Authors: Ben Ascione and Yuma Osaki, ANU
On 20 November 2019, Shinzo Abe will become Japan’s longest serving prime minister since the inception of parliamentary politics during the Meiji Restoration. When he first took on the top job in September 2006, there was speculation that this might herald a new wave of younger Japanese politicians. Yet more than a decade later, Japanese politics looks likely to continue to be dominated by political dynasties (seshu giin) and the old boys of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai has suggested that party rules could be changed again to allow Abe to serve a fourth consecutive three-year term as LDP president—and stay on as prime minister—after his current term ends in September 2021. This indicates that there is a serious lack of contenders for Japan’s political leadership. When Abe does step down, where will Japan’s next generation of leaders come from?
Fresh leadership is needed as Japan faces critical policy challenges that require innovative responses, statesmanship and political vision. Perhaps the most critical is the need for deeper structural economic reforms—beyond the mantra of Abenomics—to boost productivity and manage the burgeoning national debt as society ages and the tax base shrinks. Potentially, reforms might include a more open immigration policy. Another key challenge is Japan’s often prickly relations with regional neighbours and the need for deft and creative diplomacy.
Before Abe’s second stint as prime minister, Japan suffered from a prime ministerial merry-go-round that saw six prime ministers take office in as many years (2006–2012). This lack of stability hampered the ability of governments to meaningfully formulate and implement substantial policy changes. Abe’s political resilience (Abe–ikkyo) means he is able to leave his mark through such initiatives as Abenomics, reinterpreting Article 9 of Japan’s constitution and attempts to explicitly recognise the constitutionality of the Self-Defense Forces.
In the post-Abe era, however, institutional barriers to the emergence of fresh leadership and innovation in Japan’s political process look set to remain.
One barrier is the long-time dominance of the LDP. As research by Daniel Smith highlights, Japan has an unusually high prevalence of dynastic politicians for an economically advanced democracy. This is apparent in the LDP, where the number of dynastic politicians peaked at over 40 per cent in the early 1980s and remained at around one-third after the 2017 lower house election. Other research shows that dynastic politicians secure greater subsidies for their constituents. Of Japan’s previous 10 prime ministers, a staggering seven came from political dynasties. Two of the three non-political-dynasty prime ministers were from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)—Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda.
The high proportion of dynastic politicians is perhaps explained by the so-called ‘three ban’ credentials for winning national office as explained by Nobutaka Ike in 1957. Jiban (foundation) refers to the cultivation of a core group of supporters, kanban (signboard) refers to reputation and name recognition, and kaban (satchel) connotes electoral campaign funding. These are often passed on from father to son and support the LDP’s election machinery. Since Japan has had only four non-LDP prime ministers since 1955, this trend is likely to continue and limit the pool of potential leaders.
This may help explain the popularity of Shinjiro Koizumi. He promises a balance between the LDP brand’s stability and maverick reform in the image of his father, former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. The strategic announcement of his recent marriage at the Cabinet Office boosted his popularity and leadership prospects.
Another barrier is the weak state of opposition parties and widespread political apathy. Electoral reform that passed in 1994 was expected to push Japan toward a stable two-party system with genuine electoral competition, but the DPJ’s three years in power (2009–2012) proved disastrous for both the party and Japanese democracy. Political infighting coupled with the triple earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster saw a public loss of confidence from which the DPJ never recovered. The eventual split of the DPJ into the Constitutional Democratic Party and the Democratic Party for the People divided the anti-LDP vote, further weakening the opposition.
Following these developments, voter turnout in the July 2019 upper house election fell below 50 per cent—the second lowest rate in the post-war era. Some see a ray of hope in Taro Yamamoto, an actor-turned-activist and political innovator. His new party, Reiwa Shinsengumi, won two Diet seats held by disabled candidates promoting a powerful message of inclusion for Japan’s most vulnerable. But overall, opposition parties are failing to articulate an alternative economic vision to Abenomics that is capable of capturing the public’s imagination and serving as a platform for leadership.
A third barrier is the limited opportunities for female politicians. Japan ranks 163 out of 193 countries, having only 10 per cent of female MPs in the lower house—the lowest among OECD, G7 and even G20 nations. To remedy this, the government passed the (non-binding) Gender Parity Law in 2018 encouraging political parties to field ‘as much as possible’ equal numbers of male and female candidates in elections.
While most parties fielded improved numbers of female candidates in the July 2019 upper house election, the LDP fielded just 14.6 per cent. And despite the increase in female candidates, the number of women who won seats in the upper house remained somewhat unchanged, at 22.6 per cent.
The number of female legislators in Japan’s local-level governments is also highly limted. Until 2018, 20 per cent of Japan’s 1788 city and town level assemblies had no women members at all. Short of Japan passing binding measures such as a quota system, significant progress in female political representation is unlikely in the near future. Faced with a severely declining birth rate, greater efforts are needed to develop pathways to increase the numbers of female politicians and cultivate a change in cultural mentality toward women in positions of leadership.
There are some small signs of optimism that Japan’s political sclerosis might be overcome and new sources of innovative leadership developed. Yet significant changes are needed to promote greater meritocracy within the LDP, to rebuild credible opposition parties that can hold the government accountable and provide platforms for leadership, and to advance the participation of women in Japan’s political leadership.
Ben Ascione is a researcher at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. Yuma Osaki is a doctoral candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Japan’s leadership moment‘, Vol. 11 No. 3.