Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/csis_er/8509604657">CSIS</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">(CC)</a>
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. CREDIT: CSIS (CC)

Japan's Politics: A Move toward Nationalism or more of the Status Quo?

Jul 14, 2016

Was Prime Minister Abe's landslide victory in the July elections a vote of confidence in his ability to jump-start Japan's stagnant economy, or simply a desire for stability? Will he use his majority to revise Japan's constitution? What is the mood of the country today, especially among young people? Find out from Japan scholar Sheila Smith.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and I'm speaking today with Sheila Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations. Today we're talking about Japan's current political situation.

Sheila, thanks so much for talking with me today.

SHEILA SMITH: Thanks, Devin. Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure.

DEVIN STEWART: Japan just had a big election. The ruling coalition won a super-majority. It seemed like a big victory for Prime Minister Abe. What do you make of the recent elections?

SHEILA SMITH: I think it's an important indicator of where the Japanese electorate is at the moment in terms of their support for the ruling coalition. Mr. Abe's Liberal Democrats (LDP) and their partner Komeito were really well-positioned, I think, going into this election.

There wasn't a really strong opposition party that could really challenge them in various ways. I think that one of the stories of Japan's current politics is that the opposition, the former DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan), now merged with a new Innovation Party to become the Democratic Party, are still not yet as cohesive as you might like and they're not yet in a position to really give the LDP a run for their money on policy choices.

DEVIN STEWART: What was the message here? What was this election really about? Was it a referendum about a particular issue, or was it just support for the status quo?

SHEILA SMITH: I read it pretty much as a support for the status quo. Two things were important here.

Again, for you listeners who are not following Japanese politics that closely, not all elections are equal. This is the Upper House of Japan. The Upper House, as opposed to the Lower House, of Parliament tends to be the place where the Japanese voter either vetoes or punishes the ruling party for decisions made that they don't like. But the Upper House is not where governments are made or broken. So this election was not going to determine whether Mr. Abe stayed in power or his party stayed in power or not.

But what was up this year was really this question of the consumption tax. I think more than any other issue in previous Japanese Upper House elections, the consumption tax, or the decision to move forward with the consumption tax, has often resulted in a pretty punishing vote by the electorate against the ruling party. You can go back to Mr. Nakasone in the 1980s, who introduced it, and then again to Mr. Hashimoto later on, who raised it. So I think Mr. Abe didn't want to go into this election raising the consumption tax. Instead, as you know, he backed away from a previous plan to raise it. So I think in many ways you can say that he didn't get the opprobrium that might have come had he not done that.

But the voter turnout was relatively low; it wasn't on the high side, in the low 50s. And again, the option was: Do you want really stability; do you want this government to continue to try to stimulate the Japanese economy?

I think you had a poll out this morning that showed that there are about 50 percent of the Japanese who don't think Abenomics is working and don't actually think it's going to work. So you still have a deep ambivalence, I think, on the economic prospects of Japan. But I do think that Mr. Abe seems to be for most Japanese the country's best prospect of stable, steady governance.

DEVIN STEWART: So Abe is probably better than the weak opposition. He's been framing this election as sort of a vote of confidence for his economic plans, known as Abenomics.

What do you think Abe can do to further stimulate the economy?

SHEILA SMITH: At the G7 meeting this year prior to the election, which was held in Japan, he clearly tried to persuade the other advanced industrialized economies, European and the United States, to collectively pursue greater stimulus to help stabilize the global economy. He didn't get very far with, of course, Chancellor Merkel in Germany, who is not predisposed toward stimulus as a tool of economic growth, or with Cameron, at the time the UK prime minister. But Abe has been trying to argue that stimulus as a tool is probably the most effective way for the advanced industrialized economies to deal with the current global economy.

He immediately on the evening when the results came in on Sunday set out to tell the Japanese people that he himself was going to stimulate the Japanese economy. He announced a huge program of transportation upgrades, building more high-speed bullet trains in the countryside, doing everything he could, I think, to demonstrate to people in rural areas, who are really feeling the hardest hit by Japan's current economic doldrums, that he was going to revitalize rural Japan's connection to urban Japan and bring that forward through infrastructure-building. So he's going to be stimulating the economy in Japan, and I think that's really the only instrument he has at the moment that could give him some ready policy results.

DEVIN STEWART: There has been some talk about trying to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, ratified in Japan. What do you think the prospects of TPP would be?

SHEILA SMITH: I think right now all eyes in Tokyo are really on the United States. Whether we can get it done or not, I think, seems to be the dominant conversation. For Mr. Abe, I think if we were at a point where we were moving this forward ourselves here in Washington, I think he'd have enough bounce to move it forward.

There were some signs in this election, though, of an electoral setback. Up in Hokkaido and in some other districts, the opposition seemed to capitalized on a kind of anti-TPP mood. Or at least in Tohoku, I believe, there were some farmers who had become more disgruntled with the LDP and with Mr. Abe's government than they had previously expressed.

