Top>Opinion>Will Japan's Politics Change After the End of the Divided Diet? Interpreting the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and Upper House Elections

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Nobuo Sasaki

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Will Japan's Politics Change After the End of the Divided Diet?
Interpreting the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and Upper House Elections

Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Political Science

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Low voter turnout—what does it mean?

It has been one week since the upper house election triggered headlines proclaiming "Ruling party's landslide victory ends divided Diet!” as though a major event had happened. It was as if a major victory for the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) was going to move a mountain. However, the enthusiasm is fading, the city is quieting back down, and people's thoughts are turning to their summer vacations.

Opinion polls on the results of the upper house election show a generally positive view of the outcome. According to the polls, those who think ending the divided Diet was a "good” thing (53%) greatly outnumber those who think it was "not good” (24%). On the other hand, people's view of the LDP's future policies is split, with 41% of respondents "inclined to feel hopeful” and 39% "inclined to feel apprehensive” about the policies. Moreover, only 27% of ruling party voters attributed the LDP's landslide victory to a "favorable evaluation of the LDP” while 57% attributed it to a "lack of appeal in the opposition parties”; meanwhile, roughly 10% of opposition party voters and independent voters attributed the win to a favorable evaluation of the LDP and about 70% attributed it to a lack of appeal in the opposition parties (Asahi Shimbun, July 24, 2013).

This largely corresponds with the viewpoint expressed by Shigeru Ishiba, Secretary-General of the LDP, that the LDP's major victory in the lower house election at the end of last year "should not be seen as proof of strong support for the LDP, but rather as a rejection of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).”

Japan has been preoccupied with elections for over six months. There has been a series of large-scale elections from last December's lower house and Tokyo gubernatorial double elections, to last month's Tokyo metropolitan assembly election, and this month's upper house election. Despite the golden opportunity this should have afforded voters for political participation, voter turnout was low. The Tokyo metropolitan assembly election had the second lowest turnout in history at 43.5%, while the upper house election had the third lowest turnout at 52.6%. This means only about half of eligible voters went out to vote. From the post-war period until the 1970s, voter turnout stayed in the 70-80% range for both national and local elections. We seem to be living in a completely different age now. Is it because people have become affluent? Do they have a boundless distrust of politics? Has a "let someone else decide” form of democracy crept in and taken hold? Despite the lifting of the ban on online campaigning, political apathy among the young and the growth of the apathetic segment of voters have largely remained unchanged.

The danger of a single issue

Recently, a number of issues like nuclear power, constitutional amendment, foreign relations, taxes, pensions and employment were discussed before elections, but when the election campaigns started, the discussion was replaced with a single issue over whether there would be a change in government or an end to the divided Diet. It was a clear black-and-white choice, but it didn't involve a choice of policies. Four years ago, voters supported a change of government as resoundingly proclaimed by the DPJ, following a single-issue framing of the election. This time, voters supported the insistence of the LDP in the lower house and upper house elections to end the divided Diet.

If you think about it, though, did Japanese politics change that much with the complete change in government four years ago? The periods of an "undivided Diet” under the LDP-dominated 1955 System and the LDP-Komeito coalition from 1993 onward must have been formidably long, but does that mean there was never any political indecisiveness? Did policies that struck a chord with Japanese citizens flourish under the undivided government? There is a saying that goes, "A chicken forgets after taking three steps.” We must carefully consider whether we have not fallen into that tendency. The divided Diet is not the real issue. It's simply a fact that people have a strong sense of hope in economic revitalization and Abenomics. There must have been many voters who looked to the LDP with a sense of desperation, giving the party a major victory. It is also a fact that this reflects how poorly the economy is doing.

An election is a ceremony in which we choose our representatives. At its essence, however, an election is an opportunity for politicians to form a contract with voters who decide what kind of policies the government is entrusted with and the political parties and candidates to whom they will hand over the reins of government. Thus, political parties and politicians who betray that trust are compelled to step down, and parties and candidates who inspire a sense of hope are well received. For that reason, it is essential that elections be held in the public sphere where decision-making is carried out through political mechanisms, unlike in the private sphere where decision-making is entrusted to market mechanisms. The point, however, is that we need to carefully examine whether politicians are pandering to the public, doling out "minimal burden, maximum service” policies that sound good but may not be feasible. The election is the beginning, but not the end. It remains to be seen if problems can be solved.

