Japan’s Oct. 31 House of Representatives election will be the country’s first in four years, after a full term in office. In that time the prime minister has changed twice without going to the polls, the latest being Fumio Kishida, whose administration got its start earlier this month. And so, this election will not just be about the newly minted Kishida Cabinet, but a judgment on nine years of national politics under his predecessors Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga.
It is also an election being held while the coronavirus continues to threaten the people of Japan’s safety. Deep scars inflicted on society by the pandemic are still fresh. And as the government rolled out policies to combat the pandemic, we truly felt the impact of politics on our everyday lives, from the states of emergency to the medical system being pushed to the breaking point, temporary school closures, business suspension requests, and living support measures.
Meanwhile, economic inequalities and social fault lines are widening even more. Indeed, one special feature of this general election is the emphasis in each party’s platform on the challenges of making a living faced by regular people.
At the Oct. 18 leaders’ debate in the Diet, most of the parties stressed economic “redistribution.” However, none had a good explanation for how specifically this would be done and where the funding would come from. The parties must take a hard look at the wealth distortions in Japanese society, and compete on their compelling visions for how to fix it.
Regarding the proclamation of the general election, there is one point we would like to stress on the same level as the election results: Can political parties stop voters from drifting away from elections in general?
Over the past decade, voter turnout for both national and local elections has been dropping, and the problem is getting worse.
Turnout hit 69% for the 2009 general election, which ushered the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ, now defunct) into power. However, in the 2012 election, when the Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition returned to government, just under 60% of eligible voters cast ballots. In the two general elections since, turnout has hovered in the low 50% range — the lowest figures of the postwar era.
Of greatest concern is the low turnout among young people. In the last lower house election, in 2017, the voting rate among people in their 20s was 34%, less than half that of those in their 60s.
And this turnout problem is direr in Japan than in other major parliamentary democracies.
In Germany, around 77% of eligible voters went to the polls in last month’s Bundestag election, which would decide who will succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. Turnout for Britain’s 2019 parliamentary election was roughly 67%. In Sweden, known for its high-flying election participation, voter turnout for its 2018 general election was well over 80%.
Voter participation is typically higher among middle aged and elderly people. That being said, the turnout of voters in their 20s to 30s in Japan is truly abysmal, and a major recovery looks difficult. There is a real risk that the tradition of voting will be broken between this generation and the next, creating a negative voter participation spiral.
Furthermore, if more citizens avoid the ballot box, the votes cast by members of each party’s base will grow that much more potent. And that will push the parties to turn ever greater attention to the demands of that narrow segment of the electorate, be they inordinately from a certain generation or income band. Politics will gradually lose its broader tension.
The popular will is entrusted to and represented in the National Diet, but this core reason for the parliament’s being would also be weakened by low voter participation. This is a threat to democracy itself.
The root causes of Japan’s low turnout are many, including how the sovereignty of the people is taught in its schools, the tendency in society to see politics as a separate and specialized sphere, and the electoral system itself. But we propose one solution: to bid a final farewell to those insidious refrains, “Voting won’t change anything,” and, “They’re not all that different, so there’s no real choice.”
Each of our votes has a direct impact on politics, on government, on our everyday lives.
During the coronavirus crisis, it was not just the machinery of government that sent pandemic policy careening this way and that, but the judgement of leaders chosen by the people. For example, some prefectural governors had the foresight to make sure their areas had enough COVID-19 beds. But in Tokyo, the response to the fifth wave of infections that hit in the summer was lethargic, and many coronavirus patients were forced to recuperate at home for lack of dedicated hospital places.
Another cause of voter apathy seems to be the parties’ failure to face up to young and working people’s worries. The parties themselves also need to reflect on the low priority given to their policies.
A citizens’ group campaigning to get out the youth vote recently held an internet survey on what issues those voters are interested in. “Improving the conditions of working people” came out on top, with nearly 80% of the 45,000 responses. “Coronavirus policy” and “improving the childrearing environment” also attracted a lot of support.
In this election, all the parties have made pledges suggesting they are more aware of young people’s concerns than had previously been the case. They should also present concrete, convincing visions for wealth distribution across the generations.
The coronavirus crisis is not yet over. To prevent crowding, electioneering will have to be somewhat subdued. Nevertheless, people should be able to decide their own deal-breakers, and which party’s or candidate’s message resonates most deeply with their beliefs.
The first step in changing Japan’s politics is to closely examine the war of words unfolding during the campaign, and then to vote. Always, to vote.