In light of the upcoming national election, I thought I'd do something topical and give a bit of a primer on the Japanese political situation, for those who may be interested. Note that I have little formal training and base my knowledge in having grown up in city hall, a casual interest in politics (though I am more interested in the parties and personalities than The Issues), and the fact that I happen to live in Japan. If you want somebody who knows what the hell he's talking about, I recommend Our Man in Abiko. Anyway, I'll do my best.
This will be a relatively beefy three-part series. In this post I will introduce the facts of political life in Japan, as I understand them. The next part will focus on the events of the last few years that have lead us to where we're at right now, and finally I'll run over the major players who will be competing on December 16th.
Japanese politics is characterized chiefly by the dominance of the Jimintou or Liberal Democratic Party, which is conservative, and the competing Minshutou or Democratic Party of Japan, which is also pretty conservative. Usually the Jimintou forms the government while the Minshutou comprises the opposition, although the roles have been reversed since 2009. Like many parliamentary legislatures, Japan also features a pleasant dappling of fringe parties, although it has an advantage over most in terms of sheer number and stupidity.
The Jimintou won an impressive majority in the Lower House elections of 1955 and, while they were never monipotent or anything, immediately took it in a vicegrip. (Hi there, Americans! The Lower House produces laws, the Prime Minister, etc. Upper House representatives draw enormous salaries while trying to look contemplative.) Ten years on from World War II, this was still a highly tumultuous period in which a steady guiding hand was always going to prove more popular than any of the radical progressives who were trying to construct an entirely new country while they had the chance. The Jimintou came packaged with the promise of stability and mortar, became too big to topple, and remained in power for the next four decades.
As the post-war migration into more metropolitan areas wore on, the country's largest population centres became eddies of youthful ideals, causing the Jimintou's influence to slip there. Their local focus also became increasingly ineffective as individuals no longer living in their hometowns grew more concerned with issues at the national level. However, the smaller parties wasted their energy largely fighting for scraps amongst themselves, and were never able to form a coherent front against their ideological opponents. In fact, they actually splintered into even smaller and more inconsequential parties, so that even as the Jimintou gradually started losing seats it never actually got any weaker. You could call it undemocratic, but after all they did win fair and square, over and over again, and the consistency afforded allowed them to get an awful lot of work done.
It all became too much to bear in the general election of 1993, when general discontent coupled with several simultaneous scandals (though it can be said that the Japanese have grown basically accustomed to government corruption, from time to time they tire of it.) A massive coalition of leftovers managed to form the government, but this ended predictably: Unable to maintain such an intricate trapeze for very long, it collapsed eleven months later. The Jimintou immediately reclaimed its rightful place in the world and kept at it until 2009, when it dropped from 303 seats to 119, while the Minshutou soared from 110 to 308.
The fluidity of Japanese politics makes party histories very difficult to grasp. Japanese politicians form, break apart and reform new human-blobs like a crowd of graduates taking their final pictures together. In short, somebody is forming a brand-new party all the damn time, basically whenever they have misgivings with contemporary policy, want to make a power grab or simply realise that they'd rather be king of a hovel than servant in a mansion. The new party is usually almost identical in feel and substance to the one it sprang from. This makes the fringe parties a little complicated, but I'll try to at least present them as they are today.
Oddly enough, while the two primary parties are largely conservative – though the Jimintou has its progressive moments, and the Minshutou is a little more centrist – the first-place alternative is actually even more violently so. The Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People's Life First, stupidly) is a sort of radical nationalist type deal. Japanese political parties are highly factional, somewhat lacking in the party discipline we see in Western parliaments, which is part of the reason why representatives are so quick to jump ship, since they already oppose half their own party's policies anyway. In this case, one group of diehards within the Minshutou departed, scandalized, when the government of Noda Yoshihiko decided to increase the consumption tax. They also detest nuclear power, and you kind of have to admit that they may have a point there.
In 2009 the Shin Koumeitou (New Koumeitou) lost some serious ground percentage-wise but experienced little change in practical terms, as they merely fell from 31 to 21. Built on a foundation of Buddhist pacifism, their rhetoric holds that human life should be the starting point of all political consideration (strangely, they are unaffiliated with the PLF). Accordingly, they call for nuclear anti-proliferation, bureaucratic decentralization, and the pursuit of peaceful solutions to foreign affairs issues.
Next in line is Minna no Tou, which is officially “Your Party” in English but would be more accurately called “Everyone's Party.” What the hell that even means is unclear. It was formed for the 2009 election, pushing electoral reform, small government, and neoliberalism. Oh, and they too aren't so hot on the whole nuclear thing, so you may be sensing a pattern here.
Finally we have the Socialist and Communist parties, two incredibly bland lefty jamborees doing their usual lefty stuff. The Social Democratic Party is made from the remnants of the Japan Socialist Party, the running second fiddle throughout the 1955 system. Their very own Fukushima Mizuho is the only female party leader, and frankly I'm surprised they have that many. The Communist Party, in addition to communism, also believes that Japan needs to start cutting ties with the United States, putting it at odds with the ruling parties and also reality. Neither party is a fan of Noda.
So we have a somewhat conservative government, a strongly conservative opposition, a dappling of silly fringe parties, splinter factions that form yet more parties at the drop of a hat, Prime Ministerial musical chairs, and a bunch of leaders who compete in absurdity. Isn't politics fun?!
I think you will have probably noticed that a running theme with Japanese fringe parties is that they all have ridiculous names. The following parties all hold five seats or fewer and are therefore not really worth getting into (and, in fact, are not even legally considered parties), but as a little bonus, here are some of the funniest offenders:
Genzei Nippon, “Tax Cuts Japan” (at least you know what you're getting!)
Okinawa Shakai Taishuutou, the “Okinawa Socialist Masses Party” (awfully militant!)
Taiyou no Tou, the “Sunrise Party”
Midori no Kaze, “Green Wind”
Shintou Kaikaku, known in English by the less than literal title of the “Renaissance Party”
And finally, Han-TPP – Datsu-Genpatsu – Shouhizei Zouzei Touketsu wo Jitsugen suru Tou, the “Anti-TPP, Anti-Nuclear, Consumption Tax Hike Freeze Realisation Party”