Pictured: Fumio Kishida, 切干大根 CC BY-SA 4.0. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Japanese politics has once again proven to be remarkably stable, confounding even the modest expectations of realignment suggested by opinion polls prior to the October 31 general election. For the second time in a little over a year, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) chose a new leader, generally perceived as the “Establishment” candidate, who was subsequently elected Prime Minister by a vote of the House of Representatives, which the LDP controls with the support of its coalition partner, the Komeito Party. And while the LDP was always expected to remain in power, many polls had predicted a weakened position or even a loss of its majority control of the 465-member House of Representatives, with one poll by the Japan Times suggesting that the party would lose around 40 seats.¹
In fact, the LDP emerged from the election with a comfortable working majority of 263 seats – a loss of only 15. Even more surprisingly, the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) also shrank from 110 to 96, leading to leader Yukio Edano’s resignation shortly afterwards. Although the combined total of LDP and Komeito seats (293) is still well short of the supermajority of 310 that is needed to proceed with constitutional amendments and override vetoes in the House of Councillors, new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s unexpectedly strong performance will give him additional political capital and room to manoeuvre as he seeks to regain control of the upper house when half of its 245 seats are up for grabs next summer.
Several factors combined to fool the pollsters and media outlets. To be sure, luck played its part. The number of daily COVID-19 infections in Tokyo, which had risen to 5,000 per day in mid-August and was still around 2,500 when former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that he would not run for reelection, fell to 62 on October 14 and then to only 24 on October 29, just two days before the national vote. Furthermore, Japan’s record tally of medals at the Olympics may have softened the public’s attitude toward holding the games during a pandemic.
But more deep-seated reasons lie in the weakness of the Constitutional Democratic Party’s electoral strategy compared to that of the LDP-Komeito alliance, and in the sudden rise of the right-populist Nippon Ishin No Kai (Japan Innovation Party), principally in the Osaka region. The CDP tried to capitalize on the government’s apparent weakness in the polls by forging an alliance with the Communist Party of Japan and two other opposition parties. The parties in this centre-left coalition coordinated with one another to avoid vote-splitting in more than 200 of the country’s 289 single-member constituencies. Their common platform emphasized taxing the rich, reducing the unpopular consumption tax and permanently moving away from nuclear power.
Kishida’s September 8 economic policy statement, which spoke of the need to “redistribute wealth while the nation is still suffering from the pandemic” and “move away from neoliberalism” was aimed at assuaging discontent with the LDP’s handling of the pandemic and preventing too much support from draining away to either his most popular rival for the LDP leadership, Taro Kono, or – once Kishida had secured the LDP leadership on September 29 – to the CDP.
The results of the internal LDP leadership contest in September were also less predictable than usual, notwithstanding the LDP’s hybrid electoral system for leadership selection, which gives LDP Diet members half the votes to ensure that established parliamentarians have an edge in controlling the process. Unlike 2020, when a majority of the party’s prominent factions swiftly banded together to back Suga, most factions in 2021 were divided over whom to support. This was the first LDP leadership race in history in which the most popular candidate in the public opinion polls, the candidate most favoured by the leading elder statesman in the party (Shinzo Abe) and the candidate most favoured by the party establishment were actually three different people.
Moreover, these divisions cut across factional lines, with junior Diet members, who lack the solid local support bases enjoyed by their more senior colleagues, being correspondingly less worried about being “primaried” from above by faction leaders and more likely to back a candidate who could help them win reelection. Even Abe was only able to deliver the support of about half the Hosoda faction (with 96 members the largest of the five main LDP factions) to his preferred candidate, eventual third-place finisher Sanae Takaichi.
The closest thing to an “outsider” among the leadership candidates was the 58-year-old Kono, who had been Foreign and Defence Minister in Abe’s cabinet and who had been named by Suga in January 2021 to be the minister in charge of Japan’s vaccination rollout. Kono’s popularity was due in part to his willingness to deviate from establishment conservative views – for example by allowing a reigning empress or emperor from the maternal line of the imperial family. He was also the most adept at using social media: his Twitter account boasts some 2.4 million followers, giving him far more than Suga or the other leadership candidates in that department.
A longtime champion of more renewable energy in Japan’s $150 billion electricity industry, Kono made waves in 2018 when as Abe’s Foreign Minister he convened a panel that recommended getting rid of nuclear power and coal while dramatically increasing renewables. As Minister of Administrative Reform, he set up a task force to remove regulatory hurdles that hindered Japan’s shift to renewables. Kono and Kishida more or less agreed in the LDP leadership debates that continued reliance on nuclear power was necessary for the time being, but Kono certainly gave the impression of being the most determined to find climate-friendly alternatives that would actually meet emissions-reductions targets.
