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Japan's Tidal Wave Vote

Prepared by: Lee Hudson Teslik
July 30, 2007


Japanese voters rebuked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, turning sharply away from his political party in Japan’s July 29 upper-house parliamentary elections. Officials from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) watched helplessly as a twelve-seat majority evaporated into a seventeen-seat deficit (, though the party retained its ruling coalition with New Komeito in the lower house of parliament. Abe said he would not cede his post, despite some calls for his resignation (Daily Yomiuri). LDP officials, meanwhile, said they would continue to support Abe (FT) as prime minister. Yet whether Abe stays or goes, Japan’s vote divides the two houses of Japan’s parliament and reveals fissures in Japanese public opinion at a critical juncture for the country’s foreign policy.

Though Abe took the helm with Japanese foreign policy increasingly under the global microscope, CFR’s Sheila A. Smith says in a new interview that Japanese voters did not vote primarily on international issues. Rather, Smith says the LDP found itself crippled by popular concerns over unemployment, as well as failed attempts to reform the country’s imploding pension system. These worries, coupled with scandals within Abe’s cabinet—his defense minister recently resigned over comments suggesting the World War II atomic bomb attacks were inevitable—hobbled both Abe and the LDP. The Asahi Shimbun, analyzing the electoral results, says Abe failed to see eye-to-eye with voters on issues close to their hearts.

Even if the vote was motivated primarily by “bread-and-butter” domestic issues, Abe’s eroding political support potentially carries broad international import. Abe remains intent on pushing for constitutional reform—an idea paralleled by a sense of emergent nationalism and calls for revitalized Japanese militarization. As this Backgrounder notes, Japan’s pacifist constitution bars overt military action, though some experts say the policies of Abe and his predecessor Junichiro Koizumi have challenged this law at its margins. The United States, which maintains a military presence in Japan pursuant to a 1954 agreement, actively supports Japan’s efforts to shed some of its constitutionally-mandated military restraints (NYT).

Now Abe faces a weakened mandate, and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which now holds more upper-house seats than any other party but does not control the lower house, may work to block his desired reforms. An editorial in the Daily Yomiuri says this dynamic could usher in broader shifts in Japan’s political structure: “Abe must take seriously the voters’ mandate, and must work to rebuild the foundation of his administration and his party, all the while seeking ways to cooperate with the DPJ.” Discussion of compromise sparks murmurings that Japan might be moving toward a two-party system, though the Wall Street Journal notes that in many cases the DPJ has not presented compelling alternatives to Abe’s unpopular policies, concluding that “a genuine two-party system, in which both parties have a fair chance of securing power, looks as far-off as ever.”

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