Japan’s election campaign period is too short for candidates to develop policies and make them known to voters, according to Robert F. Grondine, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and a longtime Japan watcher.
This brevity creates the impression that political apathy is widespread among Japanese voters, according to Grondine, 48, who is also a partner at international law firm White & Case LLP.
“It’s a strange conception to think anyone can properly develop any opinions and perspectives and actually develop debate about policy in two weeks, and that you can determine whom you would like to vote for,” he said. “It’s simply not possible.”
Because voters do not have sufficient time to listen to candidates’ views and make up their mind about whom to vote for, it is difficult for voters to get the feeling that they are participating in politics, Grondine said.
Voter turnout for the most recent Lower House election, in 1996, dropped below 60 percent for the first time in recent memory, sinking to 59.6 percent, according to the Home Affairs Ministry.
The turnout for Upper House elections is even lower — if only slightly. In the previous Upper House election, in 1998, the rate was 58.84 percent, an increase of 14.32 percentage points from the 1995 election.
“It’s a mistake to look at voter turnout and think that people are apathetic and that they don’t care,” said Grondine, a resident of Japan for 19 years. “Everybody cares deeply about their future.”
Recent surveys indicate that, despite the common notion that Japanese are relatively affluent, many Japanese are pessimistic about their future. Such a widespread public perception, however, does not directly lead to political action.
This pessimism should be discussed during campaigning for the June 25 Lower House election, Grondine said. He declined to elaborate on issues that should be raised during campaigning, saying the ACCJ’s policy is to leave local politics to the local constituencies.
People voted for change and a new type of leadership in two major gubernatorial elections in 1995. Yukio Aoshima, a writer-turned-politician, was elected governor of Tokyo, and “Knock” Yokoyama, a former comedian and Upper House member, became governor of Osaka.
But they failed to respond to the momentum to change the political landscape, Grondine said.
“When you had that phenomena happening (in Tokyo and Osaka) at the same time, no one tried to take advantage of using those people or the phenomena to form a completely new political party. (That is) very strange.”
Yet Grondine believes Japanese voters still desire change and new types of politicians, saying such longing can be seen in the popularity of Makiko Tanaka of the Liberal Democratic Party.
Tanaka, daughter of the late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and former director general of the Science and Technology Agency, is well-known for being a tough and outspoken politician.
There is another sign that voters’ interest in the political process is expanding, Grondine said.
Over the past several years, there have been more opportunities to watch political discussions and debates on television. And viewers have come to participate in these programs in the form of calling and faxing in their opinions.
“(There is) more general public appreciation and participation in political discussion and debate,” Grondine said. “But that level has to be brought into elections in order to be a much more participatory democratic kind of process.”