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The state of Japanese democracy
Reading Asahi's annual survey
Every year the Asahi Shimbun marks Constitution Day on 3 May by conducting a large survey by mail starting in February, asking respondents to share not only their thoughts about Japan’s postwar constitution but also Japan’s democracy more broadly. This year’s survey was sent to 3,000 voters across 333 electoral constituencies. 2,014 recipients responded; 1,967 were ultimately included in the sample. This is the first of two articles about the Asahi poll. This one considers what it reveals about Japanese democracy. The second looks at what it says about the public’s shifting attitudes on national security.But, at the same time, even as voters indicated their dissatisfaction with the status quo, they also expressed a degree of acceptance of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule and disdain for the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) and, to a lesser extent, other opposition parties that make it difficult to imagine political change for the foreseeable future.
First, a solid majority indicated that they have either no confidence (11%) or little confidence (44%) in the Japanese political system, compared with 44% who have a lot (2%) or some (42%) confidence. This question was asked in the 2021 edition, when in which 47% expressed some of a lot of confidence and 52% expressed little or none. Other questions capture dissatisfaction with specific features of the political system. Asked about hereditary politicians, 80% say they are not desirable, compared with 9% who say that they are. 54% agree that Japan is a “silver democracy,” in which the policy preferences of elderly voters who turn out to vote at high rates are privileged. 43% disagreed. 89% say that low voter turnout is a big (46%) or somewhat big (43%) program. 82% say that Diet members prioritize their own interests and the interests of their supporters; only 10% say that they prioritize the interests of the public as a whole. While the public is satisfied with the electoral system as a whole – 53% think that single-member districts are good, compared with 37% who do not – 72% say that the practice of enabling candidates in single-member districts (SMDs) to be “revived” through proportional representation lists despite losing in SMDs is bad, compared with only 22% who approve.
Other questions suggest that the public views elected officials as out of touch and out for themselves. 70% either agreed (33%) or somewhat agreed (37%) with the statement that “politicians do not care much about people like me.” Only 6% disagreed; 21% were undecided. 55% either agreed (26%) or somewhat agreed (29%) with the statement that “people like me do not have the power to influence the government.” Only 17% disagreed, with 24% undecided. Finally, when asked to assess the statement “the current parties are bound by vested interests and I would like to see a leader who represents the will of the people more directly,” 83% agreed, including 55% who strongly agreed.
But if there seems to be a great deal of agreement among voters that Japanese democracy is ailing, there is little agreement about what should be done about it. For example, when asked whether another change of ruling party (政権交代) would be good, 54% said yes, 39% said no. However, when asked for their impression of the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) three years in power, 57% said that it was bad (20%) or somewhat bad (37%). When asked why they thought that the opposition had not taken power again, the two most common answers were that the opposition parties “just offer criticism” (58%) and “don’t offer realistic policies” (54%). In third place was that they continually divide instead of coming together as one (48%). There are other signs that voters want a more “realistic” opposition. For example, 85% say that they want the opposition to embrace “realistic” (as opposed to “idealistic”) defense policies.
However, to my eyes, this just shows that the opposition – particularly a DPJ offshoot like the CDP – just cannot win with the electorate. Not only does the DPJ continue to cast a shadow over its successors, but I would argue that the public does not really know what it wants from the opposition. After all, if the CDP goes all in on criticizing the LDP, it is derided as “unrealistic.” If it decided it would focus on offering “realistic” policies and cooperate with the government when appropriate, it would be criticized for being a pale imitation of the LDP, incapable of distinguishing itself from the ruling coalition.
This poll points to another problem: it is not entirely clear to me that the public even knows what non-LDP parties think about key policy issues. Asahi asked respondents to assess the positions of the LDP, CDP, and Ishin no Kai in three representative areas, including strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities, introducing fiscal stimulus instead of spending cuts in the near term, and allowing spouses to keep their pre-marriage names. What is notable is less that majorities support the LDP’s positions in the first two areas (and oppose its position on the latter) than that for both CDP and Ishin no Kai, the most common answer is “I cannot say.” The average share of respondents choosing this option across the three policy areas is 43% for the CDP and 42.33% for Ishin no Kai. Maybe part of the problem is that Japan’s opposition parties need to become more innovative communicators, but I think it is an open question whether the public knows enough about the two leading mainstream opposition parties to make a fair judgement either way.
But ultimately, I think this poll illustrates what might be the deeper structural issue in Japanese democracy, namely weak social cleavages around which parties can mobilize. Asahi asked respondents for their views on a broad range of policy issues, from defense and foreign policy to economic policy to social policy. In eight of fourteen policy areas, the most common answer is “I cannot say.” Of course, when one combines those who approve (disapprove) and somewhat approve (disapprove), the picture looks different (although a plurality of 44% does not know what to think about the Bank of Japan’s easing policies). There is simply not much here for the opposition to mobilize around:
61% support strengthening Japan’s defense capabilities (25% cannot say, 11% oppose)
34% support “pressure over dialogue” with North Korea (36% cannot say, 28% oppose)
63% support maintaining the three non-nuclear principles (25% cannot say, 9% oppose)
39% support the use of strike capabilities if an attack is expected (37% cannot say, 22% oppose)
Only 16% support a “small government” even if it means services are reduced (35% cannot say, 45% oppose)
61% agree that public works are necessary to support employment (28% cannot say, 8% disagree)
In the near term, 56% support fiscal stimulus instead of spending cuts (32% cannot say, 10% disagree)
47% disagree that it will eventually be necessary to raise the consumption tax above 10% (24% cannot say, 26% agree)
67% agree that taxes should be raised on those with lots of income and property (22% cannot say, 9% disagree)
40% say that the Bank of Japan should continue monetary easing (44% cannot say, 12% oppose)
42% agree with the statement that "It is natural for individual rights and privacy to be restricted for the sake of public order" (30% cannot say, 25% disagree)
49% support legal recognition of same sex marriage (30% cannot say, 18% oppose)
58% support allowing spouses to keep their names after marriage (27% cannot say, 13% oppose)
40% support a quota for female candidates and lawmakers (43% cannot say, 14% oppose)
The one question where it is possible to see a genuine division is whether defense spending and natalist policies require increasing the tax burden on the public, with 28% approval, 36% disapproval, and 33% undecided. Not surprisingly, this is also the issue on which the LDP itself is most divided.
