The Japanese People Want Change, but the Election Won’t Give it to Them

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Tadao Tomokiyo, Staff Writer

     “The people of this country have spoken.” “This is the start of a new era.” These are the kinds of messages that we hear every time that we get a new president. And it’s not surprising; over the past decade, from Obama to Trump to Biden, the United States has gone through huge shifts in government politics. But in Japan, elections are a different story.

     On September 29, Fumio Kishida defeated three other candidates in a race to become the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). This was a significant election; unlike the United States, where politics are controlled by two parties, Japan has many parties, with the LDP dominating. Kishida, after a standard parliamentary procedure, took the office of the prime minister of Japan on October 4.

     Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was notably absent from the list of candidates for the LDP leadership election. Suga had been appointed the spot of the leader of the LDP after Shinzō Abe—who had served as the prime minister since 2012—resigned due to health issues. However, Suga announced on September 3 that he would not be running for re-election. It was not an incredibly surprising announcement, as his approval ratings had dropped significantly since he took office.

     To many, Fumio Kishida is seen as a moderate politician who will become a stable leader. Despite its name, the Liberal Democratic Party—which might seem progressive and left-leaning to Americans not familiar with Japanese politics—encompasses a wide variety of views and is often perceived to be a conservative party. For this reason, it is unlikely that Kishida will make any huge changes for Japan.

     But Kishida is not what the Japanese people wanted. Of the four candidates running, Tarō Kōno was seen as the front-runner prior to the election at the end of September. A poll by Mainichi Shimbun on September 25 showed that of a sample size of 3,748, forty-seven percent of people supported Tarō Kōno. For Kishida, supporters made up just eighteen percent. How, then, did Japan end up with Kishida as its prime minister?

     The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party is chosen through a two-round election, with votes collected from LDP members of the National Diet and dues-paying party members. 382 votes are given to the members of the National Diet, and the dues-paying party members’ votes are proportioned to have an equal number of votes to those of the Diet. In this election, the party members clearly favored Kōno overall, who represented about forty-four percent of the votes. About twenty-nine percent voted for Kishida. If the leader were decided by popular vote, Kōno would have done much better. However, because the party members’ votes are proportioned to be equal to those of the Diet members, each party member’s vote ends up holding much less weight. In this case, the 335,046 party members who voted for Kōno represented just 169 votes. Kōno still had the majority of the party members’ votes, but with only a small number of Diet members voting for him, Kishida managed a very narrow victory over Kōno: 256 votes to 255.

     It was not over yet, though. With a total of four candidates, no one was given the majority of the vote. Kōno and Kishida moved on to a runoff election, eliminating Sanae Takaichi and Seiko Noda. In the runoff election, the Diet members, who now had a choice between just two candidates, again mostly voted for Kishida. The party members, who previously were allocated an already-small number of 382 votes, now had just 47—one for each prefecture chapter. The party members overwhelmingly supported Kōno, but those votes numbered just thirty-nine—still much more than Kishida’s eight, but not representative of the great number of party members in the LDP. Fumio Kishida ended up with the majority of the votes—257 compared to Kōno’s 170. The once tight election didn’t seem so close anymore.

     With Kishida now in office, he has a lot of work to do. He is taking over the world’s third-largest economy, which has been suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Japanese people have increasingly become dissatisfied with the LDP as Kishida’s predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, faced criticism for poor handling of the pandemic and for his decision to host the Olympics despite the high cost and a surge in COVID-19 cases. To keep voters assured, Kishida announced plans to implement a “new capitalism” that aims to solve wealth inequality.

     But Kōno, who was clearly the country’s favorite, offered many new ideas. The Georgetown-educated politician has more than 2.4 million followers on Twitter, and people appreciated his calls for change. He is open to the possibility of a female emperor, and he has historically taken a more critical stance on Japan’s nuclear energy program, something that has been scaring people since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011. He has since had to soften his tone on the nuclear program, partly as the threat of climate change becomes more real.

     Kishida, in contrast, does not offer much to distinguish himself between his two predecessors, Yoshihide Suga and Shinzō Abe. Abe had a relatively successful career as prime minister (he was the longest-serving prime minister that Japan had ever had), but reports of corruption inside of his administration have begun to come out. Suga, who served the rest of Abe’s term after he resigned due to health issues, faced a great deal of public criticism for a lack of a long-term vision and his handling of Japan’s issues in general. Kōno was not a radical by any means—he was even endorsed by Suga—but he did offer a new perspective that many people thought was necessary. Kishida, who has had a habit of being loyal to those above him, is generally expected to return to the policies of the Abe era, although he has publicly criticized the “Abenomics” program in an attempt to turn that expectation around.

     On the other hand, people have started to wonder how long Kishida will last as prime minister. Some people point to his similarities to Abe as a clue that he will hold office for a long time. But others, citing Suga’s short term, are reminded of the political instability of the period from 2006 to 2012, when the prime minister was replaced close to every year.

     Kishida has already been criticized since he took office. He recently visited Yasukuni Shrine, following in the footsteps of both Suga and Abe. Yasukuni Shrine is often seen to represent the militarism of Japan’s past, as it is the place where war criminals are enshrined. The tradition of visiting or sending ritual offerings to the shrine has been seen by some people to symbolize the rise of Japan’s right-wing nationalism, and has upset neighboring countries like China and South Korea. When Abe visited the shrine in 2013, even the United States—a key ally for Japan—was disappointed. General disappointment is reflected in approval ratings for Kishida’s cabinet. A poll by Jiji Press showed an approval rating of about forty percent, which is lower than polls showed for Abe and Suga’s cabinets. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic likely played a role in these low ratings. This is all to say that Kishida has a rough road ahead of him, but should he even be in charge?

     Proposals have come up to institute a new election system. Japan’s big debate is not much different from the electoral college debate in the United States, especially since ordinary Japanese citizens have no direct way of choosing the leader of the LDP, who, for now, is pretty much guaranteed the office of the prime minister. Ultimately, though, it was the vote of the Diet that determined the outcome of this election. There’s a reason that the lower house is called the House of “Representatives,” and members of the Diet should have considered the opinions of the people that they were representing. We’ll just have to wait and see how the people react to Kishida’s policies as he begins to settle into his new office.