Commentary / Japan

What's behind Japan's political stability?

by Lully Miura

Through the Upper House election in July and the recent Cabinet reshuffle, the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has maintained robust popular approval ratings. Abe will soon become the nation’s longest-serving prime minister. The reason why Japan’s political landscape is so stable compared with other advanced democracies is because the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is the only party that can offer consistent policies on national security and the alliance with the United States, which is a top priority for a majority of citizens.

Given that the opposition forces are still trying to demolish security legislation that was enacted in 2015, they cannot possibly raise people’s expectations like the Democratic Party of Japan did in 2009.

The fact that Abe’s grip on power is airtight doesn’t mean that the recent Upper House election lacked drama. Much of it came from within the opposition parties, which are divided and weak. The largest opposition force, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, marginally increased its strength but still holds less than one-third as many seats in the Upper House as the LDP. Much of the momentum it gained during the last Lower House election in 2017 has evaporated.

The media recently focused on two side stories. The first came after the election when the CDP announced it would form a unified parliamentary group with the second-largest opposition group, the Democratic Party for the People, in both the Lower and Upper houses. The two parties once were part of the DPJ, which held power from 2009 to 2012 but plunged into a state of confusion after the LDP and Abe made a comeback in late 2012. Their unification is seen as another attempt to restore their relevance, but the move has been met with skepticism because of their differences in key policy areas.

The second story was the emergence of Reiwa Shinsengumi, which won two seats in the Upper House race. The startup party seemed to galvanize the most hard-line critics of the Abe administration with its populist economic message, which included abolishing the consumption tax. The emergence of Reiwa Shinsengumi is especially interesting as it opens up the question of whether an economic populism agenda has any chance of gaining traction in Japan, as it has in many other nations.

As is the case with other populist movements, Reiwa Shinsengumi stood out through its simplified policy positions and an energetic anti-establishment delivery. In addition to the call for abolishing the consumption tax, it advocated a ban on nuclear power and forgiveness of student debt. Irrespective of their feasibility, the party’s policies were easy to contrast with the Abe administration’s, and fostered a cultlike phenomenon similar to what Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders created in the last U.S. presidential campaign.

Even though it won just two seats, many pundits even within the more established opposition parties seem to be cozying up to Reiwa Shinsengumi. It will be interesting to monitor the party’s effects on the political left, and whether its populist agenda will have a lasting impact going forward.

According to our recent internet panel survey following the Upper House election, 4.4 percent of respondents voted for Reiwa Shinsengumi in proportional representation (the party actually won 4.6 percent of the proportional representation votes in the election). The data from the survey shows that the education level of people who voted for Reiwa Shinsengumi is not so different from the others, but their income level is generally low.

If you divide the party’s voters into two groups by income — low income (annual household income below ¥3 million) and upper middle income (annual household income between ¥7 million and ¥10 million) — those from the more affluent households tended to vote for the Japanese Communist Party in their electoral districts. Such voters have a clear political ideology, and they likely voted for Reiwa Shinsengumi in proportional representation because the party seemed more radical.

Meanwhile, Reiwa Shinsengumi supporters in the low-income segment voted in their electoral districts for both left- and right-leaning candidates. In general, Reiwa Shinsengumi voters tend to be ideologically left-leaning. But nonideological factors, such as the party’s anti-establishment style and lively campaigning approach, also seem to have attracted low-income voters.

Most outstanding was Reiwa Shinsengumi voters’ desire for change and their anti-elitism sentiment. According to the survey, 72 percent of Reiwa Shinsengumi voters were desperate for change even if it entailed some chaos, and 80 percent wanted a strong leader to disrupt vested interests (the average among all survey respondents was 26 percent for both questions), while 91 percent said Japan is going in the wrong direction (the overall average is 61 percent).

The driving force of the movement is distrust in political establishment, the media and the bureaucrats. A strong sense of anti-establishment sentiment is shared across both low-income and upper middle-class segments. Although some Reiwa Shinsengumi voters embrace pure leftist ideologies, the energy behind this movement is a strong emotion of disenfranchisement from the existing political apparatus. And it is in this sense that Reiwa Shinsengumi has the potential to gather more support going forward — as is the case in other advanced democracies.

Given that Japan has a subset of disenfranchised voters who find a populist message appealing, why is the LDP’s grip on power so strong and stable compared with leading parties in other countries?

What is unique about the LDP is that its supporters do not differ from the opposition in income, academic background or economic and social class. The ratio of full-time employees is slightly higher among LDP supporters, but the difference is not considerable.

For sake of clarity, one should not confuse the core LDP support base with people who vote for the LDP. The former is an amalgam of small business owners, self-employed workers, farmers and certain vested interest groups, while the latter includes various citizens whose party affiliation is vague.

Japan’s largest political affiliation is now “independent” and it is important to understand the trends of voters who are not part of any party’s support organization. According to Yamaneko Research Institute’s poll, the biggest difference between LDP supporters and the party’s critics continues to be the ideological divide regarding constitutional and security policy. The biggest value gap between the LDP’s supporters and its critics lies in whether they want to revise the Constitution to make the Self-Defense Forces constitutional, whether they approve of collective self-defense and whether they want to strengthen the alliance with the U.S.

In economic policy, the biggest value gap is on whether they prefer economic growth and approve certain levels of wealth disparity. Fiscal discipline doesn’t seem to be priority among people in Japan, and only a marginal difference is observed across the ideological spectrum. Nuclear power is a divisive issue, as expected, but overall favorability to nuclear power is low in the first place. What was surprising is that social issues, including women’s roles in society, differs little across party lines.

In sum, the dividing values that separate the Japanese electorate are issues regarding national security and the Constitution, while issues involving economic growth and wealth distribution are of secondary importance. The divide on the former is uniquely Japanese, and the lack thereof of the latter is also uniquely Japanese. Although the LDP is generally regarded as conservative, it does not represent a certain class and its not inclined toward conservative economic policies.

In fact, the Japanese electorate shares a wide range of values on social topics. The divide in values seemed to have converged to a considerable extent and do not represent party lines but rather generational lines. Japan has made progress by being led by the bureaucracy achieving a consensus among elites and gradually changing public opinion. The gap seems to only arise in the time frame of the change, and even there, the majority of people are likely to be accepting if a leader passionately addresses such issues.

The implication of this is clear. For the opposition, it is impossible to win a majority while sticking to the shrinking left-wing agenda regarding the Constitution and security issues. This becomes all the more evident by looking at recent elections in which the LDP lost. The LDP loses when there is a challenger that accepts realistic security policies yet creates public expectations for reforms (the DPJ’s win in 2009, the rise of Ishin no Kai in Osaka, and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike). If the opposition hopes to regain relevance, it must participate in constitutional debates in a constructive way.

In terms of social policies, it should be kept in mind that the opinions of LDP politicians deviate from those of the party’s supporters. The LDP should recognize that most of its supporters are not necessarily conservative. They are growth-oriented, support moderate fiscal discipline, are open to foreigners and favor equality for women.

The majority of the Japanese electorate is quite sensible in supporting a realistic security agenda and a moderately liberal economic and social agenda. The established political parties need to realize this and reflect it in their platforms. The need for change in Japan isn’t in the public, it is in the political parties that represent them.

Lully Miura is a political scientist and the president of Yamaneko Research Institute. She teaches at Aoyama Gakuin University and was a member of an advisory panel to the prime minister on the National Defense Program Guidelines.