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The Podium

In Japan, voters lose interest

The key result of the lower house election in Japan on Sunday was not the landslide victory of the Liberal Democratic Party over the governing Democratic Part of Japan and the Richard Nixon-like return of Abe Shinzo as prime minister. It was the record low turnout of registered voters. Fewer than 60 percent of Japan’s registered voters bothered to cast ballots, a drop of more than 10 percent from 2009, when the last national lower house election was held.

Sunday’s poll was the third consecutive landslide since 2005. Rather than ensure stable government, though, the nation’s governance has been swinging wildly between parties that rotate prime ministers at a rate of one per year, and whose governments have formed new cabinets even more frequently. The LDP emerged from a field in which 12 parties competed, and in which the so-called “third force” confronting the LDP and DPJ was itself divided into three uneasy pieces. “Abe 2.0” will be Japan’s seventh prime minister in six years. He will form Japan’s 11th cabinet in that same period. It is not surprising that so many Japanese voters seem so indifferent to the choices put before them.

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Not surprising, perhaps, but certainly sad. Like many democracies, Japan is in dire need of effective leadership and, like many, it is not sure where to find it. Leaders everywhere have three tools at their disposal. They can bully; they can buy; or they can inspire. Democracies do not generally reward bullies, and Japan is no exception. Its citizens have rejected authoritarian government for nearly 70 years. While voters have been hoping for inspiration, they became used to relying on “buyers” — leaders who could effectively distribute public goodies in ways that placate those who feel uncertain about their future and the state of social affairs. Today, though, Japan’s pork barrel is empty — and voters are still looking for inspiration.

After the events of the past two years, they need it more than ever. On March 11, 2011, an unprecedented triple disaster — earthquake, tsunami, nuclear reactor meltdown known simply as “3.11” — seemed to signal a new beginning for Japan. Leaders who knew enough to “never to waste a good crisis” seemed poised to use the catastrophe to adjust policy and renew Japanese vitality.

But that did not happen. Although a great many well informed, active citizens stood up with innovative ideas for change, dysfunctions in Japan’s political class overwhelmed reform. In the first two years after the disaster, politicians busied themselves with long standing power rivalries. Votes of no confidence were threatened and sometimes held; cabinet ministers came and went as parties formed and split for reasons unrelated to 3.11. “Normal politics” never gave way to transformative policies, and reform was stymied.

Throughout Japan’s protracted crisis, only one leading politician actually changed his view on a major policy issue: Prime Minister Naoto Kan shifted from a lifetime of support for nuclear power to a pledge to shut off all the nation’s nuclear reactors. Soon after his reversal on Japan’s nuclear policy, Kan was booted from the prime ministership and, on Sunday, he lost the seat in Tokyo’s 18th district to which he previously had been elected ten times.

Since 3.11, nuclear power has been a key indicator of the health of Japanese democracy and the engagement of the Japanese public. Despite record low levels of trust in public institutions and leaders, and despite citizens’ intense sense of vulnerability, for more than a year after 3.11there was no widespread protest of government dysfunction. After the balance finally shifted from volunteerism by concerned citizens to protests by outraged ones, the largest demonstrations — those held in Tokyo in June and July 2012 — were focused on the restart of nuclear reactors, and never addressed the simultaneous splintering of the DPJ, the introduction of an unpopular consumption tax, or any of the other issues on the national policy agenda. Public hearings on Japan’s energy policy choices were finally held in the summer of 2012, but they struck many as “staged formalities,” and were met more with derision than mobilization. An anti-nuclear rally on election eve, attracted no more than 1,000 protesters — a mere shadow of the crowds mobilized just six months earlier.

When the DPJ government followed with a transparently hollow promise to end nuclear power, protests ceased and disillusion soared. The recently formed “Japan Future Party,” the only non-Communist and non-Socialist party to be unequivocally opposed to nuclear power — a position consistent with the views of an overwhelming number of Japanese citizens — was crushed on Sunday, and the LDP, the party most associated with the nuclear power industry, won one of the greatest mandates in postwar electoral history. With its coalition partner, the New Komeito, it will enjoy a super majority enabling it in theory to override any vote in the upper house.

It is far less likely that voters changed their views on the nuclear power issue, than that they have given up trying to effect reforms. Many voters stayed home, leaving those who voted to express a preference for the status quo ante. As analyst Michael Cucek pointed out the day after the election: “the 10 million voters who opted out of yesterday’s contest cannot be called irresponsible or disengaged. They had no one to vote for and too many to vote against.” Japan may now return to political stability and economic growth, but given the broadening discontent and given the fact that even the two coalition partners do not agree on all matters (including those related to China and the Japan-US alliance) it is more likely that Japan’s politics — like its foreign relations — will remain very much in transition. Perhaps the next crisis will not be wasted.

Richard J. Samuels is the Ford international professor of political science and director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest book, “3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan, will be published in February.
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