The Japan Forum on International Relations

March 22,2019

Japanese Politics 2019: In for a Bumpy Ride

Ups and downs await Japanese politics this year. Be it breakthrough of the Northern Territories issues or realization of the constitutional amendment, both pursued by Prime Minister Shinzo, fleshing out the details, for sure, would divide the nation. The administration should not risk itself on that, as it is facing a crucial test of upcoming elections of local governments, and of the House of the Councillors. While the oppositions would go for broke, Abe administration would strike back by introducing “a double election,” holding the election of both Houses on the same day if necessary. It is no doubt that this year will be a political watershed. In a wide perspective, the opposition party stand no chance of taking over the current Liberal Democratic Party’s rule. Because the past 6 years of the Abe/LDP administration has been a prosperous 6 years for Japan, none of the other administration since the end of the World War II ever realized the practically zero percent unemployment. Just like it was the Battle of Red Cliff for PM Abe, he had natural advantage, or of geography, time, and people, and it will echo positively more or less for the rest of his remaining 3- year tenure. I think most of the people will choose to keep the status quo by looking back his achievements in the past 6 years.

Yukio Edano, Leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said in the new year that they will prepare themselves for the election, assuming there would be the double. PM Abe, however, would not try to hold the double election unless there would be a very good reason to do so. The very good reason is a significant progress in the Northern Territories Issue. There is zero possibility for tricky President Putin to return the four islands which gives the US military an advantage in the Far East. Possibly two islands would be returned, but four is unlikely, despite some expectations, thus ending the negotiation with two would be a likely and realistic scenario. It is highly rare in the world history for a country to fully regain the territory lost in the war, without fighting again. Then if the election kicks off with the question whether two islands option is enough, it will be an easy target for the oppositions and mass media, or it is even uncertain what the far right wing will do. It will be impossible to maintain the current two thirds of the pro-Constitutional amendment Members. The Northern Territories Issue seems be going brightly, while in reality the circumstance is in a dark uncertainty. So the priority for the diplomacy with Russia can be deprioritized for now.

Important events of this year are already listed: ordinary session of the Diet is called on this month, the summit meeting with Russia is scheduled later. In April, there will be so-called the unified local government elections, and the Emperor’s abdication on the 30th. New Emperor will enthrone on May 1, changing the era name. Group of 20 summit meeting will be held in Osaka on June 28 and 29, of which Chinese Premier Xi Jinping is due to visit Japan. The House of the Councillors’ election will be held in June or July, and the consumption tax will be raised to 10% on October 1. The biggest obstacle in this year’s political forecast is this tax raise. Because having the election right after raising the tax guarantees the administration a defeat in the election, so the chance of holding the general election will only be way before the tax raise day, or after the later 2020 when the nation has calmed down from the tax raise anger. The pro-Constitutional amendment parties —LDP, Komei, and Osaka Restoration Association (currently renamed as Japan Innovation Party)— won sufficiently in the previous House of Councillors’ election in 2016, securing two thirds of the seats. The seats of LDP, Komei, and JIP that are subject for the election this year is 90 or so, and that is how many they must secure to maintain two thirds in the Diet no matter what. Though it is very difficult for them to avoid the loss, because they won too well last time to begin with.

Rumor has it, the double election will be happening to control the expected damage. It is kind of a gamble, but PM Abe would do it because he has guts. While PM Abe has completely denied the possibility of the double election by voicing “I have no plan for it at all, and no such idea exists in my head,” it has been a tradition for Prime Ministers to be allowed to lie when it comes to the cases of dissolution of the House of Representatives to hold election, and of the official bank rate policy. Yoshihiko Noda, former Prime Minister, has said “When I became Prime Minister, many senior colleagues had been telling me that I now can lie about when to dissolve the House of Representatives, and about the official bank rate. But I did not think it was ok to be allowed to lie on a thing for some specific area. So when I announced ‘dissolving the House soon’ (in 2012), I struggled. I am not sure what PM Abe might feel about this tradition, but everyone has different feeling.” Besides the dissolution is actually happening or not, we can guess there would be a possibility when PM Abe says he is not thinking of the dissolution. If Prime Minister is allowed to lie about the dissolution, media is allowed to spread its own guesses of the timing. However, there used to be a ‘boy who cried dissolution’ who were a TV reporter and crying out loud “dissolution, dissolution” for any political occasions. The guess for the dissolution requires political reporter’s accumulated decisions and insights, and the dissolution boy is the last person needed. Nevertheless, we should be aware that anything could happen in the political arena after the summer.

(This is the English translation of an article written by SUGIURA Masaaki, Political Commentator, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Hyakka-Seiho (Hundred Flowers in Full Bloom)” of JFIR on January 7, 2019.)