Charles T. McClean is a Research Associate for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On Sunday, Japan’s citizens went to the polls and elected 294 members of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to the national parliament.
Of the 294 LDP members, 105 are incumbents, 70 are former lawmakers, and 119 are first-time legislators. These 119 are part of a group of 184 new faces—the largest number of freshmen lawmakers to enter Japan’s Diet since 1949.
Japan’s legislative balance has swung widely in the last three elections, and each time these swings were accompanied by an influx of freshmen lawmakers. In 2005, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi successfully led 83 first-time politicians into the Diet. In 2009, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) secretary-general Ichiro Ozawa helped 143 freshmen to earn seats as part of the historic victory that brought the DPJ to power. These freshmen lawmakers are often referred to as “Koizumi children” and “Ozawa children,” respectively.
This year, 158 newcomers chose to run as candidates for the LDP, the party ahead in pre-election polling. They have been rewarded for doing so: a staggering 75 percent who ran won seats. (By comparison, the DPJ put forward fifty-three first-time candidates, yet only one was successful.)
When I visited Japan over the summer, I met with younger candidates who had just received permission to run under the LDP banner. At the time these candidates were facing tough battles in their districts. Polling suggested that the LDP might win the most seats but would fall short of winning a majority and would need to rule in coalition.
Moreover, no one knew when the Diet might be dissolved, and candidates worried about third-party forces organizing to take away votes in their district, having enough money to last until a general election, and getting the support of former Diet members and prefectural politicians. Their campaigning was already well underway by the time of the LDP presidential election in September, and they did not have a direct relationship with party leaders. They were neither “Abe children” nor “Ishiba children"; they decided to run because they were idealistic about playing a role in shaping Japan’s future. Yet they were aware of the hurdles ahead.
Despite their uncertainty, LDP newcomers pulled off impressive electoral victories across Japan. In several districts, thirty-year-old first-term candidates defeated veteran lawmakers, former cabinet members, and political heavyweights who were far better organized. They may have rode in on the broader public backlash against the incumbent DPJ legislators, but their campaign success nevertheless pointed to a new phenomenon about elections in Japan. Traditionally strong campaign networks were not enough to elect incumbents when the public turned against the DPJ.
Japan’s “third force” parties also attracted many new candidates to compete for the anti-DPJ vote. Although not as successful in the single-member contests, the Japan Restoration Party’s (JRP) ranks still swelled to fifty-four members; thirty-nine of these new seats were first timers. In addition, in some districts JRP candidates earned an impressive share of the vote even though they didn’t win the seat, suggesting that the JRP could attract more competitive candidates for the Upper House election this summer.
Alternating parties in power may be healthy for Japan’s democracy, but younger politicians are often the casualties of big swings in party support. Freshman lawmakers these days tend not to hold onto their seats for very long. Of the 83 Koizumi children elected in 2005, only 10 survived in 2009. Of the 143 Ozawa children elected in 2009, only 11 were re-elected in 2012. Thirty-two Koizumi children did return to win seats again in this election.
If Japan’s next generation can’t get a foothold in national politics because they keep getting rotated in and out of power, then they won’t be able to gain the necessary policy expertise to be successful leaders. We will have to wait and see how long many of the LDP’s newest lawmakers will be able to stay in politics.
We will also have to wait and see how the LDP leaders capitalize on the reform energy they bring to the party. The large number of LDP newcomers is a point of pride for Abe and secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba, but their role in the LDP remains to be seen. How will the LDP leadership incorporate them into the newly strengthened ruling party? How will they affect the dynamics within their party? Will new recruits fall in line as obedient back-benchers, or will they rebel if they feel ignored? Where will their loyalties lie? Will these newcomers see themselves as “Abe children” or “Ishiba children”?
Japan needs these young reformers. The LDP, in particular, needs to rejuvenate, and bringing the voices of these newly elected freshmen into the center of party decision-making will go a long way in ensuring their party’s success.