As I write this article, I am sifting through some of the results of the local elections held recently here in Japan. From my own personal viewpoint, Osaka’s political landscape appears to be largely unchanged, with Toru Hashimoto’s One Japan Party remaining the largest party in the local assembly.
Nationwide, the elections seem to be a glowing endorsement of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic revitalization initiatives, dubbed “Abenomics” by the media, with candidates loyal to his governing Liberal Democratic Party winning all 10 of the nationwide gubernatorial contests.
At least, it seems like a glowing endorsement, until you look at the turnout. At the time of writing the exact figure is unconfirmed, but it is unlikely the turnout for this debate will go much beyond 40%. In other words, Mr Abe leads Japan not because the majority support him, but because more than 6 out of 10 voters have neither the time, energy nor inclination to oppose him.
So why is it that in a country with such a high level of education, literacy and mass media that the Japanese people should be so disenchanted with the political process?
There are a number of reasons for this.
First of all there is a lack of real choice.
For most of the last 70 years, with the only exception being the government of the Democratic Party of Japan from 2009 to 2012, the Liberal Democratic Party has been the ruling party of Japan’s government. Probably best described as a “right of centre” party, though by no means as extreme as certain factions of the Republican Party in the US, the party is nonetheless conservative in its outlook and has retained an at times fractious relationship with neighbouring nations like China and South Korea.
The LDP’s main rival these days is the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). However, the DPJ itself was borne out of a splinter group of former LDP lawmakers and whilst it defines itself as being to the political left of the LDP, the reality is that there aren’t that many differences between the two.
A suitable comparison could perhaps be the UK parliament, where the Labour Party, traditionally a party of the left, with socialist origins, has in recent years lurched to the right in order to woo voters from their main rivals the Conservative Party. The result is that voters of a left wing persuasion in the UK really don’t have any viable voting options. The same could be said of Japan.
The Japanese Communist Party is, somewhat predictably the most left wing of the parties in the Japanese parliament, however despite making inroads in recent years, they remain, at best, a party on the political fringes.
Of course, it’s not only left-wing voters who feel alienated by the current make-up of Japan’s parliament. Today, the youth of Japan are perhaps the single most disenfranchised demographic amongst Japan’s voters. The fact is, in Japan now, there are more middle-aged and older people than there are young people. Older people are also far more likely to vote.
Therefore, it is perhaps to be expected that parties like the LDP and DPJ take a pragmatic approach in ensuring that the bulk of the policies in their manifestos are of benefit to, or at least do not impede, the interests of older people, almost always at the expense of the young.
Hence, the prevailing attitude amongst many young Japanese runs along the lines of “none of the parties represent what I want, so why should I vote for any of them?”
Women could also be forgiven for feeling somewhat alienated from Japan’s political process. Whilst, to their credit, the Abe administration has made some efforts to include more female lawmakers in positions of power, the reality is that the massive majority of Japanese politicians are middle-aged men, from privileged families, who often display outmoded, almost misogynistic attitudes towards women.
There was the disheartening case last year of a female city councillor, Ayaka Shiomura, who when addressing the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly on the issue of getting women to stay in the work force was heckled by several other assembly members. Among the insults were the likes of: “Can’t you have a child?” and “Why don’t you hurry up and get married?”
In the end, despite TV evidence clearly showing several male colleagues abusing Ms Shiomura during her speech, only one accepted responsibility, Akihiro Suzuki.
Despite being made to publicly apologize to Ms Shiomura, Mr Suzuki retained his position in the assembly. So perhaps it’s understandable that a large portion of women in Japan feel that politics doesn’t really speak for them.
With so many demoralized groups amongst the electorate, what can be done to revitalize Japan’s interest in politics?
Of course, the Australian model of mandatory voting could be adopted, but critics of this system argue that the right to abstain from voting is as fundamental a facet of democracy as the right to vote itself. In other words, forcing people to vote removes the right to show your disapproval by not voting for any of the candidates.
Perhaps my native Scotland could offer a solution. Last September’s vote on Scotland’s potential independence from the UK drew a turnout close to 90%, one of the highest ever recorded in UK modern parliamentary history. One of the most important aspects of the campaigns both for and against independence was the way both the Yes and No camps utilized social media to reach out to potential voters.
Twitter, Facebook and various blogs and online journals became rallying points for both sides. In particular, this engaged the young people of Scotland like never before. TV debates in which the leaders of the Yes and No campaigns had the ability to go head to head with each other also further inspired voters. These passionate debates provoked discussion and further debate in schools and workplaces up and down the country.
But perhaps that is another problem for Japan. Passionate debate doesn’t really mesh well with the Japanese concept of “Tatemae” and their natural tendency to do anything possible to avoid direct confrontation. Debates need to be had, but most Japanese shy away from such things. In all honesty, I can’t really see a situation where Japan would follow the lead of the UK and the US and have open, public, leadership debates.
Like all things in Japan, change is coming, but at a snail’s pace. In the meantime the government has a choice. Either they can continue to delude themselves that a 30-something percent turnout gives them a genuine democratic mandate, or they can finally get off their rapidly ageing backsides and do something about Japan’s obviously broken democracy.
The elderly may preserve Japan’s ruling classes’ power base for now, but the youth are the future of Japan. If the government doesn’t do more to genuinely improve their lives and re-engage them in politics then a rude awakening may just be around the corner. One way or another, there are interesting times ahead.