Japan’s 47th General Election, held on 16 December 2012, was a landslide victory for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), triumphantly returned from three years in the political wilderness of Opposition, and the fourth worst defeat suffered by any ruling party, formerly the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), in Japanese political history.
BY DR. MICHAEL VAUGHAN* | MARCH 13, 2013
I. A LANDSLIDE VICTORY
In terms of Parliamentary seats, the LDP increased its representation in the House of Representatives from 119 seats (won in the 2009 General Election) to 294 seats (a massive increase of 247%); whilst the DPJ nose-dived very badly, falling from 230 seats (won in 2009, giving it Government) to barely 57 seats (a cataclysmic decrease of 404%, sending it to ignominious Opposition.)
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged that his Party won mainly because of voter antipathy towards the DPJ and not due to a resurgence in popularity for the LDP. The new Government will adopt a tough stance on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute ( having stated during the Election Campaign it will “stop the challenge” from China over the issue) and will strengthen the Self Defence Forces. The new Government will also take a harder line with North Korea over the abductions issue. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, newly-elected Prime Minister Abe has a 52% approval rating and a 26% disapproval rating.
Under the LDP, Tokyo will not insist on the immediate ‘lump sum’ return of all four ‘Northern Territories’/ ‘Kurile Islands’ as long as Moscow endorses Japan’s sovereignty claim to them – a dispute that has now dragged on politically and diplomatically since the opening of negotiations in 1956.
The new Cabinet approved a fresh stimulus package of more than 20 trillion yen (US$224 billion) on 11 January 2013, so as to honour campaign pledges to break the world’s third largest economy out of its deflationary confines. The measures are intended to add 2% to Japan’s economic growth and to create 600,000 new jobs in the ailing workforce.
Overall, the General Election ended the brief rule of the disappointing DPJ which, once seen as a refreshing reformist change, came to be publicly regarded as increasingly ineffective. The LDP is inheriting a struggling economy, regional tensions (principally with China, North Korea and South Korea) and questions over Japan’s wider role in Asia.
As Joshua Tucker argues, the political return of the LDP to the centre of power might be attributable to three inter-related phenomena. First, and most obvious, is that of the enormous unpopularity of DPJ politicians , who were perceived as having failed to enact their far-reaching social welfare policies and their bungled handling of the worst nuclear accident in Japan’s history. Second, as a result, voter turnout declined sharply, hurting the DPJ disproportionately – as its 2009 victory was based on the votes of many unattached voters who did not lend their support in 2012 to anywhere near the level three short years previously. Third, the DPJ was no longer one of the two major Parties in many Single Member Districts, steeply affecting its electoral support across the 47 Prefectures.
In terms of political substance, it is useful to examine the Political Manifestos that both the DPJ and the LDP put to the people of Japan in pursuit of their voting support.
Announced on 27 November 2012 by DPJ President Yoshihiko Noda, the DPJ Manifesto contained five priority policies:
- Social security (aimed at producing “a society that provides all with a place to belong and a way to contribute”)
- Economy (the creation of more than four million jobs by 2020)
- Energy (eliminating nuclear power and adopting a ‘Green Energy Revolution.’)
- Foreign relations and national security (pursuing realistic diplomatic and defence policies as a nation committed to peace)
- Political reform (restoring trust in politics through selfless reforms.)
The LDP produced a less formally structured Manifesto , preferring to make individual policy statements throughout the Campaign itself. A reading of these seemingly disconnected undertakings shows the following commitments to the electorate:
- Stationing officials on the Senkaku Islands so as to strengthen Japan’s control of the controversial chain of islets
- Expenditure of large amounts of money on national infrastructure projects against natural disasters
- Potential negative stand against the mooted Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) in response to pressure from domestic farmers
- Creation of a Government sponsored ceremony to mark ‘Takeshima Day’ on 22 February 
- All0wing Japan the right to collective self defence and upgrading the Self Defence Force to become a National Military, a highly significant change of name and of purpose.
