When Japan experienced a historic power transition in August 2009, as the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party was removed from power by voters for the first time in the LDP’s fifty four years of history, and replaced by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), many observers hailed the arrival of serious inter-party competition and even a two-party political system. Nonetheless, the DPJ was itself then voted out of power in December 2012 in a crushing defeat almost as big as the LDP’s 2009 defeat. Including the December 2012 election, the LDP won large majorities in the last two Lower House elections, and has won far more seats than the DPJ in the last two Upper House elections, leading some to conclude that the LDP is reconsolidating the one-party dominance that it enjoyed through most of the Cold War era. At the same time the DPJ (recently renamed the Democratic Party or DPJ in English), has been dismissed as a failed party, and with no other major opposition party on the horizon, the LDP is seen as able to pursue its favored policies from concern about voter backlash in the case of unpopular policies. Many point to LDP Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s unpopular reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution and subsequent “security legislation” allowing for the Japanese military to use force overseas, and its unpopular support for reviving nuclear power as evidence that the LDP can do as it pleases and ignore public opinion.
What’s wrong with this picture? This article identifies four problems. First, the LDP and Abe administration have responded to public opinion to a far greater extent than is often recognized, even in the case of unpopular policies, a fact that reflects their fear of again being voted out of office. Second, the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, has been a break on Abe policies that often reflects public opinion Third, the DP, in cooperation with other parties, is gradually staging a comeback that reduces the LDP’s margin for error in terms of what public opinion will tolerate. Finally, the external shock of Donald Trump’s election of president threatens to undermine Abe’s foreign policy strategy, dealing blows that could potentially bring down his administration and threaten continued LDP rule.
Although Abe’s high unpopular decision to reinterpret Japan’s constitution in July 2014 to allow for the right of Collective Self-Defense (the right to use military force overseas in support of allies who are under attack), and the subsequent enabling “security legislation” to potentially allow the SDF to engage in combat operations overseas, has been hailed as a major turning point in Japan’s foreign policy, one underwritten by the ineffectiveness of public opposition in the wake of opposition party collapse, in fact the Abe administration felt compelled to significantly water down these changes to the point that it remains very difficult for the SDF to engage in overseas combat. For example, although SDF units engaged in humanitarian relief and reconstruction missions in South Sudan were recently given new rules of engagement that allow them to rescue other UN Peacekeepers under attack and help defend UN peacekeeping camps if they come under attack, the conditions and rules for actually engaging in these operations remain so restrictive that they are unlikely to ever be activated. New restrictions and conditions on overseas combat were put in place to prevent a backlash at the ballot box from voters who remain overwhelmingly opposed to the SDF engaging in overseas combat. In fact, the LDP did suffer an election defeat as a result of the July 2014 constitution reinterpretation, as it lost a governor’s race in Shiga prefecture it had earlier been projected to win.
We can see the same picture in the case of the Abe administration’s unpopular policy of promoting the restart of Japan’s nuclear power plants, which have been idled since just after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident in the wake of the March 11 (3-11) Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Abe initially called for restarting all idled reactors by the end of 2013, but as of the end of 2016, only three have so far been restarted, and the prospects for restarting more plants is uncertain, or at best, a long-drawn and expensive process to restart less than half of Japan’s existing reactors. Moreover, Abe, despite being personally very pro-nuclear, has not pushed to return to the pr-3-11 policy of nuclear expansion or push for new nuclear reactor builds. Instead his administration has embraced the goal of “reducing nuclear power as much as possible.” Behind this is fear of voter backlash, backlash already evident in two recent governors’ elections in Kagoshima and Niigata that brought to power governors committed to shutting down or keeping off-line nuclear power plants in their prefectures. As former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichirō recently argued, if the opposition parties made opposition to nuclear power their central plank the LDP rule would be gravely endangered. The Abe administration appears to recognize this reality and is intent on preventing it by limiting its support for nuclear power.
It is telling that in every national election since the LDP returned to power in 2012 the Abe administration has refused to build a mandate for unpopular policies such as overseas SDF combat or nuclear restarts by making these election issues. Instead, Abe made the December 2014 Lower House election and the 2016 Upper House election into referendums about whether to delay an unpopular increase in the consumption tax. Behind this strategy is the reality of an LDP still traumatized by the fact that voters removed it from power for the first time in 2009, and a recognition that pushing unpopular policies risks reenergizing the DP and perhaps other opposition parties.
