Tomorrow, Japan will hold a general election for the first time since 2009. A lot has changed since 2009. At home, the impact of the 2011 Touhoku Earthquake is still felt, especially in the area of nuclear power policy; abroad, Japan has ended up in unwelcome territorial disputes over a handful of rocky islands with South Korea and, more worryingly, China.
Tomorrow’s election won’t be about any of those things. Not really.
The 2009 election was momentous for a simple reason – it elected the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to office. This was the first time since 1955 that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had not held power. The LDP was created in 1955 as a broad but tightly managed coalition of conservative political groups – including many whose wartime histories were murky, to say the least – and it held the reins of power throughout the remainder of the 20th century, becoming so deeply intertwined with Japan’s powerful bureaucracy that it could be hard to tell where the LDP ended and the civil service – the machinery of government itself – began. Yet in 2009 they were thrown out of office, losing to the DPJ in a landslide.
Tomorrow, it’s almost certain that the people of Japan will vote the LDP back into office. The most likely scenario is that they’ll have a majority (along with their perennial coalition partners, New Kōmeitō, which is effectively the political wing of the powerful Buddhist group Sōka Gakkai and as such commands a moderate but very reliable share of the vote from Sōka Gakkai followers), but will still need to work with other parties to get legislation through the Upper House. Some media outlets, though, are confidently predicting that the LDP, with New Komeito, will enjoy a “supermajority” – 320 seats in the Lower House (Japan uses the Westminster parliament system, so this is equivalent to the House of Commons in the UK), enough to force through almost any legislation it wants, regardless of how the Upper House may vote.
How might we interpret this? After less than three and a half years in office, Japan is throwing out its first non-LDP government in 54 years and inviting the LDP to return – what does it mean?
A few broad ideas have been thrown around by the press and a variety of commentators. One idea is that Japan is lurching to the right, politically – that the re-election of the conservative LDP, which includes factions with some worryingly revisionist views about World War 2 and a hawkish desire to “re-interpret” Japan’s pacifist constitution, means that the Japanese people are becoming more militaristic and hardline in their views. Another idea is that the election is a referendum on the DPJ’s handling of the Touhoku Earthquake, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and subsequent events. So; “it’s all about militarism”, say one group of talking heads; “it’s all about nuclear power”, say another.
Those are nice, convenient talking points. They’re also incredibly simple, which should ring warning bells. They betray a deep desire to find a simple narrative for this election, when none exists, and they speak more about the biases of their authors (who are personally obsessed with “Japan’s attitude to WW2” or “Japan’s attitude to nuclear power”) than they do about the feelings of the Japanese electorate. In less polite terms, they’re flat-out wrong.
This is not to say that issues like militarism and nuclear power haven’t featured in the election – but they have not been major issues. On militarism, many of the politicans involved have form, but have seemed to quite deliberately keep their mouths shut. The LDP is led by Abe Shinzo, a man who was previously prime minister for a fairly disastrous one-year term in 2006/7. He is well-known as a hawkish character with rather revisionistic views on Japan’s wartime history and a strong desire to “re-interpret” the constitution to allow the building up of Japanese military power, but during his period as Prime Minister, he reined in those impulses (although he never seemed happy doing so, and this may have contributed to his early exit from the job). He’s reined them in once again on the campaign trail this year – he’s been gaffe-prone as ever, but not over issues of national security or history. Other hawks are also to be found on the campaign trail; the newly created Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), for example, is led by Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru, who wants a referendum on the pacifist clause of the constitution (Article 9) and picked a bizarre fight with teachers over the treatment of the Japanese national anthem in classrooms. His new political partner is former Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro, a loud-mouthed and vainglorious right-wing ideologue whose entire career has been spend picking bizarre fights with intellectuals, pacifists, foreigners, women or whichever minority group he could think of to insult on the spur of the moment. Yet even these two characters have kept squeaky-clean through the campaign, avoiding being tarred with the nationalist brush as much as possible. Hashimoto has even emerged as an extremely moderate voice on foreign policy, suggesting, for example, that Japan should share administration of the disputed Senkaku and Dokdo islands with China and South Korea respectively.
