banner, opposition parties poll well in urban areas; the LDP might have limited grassroots support, but they have the strength of powerful local leaders, supported by pork-barrel spending, capable of turning out the vote. This system has been in place for most of the postwar period, while the opposition has seen itself fractured.

Suga announced in September that he would step down, but that’s got more to do with his pandemic record than confidence in his party. The approval ratings of the LDP might not be impressive compared to previous regimes, but they are still higher than for any other party. Young people are not a reliable voter bloc, but it’s not a positive sign for the opposition that they are broadly in support of the LDP. 

It’s still not down to a two-party race, either, as the opposition bloc lacks the support of the JCP and an anti-CDP holdout faction of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The JCP and SDP’s opposition to austerity measures, as well as broader disgust with the LDP’s support for re-armament and a continued American military presence, has kept their bases energized. Both parties are willing to support CDP candidates in local races, but that won’t extend to forming a coalition. New players like left-leaning Reiwa Shinsengumi or the center-right Japan Innovation Party do not carry enough support to contest the government.

Japan has also not yet been swept by any of the populist winds blowing overseas. A wounded LDP might someday need to produce a populist option, but that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. The status quo might be hollow, but nobody sees the need for it to crack. A victorious opposition seems too bound up in fears of even greater national uncertainty.

This is a fairly hopeless country. In a survey by the Tokyo University’s Institute of Social Science, half of the respondents under the age of thirty believed that their children’s future would be darker than their own. This stable pessimism is precisely where the New Aoyama Clan comes in. The Aoyama Program has some appeal in the dearth of credible visions of the future, even if it is pessimistic in its own way.

There is a Japanese tendency toward Showa nostalgia, attempting to restore the glory of the previous imperial era—not its wartime period, but the rebuilding. The period of 1926-1989 seems, in retrospect, to preserve an essential Japanese-ness. Conversely, the Aoyama Program is a progressive vision, one poised to benefit Japan’s economic elites while promising to shake the country out of its political stupor. Breaking with American defense goals to rejoin Asia, cutting corporate tax rates, heating up the property market, flooding the country with tourists and immigrants—all of these things are primarily for the benefit of elites.

Much of the promotional material for the Aoyama Program—whether from JANE, or Keidanren, or Rakuten press releases—emphasizes egalitarianism, or at least some shared prosperity. As one slide rather dryly puts it, a technologically advanced economy can “provide goods and services that granularly address manifold latent needs without disparity.” Keidanren talks about the “reform of individuals” in a “Super Smart Society.” It’s not promising. So many years on from the neoliberal turn, it’s hard to say these schemes do more than put a high-tech skin on austerity.

My skepticism about the benefits trickling down is why I’m bullish on a turn toward the Aoyama Program. It has the potential to secure the wealth and power of the elite. It’s tempting to emphasize the fact that the political system is rigged, or that it’s run by the corrupt offspring of prewar politicians—but it’s not run by fools. Having seen the crash of the 1990s and the neoliberal turn of the 2000s, they won’t be left behind this time. The LDP can’t help but notice that the New Aoyama Clan has come out ahead in the shift of the economy toward financialization, real estate, and technology. We can already see the LDP shifting: their Society 5.0 proposal is a recent example of that, with its proposals to digitize everything in sight.

Looking a bit closer at the LDP, Georgetown graduate and social media whiz Kono Taro must be a sign of what’s to come. The Minister of Administrative Reform and Regulatory Reform is also the New Aoyama Clan’s man in the LDP. Following his success in the private sector, he is interested in building links with Asian neighbors, enthusiastic about increasing immigration numbers, and the sworn enemy of old economy totems like the hanko and fax machine.

He remained popular throughout the pandemic, even with popular and media grousing about vaccine availability, and conducted fireside chats on his Youtube live streams. Even if he is shut out of the Prime Minister’s office by Suga and his allies, a resurrected Abe, or factional foes, like political legacy Kishida Fumio, or war nerd Ishiba Shigeru, Kono is likely to remain in Cabinet. Although he will be working within an LDP that has been less than enthusiastic about immanentizing the singularity, the realities of climbing out of the pandemic hole might mean taking Society 5.0 and JANE proposals seriously.

If the old politicians of the LDP begin to properly share the reins of power with the New Aoyama Clan, then the reorientation of the Japanese state will begin in earnest. What remains to be seen is who turns up for the spectacle.

Dylan Levi King is a Tokyo-based translator of modern Chinese literature and a writer on contemporary online culture. You can follow him on Twitter @dylanleviking.