Thoughts about Japan's General Election of Nov 9, 2003

Monday, November 10, 2003
By Arudou Debito

Some armchair analysis from me about yesterday's election in Japan, as both a newly-minted voter and a Hokkaido resident. This was the basis for a Japan Times article dated November 18, 2003.



(skip this part if you're up to speed with election results)
Japan had its general elections for the Lower House (the more powerful of the two legislative bodies) on November 9, 2003. 480 seats were contested, simple majority of 240 plus one necessary to form a government. The results surprised just about everyone:

The Liberal Democrats (Jimintou, LDP--the ruling party for most of Japan's postwar period) took 237. Its coalition partners Koumeitou (a party founded by Japan's Souka Gakkai religion) took 34, and the New Conservative Party took 4, for a total of 275. Which means they stay in power.

This sounds like good news for the status quo until you tease the numbers a bit--for the ruling coalition lost twelve seats in the process.

Meanwhile, the forever fractious up-and-comers, the Democratic Party (Minshutou, DPJ), actually gained 40 seats to reach 177--the highest for a second party since the Socialist Party disintegrated in the 1990s. The other opposition parties all lost seats--the Communists (-11), and the Social Democrats (the party led by Japan's most famous woman politician, Doi Takako, -12). Including thirteen others without any party affiliation (and assumed by the newspapers to be anti-coalition), the opposition stands at a total of 205 seats (+17)


2) WHY?

Predicting voter behavior and expectation is one of the softest of sciences, but here are my guesses, for what they're worth:

I know, a lot of cyberspace has been devoted to analyzing how "disillusioned" Japan's long-suffering voters have been with the "LDP Gorillas" (the technical term) and the political process (http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#rapldp)
(http://www.debito.org/activistspage.html#nanporoelections). How they have been served platitudes instead of policy for generations. But this time around, I think people really aren't buying the status quo.

Case in point: Hokkaido. Out of twelve electoral districts, only three seats (7-ku, 11-ku and 12-ku, i.e. superrural eastern Hokkaido) were easy elections for the LDP. Four seats (1-ku, 2-ku, and 4-ku, representing urban Sapporo/Otaru, and 8-ku, representing Hakodate) were easy DPJ wins. The rest were very close races: 3-ku (Sapporo) 9-ku (Tomakomai), and 10-ku (rural central Hokkaido, my district) ultimately went to the DPJ, while 5-ku (Ebetsu) and 6-ku (Asahikawa) went to the LDP. Almost all candidates who came in second place in the close elections received seats anyway though Japan's Proprortional Representation (PR) system.

Yes, it was not a clean sweep for the DPJ in Hokkaido. Nor much of a sea-change on the surface (especially since other ruralities around Japan, such as Shikoku, Chugoku, and Hokuriku, remained safe LDP strongholds, teeth firmly on the public-works teat).

But when you take into account the fact that in Hokkaido, now Japan's poorest prefecture, is on average the rurality suffering the most economic duress in Japan, the opposition wound up gaining not only two LDP seats, but also three PR seats--from 8 to 11. The LDP only squeaked in to preserve its eight PR seats.

Moreover, in Kyushu, fast-growing Fukuoka demonstrated a new urban tendency towards hybrid voting (like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya), awarding four LDP seats to the DPJ.

Point being: If it was an urban district, it generally went DPJ. If rural, generally LDP. Except in Hokkaido, where even the bumpkins had second thoughts.



Shortly before the election, the two major opposition parties (DPJ and the Liberal Party, or Jiyuutou) combined into one, which turned out to be an excellent move. The DPJ could now field candidates in almost every electoral district, providing the image of a united front. Result: votes were no longer split between "LDP" and "not LDP", rather LDP and DPJ. And for good measure, Liberal Party leader and egomaniac Ozawa Ichiro let Kan Naoto be party frontman. Good thing too, since people remember Ozawa as a former LDP Prime Minister Takeshita kingpin, and don't trust him.