So there may be some bumps along the way here. But I think the real question is not—he has a two-thirds majority in the Lower House; now, as you said, he has a two-thirds majority in the Upper House. I don't think, even with that kind of disgruntlement in the farming community, that he is going to be in trouble if he chooses to move it forward to ratification.

DEVIN STEWART: But that two-thirds now gives him the opportunity to look at revising the constitution. A lot of people have been speculating on whether he would veer away from economic reform, economic stimulus, away from that, to looking at revising the constitution. That would require a referendum, which would put the vote out to the public to allow Japan to be more assertive in global affairs in the military arena.

What do you think are the prospects of him using his two-thirds majority in the Diet to look at constitutional revision? What are the prospects of that?

SHEILA SMITH: I think the conversation is upon us. I think we've been watching it evolve. Again, I know that everybody focuses on Mr. Abe, and in particular on Article 9, especially in the wake of his reinterpretation of that Article 9 to allow for collective self-defense. That legislation he put forward last year was very controversial inside Japan. But I think the story of constitutional revision is a deeper story than that.

We just started a blog series at the Council on Foreign Relations, in fact, that's going to have people from Japan and experts on Japan talking about the conversation. We're going to run it over the next couple of months if people are interested.

But the Liberal Democrats, first and foremost, have always wanted constitutional revision. It has always been part of their platform. It has ebbed and flowed in terms of enthusiasm for that piece of the platform. Mr. Abe himself, as you know, has always seen himself as the person who really wanted to make inroads into changing the document that was imposed under the U.S. occupation in 1947. His grandfather, similarly, renegotiated the U.S.–Japan security treaty and had a similar sense that Japan needed to get itself out of this overlay of postwar defeat and occupation, the sentiment that many conservatives in Japan think is embedded in that constitution.

I think that the two-thirds majority—the parliament has been discussing constitutional revision now formally since 2000, or actually a couple years before that, so it's over a decade now.

Many of Japan's political parties have a constitutional revision committee, a Kenpou chousa suishin giin renmei, tasked with thinking about the constitution. Some are very pro, like the LDP. The new party, the Japan Innovation Party, that has just split and then has this complex alignment nationally and in Osaka, they have come into being basically on the premise of changing the constitutional balance of power between local and central authority in Japan.

So a lot of the conversation about the constitution inside Japan is not actually just about Article 9. Article 9 is definitive in terms of people's sense of the identity of that constitution, but there are other governance questions that run up against the way the constitution lays out political power and social power in Japan.

So I think you are going to see the committee meet and talk and continue to discuss. Whether you are actually going to see a national referendum, which you pointed out is a requisite to revision, in Mr. Abe's tenure as prime minister, I can't predict that. I think it's 50/50, frankly.

There is some talk that he wants to do something innocuous, something that all parties could agree with, and call it an amendment, much like the way the United States has amended its Constitution—in other words, not revising the whole document, but just adding something that's missing from the current document. By doing so, he would therefore cross that threshold of actually changing the document that has been in force now for almost 70 years.

So I think you're going to see some pushing and pulling. His coalition partner, the Komeito, of course is not pro-revision. They have an interesting phrase; they want to "add to the constitution"—that's a direct translation of the way they talk about it. So they may be willing to be partners in an amendment process.

But again, it's an interesting time to watch the Japanese debate. It's not all colored by Mr. Abe's ambitions. But I think we're going to get a really interesting conversation among Japanese political parties, but also in the broader society, of whether or not this document needs a Japanese hand, an imprimatur that's different than the occupation intentions.

DEVIN STEWART: And speaking of society at large, what do you make of the various public opinions about the constitution?

SHEILA SMITH: It's deeply divided. I think one of the ways—that's why I caution people when they say, "Oh, this is a mandate for constitutional revision." If you look at the exit polling—and again, exit polling in Japan is not as mature as it is, for example, in the United States, so I think we should be a little cautious about reading exit polling as if it's gospel—but nonetheless, NHK, Asahi, and Jiji did these exit polls. They all had very disparate responses.

The NHK poll basically breaks down the people who went to the polls to vote this time roughly into thirds: a third are pro; a third are against; and a little bit, a couple of percentage points higher, just don't know.

The liberal-leaning Asahi, which would instinctively be anti-revision, their respondents seemed to give them a 49 percent pro and a 40-something percent against revision.

So I'm not sure we have a real good take on public opinion. But all of the media polling for sure reveals the Japanese public is deeply divided and uncertain about this idea of touching the document that has really been the foundation of Japanese democracy for generations.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you, Sheila.

Looking at sort of the general direction of Japan politically, a lot of democracies are seeming to go toward embracing more of a nationalistic flavor these days. Do you see Japan moving more toward nationalism, or are the recent elections a sign that Japan is a stable place among a sea of chaos in the world?

SHEILA SMITH: Well, I think maybe it's somewhere in between. I think what surprised a lot of people, or have made people slightly anxious, is you see a right wing in Japan become more voluble, become more outspoken, and feel more comfortable in saying what they think in political discourse.