Why put firebrands in charge but then make them shut up? Because there’s no appetite in Japan for right-wing, nationalist firebrands. The “lurch to the right” narrative about Japan simply collapses when you look at ground truth – across every meaningful opinion poll, the Japanese people strongly support Article 9 of the Constitution (which renounces the nation’s right to wage war) and reject advancing militarism or nationalism. Having neighbours like North Korea or China is frightening, certainly – and recent events have made the region feel even less safe – but the last thing the Japanese electorate wants is a hawkish leadership who directly provoke their neighbours through such actions as military build-up. Moreover, in this election in particular, the opinion polls are clear – foreign policy as a whole is a long way down people’s lists of concerns.
What of nuclear power, then? As it turns out, that’s a long way down the list of concerns as well. Perhaps that’s because the status quo isn’t working out too badly – most of the nuclear reactors are still offline and Japan hasn’t experienced any power shortages (the impact of boosting imports of fossil fuels in order to cover up the shortfall may not have been felt yet – expert commentary on that differs greatly). Either way, it doesn’t seem to bother people greatly that none of the parties are committing to a rapid end to nuclear power, or that the LDP in particular doesn’t seem committed at all to winding down the nuclear power industry which it was so directly instrumental in creating. Only one party, the Tomorrow Party, focuses on nuclear issues; it’s led by Kada Yukiko, the likeable and sincere governor of Shiga Prefecture, but mostly made up of former DPJ politicians who bailed out of the party a few months ago, following their powerful faction leader (and DPJ co-founder) Ozawa Ichiro. Everyone knows that Ozawa is the real power behind the Tomorrow Party, and neither Kada’s role as a human shield nor the party’s strong anti-nuclear stance is likely to prevent it from being wiped out at the ballot box.
Okay. So it’s not the military, and it’s not nukes. What, then, are the people of Japan voting on? How have they made their decision to return to the embrace of the LDP?
That’s a trick question. They haven’t made that decision at all. The sad, dull reality of the 2012 General Election in Japan is that the populace isn’t returning to the LDP; they’re not actively choosing to elect Abe Shinzo as their next Prime Minister. They’re just getting the default option, because “None Of The Above” doesn’t feature on their ballot papers.
With only a handful of days left before the election, the LDP was sitting at around 23% support in the opinion polls. This is a party which is expected in some quarters to get a “supermajority”. Twenty-three per cent. A “supermajority”. To put that in context, that’s the same percentage of the vote as the Liberal Democrats in the UK got in 2010 – and in the 1997 UK general election, when the Tories were wiped out by a Labour landslide, they still got nearly 31% of the vote.
Still – the LDP are doing better than the DPJ, who languish at 11% to 14%, depending on which polls you read. The newbies in the Japan Restoration Party manage similar numbers – 8% in the lowball polls, 13% in the optimistic ones.
Who’s really winning this election, according to the polls? “Don’t know”. Only days before polling closes, “Don’t know” is in for a sweeping victory, with around 40% of the vote. After all the wrangling, the posturing, the temper tantrums for the cameras, the angry accusations, the manifestoes, the TV appearances and the endless shouting of slogans from the loudspeakers on top of cars in busy urban areas, nearly half of the people of Japan still don’t know who the hell they want to vote for.
Six months before an election, that’s understandable. Three months before an election, it’s understandable. A month in advance, you’d start to worry. Less than a week in advance, those figures no longer mean “Don’t Know”. What they actually mean is, “None of the Above”. What those voters are really saying is, “A plague on both your houses”.
Whether the LDP wins a supermajority or not; whether the DPJ is all but wiped out or manages to save some face; whatever happens in the election will come down to whether those 40% of voters decide to turn up, grit their teeth and vote for the least-worst option (which might well help the DPJ to save face, since Abe Shinzo’s right-wing tendencies do scare people a little, and his incompetent tenure and humiliating resignation in 2007 isn’t so long ago) – or whether they just stay at home, which would probably let the LDP romp home with a large majority but a deeply questionable mandate.