Voter turnout in all of the nation’s 47 Prefectures was estimated on Polling Night at 59%. In the 2009 Election, which the DPJ won ending more than half a century of almost uninterrupted LDP rule, official voter turnout was 69.2% – a record ‘high’ since the introduction in 1996 of the existing electoral system.  The difference then, of course, was that the DPJ was seen as a shining light of hope for a better society and the LDP was seen as being tired, out-of-touch and corrupt – having been damaged by a number of financial and sex scandals. That woeful legacy for the LDP was ended when in 2010 the DPJ Government failed to win control of the Upper House. The DPJ never recovered politically from having its popular programme thwarted in the Upper Chamber and thus being shown to the people of Japan as being weak, ineffective and ultimately, paralysed. In December 2012, there was a total of 1,504 Candidates for the 480 seats in the Lower House.
The Election result gives former, and now reinstated, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the opportunity to press for a radical economic agenda and a ‘hawkish’ security agenda against China. DPJ former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was severely weakened by political defections within his own Party (in a power struggle between himself and power-broker Ichiro Ozawa), these occurring largely over his Government’s handling of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which released the equal of 40% of the radioactive pollutants thrust into the atmosphere during the Chernobyl catastrophe. 
IV.IMPLICATIONS OF JAPAN’S CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT
The political drubbing received by the former DPJ Government of the hapless Yoshihiko Noda means two things – first it will be at least two and possibly three terms in humiliating Opposition for the DPJ and second that LDP mastery of the political scene in Japan is likely to extend over three probable terms. All, however, is not guaranteed. A financial scandal or a series of blundering gaffes by senior LDP Ministers could conceivably shorten its occupancy of Nagatacho and Kasumigaseki.
Other factors also impinge on the stability and longevity of the Abe Government. The LDP’s failure to address threats from an ageing society and a huge fiscal imbalance jeopardizes the economy with “stimulus addiction and long-term coma” – a quasi-medical phrase used by Nordea Market Research in an article dated 17 December 2012.
The unassailable two thirds majority – 325 seats in the Lower House obtained by the LDP and its longstanding coalition partner the New Komeito – means that they can break the political deadlock of the past two years and be able to pass its Government legislation, even if the Upper House – where no Party has a majority – tries to obstruct.
A fourth implication involves Japan’s public debt, now standing at some 250% of Gross Domestic Product, the world’s highest. More than 90% is financed by domestic savers – raised on the values of thrift and prudence in money management – though this may change as private savings dwindle away. Japan may be forced at some point to turn to foreign investors to subsidize its fiscal deficit, risking both national economic sovereignty and domestic bond holders.
A fifth implication revolves around the reduced inclination of the LDP, compared to that of the DPJ, to phase out nuclear energy completely thereby reducing Japan’s dependence on imported energy and help the current account balance.
Sixth, the LDP’s policies, such as unlimited monetary policy easing and large scale infrastructure spending, may give only a temporary boost to the economy.
As a result, the LDP’s failure to address the challenges of fiscal adjustment and a shrinking labour force may leave Japan in the morbid state that has plagued it for the past 20 years.
V. THE NEW ABE CABINET
On Friday 4 January 2013, Prime Minister Abe gave a detailed Press Conference to outline to the waiting international media the plans and intentions he and his Ministers had for Japan.
In part, he said:
“… I have renewed my determination to restore trust in politics and push forward vigorously towards the building of a new nation, working towards the future … The Abe Cabinet will attach the highest value to a sense of speed in bringing policies into realization and the ability to get things done … [W]e will dedicate our greatest possible efforts from the very beginning of this new year to the challenges of economic revival, reconstruction, and crisis management… In order to reinforce still further Japan-US relations and rebuild our relations with neighbouring countries, I myself will stand at the forefront and boldly develop our strategic diplomacy. I am determined fully to defend the lives and assets of our nationals as well as our territory, territorial waters and territorial airspace in a resolute manner…” 
Having considered this supervening policy statement, it is useful to consider the policy preferences of Japan’s voters themselves.
Voters’ top priority is one of repairing and restoring the economy, now in its fourth recession since 2000. 48% of voters in an Asahi Shimbun survey put the economy as their first priority, compared to 11% who stressed security issues. Only 32% of voters support Abe’s revision of the Constitutional limits on the military (so that, in the Prime Minister’s view, Japan can play a larger global security role), compared to the 53% of voters who are opposed.
