Japan’s 2021 general election and its crisis of democracy

By Seiya Morita

January 21, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Despite the many voices in favor of a change of government heard on the eve of Japan’s 49th general election held at the end of October 2021, the ruling parties, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Kōmeitō, secured a stable absolute majority. They achieved this with only a minimal loss of seats (LDP from 276 to 261; Kōmeitō from 29 to 32; total from 305 to 293). The main opposition parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) and the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), which fielded coalition candidates in most single-seat electoral districts in an effort to change the government, lost seats (CDP from 109 to 96; JCP from 12 to 10). Most of the seats lost were snatched up by Nihon Ishin No Kai, an Osaka-based neoliberal party, which increased its number of seats several times over (from 11 to 41).

There are two contrasting assessments of the election results and the opposition coalition. Many in the media argued that the opposition coalition was a failure, or even a disaster. On the other hand, the supporters of the opposition, including the Communist Party leadership itself, are of the opinion that it was not a great defeat at all, and even think they got the ruling parties on the ropes.

In reality, the result was not so bad as to be a "disaster," but to say that the opposition has the ruling parties on the ropes is clearly an exaggeration. The fact is that even though the opposition parties went into the election with the aggressive goal of "regime change," they fell far short of that goal. Even if the CDP had won half of the closely contested districts (about 30 constituencies), it would have only maintained its existing number of seats, and even if it had won all of them, it would have gained only a dozen seats, far short of a change of government.

There are many explanations of the ruling party's overwhelming victory against some expectations, but most of them are superficial and tactical in their analysis. Differently here, I examine the result from the following two dimensions: (1) direct and short-term factors focusing on the election and the recent period leading up to it, and (2) historical and structural factors in line with Japan's post-war history.

Direct and short-term factors

There are four immediate and short-term factors that led to the overwhelming victory of the ruling camp in the election.

First of all, the ruling parties moved up the election schedule by about a month, thereby depriving opposition parties of the time they needed to promote their candidates and policies to the voters. In many one-seat-constituencies, opposition jointly fielded candidates were chosen only on the eve of the election, but, the candidates' names, let alone their policies, could not penetrate the voters in such a short period of time (in my constituency, for example, I almost never even saw the electoral campaigning of the opposition candidate).

Secondly, just before the election, the number of COVID-19 cases plummeted, and the wind that had been blowing for the opposition parties died down. The number of infections increased at rapid speed during the Tokyo Olympic Games in July and August, shaking public confidence in the ruling parties (when the hosting of Olympics was precisely the reason why the ruling parties thought that the rush of gold medals of Japanese athletes would lead to increased support for the government), but with the rapid increase in vaccination rates in August and September, the number of infections dropped sharply in October, the election month.

Thirdly, the ruling caste had a political plan to go into the general election with Yoshihide Suga as prime minister and LDP president, but when Suga's approval rating dropped sharply, it made a tactical decision to quickly cut Suga loose and instead held a massive election rally for the LDP president immediately before the election, mobilizing the entire mass media. The LDP chose Fumio Kishida, who is relatively young, free of scandal, and makes a fresh impression, as the new president, and went into the election while his impression was still good. His lack of impressionability, mildness of character, lack of viciousness, and lack of political clarity, which are supposed to be weaknesses as a political leader, had a positive effect on those who were fed up with the too long and too vicious former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His youthfulness and freshness was a kind of relief after Suga, who was old and ugly.

Fourth, even though there was no realistic possibility of regime change, the ruling parties exploited the opposition's emphasis on regime change to foment a sense of crisis in their camp. This is the basis for the so-called "getting the ruling parties on the ropes" argument, which in fact tightened up the ruling camp and contributed to the victory of the ruling parties in many closely contested districts. On top of this, by sending the message that the Communist Party might enter the new government if the opposition forces win the election, the ruling camp upset anti-Communist leaning RENGO (Japanese Trade Union Confederation), one of the organizational bases supporting the CDP.

In short, the fact that the ruling parties made sure to take steps to block each of the potential winds that were blowing in the opposition's direction led to the victorious election result, which reflected their organizational strength and basic votes (and this result was secured through the single-seat constituency system rather than any proportional election system).

The dominant opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), is a purely parliamentary party, which doesn’t have its own party organization or even any party organ. It is like a kite relying on the wind. Instead of constructing an organization of its own, the CDP relies on two organizational foundations: RENGO and the Civil Alliance for Peace and Constitutionalism (Shimin Rengo). But with the former trying to pull the CDP to the right and the latter trying to pull it to the left, it was impossible from the beginning for this kite-like party to soar high.

