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Oh Snap! Another Japan Election

Ready or not, it’s ballot time again in Japan.

By 6 min read

Unlike the United States, where politicians constantly seem to be engaged in fully automatic election mode and where pretty much anything goes on the campaign trail, this Japan election — like all others — is a  heavily regulated affair.

For starters, campaigns only last 12 days before the polls open. This is why you didn’t see, or rather hear, sound trucks and politicians making stump speeches in front of stations and lonely street corners until Oct. 10, even though the snap election was announced in late September.

The price of admission to join in on a Japan election is also expensive by international standards — though not necessarily by American ones where over fifty million dollars was spent recently in a single congressional special election alone.

Fielding a candidate in an individual, or first-past-the-post, electoral district requires a deposit of ¥3 million (a little under US$27,000). Another ¥6 million deposit is needed to run a candidate in a proportional representation block. Candidates must garner 10 percent of the vote on election day if they hope to get any of that money back. In 2012 and again in 2014, Kofuku Jitsugen To, or The Happiness Realization Party, fielded some 345 candidates — or nearly one for each electoral district and more than any other party — yet failed to win a single seat, forfeiting, I believe, over ¥2 billion in each election it has participated in.

While some other nations also require deposits to participate in elections, the amount is negligible: both Australia and Canada demand $750 up front; Britain, only £500 pounds. The percent of the total vote needed for a refund of the deposit is also easier to accomplish: 5 percent or less. Japan’s election deposits, which were inspired by those in Britain, were created to keep the rabble out of national elections and concentrate power in a handful of political parties. Judging by the scarcity of candidates in my own electoral district, the obstacles seem to be doing the trick.

Once a candidate has skin in the game, there are rules limiting how his or her campaign can be run. One of these is what is known as the nanotsu dogu, or seven tools. Quite a few “Seven Tools of this” and “Seven Tools of that” exist in Japan. The “Seven Tools of a Samurai,” for instance, include gusoku (armor), katana (single-edged sword), tachi (long sword), arrows, bow, horo (helmet cape) and kabuto (helmet). The warrior monk Benkei, who served Minamoto no Yoshitsune in the Genpei War, also famously carried seven weapons into battle, including a naginata (half-moon spear) and a masakari (broad axe).

The “Seven Tools of an Election” are prosaic by comparison: a hyosatsu (single wooden shingle for the election headquarters), one tag for the megaphone, four armbands for the gang in the sound car, the sound car itself (or boat if necessary), one tatefuda (standing banner) that must always be displayed when making speeches, 11 armbands for campaign staff at rallies, and so on.

There are strict restrictions on how politicians can spread their messages. They cannot, for instance, go door-to-door asking for votes, solicit votes over the phone (no robocalls in Japan, thank goodness), advertise on television and — surprisingly — they cannot make campaign promises from the sound cars. This is why all you are bound to hear from one of those annoying vans as it zooms by is a woman screaming out the name of the candidate.

This is why all you are bound to hear from one of those annoying vans as it zooms by is a woman screaming out the name of the candidate.

Speaking of those campaign cars, I know a man who runs a chain of pharmacies. Due to the nature of his work, he is obliged to join an association of pharmacists that supports as a matter of course the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in both local and national elections. Membership in the association means that he has to attend rallies and even drive the sound car about town during campaigns. The funny thing about it all is that he doesn’t personally support the LDP. In addition to confessing that he had once crashed the van into a tree several years ago, he said that he usually votes for minor opposition parties. Another friend, a professional announcer, also told me she was sometimes hired to work on these campaign vans shrieking “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (Please remember me)!” into the microphone all day long.

I also asked her if she supported the candidate she was working for. The answer, I was no longer surprised to learn, was no.

All 465 seats of the Shugiin, or House of Representatives, are up for re-election, including 289 single-member, first-past-the-post seats and 176 seats in 11 proportional blocks. For the lower house, 233 seats are needed for a majority.

At present, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s LDP holds a strong majority of 290 seats in the lower house. With its coalition partner, New Komeito, a political party founded by the Buddhist religious movement Soka Gakkai, the LDP currently has a two-thirds majority, enabling it to overrule the Sangiin, or House of Councillors. In this upper house, the LDP also maintains a comfortable majority.

Although members of the House of Representatives are elected to four-year terms, early Japan elections are common and the median lifespan for postwar legislatures is about three years. The timing of this particular election seems to have been motivated by, one, an uptick in support for the cabinet of Prime Minister Abe to over 50 percent in September — it had fallen to less than 35 percent in July—and, two, a decline in public trust of the Minshinto, or Democratic Party.

What had until very recently been the main opposition party, Minshinto was created through the merger of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the short-lived Japan Innovation Party (Isshin no To). While Isshin no To was formed out of two other fleeting parties, the Japan Restoration Party and the Unity Party. The DPJ arose from defections from two parties in 1996, one of which was the LDP. (Don’t worry, I’m confused, too.) Four other minor parties would join the DPJ in 1998 and 2003 and in 2009 the DPJ would go on to win in a landslide election against the LDP.

But that was then. When the snap Japan election was announced, the Democratic Party dissolved in order for its party members to join Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s Party of Hope (Kibo no To) or stand as independents. At present, some 56 incumbent representatives have chosen to join the Party of Hope, offering the opposition its first real opportunity to make a dent in the LDP’s majority since a shellacking in 2012. Or was that merely wishful thinking? Recent polling suggests that Koike’s party is struggling to make inroads — of the 198 candidates fielded by the party in single-seat constituencies, only seven are presently leading. Moreover, Abe’s LDP, in partnership with Komeito, is expected to secure 300 seats.

The Party to watch will be the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (Rikken Minshuto, CDPJ) headed by Yukio Edano, a former chief cabinet minister under Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The CDPJ, which split from the Democratic Party in early October, currently has 16 seats in the House of Representatives. It is predicted to win as many as 40 seats in the coming election to become the third-largest political party.

Although the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18 in 2016, voter turnout is expected to be low, following a growing trend in political apathy that saw turnout at 59.3 percent in 2102 and 52.7 percent in 2014.

Polls will be open from 8:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. in the evening on Sunday, Oct. 22. Tune in to Japan Today for this year’s Japan election results.

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