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The malaise in Japanese democracy
Few winners in the April elections
Takashima Ryōsuke is a twenty-six-year-old Harvard graduate who is the founder of an NPO that works to help Japanese students study abroad and of education startup “Life Is Tech.” After the second round of voting in Japan’s unified local elections on Sunday, 23 April, he has a new line on his resume: mayor of Ashiya City in Hyogo Prefecture, making him Japan’s youngest-ever mayor.
But Takashima was not the only twenty-something to make political news in Japan in April. On 15 April, as Prime Minister Kishida Fumio campaigned for the by-election in Wakayama’s first district, Kimura Ryūji, a twenty-four-year-old man, allegedly hurled a homemade pipe bomb in the prime minister’s vicinity. The prime minister was hustled away from the device and Kimura was arrested, but another device in the area injured two people. It was a jarring incident coming less than a year after the late Abe Shinzō was assassinated with a homemade firearm during a campaign event.
Kimura, it turned out, had actually wanted to run as an upper house candidate in 2022, and sued the Japanese government for damages, arguing that age restrictions and the ¥3 million yen deposit required for candidates violate constitutional rights. His Twitter account, documented by Kanda University’s Jeffrey Hall here, is an extensive catalog of grievances about the Japanese political system, some more eccentric than others.
We should be careful not to read too much into Kimura’s motives. He has refused to speak since his arrest and may undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine he can be held criminally responsible — and virtually all Japanese who share Kimura’s views about the problems with Japanese democracy, whether the multiplicity of hereditary politicians or other barriers to entry for outsiders, manage to hold those views without resorting to violence.
Nevertheless, the Japanese public is clearly frustrated with the political system, and these frustrations were fully visible in Sunday’s elections. The apathy that characterized Japanese politics during the Abe years appears to be curdling into something worse. Turnout is meager; the LDP has little appeal to independents; Ishin is advancing in Kansai but does not appear to have much reach beyond it; the CDP is lingering but has no answers to its long-term structural obstacles. Ishin still has ambitions to become a national party — party leader Baba Nobuyuki is talking about fielding 600 candidates in the next general election — but this could just as easily guarantee LDP victory by cannibalizing the non-LDP vote.1 Meanwhile, in Yamaguchi-2, where dynastic successor Kishi won with 52.5% of the vote, Kyodo’s exit poll found that 50% think hereditary politics is “undesirable.”
The Cabinet Office’s annual survey of social consciousness, published in late March, provides some additional support for the sense that public dissatisfaction with the political system is rising. In the latest version (pdf), conducted from December 2022 to January 2023, 71.4% said that “the popular will is not reflected in national policy” (52% somewhat, 19.5% not at all). This is the highest level since January 2012, when it reached a high of 81.9%, and marked a 4.5 percentage point increase from the previous year.
It is hard to see this as anything but political stagnation. Kishida, unlike the polarizing Abe, mostly seems to inspire indifference. The LDP’s appeal to anyone outside of its base is limited. There is little reason to think that, if Kishida were to call a snap election in the near future, turnout would climb from the lows reached during the Abe years or that the Kishida-led LDP would attract significant support from independents. The era of two-party competition from roughly 2000 to 2012 is an increasingly distant memory. The political system seems to be doing an increasingly poor job of holding incumbent governments accountable or ensuring that the Diet is broadly representative. The LDP’s ability to win elections regardless of its performance in office — a function of its strategic alliance with Kōmeitō, the post-DPJ fracturing of the opposition (as well as the public’s post-DPJ allergy towards opposition parties), some degree of malapportionment, and no small amount of path dependence for the LDP as the “natural party of government” — is exacting a toll on the public’s faith in Japanese democracy, even without outright voter suppression or other illiberal means of influencing electoral outcomes.
The LDP way of winning was on full display Sunday. Although the LDP won four of the five national by-elections, the results are hardly indicative of a surge of support for Kishida and the LDP. For example, Liberal Democratic Party candidates prevailed easily in the by-elections in Yamaguchi-2 and Yamaguchi-4, with Kishi Nobuchiyo successfully winning the second district seat vacated by his father and Shimonoseki mayor Yoshida Shinji winning the late Abe Shinzō’s longtime constituency. But the LDP ought to have had little difficulty winning these seats, and in other races the party struggled, although it ultimately prevailed in two of three.
