Japan’s ruling center-right coalition retained control in upper house elections on Sunday, but lost seats in the process. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democrats took the worst of it, losing more than a dozen seats. His junior coalition partners, the Komeito Party, and allied Japan Innovation Party actually made small gains. Abe remains well-positioned to deal with several domestic and foreign policy issues before his House of Representatives comes up again in 2021. However, his forces lost their two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors, scuttling a debate, for now, on the role of the military in pacifist Japan.
Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution formally renounces war, and expressly prohibits the maintenance of military forces on land, sea, air, or any other venue yet to be invented. Thus, strictly-speaking, the Japan Self Defense Forces, used in United Nations and international peacekeeping since 1954, are an extension of the country’s police force. Prime Minister Abe has attempted to change this for sometime, with American support, and a great deal of concern from China and both Koreas. In 2014, Abe’s government passed a highly-controversial reinterpretation of the amendment, allowing the SDF to assist and defend their allies, in the event of war being declared on them. To end this controversy, Abe has continued to attempt to amend the Constitution the old-fashioned way: a two-thirds vote in both houses, and a referendum passed by the people.
However, voters seemed genuinely unconcerned with constitutional debate, and more so with the fate of their jobs, the economy, and social security. Less than half showed up— the lowest turnout since 1995— either due to a lack of choice at the polls, a lack of interest in the result, or even a lack of information that an election was being contested. While opposition parties rallied, voters stuck with the Liberal Democrats— who have ruled Japan for almost all of the country’s postwar history— believing them a safer choice over a fractured opposition. Competence, rather than ideology, seem to be what Japanese voters value most. Said one voter, “there is no point in casting my vote for a party of politician who has no such abilities.”
Abe, for his part, downplayed the loss of his two-thirds majority, and focused on his full plate of domestic issues. Japan’s consumption tax is set to rise, from 8 to 10%, which many people believed could produce an economic downturn. “Many said it would be extremely difficult to gain a majority when advocating tax hikes” Abe said. “But we have the public’s understanding.” Abe added, “this upper house election was not about winning two-thirds of the seats, it was about maintaining stability. We achieved that goal.” His priorities for the next two years include funding social security and tax reform, but also restarting negotiations with the new upper house to reform his constitutional mandate.
The debates over taxes and spending and economic management which characterize normal politics are one thing. However, Japan also faces a unique demographic nightmare of a greying population and shrinking workforce. The government has had much less success in tackling these problems. Japan, of course, also happens to live in one of the world’s more dangerous neighborhoods, so continuing to deal with China and North Korea will be critical. He’ll also attempt to sign a peace treaty with Russia, and finally put to rest one of the last unresolved issues from the Second World War. He does have one powerful friend across the ocean who, at least in foreign policy, can help.