Japan's Meaningless Election
Image Credit: Flickr / Macguys

Japan's Meaningless Election


On Sunday, a respectable share of Japan’s 104 million voters will walk to their local elementary schools or public meeting halls to cast their ballots in the country’s House of Councillors election. Yet opinion polls show that with just a day to go, nearly a third of these potential voters have yet to decide who they’ll be voting for.

Such uncertainty so close to an election would be troubling if it reflected a volatile national character or even an array of choices so dispiriting that many voters have difficulty caring. However, the failure of 3 out of 10 Japanese voters to have made up their minds is down to one simple fact—the election has no meaning, or at least its meaning has changed so many times over the past few months and weeks that a reasonable person could well be asking what they’re actually voting for.

Originally, the upper house elections were designed to select a stalwart and cautious body of respectable citizens whose collective action could serve as a brake on the populist gladhanders of the House of Representatives. As the decades passed, and the House of Representatives switched from an unruly democratic arena to an elected aristocracy where the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) never lost power, and the sons and daughters of seat holders succeeded their fathers in representing particular districts, the House of Councillors elections transformed into a way of symbolically punishing the ruling party, since the usual means of doing so–taking power–was impossible.

Over the same period, and likely in defence against the punitive aspect of upper house polls, the LDP and to a lesser extent its opponents used the elections to grant certain sectors of the economy direct representation in the government. While in the United States some may joke about a Washington senator being ‘the Senator from Microsoft,’ in Japan’s House of Councillors these affiliations were openly acknowledged. Doctors, dentists, the construction industry, pharmacists, the defence industry, agriculture and forest product producers all had their senators, all of whom would win election solely on the votes of the managers and employees of the particular industries or professional organizations they openly represented.

This traditional balance of forces came undone in the 2007 House of Councillors election. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan and its allies not only won control of the upper house and thus actual constitutional tools with which they could stymie the ruling party’s actions (the exercise of which earned the DPJ condemnation in the press for engaging in ‘twisted’ legislative behaviour), but the industry and professional organisation senators all failed to win election. Punishment of the LDP upper house model of election had won out.

Ralph Sato
June 4, 2011 at 15:00

I agree with Gabriel’s view of the situation in Japanese politics. The LDP’s no confidence vote (which failed) on PM Kan due to his “mishandling” of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is an example of the meaningless political gamesmanship that has gripped politics in Japan for several decades. The public discerns that this is one cause of the malaise that haunts politics in Japan, when they reacted negatively to the LDP no confidence vote. Broad policy changes may be necessary in some areas like energy policy but overall it would be more desirable to grind through the current political process than to risk upheaval.

cna training
August 25, 2010 at 23:33

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July 14, 2010 at 17:36

Certainly this election is not meaningless, it will be an indication of just how strong the need for change really was for the Japanese public when they voted in the DPJ this time, unlike the short lived one year term in 1993/94.

The 1993/94 electoral reforms aimed to abolish among other things corruption such as pork barrelling and personalised politics the likes of which had contributed to the almost uninterupted rule of the LDP. It is unfortunate and perhaps a little ironic that the drivers of this ‘long-run’ reform agenda, particularly Ozawa, have now exited for the very evils the reformists were against.

The alternative as it was proposed, among other things, should be elections based on policy, which now are arguably possible with what appears to be the beginnings of a functioning two party system (whereas previously, in the 1993 election, the DPJ was largely successful due to alliances with other smaller parties).
It should also be noted that the undecided or perhaps ambivalent voter is certainly not new to Japan. The dilemma appears to be how to best reach these ‘floating voters’, not, as the article suggests, to create a new national agenda or set of national policy platforms. We should give the Japanese voters more credit, they have elected for change and reform, these things take time.

The other element that contributed to the reign of the LDP was their style of campaigning, and is another reason why this election along with those to come will be important to see whether a less corrupt and fairer election campaign may now evolve. One of the reforms mentioned in this article was the restriction of campaigning to three weeks. This is necessary given the stranglehold the LDP had over the election campaign through its overrepresentation in rural areas, strong second/third/fourth generation local support groups (koenkai), and their ability to provide localised, personalised rewards to these voters. Three weeks may be a prudent amount of time to capture the interest of the undecided cohort, rather than too little.

The results of this election then from the perspective of a reform agenda set in motion almost 20 years ago will be very significant indeed.

Dr. Mahendra Prakash
July 11, 2010 at 13:44

Democracy has always provided space for people of a particular country to get associated with through voting (decision power). In Japan, if people are not interested much in any election, that is very dangerous for the democratic pattern adopted by the politicians. Politicians should make contact with voters and appeal comprehensively for their support in the elections. The interest generated by the politicians and their parties would certainly emphasize interest among the people to take part in the elections and, further, this act will be helpful for democratization process in Japan. Japan is an advance country; the unwillingness by the masses for the ‘election’ will reflect the non-commitment of political leadership. This must be corrected for the political future of the Japan.

Ryosuke KAMI
July 11, 2010 at 10:38

Meaningless election is a taboo word. If an election is conducted sans violence, fraud, or “miscount” as in Japan, however the result may seem pointless, democratic election is never meaningless. Once an election should be conceived as such, a path to ugly despotism, be it of the extreme rightist streak or of the extreme leftist variety, will be gaping ahead. Germany saw it. Japan saw it. Election, evidently, never comes with complete satisfaction to any voter. It is always a compromise. Japan may lack quality leaders, Japanese voters, I trust, still can discern the difference between a political party whose end goal is just winning an election and never beyond, or one whose perceived mission is administering the affairs of state.

Dr Michael Vaughan
July 10, 2010 at 23:46

There is certainly a great deal of voter disillusionment with the political process in Japan. Many voters see no connection between the politicians they elect and the effect (beneficial or otherwise) they have on their lives. Prime Minister Kan’s greatest tactical (and electorally costly) error was to change policy mid-stream over the hated consumption tax. It should be remembered that this issue brought down the Hashimoto Government in 1997; and it could badly erode the lack-lustre 40% support polls currently give to the now-struggling DPJ. This Election does have meaning – but with one in three voters (or 35 million people) not knowing or not caring for whom they will cast their ballot – Japan’s leaders must fashion a new set of goals and values for the nation to follow.

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