Council on Foreign Relations: Japan’s Revolving-Door Elections


Japan’s main opposition Liberal Democratic Party supporters wave Japanese national flags in support of their candidate of the general election at Matsudo city, suburban Tokyo Saturday. Photo by Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

This post was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Interviewer: Beina Xu, Editor/Writer,

Interviewee: Gerald Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; Director, Toyota Research Program, Weatherhead East Asian Institute

Japanese voters will head to the polls in the country’s December 16 general election amid political volatility, renewed economic recession and escalating tensions with neighboring China. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, led by former prime minister Shinzo Abe, looks set to regain control of the lower house of the Diet from a highly unpopular Yoshihiko Noda and his Democratic Party of Japan. But the election process has been marred by popular disenchantment with all parties and their platforms, presenting a grim political future says Gerald Curtis of Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asia Institute. He adds: “Prime Minister Noda, whom foreign governments and the Japanese business leadership tend to rate quite favorably, was just never able to connect with the public.”

How is the Democratic Party of Japan positioning itself at this point?

Voters are taking out their frustration that the DPJ, in their view, blew the opportunity to govern effectively. They won more than 300 seats in the last election. They suffered a lot of defections, so they went into the election with about 230, and they’re going to end up with probably at the best 80–maybe as few as 60. So it’s a terrible wipeout of the DPJ, but the only silver lining is that they’ll get rid of a lot of people who were not very impressive as politicians to begin with–a lot of first termers. The ones left are the core of the party; almost all have had senior government experience now and are pretty much on the same page in terms of policies, so it will be a more coherent and, I suspect, a very attractive alternative to the Liberal Democratic Party. If the LDP stumbles, the DPJ has a chance to make a comeback as soon as next July, when there is an upper house election.

What are voters most disgruntled about with the DPJ?

There’s a lot of irritation that the DPJ came in spouting one set of policies and are going out having pursued a very different set. They were opposed to the conception of tax increase, and went out having gotten it passed. Prime Minister Noda, whom foreign governments and the Japanese business leadership tend to rate quite favorably, was just never able to connect with the public. So the idea is, “Well, there’s no point staying with this party in power because they’re not very good at it; might as well give the LDP another shot.” That’s the mood that’s dominating the voting public.

What’s been the role of the other parties?

A couple of things are helping the LDP besides the fact that the DPJ kind of imploded. What’s helping is this so-called third force–the new parties formed for this election. The now ex-governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, and the mayor of Osaka lead the so-called Restoration Party, and the Tomorrow Party of Japan is led by the Shiga governor, Yukiko Kada, and Ichiro Ozawa. They are going absolutely nowhere. They didn’t have time to put together an impressive list of candidates, and the Restoration Party is all over the place on policy because Ishihara and Hashimoto don’t agree on a lot of things. And Japan has a single-member district system, so if you’re not going to vote for the DPJ, you really don’t have much choice. That’s what we’re looking at.

How is the outcome of the election going to affect policy and security issues?

The only honest answer is that we don’t know. When Abe became prime minister the last time, he came in being very critical of China and taking a very hardline stance. But within ten days, he was in Beijing for a summit aimed at calming things down, and he succeeded–he did not go to Yasukuni Shrine, and actually improved the situation with China. Now, will he do that this time, or will he take a hardline stance? A lot will depend on how Abe reads the domestic Japanese public’s view. If he thinks the public has shifted substantially to the right and will support a harder-line position, he’ll take it. But there are lots of crosscutting pressures at work here. The Japanese business community does not want a fight with China. Their exports have already been hurt. Chinese tourism to Japan, which is becoming more and more important, is way down.

I also think the result is likely to be misread as a kind of major shift to the right on the part of public opinion, and I don’t believe it’s true. There’s a shift to the right on the part of political opinion, but that right has always been there: Abe’s grandfather was Prime Minister Kishi, who was the minister of commerce and industry in the Tojo government during the war and was the leader of the right-of-center group in the LDP. It’s not new. The public’s not there, but the political spectrum has definitely shifted to the right.

If Abe wins, what will his new government do?

The big question about Abe and the LDP government that’s going to emerge from this election is to what they’ll give priority. If they follow the dictum, “It’s the economy, stupid,” and focus on getting some growth, a more dovish governor at the Bank of Japan–which he has a chance to appoint in April–and producing some results, then they have a chance to consolidate their gains.

If he focuses on foreign policy issues, constitutional revision, and things that he can’t easily accomplish, he may look as though he’s spinning his wheels and not getting anything done–and maybe even engaging in risky behavior. Then he will be in great trouble again, just as he was five years ago.

What is the most important thing to voters right now?

Probably two things: One is getting Japan out of recession, where it is again. The second is figuring out what to do about its energy policy. There’s widespread public opposition to restarting nuclear power plants and continuing to rely heavily on nuclear energy. The LDP has been very ambiguous about nuclear energy–basically supporting continued reliance but not saying so to the public.

What do you think is the biggest cause of the perennial volatility in Japanese politics?

Ever since 1990, roughly, the long-term Japanese goal of catching up with the West had been accomplished–the Cold War had ended, the pillars that supported the post-war system crumbled, and there’s been no politician–with the partial exception of Koizumi–who’s been able to convince the public that they have a recipe for continued prosperity and security for Japan. So one politician after another comes in, tries, disappoints the public, and is disposed of.

Does it have anything to do with Japan’s political or electoral structure?

A lot of people argue that. The one thing that I think is true is that by adopting kind of an American-British style single-member district system, they’ve actually made things worse. Japan doesn’t have the kind of deep cleavages–class, race, ethnicity and so on–that you have [in the United States]. So in the end, it’s very hard to distinguish these parties from each other, and leads to huge swings in voting behavior because there’s no base. So you get unhappy with the LDP, and suddenly the voters elect more than 300 members of a party that never came to power before the DPJ. Then you get unhappy with the DPJ, you bring back the LDP, and then they’ll probably do as well as the DPJ did the last time. What does it mean? It means that the system is in great flux. People are unhappy with all the politicians, and it’s very dangerous because you don’t have any stability.

What could get Japan out of this revolving-door state of flux?

Its biggest problem is its low growth, and that cannot be fixed by having the Bank of Japan simply turn on the printing presses and churn out yen twenty-four hours a day. It requires deregulation, greater opportunities for women in professional career positions, immigration, entitlement reform, pension reform, tax reform. They need to raise more revenue and, at the same time, find ways to stimulate the economy.

Would that be enough to pull the political process together?

Yes, if you actually had a government that convinced the public that what it was doing was the answer to the problem of getting Japan, after these so-called two lost decades, to realize its potential and grow more quickly. It’s a mature economy; it’s not going to go gangbusters, but if it could be growing at 2-3 percent a year rather than at 1 percent or less, that would change the political situation very much.