On April 9 and April 23, Japan will hold its 20th Unified Local Elections. While these elections are unlikely to have immediate political consequences, they may still have a significant impact on the national political scene in the long-run. This April’s elections may yet impact whether Prime Minister Kishida Fumio continues his nascent political recovery and could carry significant implications for the long-term future of Japan’s smaller political parties.
What Are Unified Local Elections?
Originally devised in the immediate post-war period to raise voter turnout, democratic interest, and cut administrative costs, every four years since 1947 Japan holds various gubernatorial, mayoral, prefectural, and local assembly contests concurrently over two rounds.
In 2023, 985 different municipal-level contests will take place over these two rounds. Round one includes nine prefectural governor contests, including in Kanagawa, Osaka, and Hokkaido prefectures (Japan’s 2nd, 3rd, and 8th largest prefectures). Mayoral races will also take place in six of Japan’s 21 “designated cities” with over 500,000 people, including Sapporo and Osaka (Japan’s 3rd, and 5th largest cities). Elections for assemblies in 41 prefectures and 17 other cities will also take place.
Round two features assembly elections for Tokyo’s 23 local wards in addition to mayoral and assembly elections for the smaller cities and townships throughout Japan. Five by-elections for Diet districts will take place in Chiba, Wakayama, Yamaguchi (two districts), and Oita Prefectures (upper house constituency).
Japanese local elections can have national consequences. Mid-2021 municipal election losses in Tokyo and Yokohama ended Suga Yoshihide’s premiership by spooking Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) backbenchers ahead of a national election.
This is unlikely to happen to Prime Minister Kishida, however. First, Mr. Kishida has timed his recovery in the opinion polls perfectly. The moving average of ten media surveys indicated that in early April support for the Kishida cabinet had risen back to 40 percent (Figure 1). Net support also recovered 14 percentage points from the start of 2023 to reach negative six by the start of April (Figure 2).
Second, the Unified Local Elections themselves have lost a degree of political impact. More out-of-cycle elections in major municipalities are being held due to deaths and resignations. In 2023, only 27.4 percent of municipal elections will take place over the two designated rounds (Figure 3), a record low. Only 9 out of 47 prefectures will hold their gubernatorial elections on April 9. Voter turnout is also trending downwards, dropping below 50 percent for the first time in 2019, and reaching as low as 42.6 percent in Tokyo’s local wards. The number of contests where only an incumbent or single candidate ran has also increased to over 20 percent (Figure 4).
Furthermore, the ideological alignments and policy issues at stake in prefectural and local elections do not always map neatly on to the national landscape. Successful prefectural governors and mayors tend to avoid running on an official party ticket and prefer endorsements from national parties across the political spectrum. The LDP prefers to keep an arm’s length from high-profile leadership local races and looks to back “winners” rather than run its own official candidates. In 2019, only one governor elected had an official party designation—Osaka’s Yoshimura Hirofumi (Ishin no Kai). Therefore, unless LDP-endorsed incumbents lose in the highest profile leadership races or in the Diet by-elections, the LDP is unlikely to put blame on Mr. Kishida.
The outcome of prefectural assembly elections is a more useful gauge of grassroots support for the government as these elections tend to breakdown more along party lines. In the past, if the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) acquired significantly less than 50 percent of the prefectural assembly seats, this usually coincided with the LDP faring poorly in national elections. The LDP won 51 percent of these seats in 2019 and the party has once again set itself a target of winning half of these seats in 2023 (Figure 5).
This should be very achievable. After all, there are few signs that the opposition parties are coordinating at the local level to truly challenge the LDP. In fact, Ishin and the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) are competing more fiercely with each other for assembly seats than in 2019 (Figure 6).
More Important for the Smaller Parties?
The most important long-term consequence of the Unified Local Elections for national politics, therefore, could be how the various smaller parties fare. Ishin no Kai appears to be implementing a bottom-up approach to building its national profile, relying less on the personalities and the prominence of its leadership. For example, in Kanagawa Prefecture, Ishin will run 29 candidates for the prefectural assembly after running zero in 2019. Nationwide, Ishin only ran 83 candidates in 13 prefectural assembly races in 2019—and 55 in Osaka alone. In 2023, Ishin will run 211 candidates in 33 out of 41 prefectural races (Figure 7).
Ishin is quietly looking to expand its political base and establish itself as an alternative party that can both work with or challenge the LDP in a way other opposition parties cannot. Across all municipal assemblies, Ishin has set itself the objective of increasing the number from 450 to 600. Failure by Ishin to achieve its objectives in this election would dent the party’s growing confidence after two good outcomes in the last two national elections.
The CDP has also increased both the overall number and national spread of its candidates in the prefectural assemblies compared to 2019 (Figure 8). By adding the official candidates of the Japan Communist Party (JCP) and the Kokumin Minshutō (Democratic Party for the People) to the number of Ishin and CDP candidates and comparing this to the number of assembly seats available in each prefecture, we can work out a “contestation ratio” for the 2019 and 2023 elections (Figure 9). Nationwide, the ratio only increased from 0.27 to 0.3 between 2019 and 2023. However, 29 out of 41 prefectural assembly races saw an increase in the contestation ratio, with 18 prefectures seeing an increase of over 20 percent in the ratio (Figure 10). While it is looking to pick-up votes from people disaffected with the LDP, Ishin is also clearly looking to supplant the CDP in Kanagawa, Hyōgo, and Nara prefectures given the major influx of candidates.
The LDP’s coalition partner Komeito will also be apprehensive about its own performance. Komeito generally runs an unusually tight electoral ship and will not run candidates if it believes they might lose. Therefore, it expects victory for all 1,500 municipal candidates (including 170 in prefectural assembly races). However, the party, which thrives on grassroots contributions and volunteerism, has underperformed in the last two national elections, leading to losses. Another poor result could raise uncomfortable questions about Komeito’s national coalition with the LDP or its leadership. Like the JCP, Komeito is a political party that has been bolstered by support from older generations and will at some point have to address questions about its future political positioning.
The greater focus on contesting local elections by both the CDP and Ishin reflects an increased awareness of the fragility of focusing only on top-down strategies focused on personalities or opposing the ruling coalition to build a national political base or profile. Only the LDP, Komeito and the JCP appeared to take municipal politics seriously. Whether this dynamic continues into the future and trickles down below the prefectural assembly level is to be seen.
What To Watch For
Japan’s 2023 Unified Local Elections are not likely to have immediate consequences for the national political landscape. However, the various outcomes may still impact whether Prime Minister Kishida continues his nascent political recovery after a disastrous second half of 2022. A robust result would put Mr. Kishida in a position to call a House of Representatives election later in 2023 as his administration approaches the two-year mark.
The performance of the smaller parties, especially in the prefectural assembly elections, could also be impactful. The Ishin no Kai and the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) are competing vigorously at a local level in a way they have not in the past. A decisive result in favor of one or the other could influence the long-term national conversation about who can claim the mantle of the main opposition party or alternatives to the LDP-Komeito governing coalition. Poor results by the Komeito and/or the JCP, on the other hand, could accelerate long-delayed discussions about their future political positioning and election strategies.
Dr. Corey Wallace is associate professor in the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Kanagawa University, Yokohama. He was formerly the Einstein postdoctoral fellow at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universität Berlin from 2015-2019. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand as well as a PhD from the University of Auckland. Corey was also an adviser in the innovation system policy team of the New Zealand Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010