Finally, the master stroke:

The DPJ was the first party in Japan's modern history as a mature economy (I can't say definitively for pre-1988, but I have been monitoring Japan's electoral processes quite keenly as a hobby since then) to issue a "Manifesto"--a 38-page set of public promises: It gave a statement of purpose, outlined party policies in great detail, and gave timelines for specific accomplishments. A very well-thought-out document even down to the layout--with a nice balance between graphics, greetings, and the guts of policy.

In comparison, all the other parties looked like laggards in getting out their statements. Some resorted to platitudes as usual. The LDP came out with a "Koizumi Reform Declaration" (Koizumi Kaikaku Sengen) which was of course polished and glossy. But not all that detailed unless you asked for an extra blurb (which turned out to be a thick garden-variety photocopied set of documents, eye-glazing to anyone except political scholars).

This decided my vote for the DPJ. When I read the LDP Sengen, I was put off immediately by Sengen 2, which talks about restoring public safety by "reducing the number of illegal foreigners by half". Leaving aside the falsehood that there are more illegal foreigners in Japan than ever before (when in fact the number of illegals has gone down EVERY year since 1993: http://www.debito.org/crimestats.html#visa), it mentions nowhere (not even in the eye-glazers) how the LDP will impliment this policy while avoiding racial profiling and harassing people in my position.

The DPJ Manifesto, however, talks about restoring public safety on page 37, Item 2 (1). Not ONCE is foreign crime alluded to--focussing on the crimes, not on the alleged perpetrators, thanks. And for good measure, on the previous page (Item 4 (4)), there is a proposal to list foreigners on Residency Certificates (juuminhyou)--a topic very close to my heart (as I discussed it in last week's Asahi Shinbun, http://www.debito.org/asahi110803.jpg ). That's more like it. Far more open-minded.

Leaving aside my own personal qualms (hardly representative of the average Japanese voter, to be sure), I think the Manifesto was crucial in establishing the DPJ as a party to be taken seriously at last. It also set an important precedent. From now on, parties will have to offer urban voters something of substance before they will bite. This, not just sound-trucking day in and day out, I believe (or at least hope) will become standard operating procedure.

Just so long as the DPJ starts making good on their promises if and when they get a chance to. Still, they are much closer to this objective than they were 24 hours ago.



Since its inception during the depths of the Cold War, the LDP has had access to a near-secret store of money called the "M-Fund" (courtesy of the American government trying to make sure Japan remains anti-communist--see http://www.jpri.org/WPapers/wp11.html). Result: The LDP has been exceptionally well-funded and organized in every election, able to appeal single-mindedly to big-business interests (and likewise keep replenishing the pump through patronage, which happens in any big-business party around the world).

This phenomenon in miniature: The day before election day, I went to DPJ and LDP offices in my local hometown (Nanporo, population 10,000) to collect copies of their manifestoes. The DPJ office had only one elderly and overworked staff member present, who basically thrust the Manifesto at me and bowed a lot. The LDP, however, had NINE elderly and VERY friendly staff members (all paid, natch) offering me chairs, fruit, tea, and all the promotion materials I could carry (even though they weren't familiar with the word "Manifesto"--took some coaxing to get that more detailed policy outline). You couldn't help but walk out of there with a smile and a good impression. Which is what professional politicians excel at.

If this contrast was indicative, I thought the DPJ was going to do much worse this election. (I even called DPJ Hokkaido Headquarters to tell them that. They knew who I was--I've spoken for them before (http://www.debito.org/doshin060701.html) and were quite chagrined.) I guess more voters could see beyond the LDP's mere hospitality than I thought. Good.


The Social Democrats under Doi Takako fell from grace as the David-and-Goliath Party losing 12 of their 18 seats. Remember, this is the party whose rep Tsujimoto Kiyomi did what even pit-bull Tanaka Makiko could not--topple LDP Kingpin Suzuki Muneo in 2002. Tsujimoto herself was forced to resign due to allegations of fudging secretarial salaries (which just about every politician does--rumor has it Doi set up Tsujimoto for stealing her limelight). After making gaffes denying the existence of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea, Doi was not re-elected this time in her district of Hyogo, surviving only through the PR vote.