Why is this happening? If you want a neat, simplified narrative, here’s one. The LDP – and its conjoined twin, the Japanese bureaucracy – is in decline. A fragile coalition of otherwise competing interests and viewpoints was held together through the 60s, 70s and 80s by Japan’s economic miracle. Dissent was silenced by financial generosity, each special interest group or uppity politician bought off with gigantic amounts of public cash being spent on their pet infrastructure projects and local communities. Everyone got rich, so everyone stayed quiet. Nobody wanted to upset an applecart so brimming with rich harvest.
Since the financial crisis and the end of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s, things have been a lot more uncertain. The idea of the LDP and the bureaucracy managing Japan with stunning competence has been demolished by two decades of flatlining growth, declining levels of full-time professional employment and currency deflation. However, the impact of this has been delayed, for the simple reason that Japan is still a great place to live. It’s safe, it’s secure, it’s convenient – outside central Tokyo, it’s even fairly cheap. Healthcare and education are good. Poverty exists, but it’s hidden away on the margins. The applecart isn’t quite as full of ripe fruit as it once was, but it’s still not a good idea to upset it.
At the same time, dissatisfaction has set in – and it’s only grown as generations who finished university in the 1990s and 2000s realised that many of them would never have the kind of full-time employment their fathers had enjoyed. Few of them would be as wealthy as their parents had been. A large number, forced to take part-time or short-term contract jobs rather than full-time “salaryman” work, would never have enough money to buy a house or start a family. The covenant at the heart of Japanese society – “work hard, trust the government, and you’ll live well” was being broken. The LDP, authors of that covenant, seemed either not to understand what was happening, or not to know how to fix it – or perhaps both.
When the DPJ won the election in 2009, they promised a huge variety of things – their manifesto, in fact, read like a bit of a fantastical wishlist, and that quality has been used as a stick to beat the party with ever since. Their main promise, though, was unspoken; “we’re not the LDP”. Indeed, the party itself was a Frankenstein’s monster of a thing, composed of refugees, waifs and strays from across the political spectrum – including many politicians who had served time within the LDP itself. Their commonality was not anything that they were, but something that they were not. They were not the LDP. They won a landslide victory.
Tomorrow, they’ll collapse. Many of their Diet members, elected in 2009, will be unceremoniously dumped from office. The party has already fragmented; former DPJ members can be found in many of the new parties contesting tomorrow’s elections. Most will lose their seats regardless. They weren’t the LDP in name, but they reflected many of the things people hate most about the LDP in every other way – the factionalism, the in-fighting, the sheer ineffectiveness. Fukushima uncovered collusion with the nuclear industry; a humiliating cabinet resignation earlier this year came about because of connections with the Yakuza, Japan’s organised crime groups. Both incidents had a strong whiff of the old LDP around them. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
What the DPJ did offer, at least, was one place where people tired of the LDP’s misrule could place their ballots. This time around, there’s no such place. Some of the DPJ’s 2009 coalition of voters will drift back to the LDP – but few, I suspect. The LDP’s support figure of 23% is actually about the same as their polling figure in 2009. Last time, it earned them humiliating defeat; this time, it’ll win them a landslide. Most DPJ voters will have drifted elsewhere, fragmenting the anti-LDP vote. Some will go to Nippon Ishin no Kai, creating a third force in Japanese politics that could be fascinating to watch in years to come – assuming the tectonic stresses between the egos of Hashimoto and Ishihara don’t pull it to shreds first. A handful will go to the Tomorrow Party, or off to other marginals like the Japan Communist Party. Many, I suspect, will just stay at home. They took a gamble on believing in the DPJ, and lost. Politics has ceased to speak to them, or for them. That’s a volatile situation, even in a comfortable, modern nation like Japan. It leaves a void to be filled – perhaps by extremists, perhaps by non-party campaign groups, perhaps even by faith-based political movements. None of those are comfortable thoughts for the LDP – a party returning to power, but by no means back in the good books of its electorate.
P.S. My own prediction? The LDP (with New Komeito) wins a majority, but not a supermajority. Abe Shinzo becomes Prime Minister again, but not for long. He’ll be gone before the end of 2013, replaced by yet another forgettable face on the Japanese Prime Ministerial Merry-Go-Round.