In Chiba-5, a crowded field including candidates from the Constitutional Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party, and Ishin no Kai, as well as the party formerly known as the Anti-NHK Party and an independent vied with the LDP’s Eri Arfiya for the seat vacated by the LDP’s Sonoura Kentarō, who resigned from his parliamentary seat in December due to a campaign finance scandal. The divided field ought to have favored Eri, a Japanese-born Uighur who is a protégé of Kōno Tarō – like Kōno, she is a Georgetown University graduate – and who worked at the Bank of Japan and the United Nations before running for the House of Councillors on the LDP’s proportional representation list in 2022. However, exit polls showed Eri running neck and neck with the CDP’s Yazaki Kentarō, a four-term member of Chiba’s prefectural assembly. Exit polls show that nearly 40% of LDP and Komeito supporters voted for someone other than Eri, and only 10% of independents, who were around a quarter of the electorate.2
In other words, despite the divided field, despite low turnout (which generally favors the LDP’s organized vote), and despite the LDP’s recent success in the district, the LDP still managed to win with only 29.9% of the vote. Eri clearly benefited from the opposition’s inability to unite behind a single candidate, as the three mainstream opposition candidates combined for 58% of the vote.
The LDP won a similarly close race in the by-election for the upper house seat in Oita, where the LDP’s Shirasaka Aki defeated the CDP’s Yoshida Tadatomo by fewer than 400 votes, with each taking 50% of the vote (although, to be sure, Oita’s upper house races have generally been closely contested between the LDP and the DPJ and its successors).
Meanwhile, the LDP lost outright in the by-election in Wakayama-1, with Ishin no Kai’s Hayashi Yumi besting the LDP’s Kado Hirofumi. The LDP’s Wakayama chapter – split between longtime Abe lieutenant Seko Hiroshige, who leads the LDP in the House of Councillors, and former LDP secretary-general Nikai Toshihiro – was divided over who to nominate, with Nikai wanting upper house lawmaker Tsuruho Yōsuke and Seko ultimately preferring Kado, who had finished second to Kishimoto Shūhei, the lawmaker who vacated the seat to run a successful campaign for Wakayama’s governorship, in four straight elections. This divide was not necessarily fatal to the LDP’s chances; in general Ishin has not made any inroads into Wakayama despite the Osaka-centered party’s success elsewhere in Kansai. However, as suggested by a lengthy Asahi Shimbun report on this race, if Ishin were to make advances in Wakayama, it would be more likely to do so in Wakayama-1, which abuts Osaka. While exit polls suggest that Kado managed to limit the leakage of LDP supporters to Ishin – Asahi found that roughly 80% of LDP and Kōmeitō supporters backed the LDP candidate – Hayashi managed to win roughly 60% of independents. NHK’s exit poll recorded similar results. Coming on the heels of Ishin’s win in the Nara gubernatorial election, in which Ishin similarly benefited from divisions within the LDP, the party is looking increasingly formidable across Kansai.3
Whether Kishida decides that the by-election results are a green light for a snap election — and there are reasons to think that he may be hesitant — LDP leadership has already declared that the outcome reflects approval of the Kishida government and its policies. But, as noted, there is ample reason to question whether the results of five national by-elections indicate public satisfaction with LDP rule. In general, it is hard to see encouraging signs for Japanese democracy in any of April’s elections, including the two rounds of unified local elections. The first round of local elections, including governorships and prefectural assemblies, saw 25% of candidates elected uncontested. 37.1% of prefectural assembly constituencies featured an uncontested race. In the second round, 28.4% of mayors were elected unopposed.
While it is not inappropriate for voters to blame opposition parties for failing to give them a choice in local elections – I would be more impressed if Ishin no Kai said it would seek to run candidates in local elections across the country first to build a deep bench of candidates for national elections – Japanese democracy needs more participation too. It needs more young people like Takashima Ryōsuke; it needs more women like the 1700 who ran in the second round of local elections Sunday, exceeding 20% of the total number of candidates for the first time; and it needs more children of immigrants like Eri Arfiya. Maybe the lesson of Takashima and Eri is that it takes an exceptional individual to overcome the barriers to outsiders, which are real and not easily overcome. But maybe there is a glimmer of hope that Japan’s democracy can be cracked open, with new possibilities for political competition, representation, and accountability.
And if Ishin were to become the main opposition party, some center-left voters might feel unrepresented.
It was possible to see right-wing animus towards Eri on social media, but it is unclear whether this was a factor contributing to her relatively weak support from ruling coalition supporters.
While it is plausible that Ishin’s win in Wakayama could lead Kishida to hold off on calling a snap election, I expect he will also face pressure to call a snap election to head off Ishin now, before it can recruit more candidates.