Is the public taking these positions because it is taking cues from the LDP or is the LDP – especially under Kishida – taking these positions because it has an especially keen sense of where the public is on major issues? While the LDP has become more ideologically uniform over the past several decades, it is worth appreciating the extent to which the LDP is a "national" party that mirrors the public. The party is phenomenally capable of reading the public mood, pitching itself to the median voter, and assembling working majorities in election after election. Seen this way, LDP rule looks less like dominance than a never-ending balancing act, as the party strives to stay on the right side of public opinion and demonstrate its capacity to govern.
Looking at the issues polled here, we can see a broad consensus that looks a lot like the Kishida government's program. Hawkish on defense, but dovish on nuclear weapons; supportive of the Abenomics program on macroeconomic policy (monetary stimulus and fiscal stimulus in the near term, unsure about the long-term trajectory of fiscal policy); and not only uninterested in any kind of small government libertarianism, but also keen to raise taxes on the wealthy. The LDP may be on the wrong side of public opinion on some social issues – see the current debate over LGBT rights, for example – but it is unlikely to pay much of a price. These are low-priority issues for most voters, and Japan just does not have the polarizing culture war dynamics that would enable parties to mobilize around these issues.
In a classic article from 1963, political scientist Donald Stokes introduced the concept of "valence issues." In contrast to accounts of political competition that emphasize ideological distinctions and competing policy programs, Stokes stressed the possibility that policy consensus could result in political competition based on valence issues, referring to corruption, leadership, and other factors that might influence a party's ability to deliver on its promises. I think Japanese politics have been based on valence competition for most of the post-cold war era. The bursting of the bubble, economic stagnation, and political and bureaucratic corruption scandals all created an opening for political competition, including within the LDP as Koizumi Junichirō's campaign against the LDP's old guard showed. It was likely the double movement of Koizumi’s rise within the LDP – which not only exposed the party’s old corruption but also left the party hopelessly divided for Abe, Fukuda, and Aso – and the emergence of the DPJ as a credible opposition party (led in part by former LDP lawmakers) that enabled the DPJ to drive the LDP from power in 2009.
I think political competition is still based on valence issues, but the LDP, having delivered growth during the Abe years,managed an increasingly fluid and risky international environment, more or less managed the pandemic, and avoid egregious corruption scandals like those of the late 1980s and early 1990s, continues to be seen as the party of government, which not only gives the LDP an advantage in elections but also depresses the support of opposition parties, as voters see them as either not fit to govern or just not capable of winning. As the Asahi poll found, among the 21% of respondents who said that they are not inclined to vote – surely a smaller number than those who will actually stay home for the next election – 48% said they would not vote because there were not parties or candidates for which they wanted to vote. The second most-cited reason was the belief that “my vote will not change politics or society,” selected by 36% of respondents, and the third was “cannot trust politics,” chosen by 35%.
In other words, the emergence of disgruntled political minority is a natural by-product of an LDP-dominated political system that is highly responsive to a fluid majority but leaves significant portions of society convinced that they have no representation and no meaningful political choice. For the most part, this frustration has resulted in a decade of historically low levels of voter turnout . But after Abe’s assassination in 2022 and the bomb attack on Kishida in April, it is possible that the frustration is taking more malignant forms on the margins of Japanese society. Unfortunately, as this poll suggests, there may not be an easy fix to make ease public frustrations and make Japanese democracy work for the whole electorate.
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The word snapshot is appropriate because the surveys do not ask the same questions from year to year, making comparison over time difficult.
I do not necessarily think this is a longing for a strongman, but I do think it reflects the endurance of the Heisei-era preference for strong political leadership.
And, as happened during the Abe years, an opposition that proposes realistic policies could be vulnerable to having those ideas “adopted” by a pragmatic LDP. See this 2017 interview with Maehara Seiji’s advisor Ide Eisaku on how the LDP took his ideas for “social security for all generations”: https://web.archive.org/web/20180131143418/https://www.weekly-economist.com/20171024pickup2/.
The CDP, to its credit, tried to campaign on equal rights in 2021 but it lost seats. See this article from the 2021 campaign: https://digital.asahi.com/articles/ASP9F5W0TP9FUTFK00W.html.
Granted that average growth was still anemic and that the benefits of what growth Japan did not experience during the Abe years was not evenly distributed, there were clearly some who benefited and the LDP on the whole likely benefited politically from the Abe government’s focus on the challenges of economic growth.