Japan's 2021 Elections: New PM, New Foreign Policy?
Updated: Jan 13
This voices piece explores the implications of the recent Japanese General Election the country's domestic and foreign policy. Our student contributors have written on a number of different aspects of the election to better understand the simultaneously chaotic and stable political system of Japan.
On October 31st, Fumio Kishida secured his position as the next Prime Minister of Japan in the General Elections (AKA Lower House elections). Weeks prior, he had taken office as the leader of the ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which virtually placed him as Prime Minister. The General Elections was only the last task for Kishida to cement his position. Kishida follows former PM Suga Yoshihide, who resigned due to plummeting approval ratings over his response to the Covid-19 crisis. Before Suga, Shinzo Abe had abruptly resigned due to health issues after serving for 8 years as Prime Minister.
In light of this new change, we brought together four students to provide their insight on the background in which Kishida gained power amidst continued support for the LDP, and how this will affect Japan’s domestic and foreign policies. First, Chloe accounts for continued LDP dominance of Japanese politics focusing on the weakness of opposition parties and voter apathy. Next, Sylvie outlines important policy directions on Covid-19 and the economy, highlighting the deviation from Abenomics. Lastly, for projections of future foreign policy, Milla focuses on growing tensions between Japan and China in the East China Sea, while Qiuyi discusses the international perception of the instability of Japan’s leadership and strengthening of alliances in face of a rising China.
1. What accounts for continued LDP dominance of Japanese politics?
By: Chloe Mossberg, 1st Year BSc International Relations and Chinese
Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has dominated the political landscape since its 1955 conception. Popular policies don't explain such extended electoral success, given the political landscape tends to re-center around such policies and increase competitiveness. LDP supremacy stems instead from the lack of effective opposition parties and a political apathy favouring its continued governance.
The opposition parties' electoral struggle comes from their association with incompetence and instability. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) had a brief three-year rule from 2009 to 2012 (only the second non-LDP government, the other being in 1993), which "proved to be a disaster" [i]. Frequent cabinet shuffles, geostrategic contentions, legislative inexperience, the antagonizing of the bureaucracy, and internal disunity [ii] plagued their rule with apparent incompetence. A tenet of such incompetence was growing tensions in the Japan-US alliance, which contrasted one of the more popular elements in LDP policy – maintaining US support.
A chaotic process of party instability followed. In 2016, the DPJ merged with the Japan Innovation Party to form the Democratic Party (DP) until 2017, where major splits produced the Party of Hope and the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP). In 2018 the Party of Hope reemerged with the remainders of the DP, forming the Democratic Party for the People (DPP); the DPP would in turn partially merge into the CDP in 2020. The CDP, currently the leading opposition party, formed a front for 2021's election; these included the Japanese Communist Party, an alienating move due to the perceived extremism [iii]. The LDP claims to be the party of stability [iii] are supported by the opposition's lack thereof.
This is coupled with demographic and electoral shifts. Firstly, Opposition weakness not only reduces their unity, but also causes voter apathy, which favours the LDP [iv]. Voter turnout began falling after 2012 [iv], evidencing the DPJ's rule created apathy in voters seeking LDP alternatives. Secondly, Japan has seen the creation of a "silver democracy" [v] determined primarily by older voters due to an aging population and the youth's general political disinterest. In the 2017 election, just above a third of those in their 20s voted, less than half of those in their 60s [v]. This disinterest is caused by an institutionally apolitical education [v], and that "social issues," which young voters generally gravitate to, "differ little across party lines." [vi].
The LDP wins because the opposition fails, and the current demography of the electorate favours them. While the loss of long-time leader Shinzo Abe puts into question their stability, a doubt which is reinforced by current trends of leadership changes, October's election proves it doesn't suffice for opposition victory just yet.
Summary of Parties:
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP): Japan's dominant party.
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ): the previously dominant opposition party, held power from 2009 to 2012.
Democratic Party (DP), Japan Innovation Party, Party of Hope, Democratic Party for the People (DPP): opposition parties which merged with and split from one another.
Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP): the current dominant opposition party.
Japanese Communist Party: controversial opposition party.
2. How will the change in leadership affect Japan’s domestic policy?
By: Sylvie Gong, 2nd year BA History
The coronavirus, which is still spreading, is one of Fumio Kishida's top domestic concerns. The First Kishida Cabinet stated on the party’s website that the government would secure the medical system in order to maintain peace of mind in Japan. The new government, in particular, decided to increase the number of hospital beds, strengthen medical care provision systems, and support measures for home care recipients [ii]. With that being said, the detailed policies for these declarations remain relatively ambiguous, and we should be sceptical of Kishida's ability to keep his promises. Another goal is to provide financial assistance for nurses and care workers. This proposal has won him crucial support from these workers, who are often forced to work unpaid due to Japan’s rigid health-care system [i]. In that case, the new prime minister may encounter potential opposition from officials who benefit from the infamous system. Though Kishida’s measures for coronavirus sound ambitious, they are still uncertain and fraught with difficulties.
