Japan's first presidential election

About the author
Andrew Stevens is an adviser for a Japanese research centre based in London and also political editor of www.CityMayors.com. He writes in a personal capacity.

A common frustration among observers of Japan is the abundance of cliché on the part of external news coverage of the country, with journalists rarely missing an opportunity to make reference to ritual suicide, rising (or setting) suns, sushi or manga. Japan’s decisive 2005 general election is proving no different, with the spectacular win of Junichiro Koiziumi being presented as the triumph of a samurai warrior.

A cliché that connects to reality may ultimately be forgivable, but a far better approach to modern Japan is to look as calmly and clearly as possible without the fluff of such preconception covering the eyes. Difficult, but not impossible – and ever more needed when the victory of Koizumi and the consolidation of his Liberal Democractic Party (LDP) as the country’s political overlord puts the health of Japanese democracy – and its relations with its Asian neighbours – back into the spotlight.

Andrew Stevens is an adviser for a Japanese research centre based in London and also political editor of www.CityMayors.com. He writes in a personal capacity.

Also by Andrew Stevens in openDemocracy, “Japan’s fifty-year political itch” (August 2005)

A feminised election?

Japan’s 2005 election was an event of sophisticated stage-management, with Koizumi using the snap poll to present himself as the only leader capable of making the necessary break with the past to dynamise the nation’s sluggish economy. It also revealed some tentative and much-needed signs of political maturity in a political system equally marked by sclerosis.

Much has been made of Koizumi’s characteristically maverick strategy of deploying handpicked, telegenic and mostly female candidates (shikaku or “assassins”) in constituencies held by the former LDP rebels who precipitated the election by opposing postal reform.

The assassins ranged from serious professionals to TV celebrities. They included environment minister, Yuriko Koike, dispatched from her home constituency of Hyogo to Tokyo to take on Koki Kobayashi; Kuniko Inoguchi, a political-science scholar and diplomat who was Japan’s representative at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva; a former finance-ministry bureaucrat, Satsuki Katayama; and Makiko Fujino in Nagoya, a celebrity chef freely admitting ignorance of politics who will now take a seat in the lower house of the Diet (parliament).

This parachute strategy was largely successful, with the bulk of the shikaku elected either in their own right within the rebels’ former constituencies or on the proportional representation bloc, thanks to the LDP placing them highly on its party lists. The result helped bring the number of women elected to forty-three, the highest number since women won the vote under the post-war constitution in 1946.

One part of the assassin strategy was unsuccessful: the attempt to associate the LDP by default with the vibrant independent candidacy of internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie, who failed to unseat chief rebel Shizuka Hamei, the very symbol of the old LDP which Koizumi was seeking to electorally obliterate.

The 32-year old received more coverage than any other independent candidate and became the face of the drive to oust the recalcitrant LDP old guard opposed not just to postal reform but to Koizumi’s modernising zeal in general. After declining Koizumi’s offer of an LDP candidacy, Horie did initially benefit from the party’s tacit support and looked likely to enter the Diet as one of the band of anti-politicians to receive Koizumi’s patronage.

However, while Horie may have resonated with younger voters disenchanted with the tired system of competing bureaucratic factions, his outburst against the emperor-system at a press conference shortly before election day looks to have cost him some votes, with even the LDP seeking to distance itself from his failed candidacy as a result.

Horie’s remarks implied that the post-war constitutional settlement, entailing a weak parliamentary system built around the need for consensus, cannot provide the strong leadership to shake Japan from its structural problems. His remarks might be considered ill-timed, even though Koizumi himself raised the issue of the imperial succession during the campaign; in any case, Japan’s governing classes now routinely agonise over how a strong executive presidential-style system might become an instrument of economic revival.

An opposition worthy of the name

The Democratic Party (DPJ) did not merely fail to advance closer to government after a series of mergers and policy revisions but actually shed seats in the Diet. Its leader Katsuya Okada had already mirrored Koizumi’s gamble by pledging to resign if he lost the election.

The fate of the DPJ, however, goes wider than its leader; the post is barely worth having now that its presence in the lower house has been decimated by the LDP’s unprecedented sweep through its urban heartlands. (The unfairness of the electoral system is worth noting here – the LDP won twenty-three of the twenty-five Tokyo seats on 50% of the vote, while the DPJ’s 36% of the vote won it only one seat.)

