Issues | LAW OF THE LAND

Electoral dysfunction leaves Japan's voters feeling impotent

by Colin P.A. Jones

What starts with a tingle of excitement, is followed by a surge of activity, frantic yelling and empty promises, but is quickly spent, leaving you feeling just as empty and unfulfilled as before? Answer: a Japanese election.

While it took some Americans well into the second term of President Barack Obama’s “change you can believe in” presidency to realize that voting may be a waste of time, decades of rule by an unchanging coven of bureaucrats and Liberal Democratic Party parliamentarians have given the Japanese more time to become accustomed to the impotence of their own democratic processes.

Still, you would be hard-pressed to identify a more flaccid poll than the one that will reach a predictable climax on Sunday. Unleashed abruptly after some desultory denials-as-foreplay, the Nov. 21 dissolution of the Diet was so sudden that it will apparently disenfranchise the crews of long-distance Japanese fishing boats that had already left port when faxable ballots were made available. Of course, even if they had received them, how could the nation’s piscators know how to vote, out there on the empty sea with nary a candidate driving by in a sound truck screaming their name and party affiliation?

But then everyone seems mystified by this election, except possibly the man who called it, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Opposition parties are in disarray and are not expected to achieve politically meaningful gains. There being no open signs of dissent within Abe’s own party that need quashing, the perfectly reasonable question on many lips is, “Who is this election being fought against?”

The most plausible answer seems to be the Ministry of Finance and others in the bureaucracy who reportedly oppose Abe’s efforts to delay a consumption tax increase scheduled for 2015. If that is the case, it could well prove a high-water mark of pointlessness even for Japan: an election campaign waged against the unelected. So pull up a microscope and research this slab of whale meat while I explain how pachinko is not gambling. Just don’t think too much, because in the land of the surreal, mere realists just go insane.


When your nation’s version of the second-worst form of government requires candidates to drive around in trucks screaming their name because the law won’t let them do anything else, how can you not go insane? The only alternative is to hunker down and try to ignore the brief intrusion of yet another source of bad noise inflicted on Japanese people by their shepherd state.

As you might expect from a bothersome and demonstrably futile exercise of civic rights, voters are expected to turn out in record-low numbers. Yet the fact that most intelligent people are rightfully looking around in bewilderment is not a major concern for Abe. He and his technocratic cohorts seem to have figured out that voter disillusionment works in favor of conservatives, who just have to mobilize their status-quo-loving base to win. That is not hard in Japan, where the votes of people old enough to still be basking in the almost imperceptible afterglow of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics are prevalent in rural areas, leveraged through Supreme Court-certified unconstitutionalish (but not unconstitutional!) malapportionment that reliably delivers conservative votes in exchange for beautiful, beautiful continuity and perhaps a new community center (now with Western-style toilets!).

“Stability … is Hope” (“Antei wa, kibō desu“): That’s the vaguely Orwellian slogan of the conservative Komeito, Abe’s sometime-political allies. You can see how this simple message holds a certain appeal for those whose actuarial hope horizons don’t extend beyond the next decade, and who may want nothing new from the 21st century other than perhaps a robotic exoskeleton for the caregiver to help lift you or your even older parent out of bed. To young people dreaming of disruptive innovation or meaningful social change, however, it may come across as an exhortation to just give up.

Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much in this election for the young or even middle-aged. Should we pay more taxes now or have a GDP-to-national-debt ratio resembling one of those science graphics where they put Earth next to Jupiter? You can have both! If Abe wins a suitable mandate from the status-quo crowd, he can presumably get on with the important task of making it easier for companies to hire people like you — by, uh, making it easier to fire people like you. Kind of a double-edged sword for people who like job security (said the tenured professor), but don’t worry, there will probably be plenty of opportunities to earn pocket money by lining up at supermarkets rumored to have butter.


I originally planned to make this column educational and write about how the now-dissolved House of Representatives has 475 seats, 295 filled from single-seat constituencies and 180 from regional proportional districts — that sort of thing. These latter districts ensure that minority parties get a few bums on Diet seats, yet also tend to reward party affiliation and name recognition over substance, since when presented with a long list of candidates, most voters will just choose the party they like or the name they recognize.