By way of closing this discussion, some mention should be made of a number of principal Cabinet Ministers themselves, their experience, their outlooks and the kind of mind set they are likely to bring to their deliberations in determining national policy.
Six such Ministers appear below:
- TARO ASO (Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister) – well versed in micro-economic matters, Aso crafted massive stimulus packages to try to offset the 2008 financial crisis.
- NOBUTERU ISHIHARA (Environment and Nuclear Crisis Minister) – son of outspoken former Governor of Tokyo, SHINTARO ISHIHARA, though less extreme in his nationalist views than his father.
- FUMIO KISHIDA (Minister for Foreign Affairs) – a former banker at the now defunct Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan, he is nominal head of the Miyazawa Faction in the LDP and is reputed to be accommodating towards those with whom Japan has had difficult relations, earning him the appellation, a foreign policy ‘dove.’
- ITSUNORI ONODERA (Minister for Defence) – hails from Northeastern Japan in Miyagi Prefecture which was hard hit by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters; his experience includes being Senior Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs in August 2007 in Abe’s first Administration.
- TOSHIMITSU MOTEGI ( Minister of Economics, Trade and Industry) – a Graduate of Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government and a former Management Consultant at McKinsey and Company. He has held numerous posts including Vice Foreign Minister, Vice Trade Minister and Financial Services Minister.
- HAKUBIN SHIMOMURA (Minister of Education) – believed to be an ultra conservative, close to Abe, who, like the Prime Minister, wants to rewrite Japan’s wartime history with a less apologetic stance, to put more patriotism into the curricula of schools and to revise the 1947 Pacifist Constitution.
The presence of ultra conservative politicians has raised concerns over escalated diplomatic tension with South Korea and China. Some of the new Ministers are expected to spur Japan into a rightward outlook. They refuse to recognize their country’s war time atrocities and maintain a hard line stance in territorial disputes with Seoul and Beijing.
By way of closing, it should be observed that Mr Abe is Japan’s seventh Prime Minister in just six and a half years.
* Dr Michael Vaughan, an Australian scholar specializing in Northeast Asian politics and diplomacy, teaches Political Science at the University of Queensland, Australia THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, 14 January 2012.  “Abe Administration Wavers On Northern Territories Dispute”, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, 11 JANUARY 2013.  THE ASAHI SHIMBUN, 12 January 2013.  Yoko Wakatsuki, Brian Walker and Hilary Whiteman , “Changing Of Guard in Japan as PM concedes Vote”, CNN, 17 December 2013.  Joshua Tucker, “The Japanese General Election of 2012: Sometimes, Lucky is better than Popular”, THE MONKEY CAGE, 27 December 2012.  THE NIKKEI, 22 November 2012.  Takeshima, meaning “bamboo island” in Japanese, are a group of small islets in the Sea of Japan, with sovereignty disputed by Japan and South Korea. Takeshima, or Dokdo in Korean, consist of two main islets with 35 smaller rocks. The total surface area is 46.3 acres (0.18 square kilometres) and lies in rich fishing grounds potentially rich in natural gas deposits. Shimane Prefecture, which Japan argues has jurisdiction over the rocky outcroppings, has held the Takeshima Day ceremony every year since 2006 on 22 February, the date on which they were officially incorporated in 1905 as Japanese territory.  “Voter turnout in Japan’s General Election at 59% so far”, KYODO NEWS, Tokyo, 16 December 2012.  “LDP Wins Majority in Japan’s General Election”, SINA ENGLISH, Xinhua, English Version.  “Japan’s Opposition Set for Victory in General Election”, EURONEWS, 16 December 2013.  Amy Yuan Zhuang and Aurelija Augulyte , “Implications of Japan’s New Government”, NORDEA RESEARCH, 17 December 2012.  Press Conference by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Friday 4 June 2013, Cabinet Secretariat, Cabinet Public Relations Office.  “Japan Voters Back New PM Cabinet, Economy Top Priority”, REUTERS, 27 December 2012.  I am indebted to Song Sang-ho and the Article “New Japanese Cabinet Irks Neighbours”, ASIA ONE NEWS, Singapore Press Holdings, 28 December 2012 for the basic information concerning the six Ministers of State I have just outlined.