A look at approval and disapproval ratings of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet over time
This note marks the beginning of Sasakawa USA’s Japan Political Pulse (JPP), developed by Sasakawa USA Fellow Tobias Harris. JPP aggregates major opinion polls conducted by Japanese media outlets in order to provide a more accurate picture of the Abe government’s public approval rating. In addition to aggregating multiple polls, Sasakawa USA’s fellows also will provide occasional commentary on noteworthy data points in recent surveys.
Introducing Japan Political Pulse
Opinion polls are an important feature of every contemporary democracy, and Japan is no exception. But whether because of the legacy of prewar authoritarianism, or the flexible nature of parliamentary democracy, the opinion polls conducted by Japan’s media outlets have played an outsized role in shaping political outcomes compared to other democracies. High approval ratings can increase a prime minister’s ability to govern; while low and falling approval ratings can embolden parliamentary backbenchers, bureaucrats, interest groups, and the media to resist a prime minister’s agenda or even try to replace the premier. Polls, in short, are not simply a barometer of public sentiment but a weapon in the ongoing struggle over how Japan is governed.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is no stranger to this phenomenon. Taking office in October 2006 as the hand-picked successor of outgoing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — a master of using public opinion to his advantage — Abe enjoyed some of the highest approval ratings of any new Japanese prime minister, nearly 70% in some polls. But scandals, agenda mismanagement, and the emergence of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) as a credible alternative eroded his standing so that by the time he resigned in September 2007, his approval ratings had fallen to 34%, well below his disapproval ratings of 55%. In the final months of his tenure, Abe had fallen into a vicious cycle: a scandal or policy error would lower the government’s support, which would encourage stronger opposition to the government throughout the political system, begetting further missteps and so on.
Public opinion and the second Abe administration
The Abe government’s approval ratings remain buoyant more than three years into its tenure, breaking the chain of short-lived prime ministers who have rapidly lost the confidence of the Japanese public and been forced to resign.
It is therefore not surprising that since returning to power in December 2012, Abe has been acutely sensitive to the importance of preserving his public support. The prime minister’s launch of “Abenomics,” his eponymous economic program, may be at least partly driven by the prime minister’s desire to stay on the right side of public opinion, since opinion polls have long shown that voters want their government to focus on jobs, economic growth, and social security instead of on foreign policy and the constitution. From day one, Abe and his advisers have believed that by articulating and following through on their growth agenda — and by boosting the performance of Japanese equity markets — they could preserve the government’s approval ratings and, consequently, the Prime Minister’s political capital.
To some extent, this has worked. The Abe government’s approval ratings remain buoyant more than three years into its tenure, breaking the chain of short-lived prime ministers who have rapidly lost the confidence of the Japanese public and been forced to resign. Even more impressive, Abe’s public support has managed to recover several times after plunging in the wake of parliamentary passage of contentious national security legislation. However, it is difficult to say that the prime minister’s resilient approval ratings are a function of support for his economic program or a vote of confidence in Japan’s economic performance since 2012. Indeed, the government’s headline approval ratings have remained steady despite the same opinion polls showing considerable disapproval of the administration’s major policy initiatives, including Abenomics. In a recent poll by the Nikkei Shimbun, for example, only 27% believed that the government’s economic policies would result in better economic conditions going forward, while 49% did not. Arguably Abenomics has mattered less as a package of policies than as an indicator of the government’s willingness to address the problems that matter most to Japanese citizens. As a result, the Abe government has successfully created a politically virtuous cycle: articulating and acting on policies bolstered public support, which gave the government a stable foundation, which better enabled it to formulate policies, and so on. When put together with lingering memories of the Democratic Party of Japan’s (DPJ) poor performance in government and ongoing disarray within the DPJ and other opposition parties, the result has been an unusually stable base of support for the administration.
Purpose and methodology
The goal of the JPP is to provide a comprehensive look at the government’s prevailing approval rating as well as other opinion polling regarding critical issues facing Japan. While Japan has a high volume of quality opinion polls — regularly conducted surveys with large, randomly drawn samples — these polls often have subtle but consistent biases. The center-right Yomiuri Shimbun, for example, consistently shows the highest levels of support for the Abe government. Following in the footsteps of U.S. opinion poll aggregators, we will aggregate major polls so as to minimize the impact of these biases and arrive at a more accurate picture of the government’s support on a given day.
Our methodology is straightforward. On the day a poll is published, its findings are averaged together with polls conducted over the previous ten days, weighted by sample size. For every day following publication, a poll’s sample size is adjusted downward according to an exponential decay formula to account for “staleness.” A poll drops out of the sample after ten days unless no new polls have been published, in which case it remains in the sample until a new poll appears.
 Yoshida Takafumi, a former Asahi Shimbun political reporter-turned-poll specialist, writes in his 2008 book Yoron chosa to seiji that the postwar enthusiasm for polling was a direct reaction to prewar and wartime suppression of public expression by the militarist regime.
 For now this includes NHK, Nikkei, Yomiuri, Asahi, Mainichi, Kyodo, and Jiji. We may include a wider range of polls in the future.
 Y=n (1-.1)^t, where n equals the original sample size and t equals the number of days since the poll was conducted.