Japanese voters have lost their appetite for ‘reform’ policies

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida waves to voters in Fukushima City on Wednesday.

As election day for the House of Councillors draws near, party leaders have been rushing around battleground prefectures and campaigning energetically. This includes Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. He has made such pledges as “Protecting the livelihoods of the people,” “Making an economic recovery,” and “Taking measures to cope with rising prices.”

If you listen carefully, you will find that his choice of words in campaign speeches is somewhat different from that of his predecessors. He seems reluctant to champion a pro-reform stance. This is not common for a new prime minister who took office only eight months ago. In the previous session of the Diet, Kishida used the word “reform” about 100 times in his speeches or responses. A fourth of those instances were about reforming the United Nations Security Council, which is unrealistic in the current world situation, and is not high on Kishida’s agenda.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mentioned “reform” or “structural reform” about 300 times during the Diet sessions in 2013. These terms were heavily used by past LDP prime ministers. And non-LDP administrations have promoted themselves as more reform-minded than the LDP.

Why does Kishida balk at reform? One answer is that he wants to avoid the image of former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who had championed various reforms, but was too unpopular and was forced to step down last October. Besides, Kishida beat a so-called innovator, Taro Kono, by a large margin in the LDP’s presidential race.

The Kishida administration may feel that the Japanese people do not value a reform posture when choosing candidates in national elections. There is reason to think so. In a poll conducted in 2019 by The Yomiuri Shimbun and Waseda University, 60% of respondents answered that they put greater weight on stability than change when asked what they looked for in Japanese politics. Only 38% said they preferred change. After the lower house election in October last year, voters prioritized measures for the economy, employment and social security above various kinds of reforms.

The leading hypothesis is that the Japanese people are tired of change. This may have emerged as a reaction to the results of the “reform period” of the last three decades. This country has had so many reform-minded governments since the bubble economy burst in the early 1990s, and the public has lost confidence in how politics, the economy and society are governed.

The first steps toward political reform were taken to prevent rampant corruption among big-name politicians and factions in the ruling LDP. The focal point of the issue soon became how to retool the electoral system to bring about a two-party system that would enable transfers of power, because one-party rule by the conservative LDP since 1955 was thought to have been the source of bribery scandals and politics’ failure to function. After several years of political turmoil, a single-seat constituency system was adopted in the House of Representatives election in 1996. But in the about quarter-century since then, the LDP has been the governing party for more than 23 years. The former Democratic Party took power once in the 2009 lower house election, but poor governance caused the collapse of its administration. Now, few voters feel sure that a transfer of power will happen anytime soon.

In the first decade of the 2000s, the reform period reached its peak. Central government ministries and agencies were drastically reorganized to promote Cabinet-led decision making. Even the change-resistant judiciary adopted a lay judge system in cases of serious crimes.

Not only government entities but private companies rushed to change the way they did things. The banking system, which had been under government control, became more market-oriented, and large banks were consolidated into three megabanks. Big business carried out “selection and concentration” through mergers and acquisitions to boost profitability.

But in the end, these reforms could not change the course toward a better situation. Japan has not gotten away from its long-term trend of a low growth rate. To ease the pain of reforms, almost every administration has implemented economic stimulus through expanding budgets. That has ballooned the value of outstanding bonds to ¥1 quadrillion, putting Japan’s debt to GDP ratio at the world’s worst level. Anxiety about a fiscal crisis has made the Japanese people curb their consumption, impeding economic recovery.

The Japanese style of management, once symbolized by lifetime employment and promotion by seniority, has been in decay. Many employees are disturbed by severe competition in the workforce.

The population has been declining for more than 10 years. The total fertility rate is below 1.5, among the world’s lowest. Grave labor shortages have not only damaged the economy but caused the erosion of communities in less-populated areas. The aging of the population is accelerating. Based on data from the United Nations, the median age of a person in Japan is about 50, making it the “oldest” country.

A sense of stagnation has prevailed, especially in the younger generation. In a 2018 international survey of youth attitudes by the Cabinet Office, only 31% of Japanese youth answered that their country had a bright future. This percentage was much lower than the United States (where 67% of young people answered yes), Sweden (62%), Germany (60%), Britain (56%) and France (50%).

The people of Japan have learned not to expect quick solutions through dynamic reforms. The nation has faced multiple challenges and difficulties, such as attempting to restore confidence in state finances, and changing strict immigration policy to accept foreign laborers to make up for the diminishing working-age population. On top of that, all parties have refrained from challenging preferential treatment for the elderly, who have swelled in number and have a strong voice in politics. The path Japan really needs to follow is a long and narrow one that unfortunately is not favored by politicians.

But whoever holds power, government has no other alternative. If a party or a candidate wants to win the confidence of voters, the best way would be to explain the realities awaiting Japan and to reiterate not broader reform but persistent remedies and efforts to overcome chronic and structural hardships.

Political Pulse appears every Saturday.

Takayuki Tanaka

Tanaka is senior managing director, chief officer, administration of The Yomiuri Shimbun. His previous post was managing editor.