But while the “popular maverick” Kono brought some much-needed colour to the LDP leadership race, it was Abe’s favoured candidate, Takaichi, who presented the most intriguing option. Her election as Japan’s first female prime minister would have no doubt improved Japan’s image as a laggard in the area of gender equality. Yet at a time of growing inequality and growing concern about public health and climate change, she was also by far the most conservative of the leadership candidates when the public mood indicated a slight shift to the left.
Takaichi is an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and her recent book, whose title translates roughly as To a Beautiful, Strong, Growth-Driven Nation: My Plan to Strengthen Japan’s Economy, is a manifesto for a renewed and deepened commitment to neoliberalism – what she calls “the New Abenomics.” She of course supported Abe’s proposed revision of Article 9 of the Constitution, which refers to Japan’s renunciation of war as a means to solve international conflict and its possession of armed forces, by adding a third clause that would unambiguously legitimize the constitutional status of the Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF). She has also strongly opposed legislation allowing women to retain their maiden names after marriage; she would strengthen sanctions against North Korea because of the unresolved issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals; and she favours measures against “serious China risks,” such as the theft of Japan’s cutting-edge technology.
The most pro-nuclear of the candidates in energy policy, she emphasizes the development of small modular reactors and funding (in cooperation with U.S. firms) for nuclear fusion research. A noted hawk in defence matters, she favoured accepting U.S. intermediate-range nuclear missiles on Japanese territory. And as if that weren’t enough to provoke the ire of Japan’s neighbours, she also has defiantly made several well-publicized visits to Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japanese war dead that is seen in China and South Korea as a symbol of past Japanese militarism.
One way of interpreting Abe’s support for Takaichi is that her program contains all of the unfinished business that he had hoped to accomplish while he was in office, as well as a major statement of policy ideas that can serve the ultraconservative and nationalist Nippon Kaigi lobby well into the future. He may have also been indulging right-wing fantasies for several things that will remain out of reach. But with the sudden rise of the Ishin Party in the context of growing tensions with China in East Asia, another possibility lies on the horizon: should the LDP’s coalition with the pacifist-Buddhist Komeito party break down over the remilitarization of Japan or other issues, the Ishin could be available as an alternative coalition partner, with Takaichi as the most suitable leader for such a right-wing shift.
Social and environmental reformers can only hope that Kishida’s centre-left intimations are more than just a feint calculated to keep the CDP out of power. The early indications, however, are that Kishida’s triumph does not herald great progressive policy changes. In terms of democratic participation, voter turnout, at 55.33 per cent of eligible voters in single-seat districts, was only slightly higher than the 53.68 per cent figure in 2017.² Incredibly, the number of women elected to the House of Representatives in 2021 actually fell, from 47 to 45.³
The country’s parallel PR-list system worked beautifully to rescue several leading LDP politicians who had lost constituency seats – most notably Akira Amari, who had been the party’s Secretary-General – but it did not work at all to advance the stated legislative goal of achieving 35 per cent female members by 2025. This result is maddening from the perspective of feminists and electoral reformers alike, since an element of proportional representation (PR) was added to the Japanese Diet nearly 30 years ago, in part to deal with this very problem. Emma Dalton’s study of how LDP politicians defused the democratizing potential of PR is instructive: first by gradually reducing the number of PR seats being proposed, then by allowing dual candidacies across the two electoral segments to benefit incumbents (the “zombie” clause), and then by resisting calls for gender quotas.⁴
Since the general thrust of economic policy and reform of corporate governance in Japan has been toward deregulation and away from compulsory quotas of any kind, it is not surprising that politicians have been similarly slow to regulate themselves.⁵ Japan’s divergence from other developed countries in climate change policy has been similarly attributed to pro-business policies that try to minimize the use of compulsory rules. At the World Leaders’ Summit of COP26 in Glasgow on November 2, Japan was not among the 46 countries that pledged to phase out coal by the 2040s,⁶ because Kishida had successfully evaded the overtly anti-coal forces both inside and outside the LDP that would have constrained Japanese business. The government wishes to encourage businesses to invest in green innovations, but not to force them to do so.⁷
Perhaps the CDP, having failed to endear itself to suburban Japanese voters by forming a coalition with Communists and fringe parties, could try a different approach in future elections: by requiring half of its list MPs to be female and by doing more than the LDP (which clearly benefits from voter apathy) to encourage youth, green and female turnout. But for the time being, the impetus for change will have to come from within the ruling party. If the new Japanese PM is really serious about “moving away from neoliberalism,” as he himself has put it, he will need to confront what the problem of neoliberalism really is in contemporary Japan. In particular, he will need to consider how much treating corporate elites, businesses and conservative social groups with kid gloves has limited the effectiveness of initiatives in the areas of public health, gender equality, labour law, democratic reform and the climate crisis. And this needn’t be seen as buckling to external pressure: after all, meeting collective action problems with vigorous and farsighted leadership used to be Japan’s forte.
This article was published as part of a larger elections feature for Inroads 50. To check out the rest, go to Elections Bring Change (Except in Canada).