Tokyo Report

Japan Prepares for Upper House Elections

In addition to issues like constitutional reform, social questions like disabled and LGBT rights are also in the spotlight.

Japan Prepares for Upper House Elections
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Chris 73

Japan will hold elections for its Upper House on July 21. Even though the Upper House is less powerful than the Lower House, because these elections are mandated to be held regularly every three years, it is a useful way for the public to check in and express their approval or disapproval of their elected officials. While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to make this election an endorsement of his administration and continued stability in the hopes of eventually rewriting the constitution, his opponents will focus on the planned tax hike in October and social security reform.

Members of the Upper House serve six-year terms, and half the 245-seat chamber is up for grabs in every election. Because the Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)-Komeito coalition holds 70 of the uncontested seats, the coalition needs to win 53 seats to keep its majority. If the LDP wins 67 seats, it will have a standalone majority in the Upper House. If the LDP-Komeito coalition plus other pro-constitutional revision parties win 86 seats, they will have a two-thirds majority, which may have consequences for constitutional revision, or at least negotiations over constitutional revision, as the LDP and Komeito still remain apart on the matter.

As the campaign season wraps up, Japanese civil society and individual candidates should be commended for trying to create a more participatory electorate and inclusive polity. Celebrities are breaking the long-standing norm of refraining from political comments to encourage people to vote, think about political issues, and, in some very rare cases, even to support specific candidates. Young people’s participation was particularly targeted through school workshops and a viral video ironically chastising young people to not vote and let senior citizens determine the future of the country. Japan lowered the voting age from 20 to 18 in June 2016. In the first national election since the change, the 2016 Upper House election, 46.78 percent of youths aged 18 to 19 voted. In the 2017 Lower House election, that number dropped to 40.49 percent. Youth turnout is something to keep an eye on this Sunday as this constituency needs to vote if they want their concerns to be taken seriously by politicians.

Meanwhile, the candidacy of disabled individuals is forcing Japanese leaders to seriously think about what it would mean to create a “barrier-free Diet” and to wrestle with discrimination against the disabled in Japanese society at large. Rie Saito, who is deaf, is running for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, while Reiwa Shinsengumi, a smaller opposition group, is fielding two candidates with severe disabilities. Both Yasuhiko Funago, who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Eiko Kimura, who has cerebral palsy, require specially designed wheelchairs.

The LGBT community is also hoping that the Upper House election will finally shift the conversation about marriage equality at the national level. However, while the candidacies of Taiga Ishikawa and Hiroko Masuhara, both openly LGBT, can spur more conversation, the LDP and Komeito’s likely dominance is discouraging. Even though a public opinion survey last October found that 78.4 percent of people aged from 20 to 59 were favorable to marriage equality, the LDP is the most conservative on the issue.

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As of July 17, according to analysis by Kyodo News, the LDP-Komeito coalition is expected to win half the contested seats, about 70, to maintain its majority. On July 16, Yomiuri Shimbun predicted the LDP-Komeito coalition would win 63 seats. Even with 40 percent of voters undecided, it is unlikely that the LDP-Komeito’s chances will be significantly affected, as the opposition is splintered and many parties have lost much of their credibility. Even though low turnout generally helps the LDP and Komeito with their well-established parties, judging the success of Abe and the LDP in this election should not be based on the number of seats won, but by turnout in favor of their candidates and parties, which is a more accurate measure of voter enthusiasm.