Japan’s Upper House Election

Q1: What was at stake in this election?

A1: Half of the 242 seats in the Upper House of the Diet (parliament) were in play for the July 11 election. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) was not at risk of losing power because it secured a majority in the more powerful Lower House during elections last summer, but the hope was that a solid performance in the Upper House election would smooth passage of its legislative agenda. The prospects for victory were encouraging last fall when the public was starving for political leadership and rallied behind the DPJ’s slogan of “change,” but Yukio Hatoyama squandered that mandate and resigned as prime minister in early June after just eight months in office. His successor, Naoto Kan, faced an uphill battle and had just six weeks to reestablish momentum.
Q2: Why did the DPJ fare so poorly?
A2: The DPJ fell well short of its objectives and needs 12 additional seats to secure a majority in the Upper House. Kan would have to form a coalition with at least two small parties to cross that threshold, but as of this writing, none had expressed interest. The DPJ comes out of the election in a defensive position less than a year after it was poised for an extended period of majority rule. Part of the blame rests with Hatoyama, whose approval rating nose-dived due mainly to a funding scandal and a failure to follow through on a promise to remove a controversial U.S. military base, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, from Okinawa. Some analysts also point to Kan, who got an early boost after taking over but lost ground in public opinion polls after hinting at tax increases to curb public debt. Another factor is the public’s tendency to use Upper House elections as checks on government power. The outcome can also be attributed fundamentally to a lack of experience; the DPJ had never governed prior to last year.
Q3: What are the implications for Japanese politics and U.S.-Japan relations?
A3: The result of Japan’s Upper House election may condemn Japan to another year or more of weak and uncertain coalition government—or worse, a “twisted Diet” in which the opposition controls the Upper House and blocks legislation until the ruling government collapses. The result was also discouraging because it represented a backlash against Kan’s honest if clumsy attempt to begin talking about real choices Japan must make with respect to its fiscal situation—in particular the need to raise the consumption tax. Hopefully, this will not mean a return to the economic populism of the Hatoyama era, though Ichiro Ozawa may be tempted to return to those themes as he makes a bid to unseat Kan in the DPJ presidential election in September. The weak leadership result from the election also keeps the Futenma situation in continued jeopardy, since Hatoyama’s tenure significantly complicated the politics of the issue in Okinawa; it will take strong leadership from Tokyo to soothe things and move ahead with the plan for realigning U.S. bases on the island.
Q4: Bottom line?
A4: The Upper House election was a major disappointment for the DPJ and confirmed that the only constant in Japanese politics right now is instability. The one good thing that can be said is that the democratic process may be forcing the creative destruction necessary before Japan moves to the kind of party realignment that will allow more stable governments to take form.
Michael J. Green holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Szechenyi is deputy director and fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at CSIS.
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