Commentary / Japan

Voter disillusion tempered by realism

by Stephen R. Nagy

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has won a majority of the seats contested in Sunday’s Upper House election along with its coalition ally Komeito. It is a sign that voters used the litmus of the stability that Abe has brought to Japan in terms of his stewardship in the economic, security and diplomatic spheres as they made their decision at the voting booth. It is also a sign of a paucity in real political alternatives as well as growing apathy among the electorate.

Compared to when Abe returned to the government’s helm in December 2012, Japan’s economy is growing moderately, unemployment is at record lows and wages are moderately increasing as firms must compete for new employees. Under womenomics, we see increased participation of women in the workplace and the promotion of corporate governance has enhanced transparency in the boardrooms. Immigration reform implemented this year will allow for up to some 345,000 migrant workers to come to Japan in the coming five years to work in targeted industries.

Credit can in part be given to policies executed by the Abe administration, but also to the twin parallels of a graying population and a low fertility rate. Both have contributed to record low unemployment and the increased number of women in the workforce. Japan’s finite and dwindling labor supply has compelled employers to increase wages marginally, to create more avenues to hire and retain more women in the workforce, and to adopt policies to address the dearth of labor in blue collar and low-skilled service sector jobs.

It is the laws of supply and demand rather than policy or normative shifts that have been the primary driver of these changes.

These pressures will continue to intensify as Japan’s inevitable population crunch deepens. The good news here is that as wages increase, we are likely to see marriage rates and child births increase as breadwinners will be able to once again afford families.

The bad news is that the long term and predictable demographic trends have not been tackled by the political class since they were identified in the late 1970s. The Lowy Institute’s Power Index astutely points out that Japan will decline in comprehensive power in the decades to come because of its declining population.

Japan’s moderate economic growth under the Abe administration has also been blighted by the Trump administration’s trade war with China, the rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the 25 percent steel and 10 percent aluminium tariff that were placed on Japan and other allies of the United States under the rationale of “national security.”

Now that the election is over, Abe will no doubt be pressured by U.S. President Donald Trump to quickly come to a bilateral trade deal. The U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement and North American Free Trade Agreement 2.0 should inform Abe’s approach to the negotiations as to the likely contours of concessions to provide the U.S. agricultural sector access to Japan at the same level afforded by the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, and pledges to buy more U.S. automobiles.

While likely to upset CPTPP members, the former should be palatable to the Japanese agricultural sector as it has already agreed to many of the compromises in the original TPP. The latter on the other hand will require more delicacy as the automotive sector plays such an important role in the Japanese economy.

The Abe administration should be unequivocal that the Trump administration and U.S. strategic community’s priority is clearly a fundamental recalibration of its trade, security and political relationship with China. It will need Japan in that process. Therefore the judicious choice for Abe with his renewed political mandate is to expedite a trade agreement with the U.S. to ensure that Japan-U.S. relations remain robust and the Japan-U.S. alliance remains the cornerstone of Japan and the region’s security architecture. He should also link the removal of steel and aluminium tariffs as part of any deal.

Despite the brackishness of any trade deal with the U.S., this approach should be based on the reality that the U.S.-China trade war is likely to be sustained or deepen, with Japan being a bystander. A trade deal with the U.S. will help buffer Japan against the negative ramifications of U.S.-China friction going forward as Japan continues to recalibrate its manufacturing platform in China to make products in China, by Chinese for Chinese with Japanese technologies. This recalibration would in effect excise Japan from U.S. tariffs as the products manufactured in China would not be exported to the U.S.

On the security and diplomatic front, Abe’s leadership has been mostly recognized for its stability, commitment and proactivity. According to “the State of Southeast Asia 2019 Survey Report” by the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, all ASEAN countries want more of Japan, not less. A poll conducted by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that the “American public continues to view Japan favorably” and that a “majority of Americans (62 percent) say they have a great deal (11 percent) or a fair amount (51 percent) of confidence in Japan’s ability to responsibly deal with world problems.”

Critics will argue that Abe has not done enough to mend relations with China and South Korea. The recent downward spiral in Japan-South Korean relations would be a case in point. Here I would argue that in both cases, Japan and the prime minister have little agency to fundamentally change the dynamics in the bilateral relations.

On the China front, my own research over the past six years examining Chinese perceptions of Japanese foreign policy under Abe has shown a significant shift in views of Abe and Japan. Findings suggest that the “pragmatic peace” that currently exists between Japan and China is not based on a fundamental shift in Sino-Japanese relations, but Beijing practicing the economy of enemies — warming relations with Japan in order to concentrate its diplomatic bandwidth on what it perceives as its most urgent and challenging issue: the Sino-U.S. relationship.

The Japan-South Korea relationship in some ways is more complicated than Sino-Japanese relations, but again is an example in which Japan has little agency to fundamentally change the relationship. The Japanese government negotiated in good faith the 2015 “comfort women” agreement that was later rejected by the South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in. In the case of the rehashing of wartime labor claims by the South Korean Supreme Court and the seizure of the assets of Japanese companies that used the wartime labor, the decision not only goes against the bilateral agreement struck when the two neighbors normalized their ties in 1965, but also demonstrates that domestic politics in South Korea are mired in the politicization of the past for political gain.

This track record of stability and incremental positive change has compelled voters to choose stability over change. The lack of a crisis, or gross ineptitude in governance as we saw under the Democratic Party of Japan’s rule from 2009-2012, has further cemented in the voters’ mind that it’s better to vote for the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Despite his electoral victory, the result is not an overwhelming mandate for transformative change. Voters remain deeply skeptical of revising the Constitution. There is lingering trepidation about the sustainability of the public pension system, national debt and the consumption tax increase slated for October. Voters are also deeply disenchanted with the paucity of political alternatives in elections both within the LDP and within the Japanese political context in general.

Now that the election is over, Abe will be preoccupied with a plethora of domestic and international issues. Nonetheless, he needs to focus also on ensuring Japan remains a vibrant, liberal democratic society. This means that he needs to groom new leaders within the LDP in preparation for the inevitable post-Abe era. He also needs to encourage new avenues for political participation of Japan’s youth and citizens in general so they become interested stakeholders in Japan rather than apathetic, disillusioned, apolitical citizens.

Members of the opposition have a role in this process too. They need to distinguish themselves with credible and realistic policy alternatives that are grounded in today’s and tomorrow’s political, economic and security realities rather than the politics of the past. This means cooperation, coordination and compromise with the current ruling party when possible and sticking to their policies when compromise is not possible.

Lastly, to address the lack of real political alternatives as well as growing apathy among the electorate that was evident in this election, the ruling party and opposition parties must support non-ideological political literacy in high schools and university. It will be through political literacy that citizens will be able to contribute to positive social and political change that Japan needs to protect its democracy, and also address the many issues that this and successive governments will need to manage in the years to come.

Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University.

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