The Tokyo metropolitan assembly election also resulted in an end to the divided Diet

The Tokyo metropolitan assembly election was held on June 23. Four years ago, the ruling LDP-Komeito coalition fell far short of a majority in the Tokyo Assembly for the first time in 44 years, giving the DPJ the majority. The Ishihara administration's minority ruling party clashed with the DPJ on issues involving the Tsukiji Market, the bank Shinginko Tokyo, and Tokyo's bid for the Olympics, resulting in political turmoil. The parties fought to end the governor-assembly divide in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in June. As you can see in the figure below, the outcome was a complete victory for the LDP-Komeito coalition, a good showing for the Your and Communist parties, and a complete defeat for the DPJ. The divide was resolved (64 seats constitutes a majority).

Life=People's Life Party, Green=Green Wind, Restoration=Japan Restoration Party
Figure 1: Seats won in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election

I made the following remarks about the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election to a newspaper:

Unfortunately, it was an election without issues or direction. This is reflected in the low voter turnout (43.5%). There was a feeling among voters that they had been let down by the Democratic Party they had voted for in the previous election. There was a possibility that the Your Party or the Restoration Party would see a surge in popularity and become a third force if their policy recommendations struck a chord with voters, but they were unable to do so. As a result, the residents of Tokyo still lacked options when election day arrived. Riding the tide of the lower house election, the LDP secured a major victory, and the election seemed like a primary for the upper house election. There is a sense of stagnation, with no clear sign as to what the aims of the Inose administration are. (Mainichi Shimbun/June 24, 2013)

The fact that the election was dull from the outset does not mean the metropolitan government is problem-free. (1) It appears we are experiencing a mini economic bubble, but it is highly likely this will end soon, giving rise to a major revenue shortfall in Tokyo's 12-trillion yen budget. It is essential to implement bold administrative and financial reforms. (2) Large cities have entered an unprecedented period of aging. Its population and public infrastructure are aging at the same time. Tax revenue is flagging, while social security costs and public-works spending are skyrocketing. How will the gap be bridged? (3) How will the metropolitan government promote job creation in Tokyo, where there are overwhelmingly many small and medium-sized companies? Can the metropolitan government take the initiative and create an "employment situation without a mandatory retirement age” in cooperation with companies? If Tokyo becomes a city where people who wanted to work could work throughout their entire lives, it will curb social security costs such as medical care, nursing care and pensions, and give people a sense of purpose in life.

In the days ahead, the focus of the Tokyo metropolitan government will shift to the relationship between Governor Inose and LDP-Komeito forces with their increased presence. Mr. Inose garnered a record-breaking 4,330,000 votes in the gubernatorial election last year, but his hold on Tokyo bureaucrats is weak, and his relationship with the Tokyo Assembly has never been that good from his six-year term as vice governor onward. In general, LDP and Komeito politicians in the Tokyo Assembly are likely to support the Inose administration. But if the governor makes one wrong move, opposition will surface, and he may be exposed as an emperor with no clothes.

What will the government do after the end of the divided Diet?

What about the national government? The major political trends have not changed. The ruling party enjoyed a landslide victory, echoing the lower house election last year and the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election in June. Prime Minister Abe seems to be facing many issues such as constitutional amendment, but he developed his argument in the election campaign by narrowing these down to Abenomics. An appeal was made for political stability by putting an end to the divided Diet. The DPJ, the largest party in the upper house before the election, repeatedly criticized the administration but failed to move on from criticism to providing counterarguments. The opposition parties were also unable to work together. This resulted not so much in a two party system as in a system of one strong coalition and seven weak parties (excluding independent candidates).

Life=People's Life Party, Green=Green Wind, Restoration=Japan Restoration Party, Renaissance=New Renaissance Party; "Minor party” is the Okinawa Social Mass Party
Figure 2: The new forces in the House of Councillors

There is no guarantee, however, as to whether this system will produce good government. The objective of the LDP was to end the divided Diet by winning the upper house election (gaining a majority of at least 122 seats). It has given practically no indication of the kind of policies it will advance or how it will proceed in the days ahead. A while ago, I met a key top official in the administration who said, "This is where the real test of the Abe administration begins.” I think the official is absolutely right.

