Japan's Electoral Right Turn

Japan is poised to take a sharp turn to the right, as Japanese define the term, in the coming general election to be held Dec. 16. All indications point to a return of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) under the leadership of the hawkish, one-time Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.

Abe exuded confidence during a debate Nov. 30 at the National Press Club that he will be prime minister in a few short weeks. The incumbent PM, Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) seemed strangely passive, befitting a leader who knows that he faces ignominious defeat and can’t do much about it.

Conservatism is somewhat different in Japan than it is in other countries, such as the United States. It is not defined, as it often is in US, by opposition to tax increases (indeed, the LDP provided the votes to pass a doubling of the national sales tax last summer).

No, the term in Japan usually refers to a more nationalistic diplomacy, revisions to the pacifist constitution with its war-renouncing Article 9, more defense spending and a stronger position on territorial disputes, such as over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Abe strongly supports all of these issues.

The LDP election platform is tailor-made to Abe’s hawkish views. It proposes to:

  • Soften or eliminate the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution.

  • Interpret the existing clause to permit Japan to engage in “collective self-defense”.

  • Elevate the status of the Self-Defense forces to that of a National Defense Force

Not specifically enumerated in the platform are other conservative priorities, such as resuming official visits to the Yasukuni shrine, dropping or revising the 1993 Kono Statement in which Japan apologized for recruiting “comfort women” to serve soldiers during the war and reinforcing Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku islands.

All of these proposals are likely to increase friction with Japan’s Asian neighbors, especially Korea and China. Beijing in particular opposes the official shrine visits because the Yasukuni hosts the spirits of 14 convicted “Class A” war criminals.

It seems as if Abe had just stepped out of his one-year of as prime minister five years ago (2006-2007) where among his accomplishments he elevated the defense agency to that of a fully-fledged Defense Ministry with a seat at the cabinet. He was also the first Japanese premier to visit NATO headquarters in Brussels.

During the debate, Abe hedged on whether he would resume the Yasukuni Shrine visits, although he said he regretted that he had avoided them during his previous tenure. His predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had sent Sino-Japanese relations into the deep freeze by making official visits; Abe discontinued them to repair diplomatic ties.

On the sensitive Senkaku issue Abe favors erecting some kind of fishermen’s shelter on one of the islands, staffed with civil servants. There is no great clamor among actual fishermen for such a port of refuge. It is merely an excuse to raise the Rising Sun flag on the Senkakus.

Changing the constitution is formidable task, requiring two-thirds affirmative votes in both houses of parliament and a national referendum. Conservative objections to the charter come not just from some of its specific provisions but also simply from the fact that it was written by Americans while they were occupying Japan.

Abe noted that before the DPJ took power, no foreign head of state had set foot on any of the islands that Japan claims. Two years ago Russia’s then president Dmitry Medvedev visited one of the southern Kurile islands, and this year South Korea’s president Lee Myong-bak set foot on the Dokdo/Takeshima island. Abe said this showed the weakness of the current government.

On these kinds of conservative issues, Abe is essentially in tune with the new “third force” Japan Restoration Party (JRP) founded by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and now officially led by former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is even more conservative on these issues than Abe.

It is widely assumed that the LDP and its long-time coalition partner New Komeito will form a coalition with Hashimoto’s group, although, ironically, Komeito differs considerably on the constitutional issues that now seem to animate the current LDP. That probably won’t break the long-time alliance.

Considering that the major contenders are center right (DPJ) right (JRP) and further right (LDP), there was an obvious opening for a leftwing party; leave it to political dealmaker and organizer extraordinaire, Ichiro Ozawa, to recognize this and move in to fill the vacuum.

Ozawa dropped out of the news after he bolted the DPJ last summer over the issue of raising the national sales tax, taking about 35 MPs with him. He founded a new entity called Peoples’ Lives First Party. At the time it was thought to be a desperate move of DPJ members of parliament worried they would lose their seats and hoping that Ozawa could save them.

He was doing what he does best, working behind the scenes, in this case cultivating an alliance with the governor of Shiga prefecture in western Japan, Yukiko Kada, who announced last week that she was forming an avowedly anti-nuclear power party, the Japan of the Future Party, tapping into post-Fukushima angst over nuclear power.

Ozawa immediately disbanded his party and merged it with Kada, giving the fledgling political group, some political heft three weeks before the voting takes place. It also creates a challenger to Hashimoto’s Osaka based Restoration Party as the “third force” in the coming election.

It remains to be seen how many of Abe’s nationalist notions he can turn into actual accomplishments. The Senkaku fracas that began last summer and continues to percolate raises some anxiety over national security and a rising China, but there is hardly a groundswell of popular pressure for most of the things Abe wants.

He may find, as he did during his first time as prime minister, that the Japanese public is still more concerned with bread and butter issues than it is about changing the constitution. It is not for nothing that the wily Ozawa named his new and now disbanded party Peoples’ Lives First.