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Japanese politics for the next generation

  • Japan's domestic social and economic reforms are still not sufficient, and the electorate remains concerned about social security and healthcare systems as well as the job market structure in the future.

By Satoshi Machidori

In Japan, a new emperor has ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne, marking the close of the Heisei era and the beginning of the Reiwa era. This has no impact on politics under Japan’s democratic regime. However, considering that Heisei lasted about thirty years and Reiwa will likely last about the same, each era aligns with a generation. Recognising this, it will be meaningful to look at Japanese politics by contrasting the eras.

The Heisei era, which began in 1989, was a period of reform and change in Japanese politics. During the first fifteen years, there were a wide range of attempts at introducing very significant change to the political and administrative systems, including electoral reforms, administrative reforms and decentralisation reforms. During the last fifteen years, the results of the reforms have become apparent, manifesting in the changes of government in 2009 and 2012 and a drastic policy shift led by the prime minister.

The current Abe administration, which has already lasted for more than six and a half years, is something of the culmination of Japanese politics in the Heisei era. This is because the administration was inaugurated as a result of the change of government following a general election, and grew increasingly legitimate by continuing to win elections and implement proactive foreign and security policies, making full use of the enhanced prime ministerial power.

Many people expect that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will finally make an attempt at passing a constitutional amendment following this summer’s Upper House election. Until now, Abe has prioritised economic policies, fearing defeat in an election. Once there is no need to hold a national election until after his term of office as the president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) expires in the fall of 2021, he can commit all his resources, including his high approval ratings among the electorate, into passing a constitutional amendment.

The prime minister assumes that even if the LDP and the Komeito, which make up the ruling coalition, fail in the Upper House election to secure the two thirds of Diet seats necessary to make proposals for constitutional revision, the proposals will be possible with the approval of some opposition party and independent members.

Abe’s judgement in this matter is probably influenced by the strong nationwide local election results this April of the Japan Innovation Party, which has been positive on the issue of constitutional revision, in Osaka, its most important support base.

However, you cannot tell if things will go as the prime minster assumes they will. Even if more than two thirds of all Diet members are generally in favour of constitutional revision, there may be no agreement on what concrete revisions are to be made.

The partial revision of Article 9, which Abe advocates, is focused on clarifying the existence of the Self-Defence Forces in the Constitution, but it is hardly effective. This is because a great majority of the electorate has already accepted the existence of the Self-Defence Forces, and setting out on the road to overseas activities, ignoring international norms and standards, is impossible, regardless of constitutional stipulations. In particular, the Komeito must show strong opposition to taking the time and effort for such a revision.

The electorate’s opinion is even more in doubt. Domestic public opinion is still evenly split over constitutional revision. In the current situation, if a referendum is held, there will be fierce debate. The consumption tax hike scheduled for the fall of this year is one of the most unpopular policies in Japanese politics. If the revision of Article 9, which only has symbolic implications, goes forward under these circumstances, the dissatisfaction of the electorate will be exacerbated. If Abe hopes to secure influence after he leaves office in 2021, and hopes to be followed by another LDP administration, an attempt at constitutional revision is a big risk.

The Reiwa era, that is, Japan during the next thirty years, will see the peak of the ageing population, depopulation, the decline of social vitality, and increasingly serious fiscal challenges. There will be an accelerated acceptance of immigrants, which could bring about other social issues. If US-China relations are engulfed in a new Cold War, Japan will face larger diplomatic difficulties entangled between the two countries.

The political stability brought by the Abe administration was the opportunity to take precautions against such difficulties. This administration has achieved strong outcomes from many of its foreign and security policies over the last six and a half years, and the economic conditions have also never been bad. But domestic social and economic reforms are still not sufficient, and the electorate remains concerned about the social security and healthcare systems as well as the job market structure in the future. It should be this long-lived administration’s last major task to give all it can to resolve this situation. But I am not sure at all that those are the prime minister’s priorities.

(待鳥聡史 Satoshi Machidori is Professor at the Graduate School of Law, Kyoto University. He earned his PhD from Kyoto University. His publications include 政党システムと政党組織 (Party Systems and Party Organisations), 代議制民主主義—民意と政治家を問い直す (Representative Democracy: A Reconsideration of the Public Will and Politicians).

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