The main rival to Japan's ruling party is really 'extreme rightist,' analyst says

Key Points
  • Many are failing to identify a key characteristic of Japan's newly-founded Party of Hope — its "extreme rightist" slant — according to CLSA's Nicholas Smith
  • Senior members of the party are supporters of Satoru Mizushima, a filmmaker and activist who has denied the 1937-1938 Nanking Massacre, Smith said
  • Yuriko Koike's Party of Hope has not explicitly committed to policy stances characterizing those of far-right movements in other regions
Has the Western media misread Yuriko Koike's politics?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has seen a political rival creating a stir ahead of the country's October snap elections: The newly formed "Party of Hope," led by Tokyo's popular governor, is challenging the current power structures.

Yet lost in the intrigue of political competition is a important characteristic of the new party, according to one analyst: It has an "extreme rightist" slant.

"I think what we have is a battle between a rightist movement and an extreme rightist, and the extreme rightist is, of course, [Tokyo Governor Yuriko] Koike. I think that the western media has pictured her as if, because she's a woman, she must be in some way liberal. Well, she's not," Tokyo-based Nicholas Smith, Japan strategist at brokerage and investment group CLSA, told CNBC's "Squawkbox."

"A couple of ... the most senior people in her party are supporters of Satoru Mizushima, who was the maker of the film 'Truth about Nanking' that says that the Nanking Massacre never happened," Smith said. The film is also known as "The Truth about Nanjing," depending on different transliteration standards.

Yuriko Koike, governor of Tokyo and head of the Party of Hope, during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017.
Akio Kon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The massacre, which the vast majority of historians say happened to some degree, has long been a highly contested issue in relations between China and Japan. Earlier this year, Beijing's tourism authority called for a boycott of APA Group, a Tokyo-based hotel chain, after the group denied the 1937 massacre.

According to official Chinese accounts, Japanese troops massacred 300,000 residents in Nanjing city during the invasion of China. But death toll estimates have ranged from the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. A post-war Allied tribunal put the death toll at over 200,000.

It is worth noting, however, that some members of Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its longtime rival, the now-dissolved Democratic Party, were reported to have been listed as supporters of the film.

Two right-wing parties: Who will win?

To be sure, Koike's Party of Hope has not explicitly committed to policy stances mirroring those of far-right movements that have recently gained momentum in other parts of the world. German populist party Alternative for Germany, for example, saw a surge in voter support in recent elections last month after campaigning on nationalistic, anti-immigration and anti-European Union goals.

But some are already labeling the current Tokyo governor a populist, which is often a euphemism for a far-right politician. Koike has garnered significant public support by promising to move away from nuclear power and to halt consumer tax hikes.

Japan's Democratic Party, main opposition to Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, disbanded and joined with the Party of Hope last week. Some commentators have said the toughened opposition could pose a stronger challenge to Abe's bloc in the upcoming Oct. 22 snap elections, even if the incumbent prime minister is unlikely to be beaten.

Japan PM Abe could lose voters over tax hike plans, says analyst

Despite having been tipped to challenge Abe directly for the top spot, Koike on Tuesday told a local newspaper that she was "100 percent not running for the election," Reuters reported.

With Abe and Keiko both leaning to the right, the main difference between Koike's party and the LDP is the consumption tax hike, said Sayuri Shirai, professor at Keio University and former Bank of Japan board member.

However, while Abe has said he would increase taxes, it's unclear that he will follow up on his word, according to Smith.

"For political reasons, he's saying that the tax hike will go ahead," Smith said, adding that he did not believe the prime minister will raise consumption tax as "austerity is not in Shinzo Abe's lexicon."

Abe is "saying that he won't go ahead with the hike if the economy is unable to take it — the precise words that he used the previous two times when he pushed out the tax hike," Smith added.

The Japanese prime minister previously delayed a sales tax hike twice: in 2014 and 2016. At the June 2016 press conference in which the decision was announced, Abe said the global economy was facing significant risks and noted negative impacts from recent earthquakes, Reuters reported.

He had previously said he would delay increasing the tax only in the event of a massive natural disaster or a 2008-style financial crisis.