The Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party), a center-right populist opposition party in Japan, enjoyed electoral success in last year’s lower house election, expanding its seats from 11 to 41. That was widely interpreted as a sign of the public’s yearning for a reform-minded alternative to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Ishin now aspires to further expand their support base in the upcoming upper house election, with ambitions of positioning themselves to become the largest opposition party of Japan and laying the groundwork for capturing a majority in the legislature.
However, counter to their lofty ambitions, their support remains sluggish. Although Ishin experienced a slight bump in its approval rating after almost quadrupling the number of seats in the lower house, support for the party remains considerably low, stuck at under 5 percent. In comparison, the LDP’s rating has recently ranged from the low to upper 40 percent range, meaning it consistently maintains almost four times Ishin’s approval rating.
What explains the opposition party’s struggles to break through?
First, the strong image attached to Ishin as representative of a regional interest, particularly Osaka, the third largest city in Japan, imposes hardships for their becoming a truly national party. Ishin was the offspring of reform-minded LDP politicians, notably current Mayor of Osaka Matsui Ichiro, who created a regional political party to achieve policy goals. Allied with TV celebrity Hashimoto Toru, a former governor of Osaka and mayor of Osaka City, famous for his populist governing style and reformist oriented policies, Osaka Ishin no Kai swept over Osaka politics. Emboldened by its success, the party expanded its vision to seek national prominence, creating a national party, which is now the Nippon Ishin no Kai. The fact that Ishin utterly wiped out LDP lawmakers from the electoral districts of Osaka indicates how popular they are in Osaka and how deeply rooted the party is in Osaka’s culture.
Ironically, however, its dominance in Osaka politics has further reinforced the image of Ishin as representing a regional interest. Reports indicate that one of the challenges for Ishin is to expand their support outside of Osaka, which they lack the manpower and organizational capacity to do.
Second, the nature of Ishin’s approval might explain the party’s difficulty in sustaining an upward tick in its approval ratings. Research by Professor Zenkyo Masahiro of Kwansei Gakuin University found that Ishin had few enthusiastic supporters; rather, the vast majority of the Ishin supporters had a weak connection to the party. Both the LDP and its ruling partner Komeito have a clear base of support – the cultural conservatives for the LDP and the Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist religious organization, for Komeito. By contrast, support for Ishin is fluid and easily converted depending on where the wind blows. These findings imply that unless Ishin eventually succeeds in positioning itself as the popular “alternative” to the Constitutional Democratic Party, the current largest opposition party, their influence could easily fade away on the national level, forcing the party to build up again from scratch.
Third, Ishin has thus far failed to peel off support from conservative base of the LDP, which they are seemingly putting effort into, considering their political rhetoric. Following the inauguration of current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, from Ishin’s messaging it seemed apparent that they were attempting to win over LDP voters frustrated with Kishida’s policies. For instance, by emphasizing Kishida’s lack of appetite for “Kaikaku” (reform), Ishin policymakers appealed to those conservatives that lean populist, favoring attacks against the establishment represented by party leadership and mainstream media organizations. Moreover, Ishin has been pushing hard on constitutional revision and introduced the controversial nuclear-sharing policy to their platform, outflanking the LDP to the right on security issues. Those are also indicators of Ishin reaching out to conservative LDP voters who are populist in sentiment and favor a muscular defense posture.
However, at this moment, the attempt that Ishin made is in vain. As mentioned earlier, Ishin’s support has remained low. Adding to the party’s difficulties, the co-founder of Ishin, Hashimoto, is receiving immense criticism from conservative pundits and right leaning magazines for his comments on the ongoing war in Ukraine, as well as facing accusations of colluding with Chinese businesses, for which there is no hard evidence. As long as Hashimoto, the de facto face of Ishin, continues to be attacked by the conservative apparatus, it will difficult for the party to appeal to the disenchanted voters of the LDP, who are influenced by right-wing media.
In sum, there are serious hurdles facing the Nippon Ishin no Kai, despite its remarkable success in the last election cycle. Although they are poised to acquire more seats in next month’s upper house election, they are in danger of reaching their political ceiling without ever really posing a challenge for the LDP.