A closely related factor is the LDP’s reliance on a small coalition partner, Komeito, which takes very different stands on many major issues, most notably SDF overseas combat and nuclear restarts. Although it is often claimed in the international media that the LDP holds a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, in fact it only holds this in conjunction with Komeito. The LDP’s stable majority in the Upper House is also dependent on Komeito (the two parties together lack a two-thirds majority in the Upper House). Moreover, the LDP depends on Komeito supporters to vote for LDP candidates in many single-seat constituencies at election time. These factors give Komeito leverage over the LDP that it used, with support from public opinion, to significantly water-down the July 2014 constitutional reinterpretation and the subsequent security legislation. It also has acted to reign in Abe’s pro-nuclear proclivities.
A third factor is that the DP and the opposition in general is showing some signs of recovery, albeit gradual recovery. This party suffered tremendous reputational damage from its first stint in power, and fell to its nadir in the December 2012 election, when a rival opposition party nearly eclipsed the DP (then still known as the DPJ) to become the main opposition party. Since then the DP has recovered its position as the uncontested leading opposition party. It has also been regaining seats in the Diet, albeit it slowly in the Lower House. However, the DP did better in the July 2016 Upper House election, winning nearly twice as many seats as it won in 2013, and preventing, together with the other opposition parties, from winning a majority of the seats contested (won only 56 seats, 6 short of a majority of seats, whereas in 2013 the LDP won 65 seats, a majority) . Earlier in 2016 the party absorbed another opposition party, the Japan Renewal Party (at which point the Democratic Party of Japan changed its name to Democratic Party). Most importantly, strong public and opposition party opposition to Abe’s security legislation helped to unify opposition parties, including the Japan Communist Party (JCP), and has resulted in effective opposition party cooperation at election time that is reducing the number of seats the LDP is able to win, as became evident in the 2016 Upper House election. The DP’s new telegenic and popular leader, Renho, who won the most votes in the Tokyo multi-seat constituency in the July Upper House election, is also helping to raise the fortunes of the party, although the mishandling of her renunciation of Taiwanese citizenship (she had tried but failed to renounce it as a teenager) has cut into her popularity to some extent. Gradually growing disillusionment with Abenomics is another factor that is creating opportunities for the DP and other opposition parties.
Finally, what can be called the “Trump factor”, namely the unexpected election of Donald Trump as president, creates great unpredictability and a clear and present threat to Abe’s foreign policy strategy. Abe’s foreign policy strategy has been to tighten the Japan-US alliance, to the point of increasing Japan’s dependence on security cooperation with the US, and to try isolating China. An important part of this strategy has been support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. What can be called the first “Trump Shock” has already occurred: despite Abe’s efforts to convince President-elect Trump otherwise, the president elect announced his plans to can US participation in TPP, effectively dooming the pact or relegating it to insignificance. If Trump follows through on other campaign promises to make Japan pay the US more, or cuts Japan loose from the alliance, these shocks would undermine, if not crush, Abe’s strategy of ever more closely hugging the US in order to counter-balance China. Such shocks could potentially trigger the collapse of the Abe administration, just as three Nixon shocks drove Abe’s great uncle, Satō Eisaku from the Prime Minister’s chair in 1972. A fundamental rethinking of the US-Japan alliance might also endanger the LDP’s hold on power, and permit a renaissance of the DP, and those in the DP who have long argued that Japan depends too much on the US and needs to reduce its estrangement with China.
In conclusion, the LDP’s recent strength under Prime Minister Abe reflects more an attempt to assuage or follow public opinion than it does an opportunity to ignore public opinion and enact the party’s pet projects and policies. Inter-party competition temporarily weakened, but never disappeared, and now the DP and opposition parties appear to be making a comeback, albeit a gradual one. The external shock of Donald Trump’s election possibly portends more shocks that might undermine major Abe administration foreign and even economic policies, thereby creating opportunities that opposition parties can exploit in an attempt to again take power.
Paul Midford, Professor, and Director, NTNU Japan Program
 Half the seats are contested in the Upper House every three years.