In the wake of last Sunday’s local elections, big city political reporters were quick to see the results as (1) a mandate for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; and (2) a disaster for the Democratic Party of Japan.
The conclusions reached by those far removed from the rest of Japan — the place they sometimes visit during holidays in order to pay their respects to relatives living and deceased — are factually correct and rationally argued. But they offer little clue as to more fundamental social realities driving political choices.
The real story behind this year’s local elections is, in fact, many stories. It’s a tale of the “Abe economic bubble” in (parts of) Tokyo and the gap with other regions, of public works critics in Honshu cities that enjoy mild climates and hyperconvenient transport infrastructures, and public works-friendly voters in the remote snowy mountains, forests and fields of rural Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu, and of overcrowded and expensive urban centers and depopulated regions with abandoned houses.
In short, the elections were about social, economic, political and even cultural and philosophical divides that will shape Japanese politics for years to come.
One example of this was the Nara prefectural governor’s election. Incumbent Gov. Shogo Arai, backed by the Liberal Democratic Party and other established players, defeated Makoto Yamashita, an independent candidate. That’s all you might have read in Tokyo.
The real story is that 70-year-old Arai won a closer-than-expected race against 46-year-old Yamashita, despite the former having the support of three major parties (the LDP, the DPJ and Komeito) and facing a candidate with no party support but lots of youthful energy.
Arai and the old guard got a scare because a new generation of Nara residents, who often work in neighboring Osaka or Kyoto, is growing in political strength. Like Yamashita, they are younger, urban-educated and have little patience for traditional politics. Their priorities are different from those of Arai’s elderly supporters, where the motto is still “public works projects, spending on social welfare for the elderly, and agricultural protection.” Instead, they seek “economic growth,” as well as better child care, lower taxes, less bureaucracy (read: interference in their lives by bureaucrats of Arai’s generation) and decent public schools.
Nara is really two prefectures in one. Northern Nara is home to the city of Nara, UNESCO treasures and a good chunk of its population. Younger residents who share Yamashita’s views are numerous. On the other hand, southern Nara contains some of Japan’s most ancient farmland, deep mountains and rugged forests.
Here, younger politicians with “modern” ideas are rarely welcome. As the results showed, for the moment at least, the old guard — i.e. your grandfather’s LDP — remains on top. Not only in Nara but also in pretty much every prefecture nationwide.
It’s easy to conclude that this is because there was no real choice, the DPJ and opposition parties are weak, etc. But politics is about convincing people to support you at the ballot box — out of hope or fear, and the latter is especially powerful.
A best-selling book last year by the former governor of Iwate Prefecture created such fear by warning parts of Japan could go extinct as birthrates plunged, the percentage of elderly rose, and far fewer women of child-bearing age remained in the provinces.
Voters in prefectures that, like Nara, were named in the book as being in danger of losing their populations thus chose safe, stable and well-known LDP candidates. Not just because of a lack of opposition, but also because, at a time of worries about depopulation and uncertainty about the future of their localities, who wants to take the risk of voting for the unknown?
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.