Features | Politics | East Asia

A Referendum for Japan

Does any party have the ideas and vision needed to help Tokyo overcome its myriad challenges?

By Sheila A. Smith for

Japan’s politicians have been released from legislative deliberations, and are rushing to prepare for the next Lower House election, scheduled for December 16. The media is in hot pursuit as politicians change allegiances and new parties emerge and join forces against Japan’s old legislative guard. There is a palpable frenzy of criticism against Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his much maligned ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). But to think this election is just a referendum against the DPJ misses the point. This election will shape Japan’s choices for years to come.

Ever since the DPJ came into power, the effort to force it back into an election has driven opposition parties, most notably the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Several rounds of no-confidence votes were put forward in the Diet, one purportedly a deal between the DPJ’s Ichiro Ozawa and then LDP president Sadakazu Tanigaki. Efforts to forge a policy consensus between the DPJ and the LDP seemed destined to fail, as electoral ambitions colored the policy deliberations more thoroughly than the pros and cons of policy options.

Today’s excitement is enjoyed only by the politicians. Personal loyalties are being tested, and individual politicians, first and foremost within Prime Minister Noda’s own party, are leaving their old parties and saddling up with new partners in preparation for this next election. The notion that members of the DPJ and the LDP, not all that far apart in their interests and sentiments, could forge another round of political realignment is again being put forward as the logical outcome of political change. The erosion of the single party dominance of the LDP in the 1990s is lamented as part of Japan’s political problem, and thus the solution is simply to build a new party that will once again bring the calm and stately management of government back in a new guise.

But watching the currents of politics in Tokyo these days, I find this idea of a grand coalition hard to grasp. First of all, this idea seems to overlook the fact that the DPJ itself was a realignment of this type, a forging of a coalition among those who wanted to put forward a viable political party that could contest the LDP’s longstanding grip on power. The coalition that emerged as the DPJ was hard to manage, however, once the party took power. Second, the erosion in DPJ membership, most notably the decision by Ozawa and his followers to leave the party in July, may have strengthened the DPJ rather than weakened it. Those who remain—such as Noda, Katsuya Okada, Koichiro Genba, Seiji Maehara, Yukio Edano, Motohisa Furukawa, and Goshi Hosono to name just a few—are staunchly reformist in their beliefs, and they have considerable experience in government. At a time when the party seems increasingly defined by their leadership, I find it hard to believe that they will want to merge with the LDP.

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Finally, and perhaps most important, politics in Tokyo today seem less likely to unify the country and much more likely to divide it. The scramble for new parties, and the positioning of new parties for leverage over government once the election is over, suggests to me that Japanese politics continues to fracture rather than congeal. In the short term, the first casualty of this process could be the DPJ as more and more politicians seek opportunity on the “winning” side or in opposition to their own party. Public opinion polls at the moment are showing the DPJ and the new Japan Restoration Party with comparable levels of support (with a range of 15 to 16 percent compared with the LDP which tallies about 23 percent). Thus, should the LDP emerge as the biggest winner on December 16, it can choose who to partner with.

The LDP president Shinzo Abe, seen as the most likely to succeed Noda as prime minister, will likely have to demonstrate that he is able to lead a coalition government. This will mean the conservatives will need to vastly expand their legislative presence, currently at 118 seats in Japan’s 480-seat Lower House. No one is imagining that they will be able to win a majority, and so the post-election positioning is really about what sort of coalition will emerge after December 16. The margin of LDP victory will determine the shape of the coalition they lead, but so too will the success or failure at the polls for the DPJ and for the new parties currently putting themselves forward to challenge Japan’s incumbent legislators.

We should not expect politics in Tokyo to go back to the old days of LDP dominance, although it will be interesting to see what the LDP has learned from its three years in opposition. Secretary General Shigeru Ishiba is consistent in his reminder to his fellow conservative party members cannot expect to return to politics as usual, and the new blood widely expected to come into the party in this election is not liable to accept the old rules either. These LDP newcomers will be Ishiba’s children, like Koizumi’s children (2005) and Ozawa’s children (2009), will want to succeed visibly in their first term so that they can win public support and re-election. Others coming up in the party, like the policy savvy and charismatic young political star, Shinjiro Koizumi, are not likely to want a return to the staid hierarchy of the old LDP either. Like the DPJ, we should expect the new LDP to be full of reform energy.

So what is this political energy to be focused on? If it is simply a chance to deride the DPJ “experiment,” then it will be a wasted effort. Clearly, Japan needs political reform, and each of the new contenders has some radical and not so radical ideas about how to accomplish it. The DPJ in fact began their time in office with some new ideas about transparency and accountability, some of which were very popular with a Japanese public that had grown frustrated with its entrenched bureaucracy and inward looking politicians. Process level change, however, cannot be the sole goal.

Japan faces complex and contradictory sets of challenges. Many of these challenges are economic, and in this, Japan is no different than any other advanced industrial economy. But some of these challenges are particular to Japan’s economic institutions and priorities, and how to energize this national economy in the context of a much changed and still changing global economy. Demographics will matter also, and the social infrastructure to manage Japan’s aging society is not yet fully in place or affordable. Strategically, Japan is in a much different place than it was even a decade ago, and how it positions itself in the world will depend largely on how it organizes itself internally to make decisions and to deliberate options. But it will also depend on a careful analysis of Japan’s choices, including its alliance with Washington and its strained relations with its neighbors. Finally, some of the social patterns that informed national policy in Japan just no longer exist today, as more and younger Japanese have preferences and choices much different from their parents. Women need a larger place in Japan’s leadership if the country is to thrive. Engaging Japan’s women and youth in the project of recasting Japan’s priorities is perhaps one of the most significant priorities today, and bringing them more fully into the process of politics will be the only way to mobilize their talents and interests looking forward.

As politics threatens to consume media attention, it will be easy forget that this is not a referendum on the much maligned DPJ, or even for that matter on the LDP or the other Japanese political parties. Early reports suggest that a large segment of the Japanese public are determined to vote in this next election. In 2009, it was the desire for reform of Japanese politics that led to the overwhelming public support for the new DPJ. There is no sense to date that this interest in reform has vanished. In fact, it has increased. The Japanese people suffered the worst calamity in generations in 2011, as the triple disasters—earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns—shook the nation to its core. Nearly 20,000 Japanese lost their lives, and half a million were initially displaced. The danger of Tokyo, a city of thirty million, being inundated by nuclear radiation was imminent.

The country has come through this tremendous test of its society with resilience and pride, and new ideas about Japan’s future prospects have been informed by this experience. Yet its politicians seem mired in the factionalism of the past.

December 16 ought to be a referendum on Japan’s future, and the people of Japan will need to choose their next government based on the ideas and the vision for the future that will move their society forward.

Sheila A. Smith is a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), where she directed the New Regional Security Architecture for Asia project and currently leads a project on China and India as Emerging Powers: Challenge or Opportunity for the United States and Japan? She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.