Japan’s Upper House Election: Kishida Clears Another Hurdle

Japan, still in shock after the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe on July 8, held an election for the House of Councillors (Upper House) on July 10. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner Komeito retained a majority in the chamber. The ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, will not face another national election for three years, opening a window of political stability for Kishida to advance a policy agenda emphasizing economic revitalization, increased defense spending, and robust diplomacy with the United States and other partners to address an array of regional and global challenges.

Q1: What happened in the Upper House election?

A1: Out of the 248 seats in the Upper House, 125 were contested in this election. The LDP won 63 seats—more than half of the seats that were contested. Together with its junior coalition partner Komeito, and combined with their 70 seats that were not up for re-election, the ruling coalition expanded presence in the Upper House to 146 seats. The LDP and other parties in favor of constitutional amendments secured 177 seats, surpassing the two-thirds threshold for starting the process to propose a revision.

The main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), lost 6 seats, bringing the total seats it holds in the Upper House to 39. The Japan Innovation Party, a conservative party based in Osaka that performed well in the Lower House last fall and captured the attention of LDP conservatives, won 12 seats, but its aspirations to become a national political force will remain to be seen.

According to exit polls, the issue voters cared the most about was the economy (45 percent), a clear shift away from the Covid-19 pandemic (10 percent) which had been their major concern for the last two years. In opinion polls leading up to the election, 77 percent of the public felt the pain of price increases in everyday goods and food, and 79.8 percent did not think the measures taken by Kishida so far adequately addressed their concerns. The opposition parties tried to tap into the public’s discontent by criticizing the government’s handling of inflation and calling for more direct support for households, including reducing or scrapping the consumption tax, though it was not enough to sway voters. The CDP and a collection of smaller opposition parties are in disarray and have not coalesced around a cohesive agenda and messaging strategy to challenge the ruling coalition.                                                                               

Q2: What does this mean for Kishida politically?

A2: Having won the leadership race for the LDP and the Lower House election last fall, Kishida sought a solid win in the Upper House poll to sustain political momentum and solidify his footing as prime minister. A big win in the third and final phase of the “triathlon,” as Kishida dubbed the political calendar, places him in a stronger position politically. Kishida’s cabinet enjoys an approval rating over 50 percent, which could increase coming out of this election as national sentiment coalesces behind him in the wake of Abe’s assassination. While the LDP will face nationwide local elections next year, there may not be another national election until July 2025, when the other half of the Upper House is up for reelection. The current term for the Lower House is set to expire in the fall of that same year. Kishida may decide to call a snap election in the Lower House before then to further solidify his political footing, but in theory Kishida has three years to implement his domestic and foreign policy agenda.

One key factor is how Kishida will handle LDP internal politics. Despite calls for a change in how the party operates, factions continue to play a key role, and leaders within the party are angling for influence, from assigning leadership posts to formulating policy. Kishida heads the fourth-largest faction in the LDP and has managed to avoid clashes thus far, but the passing of Abe, who was a towering figure in Japanese politics and shaped the policy debate as a leading conservative and head of the largest faction in the LDP, could make factional dynamics more challenging for Kishida to manage. Kishida may now have a freer rein in agenda setting, but on the other hand, the conservative forces within the party, who fear he will revert to his roots as a moderate, may increase pressure on him to stay on a conservative path. Kishida is expected to reshuffle his cabinet and party posts later this year, and the degree of factional balance will likely signal how he plans to lead the LDP until he faces a party leadership election in September 2024. 

Q3: What are Kishida’s priorities? 

A3: Voters will expect Kishida to provide immediate relief from inflation. Japan’s consumer price index was up 2.4 percent in April since the same time last year, largely a reflection of increases in energy and other costs spurred by the war in Ukraine. The Kishida cabinet approved a relief package of $21 billion in May 2022 but it has yet to provide a measurable impact. Kishida will also likely expand on his economic growth strategy, dubbed “a new form of capitalism,” which initially focused on income distribution but has since shifted in favor of investment and growth, emphasizing initiatives such as wage increases, support for families with children, and boosting economic security. The fiscal policy debate could also feature prominently as lawmakers must determine how to resource growth strategies and proposed increases in defense spending in the face of public debt exceeding 250 percent of GDP.  

Kishida is also expected to prioritize national security and defense policy. Japan is set to release a new national security strategy and attendant national defense and procurement strategies before the end of this year, and the LDP has called for doubling the defense budget to 2 percent of GDP over five years—although this goal is aspirational. Deliberations on the new strategic documents will commence in earnest this fall as the Kishida government considers counterstrike and other capabilities to strengthen deterrence and manage the threats posed by China, North Korea, and even Russia, which has recently increased military activity around Japan. Kishida has taken a tough stance against Russia since its invasion of Ukraine and has placed a heavy emphasis on strengthening Japan’s defense posture, which the Japanese public appears to support. 

The debate about revising the constitution could also accelerate in the coming months. As a result of the Upper House election, the LDP and other parties that support constitutional reform secured a two-thirds majority in both chambers, the threshold needed to pass amendments to the constitution, in addition to majority support in a public referendum. It will not be an easy path, however, as some in the “pro-revision block” are not on the same page with conservatives who want to revise Article 9 to recognize the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Moreover, the public is evenly split on the question of constitutional revision, with 44.8 percent in favor and 44.7 percent against. However, nearly three-fourths of the public, 72 percent, support a process to begin debating amendments in detail, and that is a good starting point for Kishida to advance the party’s long-held ambitions.

Q4: Are there geostrategic implications for the United States? 

A4: Kishida’s victory opens a window of opportunity for the United States to deepen the alliance with Japan. With Tokyo poised to significantly increase investments in defense, and to pursue new capabilities such as long-range precision strike, the alliance is positioned to begin moving beyond the long-standing “spear and shield” division of labor and toward a more equal partnership. Kishida will focus on advancing his “realism diplomacy,” centered on the Quad and closer relations with the ASEAN states—and could look for opportunities to improve relations with the Republic of Korea (ROK) as well. Kishida will have to manage conservative voices in the LDP who believe that the onus is on Seoul to resolve disputes over history and improve their relationship, but with the elections behind him, he should have more bandwidth to further trilateral partnership with the ROK and the United States, which has accelerated dramatically in recent weeks.  U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia are on the firmest footing in years, and Kishida will play a central role in networking with the United States and others to shape regional dynamics in the Indo-Pacific.

Christopher Johnstone is senior adviser and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow with the CSIS Japan Chair and deputy director for Asia at CSIS. Yuko Nakano is a fellow with the CSIS Japan Chair and associate director of the U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program at CSIS.

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Yuko Nakano
Fellow, Japan Chair, and Associate Director, U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program