Japan’s Stagnant and Unstable Political Landscape

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
Chairman and President of Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA

Publications Japan’s Stagnant and Unstable Political Landscape

Kenta Izumi, leader of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, makes a speech in Kusatsu in Shiga Prefecture on June 24, 2022, ahead of the July 10 House of Councillors election. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida led the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to victory in the Upper House election this past July. However, his political capital has diminished significantly since then because of his unpopular decision to hold a state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as public anger against a large number of ties between LDP politicians and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). LDP politics is overly complicated as the future of the former Abe faction, the largest faction within the LDP, is not clear due to the sudden passing of the former prime minister. In the meantime, opposition parties, which had a poor showing in the Upper House election, continue to fail to connect with voters. As a matter of fact, opposition parties are losing ground against the LDP in the latest Kyodo and Nikkei polls. This is a worrisome situation for rank and file local opposition lawmakers, particularly those of the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), who expect to face challenges in unified local elections next year.

The Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito

As noted previously, Prime Minister Kishida led the LDP to victory in July’s Upper House election. He hoped that a victory in a national election would give him stable political leadership, as there is no national election scheduled for the next three years. However, the tragic assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by a man whose family had been destroyed allegedly by the Unification Church, days before the Upper House election, dramatically changed Prime Minister Kishida’s political fortune.

Prime Minister Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for former Prime Minister Abe turned out to be very unpopular among Japanese people. In the latest Mainichi polls, 60 percent of the respondents said the state funeral of former Prime Minister Abe should not have been held, while only 18 percent of the respondents said it was a good idea to hold a state funeral.[1] In addition, Japanese people are overwhelmingly angry at widespread ties a large number of LDP lawmakers have had with the Unification Church. In the Mainichi polls, a whopping 82 percent of the respondents said the Japanese government should order the dissolution of the religious organization.[2] Prime Minister Kishida called for a cabinet reshuffle in August to defuse public anger, but the reshuffle backfired as some cabinet members, such as Minister in Charge of Economic Revitalization Daishiro Yamagiwa, who later resigned, turned out to have had ties with the Unification Church.

As a result, Prime Minister Kishida’s popularity has plummeted in the last four months. According to Real Politics Japan, Prime Minister Kishida’s average approval rating declined from 57.1 percent in July[3] to 38.5 percent in October.[4] Whereas Prime Minister Kishida’s average disapproval rating rose from 27.2 percent in July[5] to 50.2 percent in October.[6] This sharp reversal of public support must be a tremendous shock to Prime Minister Kishida, who always takes pride in listening to the voices of the regular people.

As a matter of fact, it is ironic that holding a state funeral for former Prime Minister Abe was a rare occasion, for he showed strong personal political commitment. The latest Mainichi polls show a dangerously low level of approval and an ominously high level of disapproval for Prime Minister Kishida.[7] While Mainichi poll results are often regarded as outliers, sometimes they are regarded as leading indicators.

Figure 1. Prime Minister Kishida’s Cabinet Approval Rating
Note: Table created by Sasakawa USA.

A prime minister is said to be in trouble when his approval ratings dip below 40 percent. However, despite strong headwinds, it is likely that Prime Minister Kishida will muddle through unless he makes another serious political misstep. First, there is no national election scheduled until an Upper House election in the summer of 2025. This does not necessarily mean he will have smooth sailing for the next three years. On the contrary, Prime Minister Kishida must lead the LDP in nationwide local elections in 2023 and must win another LDP presidency in September 2024. However, the fact remains that Prime Minister Kishida will stay on unless there is a grave political miscalculation in which the public loses confidence in him and results in a disastrous showing for the LDP in nationwide local elections. In reality, Prime Minister Kishida always has an option of calling a snap election if he thinks there is a reasonable chance that the LDP will come out victorious and thus regain his political capital.

Secondly, the LDP does not seem to have a viable challenger for the party leadership anytime soon. Three LDP factions, namely, the second largest Motegi faction (54 members), the third largest Aso faction (49 members), and the fourth largest Kishida faction (44 members), are solidly behind Prime Minister Kishida. While LDP Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi, who is two years older than Prime Minister Kishida, is restless, he does not have a wide support base to seriously challenge Prime Minister Kishida at this time. The former Abe faction, which is the largest LDP faction with 93 members, does not have a single strong leader to succeed former Prime Minister Abe. Acting Chairman Ryu Shionoya; Acting Chairman Hakubun Shimomura; Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Yasutoshi Nishimura; and Chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council Koichi Hagiuda are leading candidates to lead the Abe faction but there is no clear leading horse.

Thirdly, there is currently a strong sense of aversion for an election among the LDP lawmakers. Since LDP lawmakers damaged the public trust over their relations with the Unification Church, their natural instinct is to avoid judgement by the voters. While there is frustration at Prime Minister Kishida among the LDP lawmakers, it is in no one’s interest to put pressure on Prime Minister Kishida to step down.

Lastly, Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partner party, faces critical internal issues and has no appetite for political turmoil. Komeito held their biennial conference on September 25, 2022, and reelected Natsuo Yamaguchi for an unprecedented eighth term as leader along with three other key leaders that stay on board. This happened despite the fact that Komeito had been working hard to promote the next generation of leaders. Yamaguchi, who is 70 years old, is said to have been reluctantly reelected to lead the party. Komeito feels a keen sense of urgency to regain its high moral image, which Upper House lawmaker Seishi Kumano’s sexual harassment scandal seriously damaged. Komeito also has an urgent sense of crisis over the issue of “politics and religion,” as troublesome ties between lawmakers and the Unification Church has become a focal point of interest among the voters. Komeito hopes to put its house in order with veteran leadership to deal with these critical issues and, at the same time, deter severe criticism before Komeito local assembly members face elections in spring 2023.

