Since his big win in the lower house election on Oct. 22, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been talking about proceeding with measures to revise the Constitution, a project that has been close to his heart for most of his political career. However, during the official campaign period he almost never mentioned the word “constitution” in public, even though revision was listed — albeit last, and briefly — as a policy issue in the Liberal Democratic Party’s manifesto.
The media are prohibited during campaigns from covering any candidate or party more, or less, than any other candidate or party, so since the election some have gone through Abe’s speeches with a fine tooth comb. In an Oct. 27 feature, the Asahi Shimbun analyzed all 75 outdoor public appearances Abe made after he dissolved the Lower House on Sept. 28.
Naturally, no one expected him to talk about the Moritomo and Kake school-related scandals blamed for the deteriorating Cabinet support rate last summer, but Asahi found that Abe also rarely talked about the Constitution. During a speech on Oct. 10 in Sendai he did criticize opposition parties who say the Self-Defense Forces are “unconstitutional” because of war-renouncing Article 9. “The SDF worked so hard and risked their lives during the Great East Japan Earthquake,” he said, playing more to voters’ emotions than to whatever they felt about the Constitution.
During the post-election press conference on Oct. 23, reporters asked the prime minister why he avoided constitutional reform during the campaign, and he said he was always pressed for time and thus stuck to local issues.
Another matter that received short shrift was the consumption tax hike slated for October 2019. One of the new opposition forces, the Party of Hope, said it would freeze the tax. According to Asahi’s research, in the 57 speeches Abe gave that included mention of government spending, he only uttered the words “consumption tax” 10 times, and at no point did he cite percentages or time frames. He did, however, say that part of the tax would be used for social welfare that benefited younger people, such as day care.
As for topics he never failed to mention, two stood out: North Korea and the Japanese whom North Korea abducted. In almost every speech, Abe said he would put pressure on Kim Jong Un with the help of the rest of the world, especially Japan’s strongest ally, the United States.
NHK went even further into the speeches on a recent installment of its news show “Closeup Gendai.” The program “text mined” all 330,000 words that Abe spoke during his public campaign appearances, and in order to make the rather dry statistical results understandable to the average viewer, it presented the LDP manifesto as a “menu” and what Abe actually talked about as “the chef’s recommendations.”
The three most commonly spoken words in Abe’s speeches were “Japan” (208 times), “North Korea” (201) and “election” (180). In fact, in each of his public appearances, Abe mentioned North Korea at least three times, and the desired effect seems to have been achieved. People interviewed by NHK on the street said they were probably going to vote for the LDP because they desired “stability” in the face of aggression from North Korea. And in NHK’s exit polls of some 273,000 voters, North Korea was the main issue for 70 percent of the people who had voted for the ruling coalition.
The second most important issue was “a good economy,” and NHK found that Abe used the word “saikō” (“the best”) 66 times to qualify anything economics-related, from the employment rate to agricultural exports to GDP. In contrast, Yuriko Koike, the leader of Party of Hope, dwelled on “women” and “disclosure,” and Yukio Edano, of the more insurgent Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, stressed abstractions like “democracy” and “decency,” which had the effect of taking votes away not from the LDP but from other opposition parties.
The LDP strategy was effective not just because Abe was cagey with his rhetoric. As has been pointed out by various media, the LDP was mainly assisted by the winner-take-all rationale of the constituent portion of the voting, which benefits the ruling party because it splits the opposition, and this year there were more opposition parties to split. Party of Hope actually scored 20 percent of the constituent vote, but only garnered 6 percent of the seats.
Yoshiaki Kobayashi, a professor of Keio University, appearing on the internet news site Videonews.com, explained the significance of this imbalance by saying the LDP has learned how to “corral” its base. Kobayashi’s own survey of 3,000 voters, conducted just before the election, found that more people who identified themselves as “LDP supporters” said they would vote for the LDP this time than voted for the LDP in the 2014 general election. The difference, as both Kobayashi and Asahi have pointed out, comprises voters between the ages of 18 and 40, who mainly voted LDP this time.
Conventional wisdom says that people vote more conservatively as they get older, but that isn’t the case here. The reason is that these younger voters came of age politically during the Democratic Party of Japan’s disastrous stint as the ruling party.
“Young people vote for their self-interest,” said sociologist Shinji Miyadai during the same Videonews discussion, “not necessarily for what they think is right.”
The cohort in their 60s, who grew up during the idealistic “college movement” of the 1970s, voted mainly for the opposition. Abe knew this and set his agenda accordingly. The consumption tax hike and constitutional revision are controversial, so he campaigned on items that appealed to young people’s self-interest—day care and security.
“When he stressed ‘welfare for everyone,'” said Kobayashi, “he made young people think it was to their advantage.”
If the LDP can hold on to this age group for the rest of their lives, it can ensure the party’s dominance of government indefinitely.