Structural and historical factors in Japan's post-war history

However, these are only short-term and immediate factors. Why the first opposition party is nothing more than a kite-like party, why the national center of labor unions like RENGO has come to take a conservative position, and why the opposition parties needed to form an alliance for the election, are questions that are left unexplained. In order to explain these problems, we need analysis from a longer-term perspective.

We can advance many points about these questions, but if we focus on the institutional issue of national elections, it is impossible to avoid the decisive fact that in the early 1990s, when the country was undergoing a transition from a Fordist and Keynesian capitalist system to a neoliberal one, there was the introduction of a single-seat constituency system that overwhelmingly favored the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the name of "political reform”. 

As is well known, the postwar reforms under the Allied occupation, then the so-called "reverse course," and then the twists and turns that followed led to Japan’s formation of the post-war order, which had three features. First, the LDP's relatively dominant political arrangement has persisted consistently since the end of the war, known as the “one-half party system” (a system in which the first opposition party constantly wins just over half of the ruling party's seats), based on the multiple-seat electoral district system. Under such a political structure, it was clear that the introduction of a single-seat electoral district system that overwhelmingly favored the dominant ruling party would inevitably make the LDP (or similar conservative parties) the semi-permanent winner.

Second, as a result of the defeat of the post-war class struggle, the labor unions and regular workers in the large corporations were basically integrated under company-based cooperativist unions. Therefore, there was no class base in Japan to establish a Western-style (conservative-labor or conservative-liberal) two-party system. In the early 1990s, leftist intellectuals such as Fusao Ushiro (a Gramsci scholar) and Tetsuya Tsukushi (a liberal news anchor), idealizing the two-party systems of Britain and the US, argued that the only way to break through the stagnant political situation in Japan, where there had been no change of government for decades, was to introduce a single-seat constituency system in which a small difference in the number of votes would result in a large difference in the number of seats. However, the class and social structures in Japan had been quite different from that of Britain and the US There are many differences, but the most important difference is that Japan did not have a strong nationwide labor movement (or a strong civil rights movement) centered on industrial unions, which had supported the Democratic Party of the United States and the Labour Party of the United Kingdom to become one of the two major political parties. To be sure, in the immediate post-war period, there was a strong wave of industrial labor momentum in Japan too, but it was crushed by monopoly capital backed by the power of the Allied occupation, and as a result of this historic defeat of the post-war class struggle, cooperativist company-based unions became the mainstream labor unions in private sectors, which in turn supported conservative parties or right-wing social democrats.

Third, the Socialist Party, which was the dominant opposition party, was much more radical and anti-imperialist (against war, the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, US bases, Japan Self-Defense Forces, and NATO) than the British Labour Party or the US Democratic Party in terms of military and foreign policy. This radicalism of the Socialist Party made it unrealistic to have a regular change of government in Japan within the framework of imperialist capitalism. In other words, Japanese labor unions in the private sectors were much more right-leaning than their Western counterparts, while the social democrats who are supposed to be the political representatives of the trade unions, were much more radical and anti-imperialist than their Western counterparts. This serious gap contributed greatly to the main shift in the political trajectory of the Japanese Socialist Party and its tragic end.

This does not mean that if the Socialist Party had accepted the Security Treaty and the Self-Defense Forces from the beginning and become a European-style social democratic party, the two-party system would have been realized earlier in Japan. The opposite is true. If the Socialist Party had chosen that path from the beginning, it would not have even become the dominant opposition party, but it would have become a minority opposition party. This was because public opinion against war, the Security Treaty, and SDF was strong and widespread in post-war Japan. The fact that today's Social Democratic Party (SDP), the successor to the Socialist Party, which has become a mere social liberal party, rejecting the militant tradition of the Socialist Party, is now a fading political party, is more proof of this. However, this "leftism" of the former Socialist Party was one of the key factors that prevented the creation of a stable capitalist two-party system in Japan.

Next, we will examine factors representing discontinuity with the past. The single-seat constituency system was introduced not in the immediate post-war period, when the class struggle was developing like a storm, nor in the period of revolutionary upsurge in the 1960s and early 1970s, but only once the neoliberal counterrevolution had already fundamentally altered the nature of economic and social structure in Japan in favor of big business.

It was mainly the labor unions in the public sectors that supported the Socialist Party in post-war Japan, but these unions were also severely weakened by the course of administrative reform from the early 1980s and, above all, by the destruction of the National Railway Workers' Union due to the division and privatization of the national railway system in the mid-1980s. Before the so-called “political reforms”, the RENGO was established in 1989, swallowing the Leftist trade union confederation, which was called the Sōhyō (General Council of Trade Unions of Japan). The collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe around 1990 destroyed the foundations of the Socialist Party in ideological terms as well. Under these circumstances, it was completely obvious what the outcome would be if a single-seat constituency system was introduced.

