In less than two weeks, on Sunday, June 25, Japanese voters will cast their ballots in what will be Japan’s last general election of the 20th century. This may well turn out to be the most important Japanese general election since July 18, 1993, which resulted in the inauguration, on Aug. 9 of that year, of the first non-Liberal Democratic Party prime minister in 38 years, Morihiro Hosokawa, and precipitated a series of changes in Japanese politics that brought to an end the so-called 1955 System of one-party rule by the LDP.
The June 25 election can be viewed from several perspectives. First, the results will provide a preview of the Japanese political landscape in the first decade of the 21st century. If the 1980s was a decade of “Japan as economic superpower,” contending with the United States for economic hegemony, the 1990s was “the lost decade,” during which the Japanese economy stagnated and, in 1997 and 1998, even registered negative GDP growth. Only in fiscal year 1999 did Japan start to recover, registering a 0.5 percent GDP growth rate.
This economic stagnation occurred against a backdrop of turmoil in the political world, accompanied by a proliferation of political parties, fragmentation of political power, and realignment of institutional affiliations by individual politicians. Political scientists predicted that the electoral reforms instituted in 1994 would require several years to demonstrate their intended effect — i.e., greater competition for Diet seats, more emphasis on issues than on personalities, shifting of authority from bureaucrats to politicians, and movement toward the creation of a two-party system. The upcoming election will be a test of whether these predictions are on the way to being realized.
A second noteworthy aspect of the election will be to what extent the Japanese electorate casts its vote in support of the current ruling coalition of the LDP, New Komeito and the Conservative Party. The LDP-New Komeito alliance, often characterized as a “Hiromi Nonaka-Daisaku Ikeda alliance,” has come under criticism from even within the LDP. Public-opinion polls indicate strong dissatisfaction with the Mori Cabinet, with one newspaper poll showing an approval rating of 12.9 percent, the lowest in postwar history. The disapproval rating for the Mori Cabinet is also high, at 66.2 percent. Yet the LDP remains the party with the highest level of support.
This reveals the dilemma facing many Japanese voters — dissatisfaction with the current Cabinet and coalition, but no viable alternative to turn to. The opposition parties, led by the Democratic Party, often offer persuasive criticisms of the status quo and reasons why fundamental reforms are needed. Yet their policy proposals tend to be vague, their policy expertise untested and their political organization weak. Japanese voters can vent their disapproval of the status quo as they did in the July 1998 Upper House election, when they handed the LDP a major setback, but in times of economic uncertainty their aversion to risk may lead them implicitly to endorse the current coalition because there is no viable alternative. On the other hand, voters may decide that “enough is enough” and cast their votes for change.
A third noteworthy aspect of the upcoming election is, of course, policy. That is, what policies — economic, social, political and foreign — is the electorate expecting of its leaders as Japan enters the new millennium? Among the issues ripe for debate are economic growth, structural reform, deregulation, privatization, unemployment, public works, government deficits, the aging society, health care, social security, education, the legal system, immigration, defense and constitutional reform.
Although the issues facing Japan are numerous, there is a curious lack of debate centered on concrete policy proposals. The seven major political parties have shown a remarkable inability or unwillingness to put forward policy proposals specific enough to enable voters to weigh their comparative costs and benefits. And there is still a widespread cynical feeling among the electorate that politicians are primarily motivated to act in their own self-interest or in their party’s interest, whereas the “national interest” is in the hands of the often-criticized but still elite and relatively disinterested central government bureaucracy.
A fourth noteworthy aspect of the election is the fate of individual politicians and their constituencies. With such old-line politicians as Noboru Takeshita, Yoshio Sakurauchi, Seiroku Kajiyama and Keizo Obuchi fading from the scene, attention is focused on who will succeed them. Indeed, so many veteran politicians are stepping down this time that this election may witness a true generational turnover in Japanese politics.
The unpopularity of the current prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, has added an unexpected twist to the election. His lack of policy initiative, coupled with his statements regarding “kami no kuni,” “kokutai” and “jugo,” have earned him notoriety at home and abroad. Whether he remains as prime minister depends largely on how the LDP fares in the election, but some believe that, regardless of the outcome, he may be replaced soon after he does his job in July hosting the Okinawa G8 summit. Yohei Kono, the current foreign minister, and Ryutaro Hashimoto, the former prime minister, appear to be among the possible replacements.
If this happens, we may see the advent of the eighth Japanese prime minister since 1993, following Kiichi Miyazawa, Hosokawa, Tsutomu Hata, Tomiichi Murayama, Hashimoto, Obuchi and Mori. This would mean that U.S. President Bill Clinton will have had on average one Japanese prime minister per year during his tenure, not a solid foundation for establishing a relationship of personal trust, understanding and cooperation between the leaders of the world’s two largest economic powers.
Finally, nearly everyone agrees that the weather will be key to the election outcome on June 25. The betting is that if it rains and the voter turnout is low — say, under 65 percent — the LDP will do reasonably well. If, however, the weather is good and the voter turnout is high — say, above 70 percent — this would mean that the “independent” and “undecided” voters will go to the polls in large numbers, likely boosting the vote for the opposition parties. This is what happened two years ago in the July 12 Upper House election, when the voter turnout was the highest for an Upper House election held in the 1990s.
That so much about the future of Japanese politics in the new millennium depends on the weather on election day is an interesting commentary on the role of candidates, policies and politics in contemporary Japan.