Abenomics with its "three arrows” is touted as if it were the Messiah. But how good is it really? From 1981 to 1983, Japan implemented bold administrative and financial reforms centered around the Doko Commission under the slogan "financial reconstruction without tax increases.” The aim was to overcome the recession following the second oil shock through the privatization of the Japanese National Railways, the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corporation, and the Japan Monopoly Corporation and bold local administrative reform. In connection with this, the Nakasone administration pushed forward domestic-demand expansion policies like office construction, leveraged by bold monetary easing and deregulation policies. Following this, business picked up in the real estate industry, and a money game spread from large cities like Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka to rural areas, leading to a period of soaring land prices, real-estate speculation and resort development. This period, however, was a limited one—the bubble economy period that only lasted from 1985 to 1991. The collapse of the economic bubble led to the development of non-performing loan problems among banks, the collapse of banks, and massive injections of public funds. The government fell into the practice of issuing deficit-financing bonds every year, clinging to the mantra of "next year the economy will improve,” and the following period became known as the "lost twenty years.” As a result, Japan has risen up the ranks to become the world's largest debtor with a debt amounting to 1,000 trillion yen and no prospects of controlling it.

Do we have any assurance that the government will not, under any circumstance, fall into the same rut? In contrast to the previous bubble period, the government has not worked on any full-fledged administrative or financial reforms over the past 20 years. Annual revenue and expenditure have been left as open as a crocodile's mouth. In addition, with the rise of semi-developed countries, the advance of globalization, the rapidly declining birthrate and aging population, and the extreme scarcity of new start-ups, the circumstances in which we find ourselves now are more serious than they were then. Can the government save Japan, a country on the verge of economic collapse, without implementing bold, full-scale government structure reforms like cuts in expenditures and a transition to a wider-area local government system?

No other national elections are expected between this election and the next upper house election (or "double” upper and lower house elections) in three years. In the meantime, policies with a direct bearing on ordinary citizens, such as the resumption of nuclear power, constitutional amendment, Japanese participation in the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), and a re-examination of social security, may be pushed forward by the majorities in the upper and lower houses. However, despite parading around a number of slogans in the recent election, the politicians did not go into the pros and cons of each policy or listen to voters. A divided Diet may be better than giving carte blanche to a "might-makes-right” government that bulldozes its way through everything.

Going from "political indecisiveness” to "political decisiveness with a sense of urgency” sounds nice, but we must not forget that in democracy, the process is more important than the outcome.

Hope for a politics that values people

As everyone has been saying, the Tokyo metropolitan assembly election was certainly a leading indicator for the national election this year. However, the fact that it has a precedent is no guarantee that it will give rise to good government. Japanese politics currently leans too much toward a condescending attitude attaching importance to economic priorities and economic recovery. It shouldn't be that way. Politics exist to improve people's lives. I would like to place hope in a new politics under both the Inose and Abe administrations that will take the perspective of ordinary people and be observed with keen interest by Tokyoites and national citizens. The keywords are to bring safety, security and happiness to a large number of citizens.

Nobuo Sasaki
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Political Science
The author was born in 1948. He earned a master's degree from Waseda University Graduate School of Political Science and a doctor of law from Keio University. After serving in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office of Policy Planning, he became a professor at Seigakuin University in 1989. He then became a professor at Chuo University in 1994. He served as a visiting research fellow at the University of California (UCLA) in 2000, and has served as a professor in both the Graduate School of Economics and Faculty of Economics at Chuo University since 2001. His specialties are political science and municipal government theory. He concurrently serves as a member of the Science Council of Japan (Political Science), a special advisor to the Osaka City and Prefectural Governments, and a member of the expert commission of the Suprapartisan Diet Committee for a Regional System. His recent publications include Big City Administration and Governance [Daitoshi Gyousei to Gabanansu] (Chuo University Press), Public Administration in Japan [Nihon Gyousei Gaku] and Modern Municipal Government [Gendai Chihou Jichi] (Gakuyo Shobo), The New Shape of Japan: The Shift Away from Centralization and Dependency and the Regional System [Aratana "Nihon no Katachi”: Datsu Chuuou Izon to Doushutsusei] (Kadokawa SSC Shinsho), The Governor of Tokyo [Tochiji] (Chuko Shinsho), and Tokyo Metropolitan Government: Another Government [Tochou: Mou Hitotsu no Seifu] (Iwanami Shinsho), among many others. He frequently serves as a commentator for newspapers and TV and radio shows and gives lectures throughout Japan. He has received the NHK Local Broadcast Cultural Award and the Japan Society for Urbanology Prize.