On 20 November 2019, Shinzo Abe will become Japan’s longest serving prime minister since the inception of Japanese parliamentary politics. When he first took on the top job in September 2006, there was speculation that it might herald a new wave of younger Japanese politicians. Yet more than a decade later, Japanese politics looks likely to continue to be dominated by political dynasties (seshu giin) and the old boys of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai has suggested that party rules could be changed again to allow Abe to serve a fourth consecutive three-year term as LDP president — and stay on as prime minister — after his current term ends in September 2021. This indicates a serious lack of contenders for Japan’s political leadership.
When Abe does step down, where will Japan’s next generation of leaders come from?
Perhaps the most critical is the need for deeper structural economic reforms — beyond mantra of Abenomics — to boost productivity and manage the burgeoning national debt as society ages and the tax base shrinks. Potentially, reforms might include a more open immigration policy. Another challenge is Japan’s often prickly relations with regional neighbours and the need for deft and creative diplomacy.
Before Abe’s second stint as prime minister, Japan suffered from a prime ministerial merry-go-round that saw six prime ministers take office in as many years (2006–2012). This lack of stability hampered the ability of governments to meaningfully formulate and implement substantial policy changes. Abe’s political resilience (Abe–ikkyo) means he is able to leave his mark through such initiatives as Abenomics and attempts to revise Article 9 of Japan’s constitution so as to recognise the Self-Defense Forces explicitly.
But in the post-Abe era institutional barriers to the emergence of fresh leadership and innovation in Japan’s political process look set to remain.
One barrier is the long-time dominance of the LDP. Japan has an unusually high prevalence of dynastic politicians for an economically advanced democracy. This is apparent in the LDP, where the number of dynastic politicians peaked at over 40 per cent in the early 1980s and remained at around one-third after the 2017 lower house election. Of Japan’s previous 10 prime ministers, a staggering seven came from political dynasties. Two of the three non-political-dynasty prime ministers were from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) — Naoto Kan and Yoshihiko Noda.
The high proportion of dynastic politicians is perhaps explained by the so-called ‘three ban’ credentials for winning national office. Jiban (foundation) refers to the cultivation of a core group of supporters, kanban (signboard) refers to reputation and name recognition, and kaban (satchel) connotes electoral campaign funding. These are often passed on from father to son and support the LDP’s election machinery. Since Japan has had only four non-LDP prime ministers since 1955, this trend is likely to continue and limit the pool of potential leaders.
This may help explain the popularity of Shinjiro Koizumi. He delivers a balance between the LDP brand’s stability and maverick reform in the image of his father, former prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. The strategic announcement of his recent marriage at the Cabinet Office boosted his popularity and leadership prospects.
Another barrier is the weak state of opposition parties and widespread political apathy. Electoral reform that passed in 1994 was expected to push Japan toward a stable two-party system with genuine electoral competition, but the DPJ’s three years in power (2009–2012) proved disastrous for both the party and Japanese democracy. Political infighting coupled with the triple earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster saw a public loss of confidence from which the DPJ never recovered. The DJP has now split, further weakening the opposition.
Voter turnout in the July 2019 upper house election fell below 50 per cent—the second lowest in the post-war era. Some see a ray of hope in Taro Yamamoto, an actor-turned-activist and political innovator. His new party, Reiwa Shinsengumi, won two Diet seats for disabled candidates promoting a powerful message of inclusion for Japan’s most vulnerable. But overall, opposition parties are failing to articulate an alternative economic vision to Abenomics that is capable of capturing the public’s imagination or serving as a platform for leadership.
A third barrier is the limited opportunities for female politicians. Japan ranks 163 out of 193 countries, having only 10 per cent of female MPs in the lower house — the lowest among OECD, G7 and even G20 nations. The government passed the (non-binding) Gender Parity Law in 2018 encouraging political parties to field ‘as much as possible’ equal numbers of male and female candidates in elections.
While most parties fielded improved numbers of female candidates the LDP fielded just 14.6 per cent last July Despite the increase in female candidates, the number of women who won seats in the upper house remained somewhat unchanged, at 22.6 per cent.
Faced with a severely declining birth rate, greater efforts are needed to develop pathways to increase the numbers of female politicians and cultivate a change in cultural mentality toward women in positions of leadership.
There are small signs of optimism that Japan’s political sclerosis might be overcome and new sources of innovative leadership developed. Yet significant changes are needed to promote greater meritocracy within the LDP, to rebuild credible opposition parties that can hold the government accountable, and to advance the participation of women in Japan’s political leadership.
Ben Ascione is a researcher at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. Yuma Osaki is a doctoral candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. This first appeared in East Asia Forum.