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Japan Politics Now

May 2021

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suffered defeats in three by-elections for seats in the Diet, the first national-level elections since Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide took office last September. The losses are unquestionably a blow to Suga and damage LDP politicians’ confidence that he can lead them to victory in the lower-house election that must happen by October.

The LDP fielded candidates in two of the three special elections, and the party had hoped to win at least one of the two contested polls. But candidates backed by the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) emerged victorious in each election.

However, the significance of the opposition victories should not be overstated. In the elections in Hokkaido and Hiroshima, the LDP incumbents had been wrapped up in scandals before resigning, badly damaging the party’s image. In the Nagano contest, the victor was the younger brother of the previous incumbent, who died in office, and a member of a local political family. While the government’s slow vaccine rollout undoubtedly fueled voters’ anger, all of these elections were well within the opposition’s reach because of these local circumstances.

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The next political bellwether will be the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election scheduled for July 4. The Tokyo LDP has feuded with Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko and her party, Tomin First no Kai, since it was overwhelmingly defeated by Koike in the 2017 assembly election. The two parties are expected to compete fiercely for control of the assembly in the upcoming contest, but the government’s lack of support will weigh on the Tokyo LDP.

If the LDP is again routed in the assembly election, Suga’s position will become increasingly tenuous. Lawmakers are already questioning whether the prime minister can lead his party to victory in the next lower-house election, and they are looking for any indicators that would point one way or the other. If Suga heads into fall with no political victories under his belt, he may find his own party reluctant to follow him.

Domestic Politics:

Public Uneasy as Summer Olympics Draw Near

Multiple public opinion polls about the upcoming Tokyo Olympics have found the Japanese public does not feel particularly positive about the event. National broadcaster NHK found that 49% or respondents said the event should be canceled, and Kyodo News said 59.7% of respondents in its poll said the same thing. Asahi Shimbun’s survey found that 83% of respondents want the games postponed or canceled. Nonetheless, the government is still planning to move forward with the event, and Prime Minister Suga has said the games can be held safely.

Langley Insight: The Olympics are a major political gamble for Suga and the LDP. If the games can be held without major coronavirus outbreaks, the public will likely feel relieved and retrospectively hold mildly positive feelings about the event. It will also give the government an air of competency amid criticism that it has mismanaged the pandemic response and vaccination rollout. However, if significant outbreaks occur and COVID-19 cases among the Japanese population are traced to the Olympics, it will reinforce the perception that the government has bungled its response and validate criticisms that the games could not be held safely during the pandemic. The government has not announced any postponement or cancellation, but the Olympics could prove to be the undoing of the Suga administration.

Constitutional Referendum Law Set to Pass Diet

Legislation to amend the national referendum law that would be used to conduct the national vote required to change Japan’s Constitution is set to pass the current Diet session. The LDP agreed to CDP requests for restrictions on political advertisements on constitutional revision. The bill will also improve access to polling stations by setting up voting sites in railway stations and other facilities.

Langley Insight: Amending the Constitution has long been a goal of some within the LDP, and multiple surveys have shown a majority of the public is supportive of some form of change. However, a concerted push to change the supreme law is not likely to come soon. The issue does not seem to be a priority for Prime Minister Suga, who is more focused on his own initiatives like the Digital Agency, and public attention is centered on the vaccination rollout and pandemic response. With the LDP feeling anxious about the upcoming lower-election, there is little appetite to take on a politically fraught issue like constitutional revision.

Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo Calls on LDP to Support Suga

Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo said on a television program that it is “natural” that Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide should stay on as party president and prime minister after his current term ends this fall, and he called on LDP members to use “common sense” and support Suga.

Langley Insight: Abe retains significant influence as the de facto head of the largest faction within the LDP, and some speculate that he may try to mount a return to power. Abe’s support for Suga could vanish if the Cabinet support rate plummets and the LDP’s own favorability drops, but for the moment the former premier has indicated that he is not supporting an alternative candidate from within his own political faction.

Moritomo Files to Be Released Ahead of Tokyo Election

The government has admitted the existence of a set of documents that comprehensively detail the events of the Moritomo Gakuen scandal, in which the Finance Ministry sold government land to an associate of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo at a fraudulently low price. The documents were created by Akagi Toshio, the ministry official who altered official documents under orders from his superiors and subsequently took his own life. The government will submit the documents during court proceedings on June 23.

Langley Insight: Of the multiple scandals and quasi-scandals related to Abe, Moritomo was perhaps the most damaging. It sank Abe’s support rate, dominated news cycles, ate up time during Diet proceedings and popularized the term sontaku — the phenomenon in which bureaucrats guess at leaders’ unstated wishes and act accordingly. The documents could put the scandal back in headlines, which would be damaging for LDP heavyweights like Abe and Finance Minister Aso Taro, and for the party more broadly. The documents will also be released shortly before the July 4 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, which itself will be a bellwether for the lower-house election likely to come next fall.

Foreign Affairs:

Navy SDF

Japan Undertakes Large-Scale Military Training with France and U.S.

In May, Japan started joint military drills with France and the U.S. on Japanese soil for the first time. The training exercises focused on urban warfare and amphibious operations. Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said Japan wants to increase its cooperation with “like-minded countries,” a reference to countries that share democratic values.

Langley Insight: Europe is showing a growing interest in the Indo-Pacific, a development welcomed by Tokyo. Japan is increasingly wary of Chinese maritime expansion, and it is eagerly courting more partners to counterbalance Beijing in the region. Polling has consistently shown that in other countries, the Japanese public is more distrustful of China. That means the government can frame growing defense ties with other democratic countries as pushback against China without provoking public backlash.

NHK Polling:

After appearing to bottom out, the Suga Cabinet’s support rate plummeted in May opinion polls. Frustration over the slow vaccine rollout, rising infection numbers, and anxiety over the upcoming Tokyo Olympics have sunk in among the public. If vaccination rates ramp up as the government predicts, voters may prove to be forgiving in the fall after the feeling of crisis has passed. If the support rate stays in the traditional “danger zone” of 30% to 39% for an extended time, however, jittery LDP politicians may start looking for a more popular leader to shepherd them through the upcoming election.

Cabinet: 35% support (-9pp), 43% do not support (+5pp)
Parties: LDP 33.7%, CDP 5.8%, Komeito 2.9%, Ishin 1.6%, JCP 3.1%, DPP 0.6%

NHK Poll May 2021

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