Name recognition is about the only thing the electoral laws will let you compete over anyway, so if a video of you winning a hot-dog eating contest gets 10 million views on YouTube, you may well have a political future in Japan. Joking aside, a religious group has reportedly fielded an unknown candidate named Shimomura in the same district as education minister Hakubun Shimomura, leading to speculation that the group is trying to unseat the minister by invalidating ballots that fail to specify which Shimomura they were intending to vote for. Par for the course in a system concerned primarily with the appearance of elections, not their substance.

I was also going to expound on the even-more-vacuous polls that will be held contemporaneously to confirm the retention of the five Supreme Court justices appointed since Abe’s landslide victory in 2012. Of course, nobody knows who these people are, so many voters leave these ballots blank. Asked to rule in the past on what these blank ballots mean, the Supreme Court declared that they should be treated the same as “yes” votes, in favor of retention. It is, therefore, a complete certainty that no justice will ever fail to be reappointed.

But let’s face it: You don’t care, do you? Like everyone else, you just want it to end, the stupid stupidity of the yelling and the white gloves and the comical Ruritarian sashes bearing the names of the candidates — sashes they can only wear in the 12 days immediately before the election because otherwise voters might know who they are.

You probably already know that it is the quest for fairness that drives all this — that limits candidates to just one or two sound cars, one campaign speech, a few minutes of public-access time on NHK and a fixed number of posters of a mandated size in designated places. Fairness also dictates how much candidates can spend on lunch boxes for their supporters. And it is because of the quest for fairness that canvassing voters directly is prohibited, along with doing anything that makes it possible to connect with the people on subjects such as policy or law-making. As described by professor Dan Rosen in a recent article, “The guiding principle is: everything is forbidden, except that which is allowed.” This was demonstrated when the Kanazawa Bar Association was told by electoral authorities to cancel an street demonstration against the state secrets act planned for Dec. 10. Why? It might have violated electoral laws. Talk about political issues during an election? Preposterous!

With last year’s Upper House election fresh in the memory, you are probably also aware that “allowed” finally includes use of the Internet and social media for campaigning, though subject to counterintuitive restrictions that are backed by criminal penalties. (For example, candidates and parties can use email to distribute campaign information but members of the general public cannot.) Given that the decades-old restrictions described above remain in place, it is like being allowed to have sat-nav on your ox cart but only being allowed to use a single buggy whip.


But you don’t want to know about this either, do you?

The desire to protect your sanity by looking away from the Cthulhian horror of Japan’s electoral system is perfectly understandable. That’s fine, because the abyss of Japanese governance doesn’t want you staring into it either, so a system that discourages thought or debate makes sense for everyone.

Soon, very soon, it will be over and the be-toupeed ojisan will herd back into the sweet muffling embrace of the Diet building, and democracy will be safely back in the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats who are doubtless already designing the latest range of cartoon mascots to address the problem of voter apathy.

Besides, in this election there is nothing to debate anyway: Abe will win, declare he has a popular mandate and charge ahead with using the Bank of Japan’s magical time machine to finance the revival of Japan’s glorious past, filled with Olympic stadiums and shiny new levitating trains. With a cheap yen, the cult of monozukuri (making stuff) will prevail, and even if most Japanese people can no longer afford them, the world will be full of people waiting to buy a slightly improved Panasonic plasma TV or Sony’s latest effort to revitalize the Walkman (“Listen to your favorite tunes while kickboxing!”).

You may instinctively suspect that, just like the rest of life, quantitative easing and deficit financing are time machines that only go one way, and it isn’t backward. If this is proved true, it will almost certainly be a truth revealed in the form of a massive, utterly predictable fiscal crisis that will render future elections even more frenzied and pointless.

I can’t help wondering if that isn’t what a lot of people in Japan secretly want — and not just the hedge-fund managers smugly predicting the nation’s economic collapse on MSNBC and other people who enjoy saying “I told you so.” I mean thinking people who are so disillusioned that they see crisis as the only way to achieve meaningful change, and policymakers who will be able to do what it takes despite the pain and without any attendant responsibility because, hey — CRISIS!

If you think about it, though, responsibility is the bedrock of democracy. And though it may be the second-worst form of government, the alternative is demonstrably worse.

Like it or not, final responsibility in a democracy lies with you. So if you can, ignore jaded cynics like me and make the effort to go out and vote. If enough people participate, maybe — just maybe — it might finally stop being pointless.

Colin P.A. Jones is a professor at Doshisha Law School in Kyoto. Law of the Land appears in print on the second Thursday Community Page of every month. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp