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Japan’s oldest and youngest political parties court disaffected voters



Japan’s oldest and youngest opposition parties head into Sunday’s Upper House election with the same goal: expand their numbers among voters who are dissatisfied with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito coalition and larger opposition parties like the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Nippon Ishin no Kai.


The Japanese Communist Party will celebrate its 100th anniversary on July 15, making it the country’s oldest political party. One of the youngest, Reiwa Shinsengumi, was founded in April 2019 by Taro Yamamoto, a former actor, television personality and Upper House representative for a smaller party.


Though it has never been the ruling party or part of a ruling coalition, and despite its aging membership being in decline, the JCP remains an influential presence in Japanese politics for several reasons. For one, their traditional left-wing ideology helps forge policies that continue to attract voters who dislike the ruling coalition and other opposition parties. In addition, their legislative experience and knowledge of the bureaucracy allows members to deliver practical benefits to their constituents. The JCP also has a solid base of financial support from party members.


Currently, the JCP holds 13 Upper House seats, of which six are up for re-election. But the party is fielding a total of 58 candidates, including 33 district-seat candidates and 25 proportional-representative candidates.


For Sunday’s poll, the JCP has put the debate over whether to revise the Constitution and increase defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product as a key campaign issue. The party is strongly opposed to revising the Constitution, especially the war-renouncing Article 9, and any attempts by the government to obtain pre-emptive strike capabilities.


The JCP is also calling for Japan to join the treaty banning nuclear weapons and for a review of the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement that would give Japan more authority over U.S. forces in the country. It opposes the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma from a congested area of Ginowan to Henoko, both in Okinawa Prefecture.


On economic issues, the JCP is calling for a temporary reduction of the consumption tax to 5% from the current 10%. The party also wants to tax the internal reserves of large corporations by 2% a year for five years, raise the minimum wage to ¥1,500 ($11.02) per hour and provide financial assistance to small and medium-size firms that would have trouble paying their workers that much.


At a June 27 campaign stop in Sapporo, JCP chairman Kazuo Shii emphasized the importance of fighting against constitutional revision to ensure peace and economic stability. If the pro-revision ruling coalition and pro-revision opposition parties — Nippon Ishin and the Democratic Party for the People — win two-thirds of the Upper House seats, both houses of parliament will have, at least on paper, the necessary supermajority to carry out revision.


“There is a chorus of voices in Japan calling for constitutional revision in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. But for peace and prosperity, a diplomatic strategy that makes use of the Constitution’s Article 9 is needed,” Shii said.


The JCP heads into the election with low ratings. A Kyodo poll conducted between July 2 and 5 showed the party with a 3.6% support rate, with the main opposition CDP polling at 9.1%. The LDP had a 34.9% support rate, making it unlikely the JCP will see a large gain in seats despite fielding so many candidates.


A good portion of the voter support for JCP candidates comes from the nearly 270,000 JCP members as of early 2020. That is down, however, from a peak of about 400,000 in 2010.


Meanwhile, Reiwa Shinsengumi has a number of policy goals that appear ideologically closer to those of the JCP than to those of the ruling coalition. The party wants to abolish the consumption tax completely, make education free all the way through graduate school, forbid the use of nuclear power and decommission all current reactors. Like the JCP, its diplomatic and security policies call for peaceful engagement with East Asia. It also opposes Japan obtaining pre-emptive strike capability as well as a nuclear deterrent.


However, it appears that the two parties’ voting blocs are from completely different generations. According to a poll taken by the Asahi Shimbun following the 2019 Upper House election, 60% of JCP voters were over 60, with 36% over 70. In contrast, 59% of voters who cast their ballots for Reiwa Shinsengumi were under 50.


Reiwa Shinsengumi has 14 candidates running in Sunday’s election, including five district and nine proportional seat candidates. Its current two Upper House lawmakers, who won office in 2019, are not up for re-election until 2025.


Yamamoto’s rallies for Reiwa Shinsengumi candidates sometimes feature live music performances, while Yamamoto expands on subjects in a populist manner. In a video message from Akihabara, Yamamoto said he wanted different economic policies from the neoliberals of the past quarter century that have forced many people into part-time jobs in order to survive.


“We can’t leave this country to people who have continued to make economic policy mistakes, and we need politicians who will promote economic policies that will allow you to flourish,” Yamamoto said.


Atsushi Manabe, a political and social critic who wrote a book on Yamamoto and Reiwa Shinsengumi in 2020, said that while the party appeals to some younger people, it has a broader range. In particular, he added, 29% of the 2019 voters for the party were in their 40s, part of the generation that came of age after the collapse of the early 1990s bubble economy and had problems finding good jobs.


“People who support Reiwa tend to be those who are dissatisfied with the establishment parties and their way of thinking, and believe they haven’t been functioning properly for people like themselves,” he said.


Reiwa Shinsengumi’s message, however, appears to still be getting the cold shoulder from voters. In the Kyodo poll, just 1.5% of respondents said they support the party. Only three years into existence, it has a long way to go to prove — both to voters and established parties — that it should be taken seriously as a political player. How it fares in Sunday’s election will help determine whether it earned that respect or not.

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