Another main domestic change asserted by Kishida is shifting towards ‘new capitalism’. Kishida’s two predecessors all pushed Abenomics that is based on his concept of ‘three arrows’: monetary easing, fiscal stimulus, and structural reforms. This policy lowered the unemployment rate and doubled the Japanese market value [iv]. However, Kishida criticized this by arguing that the rich have got richer, while the poor got poorer under Abenomics. Instead, he wishes to increase the size of the middle-class through the distribution strategy. The distribution strategy, aiming to redistribute wealth among the general population, certainly has increased Kishida’s popularity. The three major points of the strategy include a supervisory framework for economic practices, the coexistence of large and small businesses, and higher wages [iii]. These three plans, if achieved, will surely create new dynamics in Japan’s economy.
In Japan, hereditary politicians still hold great power. For example, Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi and Kishida’s grandfather Masaki Kishida were good friends, and they both served for the Japanese government during WWII. Furthermore, the media even called Suga the first civilian prime minister. In spite of Kishida’s novel policies, he is still likely to be a conservative political figure, representing the interests of hereditary politicians. Despite this conservative legacy, Kishida’s new domestic policies, accounting for all their ambiguity and obstacles, are worth anticipating.
3. How will the change in leadership affect Japan’s foreign relations?
By: Milla Gajdos, 2nd Year BSc International Relations and Chinese
The East China Sea dispute has a history reaching back to the end of the 19th century. The importance of the area for China as well as Japan is undeniable: it stretches over 200 million estimated barrels of oil reserves besides covering prominent shipping routes and rich fishing waters [i].
Since they were formally claimed by Japan in 1895, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have been mostly owned by Japanese citizens. China reasserted claims based on historic rights to the area in the 1970s. Focus was redirected to the tensions with the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the islands from a private owner [i]. The East China Sea conflict is worth the attention firstly because of China’s growing assertiveness in the area. The near-constant coast guard presence in the contested zone [ii] - as only one example - led to growing domestic concerns in Japan about China’s intentions [iii]. Secondly, with the landslide victory of Fumio Kishida in the recent general election, there is a policy turn to be anticipated from Japan.
One of Kishida’s proposed policies is the doubling of Japanese defence spending (from 1% to 2% of GDP) [iii]. This departure from long-standing pacifism in Japanese foreign policy can signal a new era of Japan-China relations with escalating tensions between the two countries. Domestic challenges relating to the state of the pandemic-ridden economy and debt-saddled finances could also pressure the newly elected prime minister to look for foreign issues to divert public attention from domestic problems and satisfy nationalistic feelings. Furthermore, due to his electoral majority, and solidified role as prime minister, Kishida has the public’s backing in delivering his proposed foreign policy plans [iii].
Additionally, the ensuing security dilemma and increasing armaments have implications for U.S.-China relations as well. Since 2014 the disputed territory is covered by the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, hence involving the United States with any prospective hostilities whether they are a result of an accidental military incident or an aggressive act. With the Biden administration’s reaffirmation of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty [iv], the U.S. has clear stakes in the peaceful relations of the two countries. Hence, Japan’s assertiveness would not only lead to the deterioration of relations with China but may also worsen the competition between China and the U.S, leading to further rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific.
4. How will the change in leadership affect Japan’s foreign relations?
By: Qiuyi He, 2nd Year BSc Language, Culture and Society
Fumio Kishida will continue to prioritize alliances and will find ways to strengthen alliances. That is to say, the free and open Indo-Pacific region will continue to be Japan's main tool for expanding diplomacy in the region and Japan will continue to take a tough stance against China.
For the relations between Japan and the U.S., what matters most is not the re-election itself but rather the consequential instability of leadership. Following Abe whose tenure lasted as long as 8 years, Suga nevertheless only maintained his post for 12 months before Kishida was elected this year. Undeniably, Abe’s long-term leadership allowed him to practice and critically review responses towards security and foreign relation challenges, and thus provided a great extent of predictability of Japanese attitudes towards international relations. The greatest interest from countries represented by the US about this year’s re-election, as Dr. Michael J. Green suggests, is to see ‘who will continue the Abe era’ and how will he follow the ‘trajectory of Japan’s proactive role in the world’ set by Abe [iii].
