An Inside Look into Japan’s Election

In my statement of purpose required for the JET application, I stated that I wanted to be apart of a potential period of change in Japan, as I believe the country could be on the verge of a turning point. As the national election looms just two days away, what better time to debate weather Japan will pave a new road towards progress, or just sputter further into economic and political paralysis.

Since most of my workday is spent idle in the teacher’s office, I have spent the last week reading as much Japanese news as possible. Mainly it’s in regards to the election and the economy. In my opinion, these two factors, politics and economics (in Japan they could be tied together as one), are the two most important elements needed to spark change. Today I will only touch on the political aspect, and how I see it from living here over the past four months.

Empty teachers office. Where is everyone?

A photo posted by @stephen_harmon on

This is the teacher’s office where I spend most of my time.

Some History

The soon to be prime minister, Shinzo Abe is the head of the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party, think republicans). Beginning during the American Occupation, this party enjoyed a half-century of rule before the DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan, think democrats) ousted them from parliament in 2011. It’s interesting to note that the same bureaucrats who helped steer Japan to WWII, remained powerful and continued to influence the country’s political decisions during the American Occupation. And they remain powerful even today.

If you think about this, it makes sense that the bureaucrats continued to rule post war Japan. After all, they knew how Japan operated better than anyone else. So when the US needed advisors get Japan back on track, it called on these bureaucrats. So the same bureaucrats and zaibatsus (large Japanese business conglomerates) like Mitsubishi and Mitsui, that helped fund the war, also jump-started Japan’s post war economy, which led to the economic miracle. Sorry for all that history. It just fascinates me.

Who’s Who?

The favorite to be the next prime minister, Abe

Getting back to Abe. He is known as the Prince of the LDP, as he is the grandson of former Prime Minister, Nobuska Fishi, the founding father of LDP’s post war rule. This will actually be Abe’s second stint as prime minister. He was elected in 2007, but later quit a few months in, due to health related issues. However, he appears to be Superman today. If this confuses you, it’s okay. All of Japan is confused by his sudden turn around as well.

His opposition is, Yoshihiko Noda, the head of the DPJ. Noda was elected in 2011, on a campaign that boasted to bring change to Japan. However his popularity has plummeted. One reason is due to the DPJ’s decision to increase sales tax from 5% to 10% in order to cover the costs of pension and social security for the country’s graying population. The decision to raise sales tax was something their platform pledged not to do. Whoops. Additionally, Noda promised to greatly reduce the number of US Marines in Okinawa. He did not do this. Instead, tension between locals and Marines have only worsened during his tenure.

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Current Prime Minister, Noda

As a result of Noda’s inability to promote change, the ruling DPJ is expected to see its current 230 seats dwindle to just 70. As the incoming LDP will control an estimated 300 seats, and a new third party, the Restoration Party could secure 30 seats. However nearly one third of voters remain undecided.

Indecision

This indecision seems to stem from the general belief that most people care more about the longevity of the party than the party’s policies. There have been six different prime ministers in the past seven years. In fact, there has been almost an average of one prime minister per year since I was born! Japanese people agree that Japan needs a radical change. Thus, a third party has emerged, the “Restoration Party”, led by former Tokyo governor, Shintaro Ishihara, and Osaka’s mayor, Toru Hashimoto. However, inline with Japanese custom, citizens are not parading around supporting a radical change, as it would go against society norms by disrupting the harmony of daily Japanese life.

Yes, change takes time. Thus, constant attempts for change, like electing six prime ministers in seven years to bring change, has only added to Japan’s political paralysis. If something needs to be changed, you can’t just elect a new party and expect immediate results. In fact, you can’t even rely on a devastating earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown to bring change. So what will it take?

What Will it Take?

It will take strong leadership. And the Japanese people want strong leadership. Thus many young people are beginning to support Ishihara, and his Restoration Party. However, Ishihara leans very right. But unlike many of Japan’s previous political leaders, he takes action. This was seen by his attempt to buy the disputed Senkaku islands, which are also claimed by China. However, the Japanese national government purchased the islands just so they wouldn’t fall into Ishihara’s hands. Even more alarming is the statement Ishihara made when he promised to shed blood if China continues to violate territorial agreements in disputed waters (VIDEO of this speech). So, it should come at no surprise that Ishihara promotes military spending, and even a revision in the constitution to allow pacifist Japan to initiate military action, even if it’s not in self defense, which it’s current constitution outlines. This could cause serious problems as the US is legally bound to support Japan should any military conflict arise. All in all, I don’t see how this 80-year-old man would bring change to Japan. Instead, he would only drag Japan back to its militaristic past.

Shintaro Ishihara

Perhaps the most outspoken, and definitely most right wing choice, Ishihara.

This brings up another interesting conflict; Japan’s constitution was written entirely by the US. So, much of the wording is hard to understand when translated to Japanese. Can you imagine being continually governed by a constitution that was imposed on you, and written in a completely foreign language with unclear translations? Maybe it’s time for a change in Japan’s constitution, in addition to finding strong leader.

The underlying question is: Do people want to go back to post war Japan, or keep pushing for reform? The DPJ was voted in because they are the voice of progress in Japan. Their platform consists of phasing out reliance on nuclear power by 2030. On the other hand, the LDP tries to avoid any talks about the nuclear reactors because their close ties and support for the nuclear companies is extremely unpopular amongst the Japanese public.

What Does the Average Japanese Person Think?

To gain a better understanding of what the Japanese public thinks, I spoke with a teacher at my school and asked him if he would vote, and for which candidate. His response: “Yeah, of course I will vote. But only blank vote.” I was confused what he meant by blank vote. But it means exactly what you think; it’s just submitting a blank ballot.

He further explained that he does not support any of the parties because he thinks none will bring change. So, I asked him about the new Restoration Party. His main argument against them was that, “They are too old, and they are not saying anything about the nuclear policy. They [Ishihara and Hashimoto] joined together, but they share opposite views on the nuclear policy. All they say is ‘a specific policy will be revised.’ I hate that they don’t address it.”

I also asked him why many Japanese people seem uninterested in politics, yet they vote at a much higher rate than in the US. His response, “Japanese people are not mature. They don’t know what a democratic society is. The media is hiding the political issues. For example, the news doesn’t say anything about the issues at the US military base in Okinawa. [Japanese people] only vote because it’s vested interest, its our duty to vote…Young people have no interest in politics because the government policy is to make young people uneducated about politics. College was the place of antiestablishment movement. But now college is leisure land. Just obey the rules. If you follow the rules, you will get by okay.”

This same mindset of just following the rules to get by, with little emphasis placed on creative thinking, is prevalent at my school too. My teacher brought up how computer systems are not effectively integrated in school. This sounds crazy, but some teachers don’t know how to use their school issued laptop! My teacher went on to say teachers don’t ask, “How can I make use of this technology to change the lesson plans and improve the way I teach? Instead, it’s just do your duty. Just teach. Teachers are fine with the status quo.” To me, this teacher’s office example is a perfect metaphor for Japan as a whole; just do your duty, don’t worry about creativity, and don’t even think of questioning educators or the way things have always been done.

We finished our conversation with the question, ‘what will bring change to Japan?’ His response surprised me: “It is impossible for any of the running parties to bring change to Japan. We need another nuclear accident”

So, will this election spark a turning point for Japan, a county that has been stuck in deflation for twenty years? From talking to my teacher, it looks doubtful. But, young people do provide optimism, as they recognize the need for a strong leader who is not afraid to divert from the status quo. Also, History would teach us to never count Japan out when it comes to rebuilding.

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