Both the British and US single-seat constituency system were introduced not in the neoliberal era of the 1990s, but long before that. And through many historical upheavals such as fierce class struggles, wars, industrial union movements, and civil rights movements at home and abroad, workers' parties or liberal parties grew to compete with conservative parties. To be sure, these parties were also weakened by the neoliberal counterrevolution from the 1980s, and to a large extent transformed into neoliberal parties, but the strong organizational and electoral bases they had already established before then did not easily collapse. But Japan was a different story. In Japan, even after the iron vice of the militarist and despotic emperor system was taken away due to the end of the war and post-war reforms, trade unions were unable to grow into an industrial labor movement because of the violent repression of the Allied occupation. The neoliberal reforms were a cruel blow to such an originally fragile social and class base, and the single-seat constituency system was introduced as a final blow. This ultimately led to the dismantling of the Socialist Party, which was the biggest obstacle to the neoliberal and imperialist restructuring of Japanese society.

The working people of Japan were deprived of a decisive political channel to reflect their political, economic and social demands on national policy. Public opinion and the people do not lean to the left or to the right on their own. These always change in alignment with their political representatives. When it became impossible to reflect leftist public opinion in politics (for a time, this was reflected in the form of a surge in the number of votes cast for the Japanese Communist Party, but this was temporary), public opinion itself also took a decidedly rightward and conservative turn.

Today's opposition coalition was, so to speak, a kind of emergency escape hatch that was established upon these remains of political, class, and social scorched earth. The liberal lawmakers and party officials who made up the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the predecessor of the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), initially believed that they could become a party that could play a role in the two-party system without the help of the Communist Party, but this was a fundamental illusion for the reasons already mentioned. Without the votes and organizations of the JCP, which survived as an ideologically organized party, the CDP could not stand a chance against the ruling parties’ candidates in most of the constituencies. That is why they agreed to an opposition coalition through the mediation of the Civil Alliance, but this was only a compromise deal under the institutional, social, and historical constraints that guaranteed the overwhelming dominance of the ruling parties.

The crisis of democracy

What the above situation indicates, in a nutshell, is a crisis of democracy in Japan, and a serious one. Politics is not a simple and direct reflection of class and economic circumstances. A myriad of complex and cumulative historical and structural processes lie between the two, which mediate and refract them in complex ways. From an economic and social point of view, Japan has more conditions currently satisfied for the growth of a leftist movement than any other capitalist country. Of all the major industrialized nations, Japan is the only one where worker’s wages continue to fall, large corporations continue to accumulate huge retained earnings, the level of social welfare has been continuously lowered, old-age pensions continue to decline, and nearly 10 million people over the age of 65 have to work to survive. The wage gap between men and women is one of the worst in the developed world, the majority of women workers are in informal employment, and single mothers are living in bitter poverty. These situations are so dire that it would normally trigger a huge wave of leftist movements. This might have happened if the single-seat constituency system had not been introduced and the Socialist Party had survived. However, the very structure of political opposition between the conservative and radical parties that had defined Japan's post-war politics collapsed in the 1990s, and the political channel for the transforming of economic and social problems into realistic options for national politics was broken.

Thus, democratic governance has been hollowed out, and the majority of workers (including white-collar workers) and low-income groups feel that their interests are not reflected in politics at all. On the one hand, they have become a huge segment of the politically apathetic population, trying to survive their harsh social conditions at their own peril. On the other hand, they are temporarily politically mobilized by populist parties and politicians who purport to represent their grievances. The rise of Ishin No Kai is this phenomenon. They do not actually represent the interests of workers and the common people, but their rhetoric is anti-elite, anti-establishment, and anti-national government.

Overcoming this crisis will require a long-term perspective and steady, broad-based efforts that go far beyond the level of improving this or that election tactic, devising this or that technicality of policy formulation, or combining this or that political party. Above all, we need to break down the systemic constraints of the single-seat constituency system, and we need a broad-based organization from below that sees a new society as an alternative to neoliberal capitalism. Elections are important, but not the single means for social change. The movement must not be subordinated to elections. It is necessary to bring together all the grievances, sufferings, worries, fury, and desires for social communications and exchange, of workers, the common people, and women, and connect them to form a large mass (or network). Only then will we be able to fight elections in a serious manner. Without strengthening our feet and legs, we will not be able to stretch out our arms and hands to the heights of electoral politics.