For Suga, unfortunately, it was ‘difficult to identify any significant security policy or U.S.-Japan alliance initiative during his administration’ [i], as pointed out by Jeffery Hornung, a senior political scientist. For the former Prime Minister Suga, more time was inevitably spent with the Cabinet to maintain his leading position in terms of the management of domestic issues than to make progress in the solidification of foreign allies. Nicholas Szechenyi proposed that the pandemic together with the economic recession (domestic issues) were obviously prioritized over ‘Abe’s strategic networking with other like-minded nations through mechanisms like the Quad’ [iii].
Another popular argument regards how the rest of the world perceives Japanese politics. The sudden drop of stability in leadership possesses a threat to the global image of Japan sustained in the long run. For example, from the perspective of the leaders’ relationship, assuming that ‘the president of the United States has to meet a new Japanese prime minister every year’ [iii] if the short-term election keeps happening, it reveals more hardship in moving forward on an agenda where so much of the coordination is ultimately based on the two leaders’ communication and strategic relationships.
In the Indo-Pacific region, there currently exist political and economic partnerships as well as potential conflicts within the multilateral relations, Japan’s participation has been increasingly important. Especially with intensifying U.S.-China relations, it is much of an expectation that countries like Japan could share more leadership across the Indo-Pacific region to balance out the strained polarity between the US and China. During his tenure, Abe already ‘developed a strategic vision for Japan's role in the world with the free and open Indo-Pacific concept and provided the ideational sinews for today's Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, with the U.S., India and Australia’ [ii]. The debates in the Japanese election didn’t see much modification of this trajectory, which means under the new leadership of Kishida, Japan will continue to fix and strengthen its coordination within the Quad and put more pressure against China, albeit with a continued focus on domestic issues.
[i] Weak Opposition is a Cancer in Japan's Political System, Gerald Curtis, East Asia Forum, published on 18th September 2016. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2016/09/18/weak-opposition-is-a-cancer-in-japans-political-system/
[ii] The Rise and Fall of Japan's Democratic Party, Samee Siddiqui, Aljazeera and News Agencies, published on 17th December 2012. https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2012/12/17/the-rise-and-fall-of-japans-democratic-party
[iii] Japan: Kishida's Coalition Wins Absolute Majority in Parliament, Aljazeera and News Agencies, published on 1st November 2021.https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/1/japan-kishidas-coalition-wins-absolute-majority-in-parliament
[iv] How the LDP dominates Japan's Politics, the Economist, published on 28th October 2021.
[v] Voter Apathy Looms over yet Another Election in Japan, Alex K.T. Martin, Japan Times, published on 29th October 2021. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/10/29/national/politics-diplomacy/japan-voter-apathy/
[vi] What's behind Japan's Political Stability?, Lully Miura, Japan Times, published on 27th September 2019.https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2019/09/27/commentary/japan-commentary/whats-behind-japans-political-stability/
[i] Ito, T. (2021, November 2). Where Will Fumio Kishida Take Japan? Project Syndicate. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/fumio-kishida-economic-policy-plan-by-takatoshi-ito-2021-10?barrier=accesspaylog
[ii] 岸田内閣 基本方針 | 政策 | ニュース. (2021, October 4). 自由民主党. https://www.jimin.jp/news/policy/202082.html
[iii] Kishida, F. (2021, October 8). Policy Speech by Prime Minister KISHIDA Fumio to the 205th Session of the Diet (Speeches and Statements by the Prime Minister) | Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet. Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet. https://japan.kantei.go.jp/100_kishida/statement/202110/_00005.html
[iv] Oi M. (2021, November 1). 日本新首相岸田文雄承诺的“新资本主义”将如何兑现. BBC News 中文. https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/business-59117067
[v] Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com). (2021, November 1). 日本国会大选：自民党守住多数席次. DW.COM. https://www.dw.com/zh/%E6%97%A5%E6%9C%AC%E5%9B%BD%E4%BC%9A%E5%A4%A7%E9%80%89%E8%87%AA%E6%B0%91%E5%85%9A%E5%AE%88%E4%BD%8F%E5%A4%9A%E6%95%B0%E5%B8%AD%E6%AC%A1/a-59681613
[i] Background of the conflict - Global Conflict Tracker (2021) https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/tensions-east-china-sea
[iii] Consequence of the elections on foreign policy – Reuters (2021) https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/with-an-eye-china-japans-ruling-party-makes-unprecedented-defence-spending-2021-10-13/
[iv] U.S.-Japan Security Treaty – South China Morning Post (2021): https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3118835/tokyo-seeks-us-vow-support-east-china-sea-dispute-beijing-heats
[i] Reuters (2021) Factbox: Key policies of Japan's next PM Kishida, a consensus builder
[ii] Jeffrey W. Hornung (2021) What instability at the top means for Japan's alliance with the U.S.
[iii] Previewing Japan’s Leadership Election and Implications for U.S.-Japan Relations (transcripts)