Election 2021

Japan’s Opposition: Is This the Year?

The ruling LDP government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has put the party under a level of scrutiny not seen since the previous DPJ administration was in power between 2009-2012. Despite public frustration, many are understandably wondering why the opposition still seems unlikely to unseat the LDP. Suga Yoshihide’s resignation as prime minister in September foreclosed the possibility for the opposition to challenge the LDP on its credibility by removing the person responsible for the country’s pandemic response. But this might be a blessing in disguise – rather than challenging the LDP on its competence in government, the opposition could instead position the LDP as the purveyor of an out-of-touch neoliberal system that prizes self-responsibility and traditional values, offering a socially progressive alternative that reflects the public preferences on many issues.

Party competition since the 1990s has mostly focused on who can most competently manage the government, but this debate has lost much of its appeal. The failure of the DPJ to rise to the occasion during its time in government was mercilessly exploited by the LDP after 2012, with memories of DPJ mismanagement effectively ceding the competency argument to the LDP before campaigns could even get started. It is often said that the LDP can outmaneuver the opposition on most issues as the public has more faith in its ability to implement something lukewarm than it has in promises of sweeping change. But by offering an ideological contrast along with its unprecedented level of coordination, the opposition’s strategy means that it may finally have more to offer which can appeal to those looking for a real alternative to the LDP.

With its unprecedented level of coordination, the opposition’s strategy means that it may finally have more to offer for those looking for a real alternative to the LDP.

Japan’s largest opposition party and second largest political party after the LDP is the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), headed by Edano Yukio. It draws significantly from both left-wing opposition parties such as the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and Social Democratic Party, as well as the center-leaning Democratic Party for the People (which lost most of its membership in a partial merger with the CDP in 2020). These parties plan to strategically coordinate candidates in single-member districts (SMDs) to avoid splitting the progressive vote, similar to what the LDP has been doing with their junior coalition partner, Komeito and is expected to increase the opposition’s seat share. On one hand this is a simple numbers game that would result in gains even without increased turnout, but by showing that the opposition can put its differences aside when it matters, is also counting on non-voters to feel that there’s a reason to show up to the polls.

In that sense, the splintering of the Democratic Party in 2017 may have had a positive impact in the long run. By starting out as an insurgent party led by recognizable progressive politicians, the CDP projected a more grassroots image that generated a level of excitement by students and progressive voters that had been missing since the DPJ’s fall from government, eliciting comparisons between Edano Yukio and the left-wing U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. By 2020 it had coalesced into a viable political organization and sacrificed some of its initial flagship policies – such as its hardline stance on abolishing nuclear power – to placate the conservative wing of the party and the DPP specifically while entrenching a core set of left-of-center policies. It also settled the question of whether it’s possible to cooperate with the JCP, forcing the conservative wings and the anti-communist unions to appreciate the reality that an election can’t be won without their support. The JCP has even agreed to cooperate with the CDP in the legislature outside of a coalition, marking a historic end to a cordon sanitaire that has left the 99-year-old party on the wayside. In a revealing example of his desire to project a unified progressive wing rather than lead an insurgency, Edano now more frequently cites President Joe Biden as his aspirational model.

Edano’s ability to unify the party and its partners has been impressive. Edano’s personal political thoughts are outlined in his 2021 book, Edano’s Vision which describes his idea of Japan coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic as a society of mutual aid which values the government’s ability to protect its citizens from physical harm and economic precarity. He juxtaposes this against current neoliberal society, a society subjugated to an economic rationality that has undone the inherent communality of the Japanese people. Many of these ideas have made it into the new manifesto wholesale: robust publicly funded basic services to free up people’s expendable income, higher taxes on corporations and high incomes, and revising the dispatch act to guarantee stable employment if desired, to name a few. 

In addition to economics, the opposition can also point to the LDP’s inability to implement popular policies on gender and diversity on par with those in other developed states. The opposition has already signaled that gender specifically is a pivotal area where they can outperform the LDP by promising to introduce same-sex marriage laws and the choice to retain one’s surname after marriage. Currently there appears to be virtually no space for the LDP to blindside the progressive opposition on this front- even the LDP’s socially progressive wing has ceded ground to culturally conservative party members who increasingly see progressive social policies a threat to the identity and traditions of the nation. Conservative magazines such as Seiron warn of the LDP’s increasing “shift to the left,” chastising lawmakers such as former Defense Minister Inada Tomomi for their push on social justice issues. 

The lingering question is whether the public feels that the LDP’s claim to competence still trumps the potential of bringing in a new vision

Japan’s new Prime Minister, Kishida Fumio, has nevertheless attempted to take up the CDP’s rhetoric in a bid to move beyond Abe’s legacy and head off the competition both inside and outside of the LDP. He has also attempted to cast aspersions on Japan’s neoliberal economic system and during the LDP leadership election he proposed a “new Japanese capitalism” in which growth is complemented by redistribution. However, few of his promises have made it into the LDP’s final manifesto and his comments on the surname issue and same-sex marriage have also shown that the LDP is still vacillating on these issues, leaving the CDP successfully positioned with a distinctive offer that it can’t replicate. The lingering question is whether the public feels that the LDP’s remaining claim to competence in government still trumps bringing in a new vision. 

If the opposition’s message leads to a good showing, even if not dramatically threatening the LDP’s hold on power, it would give momentum to their strategy of a united front under a socially progressive and anti-neoliberal agenda. Hirakawa Eri, politics watcher and author of the recent book 25 sai kara no kokkai, considers 150 seats (an increase of thirty seats) to be the benchmark against which Edano’s performance as leader will be measured. He predicts that anything more than that will significantly strengthen his leadership of the party. 

Constructing a viable and credible opposition is still, however, a long-term project, and this election will be more about building trust between the parties and with the electorate at large than about a full-blown victory against the LDP. Given that this process is ongoing, the key is then that these debates aren’t seen as a deficiency by the wider public, and that the opposition’s inherent interest in showing it’s more competent than the LDP doesn’t get in the way of what it can provide that is unique to the opposition.

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