NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei political editor
TOKYO — Even with Japan’s lower house parliamentary election now over and the results known, it is not entirely clear what the candidates were fighting over.
Control of the government hinged on this vote, yet in many respects little daylight separated the platforms of new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s ruling coalition and the opposition.
Economically, both sides put forward generous distributive policies centering on direct financial benefits to the public.
The ruling Liberal Democratic Party sought to “rebuild a broad middle class” through distribution. The Constitutional Democratic Party, Japan’s largest opposition party, specifically proposed a temporary income tax exemption for individuals making up to 10 million yen ($88,000) annually. But no real debate occurred over funding, which should be part and parcel of the discussion.
The same problem goes for Japan’s road map to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Both sides advocated expanded use of renewable energy.
On nuclear policy, the LDP mentioned restarting idled reactors that have been confirmed as safe. The Constitutional Democrats urged the “prompt implementation of a carbon-neutral policy that does not rely on nuclear energy.”
Neither talked about building new facilities or expanding existing ones. Japan’s current basic energy policy calls for nuclear to make up 20% to 22% of power generation in fiscal 2030, but that may not be possible without additional capacity. We also heard no in-depth exchanges on decarbonization and securing a stable energy supply.
In a healthy political system, members of the opposition lay out their problems with the policies of the parties in power, which in turn respond to these concerns while noting contradictions in their opponents’ positions. These back-and-forth exchanges on policy clarify what is at stake when elections roll around.
This campaign season fell far short of that. Instead of featuring deliberate strategy, it highlighted the inability of Japan’s parties to compete with each other on policy.
The LDP picked Kishida to replace previous Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga just before the election and pursued a defensive strategy counting on the bump in the polls the party received as a result.
This quasi-transition of power shows how maintaining control of government has become an end in itself for the LDP. The party focuses on whether its leader is an electoral help or hindrance, while neglecting to do the same with its policies.
The Constitutional Democrats have prioritized their cooperation arrangement with the Japanese Communist Party over policy debate with opponents. They seem relieved just to have remained Japan’s top opposition party.
The CDP gave no satisfactory explanation of how it could maintain a foreign policy that centers on Japan’s alliance with the U.S. when it has joined forces with a party that advocates scrapping the bilateral defense treaty.
And the election campaign saw little discussion of the threats facing East Asia.
These include China sending record numbers of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone in recent months, which some observers suspect could be a steppingstone toward an eventual invasion. Tokyo must handle the situation with the understanding that a crisis in the Taiwan Strait would be a crisis for Japan as well.
There is also North Korea’s routine flouting of United Nations Security Council sanctions with ballistic missile launches, which Japan’s defenses cannot handle from either a technical or a cost standpoint.
Tokyo certainly should continue to focus foreign policy efforts on dialogue. But it needs to consider ways to bolster deterrence capabilities — such as deploying medium-range ballistic missiles and acquiring the capability to strike enemy missile bases in response to an imminent attack — to stave off conflict.
The lack of real political debate has already bred complacency and caused problems for economic and foreign policy. The ruling coalition and opposition must face this reality and inject tension back into Japanese politics.
Right now, Japanese voters have no meaningful choices available to them. Politicians have a duty to provide a diverse array of options.