Japanese politics: Trends and prospects

Picture: Flickr

Volume 2, no. 1, January 2014

Author: Rikki Kersten, ANU

Another interesting undercurrent is the rise of the regions against the centre in political terms. Regional parties like the Japan Restoration Party, the most well-known amongst them, are challenging the Tokyo-centred nature of Japanese politics. This is clearly contradictory: they cannot become viable political forces unless they become national in scope, but they start as a regional force against the centre. There is a kind of disintegration of the traditional political lines of power in contemporary Japan that gives an urgent edge to what’s happening in Japan today.

Perhaps a better way to grasp the prospects for politics in Japan is to ask the right questions.

Are we in an era of post one party dominance? I do not think we will see a return to prominence of the Liberal Democratic Party or indeed of any other single entity. I believe that issues are going to become one of the driving forces of political realignment. So this means that policy will be one of the dimensions that is going to give us some clues about the kind of coalitions that may be formed in Japanese politics in the future.

The DPJ - it is so easy to be cynical and dismissive about them. But I’ve never seen the electorate more electrified than I did during that 2009 election. Everyone was talking about politics, not just taxi drivers, but people on buses, at the supermarket. Everyone realised that they were empowered in the Japanese political system. So is this part of the legacy of the brief DPJ interlude?

“I’ve never seen the electorate more electrified than I did during that 2009 election. Everyone was talking about politics, not just taxi drivers, but people on buses, at the supermarket. ”

Abe is back for the second time and it looks like he is going to last the full four years. But is it the same Abe? I would suggest no. What is different about Abe the second time round? I think he is still this incredible hybrid of pragmatism and ideology. Abenomics is here for a reason, the electorate wants it and I think he has learned his lesson from the first time round. Yet he cannot put a lid on revisionist statements that actually undermine his foreign and security policy objectives. That is Abe’s stance; my personal view is that is not the stance of the majority of the Japanese people.

I also think what we are seeing under Abe 2.0 is more momentum behind the institutionalisation of fundamental change in defence and security policy, e.g. - the formation of the National Security Council, and the revision of the National Defence Program guidelines. We are also seeing that Abe is responding to the US rebalance in interesting ways, i.e. - it’s one big reason why Japan is at the table on TPP negotiations. It is notable that Abe has picked up Obama’s cue and focussed on relations with Southeast Asia, including sending defence aid to ASEAN member states.

What are the issues and dilemmas that confront Japan? At the forefront of the domestic political agenda in Japan at the moment is the question of energy policy and whether to restart nuclear plants. Without it, the recovery of Japan’s economic performance cannot be viewed optimistically, but public resistance is at record high levels and it remains that way.

Information security has become an issue. This is important for the Australia-Japan security relationship, we’ve signed an information agreement with Japan. It’s one of the underpinnings of our developing security relationship with Japan, but the Japanese side needs to raise its game in terms of legislation and creating pathways to maintain security of information.

Collective self-defence, Abe’s favourite baby, is going to stay there, but there is a tension buried within it. This is a fascinating thing. It is packaged as being absolutely necessary for Japan to come to the assistance of the US when the US is in the process of protecting Japan from attack. In other words, Japan has to step up to the plate, to honour its part of the Japan-US alliance. But the debates in parliament are all about guaranteeing more autonomy for Japan within the US alliance framework. These two things are fundamentally jarring.

Finally, territorial disputes are a negative in Japan’s foreign and security policy. It is causing very high percentages of public opinion, for example 90% of Japanese people polled in a recent poll, said that they had negative feelings toward China. There is no way this is helpful, unless of course you are a politician who needs to build momentum behind the normalisation of Japan’s defence policy.

To conclude, what are the prospects?

Japan-China relations has to be one of our key focal points. East China Sea tensions are going to lend some momentum to Prime Minister Abe’s security policy goals and inform the substance of the National Defence Program guidelines. The National Security Council is concentrating power in the Prime Minister’s office, technically under the Cabinet Office in a very institutional, notable manner. Drawing the line between self defence and power projection is going to become increasingly difficult for many reasons, one of which is the nature of the technology that is now involved in defence and security policy, with cyber security and space being at the front of that queue.

Political realignment is with us for a long time to come on both sides of politics. Issues are going to be interesting, so what is the electorate going to care about? Are we going to see this electorate get political representation, or is it going to pitch civil society against the state? At the moment, state and civil society are poised in an antagonistic relationship because of the collapse of the political spectrum.

Finally the old LDP is on its way out, but the new LDP is going to be driven by generational change. There are some really interesting, committed and intelligent members of the LDP who are quite different political animals from the ones who we have grown to know and follow. I think Japanese democracy has some way to go. The gerrymander needs to be addressed, and we do need to see a viable two party political system in Japan. A lot of work needs to be done before we will see that outcome.

This text is an edited version of comments delivered at the ANU Japan Update on 5 November 2013. Professor Kersten’s full address can be viewed at the Japan Institute website.

About the author

Rikki Kersten is Professor of Modern Japanese Political History at the Australian National University. Rikki’s main areas of research interest are: democracy and fascism; debates over war apologies and war guilt in Japan; contemporary Japanese politics and foreign policy; historical and philosophical revisionism. Her second area of specialisation is Japanese security policy, including Australia-Japan security relations and the US-Japan alliance.

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