National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Low voter turnout in Upper House election may reflect an indifference to democracy

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

In May 1993, general elections were held in Cambodia. Voter turnout was 89.56 percent.

People who don’t have democracy want it — very badly. Traumatized by 30 years of war, genocide, dictatorship, hunger — just about every evil into which a state can sink — Cambodians swarmed polling stations to elect, under U.N. auspices, a postwar government.

A measure of their eagerness is the obstacles they had to defy. Poor transportation was the least of them.

Terrorists opposing the elections “proclaimed that anyone who voted … would be considered ‘traitors to the nation,'” wrote Northern Illinois University cultural anthropologist Judy Ledgerwood on the university website. “The intimidation included following people, verbal threats, firing weapons near party offices, arresting or otherwise harassing friends or relatives of party activists and, in some cases, murder.”

To vote in Cambodia in 1993 was literally to put your life on the line.

Japan, its democracy secure, holds elections regularly. Its latest one was on July 21. It went as smooth as silk. No threats, no violence, no arrests, no harassment. Voter turnout was 48.8 percent.

It was the second-lowest turnout in Japan’s postwar democratic history. The spark that fired the Cambodians was evidently missing. This is surprising. Critical issues abound. Have voters nothing to say about them?

That cannot be. The economy struggles; poverty spreads; society ages. Indifference is possible regarding matters that have little direct bearing on daily life — the government’s honesty or dishonesty, for example; foreign relations; the concentration of power in the prime minister’s hands at the expense of the Diet; the languishing opposition. Busy and distracted beyond a certain point, you might well say, “Let others worry about that.” It may be unwise; you may unwittingly be undermining your democratic freedom — but that’s up to you. That, too, is democratic freedom.

To be indifferent to the economy and the state of society, however, is roughly equivalent to being indifferent to the state of your own health. It’s logically impossible.

There is in fact no such indifference. The flurry that followed the release in June of the Financial Services Agency’s report suggesting we need savings of ¥20 million to live in dignified retirement to age 95, a life span now commonplace, proves it. Who has ¥20 million?

Not most people. Finance Minister Taro Aso promptly rejected the report, saying it has caused “misunderstanding and anxiety.” Anxiety, for sure. “Misunderstanding” suggests the anxiety is delusional. Which raises a question already referred to: Is the government honest?

There are reasons to doubt it. On at least three separate occasions since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012, members of his administration have been caught covertly rewriting official documents. Two of these occasions — the heavily discounted sale of public land to nationalist school operator Moritomo Gakuen and fast-track government approval of a new veterinary school to be run by Kake Gakuen — involved seemingly preferential treatment for close friends of Abe’s. The third concerned the dispatch of Self-Defense Forces peacekeepers to South Sudan. The troops were withdrawn in May 2017 amid controversy over whether their deployment there was legal under the Constitution, whose war-renouncing provisions Abe has radically reinterpreted — almost out of existence, critics say.

Very few, if any, Japanese citizens of voting age are unaware of this. It has received intense and exhaustive coverage over the years.

A forgiving response is possible. “All governments lie,” you might argue, “it comes with the territory; lies lubricate the governing machinery; truth is a virtue but also a vulnerability” — and so on.

Generally speaking, though, democratic citizens resent being lied to by the people they elect to represent them. When the next election comes along they vent their indignation. It’s an important privilege — right, rather — as is, of course, the right to show support in the name of realism.

More than half the electorate — 51.2 percent — did neither.

Foreign relations, in Japan’s case, means, overwhelmingly, Japan-U.S. relations. Abe has gone to great lengths to ingratiate himself with U.S. President Donald Trump, going so far as to nominate him, upon request, for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Does it matter? Maybe not, but it’s hard not to have an opinion about it, positive or negative. Positively, you might say Abe is doing everything possible to defend Japan’s long-term interests, even at the cost of some personal dignity. Negatively, you can say the loss of dignity is not only his but Japan’s; that such effusive friendliness to a highly idiosyncratic president whom history seems likely to judge harshly is by no means in the national interest, especially if, as some fear, it draws Japan into an ill-considered war with Iran.

In the election aftermath, the Asahi Shimbun polled eligible voters and found them in a state perhaps best described as resigned apathy.

Thirty-two percent of respondents said they have “no interest in politics.” Forty-three percent said, “Even if I vote, nothing will change.” Young people, traditionally the most discontented and activist segment of the population, seem even more disengaged than their elders.

Eighteen- and 19-year-olds, given the vote amid much fanfare three years ago, said en masse, in effect, no thanks — 68.67 percent of them didn’t vote; 48 percent of respondents aged 18-29 told the Asahi they had “no interest in politics.”

Presumably they are interested in their salaries, which Weekly Playboy magazine (Aug. 5), citing labor ministry statistics, says are going down — not up, despite government assurances of economic recovery. Weekly Playboy is geared toward young readers. Its message to them is: “Wage decline times consumption tax hike (in October) equals hell.” The implied subtext is: “Vote!” “What for?” is the implied reply.

Japan’s democratic machinery is visibly functioning, and yet two major dailies cast doubt on Japan’s status as a democracy.

The Asahi Shimbun, in a postelection editorial, said, “If political parties and politicians are as far estranged from popular opinion (as the voting rate suggests), democracy itself is on the brink of crisis.”

The Mainichi Shimbun said: “The result (of poor and steadily declining voter turnouts) is that representatives of the people are elected in national polls where only about half of the voting population cast their ballots. … It can be said that the foundations of Japan’s parliamentary democracy are beginning to fall apart.”

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”