A Snapshot of Japan’s 2023 Political Landscape

Four months into 2023, the diplomatic agenda has kept Japan’s prime minister Kishida Fumio fully engaged. He started off the year with a trip to the European capitals, capped with the White House summit with President Biden in January. He continues to build on the momentum by deepening engagement with NATO and the Global South. In March, he welcomed South Korea’s president Yoon Suk Yeol to Tokyo, which many hope to be the beginning of a thawing bilateral ties that have undergone a rocky phase in recent years. Furthermore, after meeting with India’s prime minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, where he unveiled his vision for expanding cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, he made a surprise visit to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, a sharp contrast with the Xi-Putin summit that took place at the same time in Moscow.

On the home front, support for his cabinet inched up a few points in the most recent polls. According to a NHK survey, Kishida’s approval rating now stands at 42 percent, with the disapproval rating falling by 5 points to 35 percent. It is a welcome shift for Kishida, who came under fire for a series of scandals in the latter half of last year. 

Over the next few weeks, an even busier diplomatic calendar is expected for Kishida as the G7 Summit, which he will be hosting in May in his hometown of Hiroshima, approaches, but he also has several challenges to address at home. The following are three key developments that will help shape the political climate in Japan for the coming months. 

Budget Debates

There is a broad consensus on the importance of the three strategic documents published last December (National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Defense Buildup Program), but their full implications for Japanese politics remain to be seen. Polling numbers indicate the public’s support for the defense policy direction of the Kishida administration, but the government’s initial proposal for a set of tax hikes to fund the increased defense spending remains unpopular (64.9 percent disapprove) and many are not yet satisfied with the government’s explanations for the tax increase (87 percent). The debate on appropriations for defense expenditures will continue throughout this year, and gaining the public’s support on the final proposal will be homework not only for Kishida but also the lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). 

Another debate that will test Prime Minister Kishida’s leadership surrounds childcare programs. In an effort to help address declining birthrates, he has proposed to double the budget for childcare and family support, which stood at around 10 trillion yen ($75 billion) in FY 2020, accounting for 2 percent of GDP. With respect to the question of burden sharing, different polls show opposing results. In an NHK poll, the majority of the public (55 percent) expressed support for taking on the burden, yet another poll by Kyodo News showed a greater majority (63.6 percent) disapproved of any increased burden. These contrasting results suggest room for public opinion to shift after the government presents specific outlines, which are expected to be announced in June when the government adopts the “Basic Policy on Economic and Fiscal Management and Reform,” an annual document outlining the budget and economic policy priorities.

Along with appealing for the public’s support for the funding proposals on both defense and childcare programs, the prime minister and his team are tasked to build consensus within the LDP, as various actors with different portfolios, including potential rivals, have been voicing their own opinions on how to fund multiple initiatives put forward by the government. While that is a healthy process in a parliamentary democracy, any appearance of a fractured party could weaken the prime minister’s leadership, and that is where fine-tuning will be necessary.

Nationwide Local Elections and Parliamentary By-elections

Another bellwether of political trends in Japan will be the nationwide local elections and by-elections for parliamentary seats this month. The LDP still enjoys 36 percent support, by far the largest for any single party, with the main opposition, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP), trailing at 5.3 percent, according to the NHK poll. A potential curveball in any Japanese election is the large number of unaffiliated voters, who account for 34 percent, and can voice their dissatisfaction with the ruling parties en masse.

In the first round of unified local elections that took place on April 9, in which 2,260 local assembly seats in 41 prefectures were on the ballots, the LDP won 1,153 seats, 98 fewer than it previously held, but retained 51 percent of the total seats, a baseline it aimed to keep. At the same time, the LDP lost two gubernatorial races in Osaka and Nara to the Japan Innovation Party (JIP), a conservative party based in Osaka. A Kyodo exit poll shows that the JIP candidate in the Nara gubernatorial election received votes from the LDP supporters, a trend that caused some concerns for the LDP. 

The real test for the ruling coalition will be by-elections on April 23 for four Lower House seats and one Upper House seat, three of which were previously held by the LDP, including the late prime minister Shinzo Abe. Kishida has modestly set retaining those three seats as his goal, but the real challenge will be whether the ruling coalition can perform well enough to gain an additional seat or two. If accomplished, it will be a buoy to the prime minister as he contemplates the timing of the next general election. As the LDP’s secretary general Motegi Toshimitsu put it, “the true value of the administration will be tested” in the April elections. 

Snap Election

The chatter about a possible snap election has increased all of a sudden after the government adopted the three defense documents last December. There are opinions not only among the opposition but also within the LDP that the government should ask for a public mandate on tax hike proposals before they are implemented. Kishida himself mentioned the possibility of holding a Lower House election before a tax increase, which will be introduced “at an appropriate time” between 2024 and 2027.

The mere hint of a snap election is akin to opening a Pandora’s box. Once it is out in the open, it is hard to put it back inside the box. That being said, the fact remains that he will not have to call for an election until the Lower House’s term expires in October 2025. However, Kishida will face the party leadership election much sooner in the fall of 2024, and he needs to go into that phase with as strong a position as possible. And the strongest political capital he can have will be a win in the Lower House election.

Calling for a general election is one of the biggest political levers a prime minister has. It can result in tightening Kishida’s grip on power, but it can also tie his hands as the question of “if and when” now follows him everywhere he goes. While it is widely speculated that a general election will take place sooner than later, it will ultimately be the prime minister’s call. As Kishida weighs the timing of a snap election, the cabinet approval rating, power plays within the LDP, and whether or not clear post-Kishida candidates emerge, will all come into play.

The Biden administration has set a long-term vision and commitment to the Indo-Pacific, and Japan plays a unique role as its strategic ally in the region and beyond. The evolution of Japan’s own defense strategy, as laid out in the aforementioned documents, can transform the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance to respond to the fast-changing strategic environment around the globe. For Japan to continue being an effective partner with the United States in defending the rules-based international order, it is imperative to have political stability at home so that the prime minister can utilize his political capital to follow through the implementation of the foreign and security policy priories. For that reason, it would not be an overstatement to say that how the budget debates evolve in the coming months, and how well the ruling coalition campaigns in the elections this month will help in analyzing not only the outlook of the Kishida government but also the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance. 

Yuko Nakano is a fellow with the Japan Chair and associate director of the U.S.-Japan Strategic Leadership Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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