The DPJ’s inconsistent policy over postal reform led it to underplay the significance of the issue, while it also failed to present any coherent blueprint for a better Japan. As a result its campaign resoundingly failed to connect with the electorate.

Paradoxically, the LDP itself in the form of the Koizumi vanguard appeared the chief opposition to the old order, leaving the DJP looking muddled and in search of ideas. This role-reversal was reflected in the contrast between the flamboyant Koizumi and the stiff Okada, whose technocratic image seemed more in keeping with the old Japan.

Moreover, the LDP made strenuous efforts to portray the era of pork-barrel politics and sectional interests as history. The discouragement of the agriculture lobby from intervening in rural races and the absence of endorsements of LDP candidates by construction industry heavyweights removed the one significant weapon in the DPJ armoury.

The scale of the LDP’s victory and the emphatic rejection of the DJP in its first lower-house electoral test as a merged party – in a turnout of 67%, 7% higher than in the 2003 election – may reflect a wider popular judgment: that only the LDP is capable of reforming the system, and that a Koizumi defeat would merely restore the LDP gerontocracy.

In addition to coping with its first clear majority since 1990, the LDP now has the additional task of reassuring its coalition partners New Komeito, which came to the LDP’s aid in a number of seats and on which the majority party remains dependent for its control of the upper house of parliament.

The question of Article 9, the “pacifist clause” of Japan’s constitution, though not a major issue in the campaign, will now be considered for revision by the Diet. Koizumi’s refreshed mandate empowers him to act on his party’s extensive deliberations on the role of security and defence in Japan, including collective security arrangements for Japan and Taiwan within the United States’s overall strategic objectives for the region. The rebuff to Japan’s ambition to secure a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council may provoke the Koizumi administration to consider reducing its level of contributions to the UN in a way that reflects the existing debate about the size of its overseas aid budget.

Since the DPJ largely avoided the issue of constitutional revision also, the only parties firmly campaigning against the prospect were the Japanese Communist Party and the once sizeable Social Democratic Party (both of whom retained their small allocation of seats). For these two smaller parties, whose social justice platforms struggled to get noticed, the best hope for retaining their core vote among public sector workers was to campaign for big government and cling to a constitutional settlement imposed on the country by the US, which brings with it its own particular irony.

A one-party state?

Those who seek a democratic alternative to the politics of the LDP cannot avoid the sense that Japan remains an unbreakable one-party state. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the most active politics in Japan take place inside the governing party.

The Koizumi victory – already leading to calls to extend his term as LDP president (and therefore prime minister) beyond his designated departure date of September 2006. This is scarcely welcomed by his opponents within the LDP frightened by the prospect that his reform agenda will get serious.

openDemocracy writers assess Japanese politics in an era of change:

Takashi Inoguchi, “An ordinary power, Japanese-style” (February 2004)

Noriko Hama, “Koizumi after Koizumi: Japan’s changing pains” (September 2005)

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But will it? Some analysts of the election campaign (Guardian editorialists particularly) saw common themes in the Japanese and German “snap elections”. True, most G8 liberal democracies today face shared anxieties and pressures, but Japan Post (the state-owned corporation whose reorganisation and privatisation was Koizumi’s flagship election policy) and Hartz IV (Germany’s labour-law reform package) are very different, and Japan’s social-welfare system is a barebones network compared to Germany’s protective comfort-zone.

A more apt parallel might be to see Japan Post as equivalent to the British Labour Party’s abandonment of its constitutional “Clause IV” commitment to public ownership of industry – a decisive break with the past undertaken by a leader seeking to recast his party completely. It is no coincidence that Koizumi has studied the rise of New Labour under Tony Blair and made his admiration clear.

Junichiro Koizumi’s bravura political gamble has secured his legacy as Japan’s most successful and significant prime minister since Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s – and potentially one of the most influential of the entire post-war period. Moreover, the election could be described as almost presidential in view of the campaign’s concentration on Koizumi’s own political persona and his personal (rather than his party’s) mandate for change.

The election may also suggest that the health of Japanese democracy is vulnerable to the media-savvy use of glamorous women chosen to front an electoral machine designed to preserve in power an ossified collection of elderly males and their factional interests. But the political opportunity for real reform comes in many forms. It has now presented itself in Japan. Junichiro Koizumi and his allies have no more excuses. The time for caution as well as cliché is over.