Opposition Parties

Prime Minister Kishida’s sharply declining popularity among the public along with strong public criticism of LDP lawmakers for their ties with the Unification Church should create an opening for opposition parties to gain some ground. However, opposition parties are experiencing problems of their own making and are not in position to challenge the LDP for political leadership. As a matter of fact, the latest polls by Kyodo and Nikkei show public support for the LDP have increased from the previous month, and public support for the opposition parties have decreased in the same period. Even Nippon Ishin, which gained steam in July’s Upper House election, sees declining support in both Kyodo and Nikkei polls.

Figure 2. Approval Rating of Japan’s Political Parties
Note: Table created by Sasakawa USA.

A case in point of the opposition’s inability to appeal to the public is the CDP, which is the biggest opposition party. Kenta Izumi, leader of the CDP, originally planned to unify candidates for the Upper House election in July with other opposition parties in all prefectural constituencies where only a single seat is contested. However, he could not come to an agreement with other opposition parties on having unified candidates to challenge the LDP candidates. The Democratic Party for the People (DPP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) doomed Izumi’s strategy when they failed to cooperate with one another to proffer a unified front against the LDP, as both DPP and JCP wanted to run many candidates. As a result, the CDP candidates had to compete with DPP and JCP candidates in many constituencies.

In the end, the CDP won only 17 seats in the Upper House election, six seats fewer than before last summer’s election. In single-seat constituencies, CDP candidates won only two constituencies, Aomori and Nagano, out of 32 single-seat constituencies. Furthermore, CDP incumbents lost their seats to LDP newcomers in three single-seat constituencies, Niigata, Yamanashi, and even Iwate, which is the home turf of Ichiro Ozawa, a once powerful CDP lawmaker. In the proportional representation portion of the Upper House election, the CDP won only seven seats which indicates widespread declining support for the party. As a matter of fact, Nippon Ishin won one more seat than CDP and garnered one million ballots more than CDP.

As we have seen, July’s Upper House election resulted in a stunning defeat for Izumi. Falling behind Nippon Ishin in the proportional representation portion, in terms of both the number of seats and number of ballots, has led to the departure of local CDP members as they become pessimistic about their political future in unified local elections in 2023. Local CDP assembly members, who have no safety net in case they lose a seat, are very concerned that if CDP and DPP continue to have difficulties in fielding unified candidates, then expectations are Nippon Ishin will gain more seats in unified local election next year in wake of their victory in last July’s Upper House election.

In desperation, Izumi, who failed to achieve a respectful showing in the Upper House election as the CDP party leader, essentially begged former Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada to be the party’s secretary-general for an unprecedented fourth time. Izumi aims to stabilize the CDP by appointing an old guard, who carries weight within the party, to prevent the party from splitting in the worst case scenario.

Okada, as de facto CDP party leader, introduced a political stance different from Izumi’s. While Izumi stresses the importance of making “policy proposals” to the government, Okada stresses the importance of “policy criticism” of the government. Okada’s first move came as he launched an all-out attack on Prime Minister Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for former Prime Minister Abe by issuing a policy memo on state funerals on August 31. Okada’s attack was successful in terms of stimulating opposition to Prime Minister Kishida and the LDP. However, it is not clear whether Okada, who is not regarded as a charismatic leader, can energize the CDP rank and file and make it a viable political option for voters.

An added element of concern for the CDP is Tomoko Yoshino’s lackluster leadership, even though Yoshino is the first female leader of RENGO, the largest labor organization in Japan. RENGO failed to help all nine candidates, whom the labor organization officially endorsed, win in the Upper House election last July. Furthermore, all nine candidates who won experienced a decline in their vote tally. There is growing frustration within RENGO that Yoshino, who decided a highly unusual position for RENGO to not clearly support any parties for the Upper House election, has not been helping CDP and DPP build a unified front against the LDP. Yoshino also received criticism from some RENGO leaders for having dined with LDP leaders, including former Prime Minister and Vice President of the LDP Taro Aso. Needless to say, it is highly unusual and even problematic for a labor organization leader to socialize with LDP leaders in this fashion. Incidentally, she attended the state funeral of former Prime Minister Abe which CDP leadership condemned and boycotted. It is worth watching what kind of political leadership Yoshino exerts leading up to unified local elections next year.

[1] “毎日新聞世論調査 質問と回答 (Mainichi Shimbun Poll Questions and Answers),” Mainichi Shimbun, October 24, 2022, https://mainichi.jp/articles/20221024/ddm/002/010/158000c.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Real Politics Japan Poll, Real Politics Japan, October 30, 2022, https://www.realpolitics.jp/research/.

[4] Average polling data from October of Mainichi Shimbun, FNN, ANN, Kyodo, Yomiuri Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, JNN, and Nikkei.

[5] Real Politics Japan Poll, Real Politics Japan, October 30, 2022, https://www.realpolitics.jp/research/.

[6] Average polling data from October of Mainichi Shimbun, FNN, ANN, Kyodo, Yomiuri Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, JNN, and Nikkei.

[7] 毎日新聞世論調査 質問と回答 (Mainichi Shimbun Poll Questions and Answers), Mainichi Shimbun, October 24, 2022, https://mainichi.jp/articles/20221024/ddm/002/010/158000c.

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