And of course, there are many people who see some of Mr. Abe's political friends as being members of that right wing. There's a lot of attention these days to the Nippon Kaigi, the Japan Conference, which is a nationally based organization that is pro-constitutional revision, pro-the emperor, pro-all of the kind of flag-waving and symbolic patriotic symbols of what the right represents in Japan.

You've also seen in the poisonous deterioration of Japan–South Korean relations, of course hate speech in Japan, anti-Korean hate speech, and in some organizations' demonstrations and protests, pro and con, that kind of approach to dealing with South Korea. So you've seen the kind of behavior that is reprehensible in all of our democracies emerge, the racism as well as the kind of nationalistic flag-waving kind of nationalism.

But I think you've also seen counterpunches in Japan. So last year, watching the Abe cabinet try to pass its security legislation, for the first time in a generation you saw university students take to the streets in the tens of thousands against Abe's "war bills." You see a new debate among young and older Japanese about their military, about their choices, about their security environment. I don't think Japan's democracy would allow the kind of militarism that we all know Japan experienced in the 1930s. I think that's no longer a part of contemporary Japan.

But I think we shouldn't be surprised if, like in the European democracies or in ours, you see advocates of nationalism, you see right-wing voices that draw on racial discrimination, and other kinds of politics. Japan's democracy is not immune.

But I think we should take heart in the fact that the individuals who are most conspicuous in some of these areas are not successful at the polls. One of the things on Sunday's election I was looking at—not because he's a nationalist—but I was looking at the kind of parties that were absolutely pro-constitution, were very, very much over on the right side of the spectrum. They weren't successful on that score. But neither were the very, very left, who are anti on this particular issue.

So I think what you see is diversity. I think what you have is a big sloppy middle in Japan. In that sense the "status quo" label fits. But I think that middle zone—both conservative and liberal, if we want to use those words instead of right and left—they understand their country has some pretty significant choices ahead of them, some of which have to do with security policy choices. Many of them have to do with social structure and social reorganization, some of which the conservatives are against and the liberals are for.

So you're going to see a pretty hearty debate in Japan going forward. But it's going to be in that sloppy middle. I don't see the country being dragged one way or the other, to the extreme right or the extreme left.

DEVIN STEWART: Speaking of security policy, the Hague tribunal recently ruled against China in favor of the Philippines on a claim in the South China Sea, and the Chinese have not been very happy with that outcome.

How do you see Japan's relations with China playing out, and in East Asia in general?

SHEILA SMITH: Well, I think we are at perhaps the cusp of a critical turning point in Asia. I think the Hague tribunal ruling gives lots of opportunity for dialogue now with China and among China and its neighbors, including the United States, on how to manage the maritime space.

I think, like every other rising power, if you want to use that language, there are some deep nationalistic and aspirational politics inside China as well. And I think we should all be respectful of the fact that China's transformation is rapid and that has social consequences within the country.

This weekend I've just been trying to write a little bit about Japan's experience as a rising power. Those of us who know our Japan history know that a lot of the early period of Japanese debate over its international ambitions in the early 20th century was driven by really divisive and deeply politicized and sometimes violent domestic politics. So societies that undergo rapid transformation are tender places to discuss foreign policy, especially when the foreign policies take on these kinds of issues of sovereignty and territorial rights.

DEVIN STEWART: Sheila, any final comments for people to look out for in Japan in the next few years? For example, as we approach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, any final developments to look out for over the horizon?

SHEILA SMITH: I think when we're sitting outside Japan and in the commentary about Japan we often focus solely on Mr. Abe or the top level of governance there. I think we should be listening a little bit more carefully to some of the social debates in Japan.

Especially, I think it's interesting to focus on the younger Japanese. There was a little attention paid to them because they went to the polls on Sunday, 18- and 19-year-olds, for the first time. But again, this young generation, into their 20s and early 30s, they are facing a Japanese economy in which they've never experienced economic growth. Their prospects are far dimmer than their parents' prospects were at this age.

I know you have written extensively about some of the success stories of Japanese entrepreneurs, and I know that there's great energy. I don't mean to say that there isn't. But I think we should listen to the conversations that are coming out from younger Japanese and among younger Japanese of the kind of society they want and about the kind of economic opportunity that they will need to survive and thrive. Because Japan's demographics are the way they are, we give a lot of attention to the elderly in Japan and the role they are going to play. But I think we are not listening carefully enough to younger Japanese.

The only other thing I'd say is that this morning the news in Tokyo was that the Heisei emperor has announced his desire to abdicate the throne in favor of the next generation. This hasn't happened in 200 years. It will require a process that will open up another conversation, I think, about the procedures of succession, as well as open up the longstanding conversation about whether women can succeed or not. The succession, of course, of the crown prince's daughter has been a question mark now for a little while.

So I think that is not a huge social issue in Japan, but it does open up some of the social conversations that we should be listening to about how the Japanese envision their future society and what kind of mechanisms they see as being supportive of a Japan that needs really fundamentally to transform itself in a very globalized world.

DEVIN STEWART: Those are great final thoughts, Sheila. Thank you so much for our discussion today.

SHEILA SMITH: Thank you so much for having me. My pleasure.

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