LDP Vice President Yamasaki Taku lost his seat in Fukuoka (due to philandering fallout). So did a personal unfavorite of mine--LDP's Satou Shizuo of Otaru, who in 2000 was the only politician who refused to answer our survey concerning the "Japanese Only" Onsen Case until after the election, "to avoid misunderstandings" (http://www.debito.org/otarudoshin000615.GIF). Neither berk got enough votes even to squeak in on the PR seat. Unfortunately, prototypical LDP Gorilla and former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro passed the post comfortably in Ishikawa.


THE THOROUGHBREDNESS of the Japanese Diet remains pretty much intact. Former PM Obuchi's neophyte daughter Yuuko got overwhelmingly reelected in Gunma at age 29. The son of newly-retired and still nasty Etoh "The Nanking Massacre is a fabrication" Takami got in in Miyazaki. Tokyo Gov Ishihara couldn't quite pull off a George Bush Senior: only one of his sons (the older one with a cabinet post) got elected. The other son, and one of Kan Naoto's sons, lost their bids despite copious stumping. Firebrand and former LDP member Tanaka Makiko (daughter of Japan's historically most corrupt LDP kingpin) stormed through to reelection in Niigata as an independent candidate, telling people to vote for her and for the DPJ (in that order). I could go on: Around a quarter of the Diet, according to the weeklies, is blood or marriage-related to previous politicians. Runs in the family, these brand names and reelection machines.

LDP octigenarian dinosaurs Nakasone and Miyazawa quit without an heir, so with that the average age of the Diet may be dropping a bit. Even still, it may just mean a new generation of politicians--literally--are assuming their peerages.


ANOTHER CREEP who crept in (by only 9000 votes) was LDP ultraconservative and former Ministry of Education minister Machimura Nobutaka. Famous for denying public works projects to local companies who didn't vote LDP, he heralds from the city I work in--Ebetsu. Reading my June 2, 2003 "Watashi no Shiten" article on SARS in the Asahi Shinbun (http://www.debito.org/asahi060203.jpg), Machimura had his secretary call me and stump a copy of a spiffy felt-bound book called "International Cooperation" (issued 2003 by the "Economic and Political Fact-Finding Committee" (Seikei Chousakai)).

Why not?, I said. Got the book. Plus a bill for 45,000 yen. Kind of like the waiter who asks if you want more bread with your soup and then charges you for it. (I found out later from friends that this is one way of soliciting campaign contributions--sort of like those $1000-a-plate dinners done in the US. Makes sense--the inner and outer bindings are full of advertising, and messages from several other Dietmembers, so this is a generic good so people can contribute and escape accusations of bribing.)

Even more indicative of the twerpski's character was the fact he didn't even bother to leave Tokyo yesterday and be at his election headquarters when he won. His supporters had to "banzai" a photo of him. Here's hoping the rival candidate (DPJ) who also got in on PR upsets him next election.


FINALLY, indicted corrupt Hokkaido politician Suzuki Muneo, recently released after a record 437 days in police custody, declared his candidacy in far-eastern Hokkaido all over again. Then backed out days later due to claims of "stomach cancer". Hokkaido Shinbun reported that he still got 500 votes (which by law cannot be counted--no write-in candidates allowed in Japan). Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. (See me Japan Today essay 18 on what kind of a person Muneo is at http://www.debito.org/japantodaycolumns16-18.html#18)


All-in-all, a good election, and a far better one than I anticipated. We can only wait and see if urban expectations (of being persuaded, not jaded, by politicians) will finally overcome the rural conceits of keeping things just the way they are--even if they are not at all good the way they are. Hokkaido, I believe, may be one bellwether of that.

Again, some thoughts, for what they're worth.

Arudou Debito, Sapporo
November 10, 2003

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Copyright 2003-2004, Arudou Debito/Dave Aldwinckle, Sapporo, Japan