This morning I read an article saying that the cIty of Musashino (in Tokyo) is considering giving voting rights in local referendums to non-Japanese (always so charmingly referred to as “foreigners”). Voting rights for foreigners are always a contentious topic, and I am definitely not going to go into that right now. If you can read Japanese, then maybe look at Japanese Twitter to look at some Uyoku (Japanese right-wingers) going absolutely crazy about this topic. It is kind of entertaining, but also somewhat depressing.
Anyway, this gave me the idea to write a bit about political systems in Japan. Commenting on politics itself is can of worms that I am not all that eager to open, but maybe I can give you a rough overview so you can form your own opinion afterwards. Another reason for writing this article is, that I want to educate myself about this topic as well, so we will be learning together on this one.
Characteristics of politics in Japan
There are three types of elections held in Japan. First there are elections for the lower house, also called the House of Representatives. Then there are elections for the upper house, also referred to as the House of Councillors. The Prime minister is elected by these two Houses. Finally, there are local elections for posts on a prefectural or municipal level, such as governor or mayor.
Politics in Japan have been generally dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) since the end of World War II. Since the its inception in the 1950s, there have only been two brief intervals were a Prime Minister and his cabinet were not from the LDP. The LDP’s junior coalition partner since 2012 is the Komeito, a small party that is closely affiliated with the Buddhist sect Soka Gakkai. Both parties stand for conservative and at times traditionalist values. Opposition parties, on the other hand, are very fragmented and there are no real contenders for the LDP’s spot as the biggest fish in the pond.
Another characteristic trait of Japanese politics is that prime ministers tend to not last very long in office. The former PM, Yoshihide Suga, served for only 1 year and 19 days and he is decidedly in the midfield there. His predecessor, Shinzō Abe, managed to last for 7 years and 266 days and holds the record as Japans longest serving prime minister. Since the 1870s, there have only been 15 prime ministers who served for longer than 1000 days.
Election-woes in Japan
A big problem for politicians in Japan is motivating their constituents to actually go out and vote. For the last general election, voter turnout was at a measly 55%. The Coronavirus measures of the former PM and his cabinet were deeply unpopular, and people were actually hopeful that turnout would go up. But in the end it ended up being one of the lowest turnouts ever. There are many reasons for this and going into them would probably amount to writing a thesis about this topic. From what I have gathered in my time living in Japan, politics are simply not a topic that interests many people. Especially among the young, politics are seen as “uncool” and being interested in politics is considered to makes you an Uyoku (Japanese right winger).
Since younger people do not vote, politicians focus their policies and campaigns heavily on the older generations. This creates the perception that they do not care about younger generations, leading to people in their 20s and 30s feeling disenfranchised. This cycle seems to be one of the bigger factors for the low voter turnout.
Finally, since this article was inspired by an article about voting rights for foreign residents, let us also very briefly talk about them. Simply put, short of changing your nationality, there is no way to gain access to voting rights as a foreigner in Japan at the moment. According to information I found online, there are about 40 municipalities in Japan that allow foreign residents to participate in referendums at the municipal level, but even this is rare. From what I have heard, there were movements to introduce expanded voting rights for foreign residents in the past, but they were shut down by conservative politicians. Personally, I feel it would be a nice gesture to allow longterm foreign residents to vote at least in the mayor or prefectural governor elections, but I have my doubts that this is ever going to happen.