11.01.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Japan on the Eve of the Next Parliamentary Elections

234233233National elections in the territory of the main players have a significant impact on the world’s political game. In the coming year, the US presidential elections and the Japanese parliamentary elections will be of great significance.

Whoever happens to be in the highest office in the USA in January 2017, and no matter what the future winner of the presidential race may say during the pre-election show, he/she and his/her team will be confronted with the need to find an adequate response to the accumulated internal and external challenges. Almost certainly the nature of the response to them will be radical and, in turn, affect the development of global processes.

However, six months prior, a different internal political act will have consequences of no less importance for the overall situation in the world. We are talking about the next re-election of half of the Upper House of the Japanese Parliament. Today, the international importance of this routine internal procedure, carried out every three years, is due to the more obvious tendency to liberate Japan from the second element of its postwar image of “an economic giant and a political dwarf”. The transformation of this image, which began with the end of the Cold War, has sometimes been denoted by the term “normalization”. Given that the very category of “normality” in our world implies the existence of a military component among the set of tools to protect national interests and a clearly declared willingness to use it.

Japan took an important step on the way to “normalization” in July-September 2015, when a package of new laws passed through both Houses of Parliament that allowed (with significant reservations) carrying out limited military operations abroad. However, Article 9 of the postwar Constitution remains the main obstacle to the full “normalization” of the country. The final act of a long process of Japan’s “normalization” will be the complete removal or, at least, a radical modernization of this article.

This is the main purpose of the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s whole political career, and that of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that he heads. Without belittling the importance of other issues, which will be raised during the upcoming election campaign, it is safe to predict that the question of attitude to this Article of the Constitution will be a key for individual candidates and in inter-party discussions for the parliamentary seats.

Meanwhile, the attitude of the population of the country to it is complex, which is reflected in the results of sociological research, conducted from October to December this year by Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, together with the University of Saitama.

The survey showed that 86% of respondents, in one way or other, associated the post-war Constitution with the economic prosperity of the country. At the same time, 57% of the citizens favored preserving intact the first of two key points of Article 9 (declaring that Japan had renounced the use of war as a means of solving international problems). But the immutability of the second paragraph (prohibiting the possession of the armed forces of Japan) was supported by less than a half (46%) of respondents. Also, so far, 17% were willing to make a radical change to the first point, and 23% to the second.

The results of sociological surveys showed quite a rational and pragmatic way of thinking of the average Japanese about one of the most important problems of the modern Japan, in connection with the choice of the preferred positioning of the country on the international arena. Under no circumstances do the Japanese want to risk the loss of the main political capital acquired by diligent postwar labor and associated with the image of a peaceful prosperous country that is ready to assist other less prosperous countries. The main threat to this image they see in the possible rejection of the aforementioned first paragraph of Article 9.

At the same time, sooner or later, the Japanese will agree that it is time to stop amusing the respectable international audience with constitutional statements on the absence of the Japanese Armed Forces, which, in fact, have existed now for a long time and are already among the most powerful in the world.

With rare exceptions, most of the opposition parties in Japan are opposed to the LDP plans on making any changes to Article 9. On December 23, leaders of four main opposition parties, including the Democratic and the Communist, agreed on the nomination of a single harmonized list of candidates for the upcoming summer 2016 mid-term elections to the Upper House of Parliament. This greatly complicates the implementation of Abe’s plans under the extreme rigidity of the procedure of constitutional amendments, which is defined in Article 96. Spelled out in the article is a two-step procedure. In the first step of the proposed constitutional amendment, it must be supported by a qualified majority on the roll in each of the two Houses of Parliament. Furthermore, the amendment must pass either a national referendum or be approved by the newly elected parliament.

Meanwhile, today, the LDP (with the “junior partner” Komeito Party) has such a majority only in the Lower House of Parliament, while in the Upper House there is not even a simple majority. To receive support from two-thirds of the Upper House, it would be necessary to get more than half the seats from those subject to re-election in the summer of 2016. This is an extremely difficult task and the LDP leadership is already looking for a new potential ally. In this respect, Abe’s long meeting with Toru Hashimoto on December 19 drew much attention – one of the new generation of Japanese politicians, who could be called a “young upstart”.

In 2008, 38-year-old T. Hashimoto won a decisive victory (with the support of the LDP and Komeito) in the gubernatorial elections in the second largest prefecture of Osaka. Later, however, his political career has gone through several ups and downs, and in May 2015 (after a slight shortage of votes in a city referendum on the change of the administrative structure of Osaka) T. Hashimoto even talked about leaving politics after the end of his term in office as the city mayor this year.

Although T. Hashimoto is considered to belong to the Japanese right-wing political elite, his political views, on various issues of internal and external policy, are rather “contradictory eclecticism”.

Abroad, he became known in the summer of 2013, when he “blurted out” in public, that in war, soldiers who are constantly risking their lives couldn’t do without the services of “comfort women”. This seemingly innocent phrase contained overtones, offensive to the South Koreans. Abe had to smooth over his young colleague’s politically incorrect lapse, to restrain an explosion of emotions in South Korea.

Apparently, the experienced politician’s hunch will not let Abe down this time either, because, clearly, T. Hashimoto’s potential for public appeal has not been exhausted. So far, the peak of his success at the national level has been taking third place in the Japan Restoration Party during the elections for the Lower House of Parliament in December 2012. He created this party (together with Shintaro Isihiro – former mayor of Tokyo and an extreme right wing politician) in just two months before the election.

Most likely, during his meeting with the Prime Minister, the ambitious T. Hashimoto was promised a post in the central government, which should stimulate his activity in the upcoming elections and the subsequent interaction with the LDP in the parliament. For the future elections, T. Hashimoto had previously spoken positively on the key issue, regarding the need to change Article 9.

But, in the upcoming inter-party discussions, attitude to other problems will be of significant importance. In particular, those related to the ratification of an agreement on the participation of Japan in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed in October 2015, rising taxes on consumer goods up to 10%, the problem of moving the US base “Futenma” located in Okinawa.

In foreign policy, “rapid progress” in eliminating the problems in relations with Kazakhstan and Russia would be very useful for Abe. As to the first, the bilateral relations marked the emergence of something like a “light at the end of the tunnel.” And it deserves special consideration.

In general, we can say that in recent months, Abe has demonstrated, particularly clearly, his “proprietary” energy and purposefulness in address emerging issues. This has led to the gradual recovery of the level of support his office had abruptly lost after the ratification of the package of new laws in the defense arena.

Public Opinion Surveys dedicated to Abe’s three-year tenure showed that the degree of confidence in his government, dropping to 32% in August 2015 (which was the direct result of the public’s negative assessment of the passed laws and procedures referred to earlier), increased to 43% at the end of December. This of course, is not the 70% recorded in the first months of work of Abe’s cabinet. But there is an obvious positive trend that is of particular importance for him in the light of the upcoming elections.

Finally, it should be stressed that the stakes on this issue are very high not only for Japan but also for the situation in the Asia-Pacific region, and possibly also for the world at large.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.


Please select digest to download: