Why you should care
Because he is paving the way for Trump-like politics across the globe.
When Jikido Aeba stepped onto the Conservative Political Action Conference main stage in late February, the crowd of rowdy conservatives could have been forgiven for not knowing who he was. The Japanese 50-something in the navy jacket and the “Justice” red tie was not a familiar face of conservative celebrity or cable television, as so many of the speakers there were. But the words — mostly spoken through a translator — were familiar. And so Aeba too was swept up in applause, especially as he ended his speech with emphasis: “Make America great again! Make Asia great again! Make the world great again!”
What had Aeba, who goes by “Jay” to his American audiences, promised? An East Asian proliferation of Trumpism. The foreign politico outlined a plan, from pressuring lawmakers by ranking their conservatism (or lack thereof) through a regional scorecard system, to importing conservative media outlets such as Fox News to win the “information battle” and compete with already-present heavyweights such as CNN. Most important: to establish charter groups not just in Japan, as Aeba already had, but everywhere from Korea and Nepal to the Philippines — with a mother ship in Taiwan, a gesture sure to anger China. “We are going to see how they’re going to react,” Aeba told OZY glibly after his speech.
With the conservative principles I learned within the United States, we want to work together to expand the conservative movement to fight the imperialist movement, and the last, final Cold War.
Jikido “Jay” Aeba
If successful, Aeba could create a tea party–style uprising for the Far East. Stateside, the presence of speakers like Aeba was a pat on the back — seeming confirmation that despite anti-Trump rhetoric from overseas leaders, there were many places where his brand of politics could take root. “It makes you realize that when we fight these battles, and we talk about our principles, we are not alone,” says Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. The work of Aeba and those like him could create a more nationalistic Southeast Asia, albeit united in antagonism toward China. In his speech, Aeba tied his efforts directly to the president, telling the crowd he had a “special opportunity” to report to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence: “They were so encouraging, and they were very happy to hear that.”
So goes his tale, a precipitous rise by the Japanese commentator who seemingly dubbed himself the new diplomatic arm of American conservatism to the East — and succeeded. The father of two from Yokohama has served as an adviser on Asian-American relations to the Republican National Committee, as well as the editorial supervisor of the Japanese translation of Clinton Cash, the best-seller funded by a conservative think tank to dig into foreign payments made to the former president and first lady. After attending the conference for years, Aeba made his first CPAC speech last year — as a last-minute fill-in. And in November, Aeba led the first J-CPAC in Tokyo, attracting more than 500 attendees and a guest list that included former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon — “before the book was published,” Aeba adds cheekily, a nod to Bannon’s fall from conservative graces after his unflattering remarks about Trump in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury.
Aeba’s power-broker presentation is a bit of a stretch. His only known political experience in Japan was as a high-ranking member of the cultlike “Happiness Realization Party,” which has no elected politicians. That report to Trump and Pence? He admits it was actually just a few comments he made to the pair during a photo line. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Yet Aeba can boast of having actually met with big names in America’s conservative world, from Bannon and Schlapp to anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. And there are signs that a Trump-based message could take root in Japan, says Motoo Unno, a professor at Meiji University in Tokyo who studied the success of Barack Obama’s grass-roots campaigns. “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a good relationship with Mr. Trump, so conservative people in Japan think Trump is a good guy almost automatically,” Unno says. “Trump has domestic problems, but the Japanese people in general don’t know that.”
Aeba thinks bigger. He styles himself after Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, “the ones who gave freedom to the people.” Within his own country, Aeba imagines taking the baton from Fukuzawa Yukichi, the founder of Keio University, where Aeba studied from primary school through college. Yukichi studied in America during the 19th century and imported democratic ideals to what was at the time an absolute monarchy.
After decades of dominance by the Liberal Democratic Party coalition now headed by the center-right Abe, Aeba believes Japan to be in similar need of revolution — one that vaults Abe’s cautious conservatism rightward. Aeba wants a tougher line on Chinese expansionism throughout the region, especially after the recent news that President Xi Jinping could reign indefinitely. “Those who oppose Beijing do have the capability of building real movements,” says Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, who spoke at Aeba’s J-CPAC event in Tokyo. That movement would likely also branch off into arguments for market reforms that include lesser taxation, greater intellectual freedom and perhaps even the social conservatism of the American right.
“With the conservative principles I learned within the United States, we want to work together to expand the conservative movement to fight the imperialist movement, and the last, final Cold War,” Aeba said from the CPAC stage. It was a friendly arena. Aeba well realized he wasn’t in Tokyo. “We don’t have a genuine conservative political party,” he lamented, but here, he reveled in his newfound fans, taking selfies with conference attendees before resuming his quest to lead an outnumbered band of Japanese archconservatives out of the wilderness.