On Nov. 16 Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda shūin wo kaisan shita (衆院を解散した, dissolved the Diet’s Lower House). In August he had promised to do it “chikai uchi ni” (「近いうちに」”soon”). The term is elastic and the governing Minshuto (民主党, Democratic Party of Japan, DPJ) stretched it to the full — understandably in view of the party’s shijiritsu (支持率, support ratings), which currently hover around 19 percent. Asked why now, Noda replied, “Chikai uchi ni kokumin ni shin wo tou to mōshiageta. Sono yakusoku wo hatasu tame da” (「近いうちに国民に信を問うと申し上げた。その約束を果たすためだ」 “I said I would ask for the people’s trust soon. This is to fulfill that promise”).
He opened his campaign with a challenge to the public and to the opposition-leading Jiminto (自民党, Liberal Democratic Party, LDP): “Seiken kōtai mae no furui seiji ni modoru no ka” (「政権交代前の古い政治に戻るのか」, “Are we going to go back to the old politics that prevailed before the change of government?”).
That appeal should pack a punch — more of one than it does. The seiken kōtai (政権交代, change of government) was truly historic. Since 1955, 自民党 had held power almost as a matter of course. Opposition parties were of little account. The 2009 election that brought 民主党 to power broke the mold. Stagnant, floundering, deeply conservative Japan had done the apparently impossible. Exercising a long-held but little-used democratic right, it had flung off a sclerotic old government and awarded itself a new one.
The substantial lead 自民党 holds in pre-election polls is a measure of public disillusion. It helps explains why Noda’s 「近いうちに」 took so long. 民主党 has every reason for pessimism. But is a 自民党 victory assured?
Whatever its outcome, this election will be historic too. The unprecedented element this time is a daisankyoku (第三極, third force). It has been evolving for some time. Small parties have broken off from larger parties and merged with other small parties. The key figures to watch are former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and current Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, daihyō (代表, president) and fukudaihyō (副代表, deputy leader) respectively of the reconstituted Nippon Isshin no Kai (日本維新の会, Japan Restoration Party).
The sudden concord between the 80-year-old Ishihara and the 43-year-old Hashimoto under pressure of a snap election occurring in a power vacuum has been the butt of satire. Sōtō no washi (双頭の鷲, double-headed eagle) is one tongue-in-cheek description of the pair. Takayo Yamamoto, a researcher on women’s lifestyles, said, referring to Ishihara and his earlier courtship of other partners, “Kekkon ni okikaereba” (「結婚におきかえれば」”If we think of this in terms of a marriage”), “sonna dansei wa shinyō dekinai” (「そんな男性は信用できない」”we can’t trust a man like that”).
Marriage of convenience rather than love it may be, but Ishihara and Hashimoto do see eye to eye on one thing. Both are ardent nationalists aiming, as their merger agreement puts it, “tsuyokute shitataka na nippon wo tsukuru” (「強くてしたたかな日本を作る」 “to create a strong, tough Japan”). Other agreements came less easily and seem to paper over unsettled discord — on nuclear power, for instance, which Hashimoto opposed and Ishihara favored. Their merger agreement calls — rather blandly, in view of the urgency the issue has acquired since the Fukushima meltdowns in March 2011 — for genpatsu anzen kijun nado rūru kōchiku (原発安全基準などルール構築, the construction of rules including nuclear power generation safety standards); also for denryoku shijō jiyūka (電力市場自由化 , liberalizing the electric power market).
The two leaders disagreed earlier on taxes too, Hashimoto wanting and Ishihara not wanting all consumption tax proceeds to be turned over to local governments. Hashimoto prevailed on that one, and the agreement advocates shōhizei no chihōzeika (消費税の地方税化, turning the consumption tax into a regional tax).
On the dispute with China over the Senkaku (尖閣) islands claimed by both countries and called Diaoyu by the Chinese, Nippon Ishin no Kai, if elected, will chugoku ni kokusai shihō saibansho e no teiso wo unagasu (中国に国際司法裁判所への提訴を促す, urge China to take the case to the International Court of Justice).
LDP secretary-general (and former prime minister) Shinzo Abe responded sharply to Noda’s challenge. He pledged to machigatta seiji shudō ni yoru konran, teitai ni shūshifu wo utsu (間違った政治主導による混乱、停滞に終止符を打つ, put an end to the chaos and stagnation arising from misguided political leadership). That’s more or less what the DPJ promised to do when it unseated the LDP in 2009. Three years later, the daisankyoku (第三極, third force) — the sudden formation by Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada of the antinuclear political group Mirai no To shows how undefined it still is — may make anachronisms of both parties.