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Japanese Opposition Parties: What’s the Rumpus?

Host Michael Penn interviews Rob Fahey about the prospects for and the challenges ahead of the Japanese opposition parties, led by the Democratic Party and the Japan Communist Party.

Full Transcript

Penn: Hello, welcome once again. This is Michael Penn, I am your host for What’s the Rumpus?, our weekly talk show host. At least we try to do it weekly, we don’t always succeed, but this week, we did succeed, and we have a nice guest. His name is Mr. Rob Fahey. Rob is going to talk to us about the Japanese opposition parties, and you might hear a little bit of noise circulating around here, and that’s because we’re filming in The Pink Cow restaurant in Roppongi, so please forgive us a little background noise. Mr. Fahey, why don’t you tell the audience a little bit about yourself, who you are, and why you’re studying Japanese opposition parties and politics.

Fahey: I’m originally from Ireland, and I lived in the UK working as a journalist for about ten years. After that, I went back to university. I decided that journalism full-time wasn’t necessarily for me, and started studying politics. I ended up at Waseda University here in Tokyo. My actual focus is on political communication and how Japanese parties market, or often fail to market themselves to the electorate. Obviously, at the moment, what’s very interesting is this attempt by the opposition parties to align themselves ahead of a possible election. That ties into my field. It ties into this question of political marketing and communication, but also obviously has a very big influence on what’s going to happen to the Japanese government and possible Japanese policy making over the next five to ten years. How those parties manage to stitch themselves together, and whether it results in a Frankenstein’s monster is a very big issue that I think anyone who’s interested in Japanese politics probably has one eye on right at the moment.

Penn: Okay. And just to finish up with you yourself, you’re heading probably for an academic career now, or eventually back into journalism?

Fahey: We’ll see who’ll pay me money, but the academic career is top of the list at the moment.

Penn: Yeah, journalism doesn’t pay money.

Fahey: Why do you think I’m here?

Penn: Keep your children away from journalism.

Fahey: I agree.

Penn: Alright. So we’re talking about opposition realignment, and myself and my company were at the recent coming together of the Democratic Party, which was, of course, a combination of the Democratic Party of Japan, and the Japan Innovation Party, at least the wing that was led by Yorihisa Matsuno. How do you evaluate this aspect of the consolidation? Does it look like it’s been done correctly at this stage?

Fahey: I think the problem with that side of the consolidation is really the question of, “What is it that these two parties had in common that makes them a sensible merger candidate?”

Penn: How about the fact that most of the Japan Innovation Party lawmakers were from the Democratic Party of Japan.

Fahey: Exactly. You’ve got 21 lawmakers, fifteen of them were originally in the DPJ. That in itself draws into attention the issue of DPJ and now with the Democratic Party, which is that it’s very hard to see what they stand for. It’s extraordinarily difficult to look at that party and figure out what coherently they’re offering the electorate, except for the fact that they’re not the LDP, and honestly, they might as well put that in their posters right now: “Vote for us, we’re not the LDP.” Which is actually a winning proposition with quite a lot of voters, but not enough to form a government, and really not enough to be a coherent opposition. I think the issue is that the JIP merger, creation of this Minshinto, has probably brought to the fore…

Penn: We should say to our people who may not be familiar with Japanese language, Minshinto is the Japanese name of the Democratic Party.

Fahey: It’s got one of the kanji from the JIP’s name in it, so everybody goes home happy. But one of the problems with the merger or creation of this new entity is that when I speak to Japanese people who have a vote, unlike us, they often say, “Wasn’t the JIP a more rightwing kind of a party. And the DPJ was supposedly a bit like UK’s New Labor or something like that. What do they have in common?” And the answer is that they’re not the LDP.

Penn: My view of the Japan Innovation Party, at least the Matsuno wing of it, was that their main point was deregulation and economic liberalism.

Fahey: This is because a lot of those people actually didn’t come originally from the Osaka Restoration Party. This is part of the problem when you start talking about Japanese political opposition parties. There’s such a complicated genealogy that it’s like Game of Thrones: “Do I remember that guy? Was he from season one? Who is he?” So obviously, you have the JIP, they were originally the Restoration Party, which started in Osaka. Then they merged with the Unity Party, which had originally been Your Party, and they were not particularly rightwing, but neoliberal economic group. And then it all fell apart again, and the JIP was the rump. So a lot of those people came from a neoliberal background, rather than a rightwing political background. The problem I think is that a lot of voters don’t recognize that. They think of the JIP, and think of Hashimoto from Osaka, who is a rightwing character. They think of Ishihara from Tokyo, who is a very rightwing character.

Penn: Not exactly an economic liberal.

Fahey: No, not exactly an economic liberal or indeed a liberal in any sense. I think voters, they think of Kenji Eda, who was the leader of the Unity Party, and he’s the only JIP person to have been given a position in the senior governing body of the new Democratic Party. They think of him, and they think of an economic liberal. But in general, the JIP’s name is not necessarily connected with economic liberalism…

Penn: I think that when they split with Hashimoto, their problem was that they had no identity.

Fahey: Exactly.

Penn: It was sort of like, this was the Hashimoto party that is not Hashimoto anymore, so who are they? They’re nobody.

Fahey: It was a birthday party where the birthday boy had decided to go home. There was no purpose to it anymore. So that’s why they merged. Having said all of that, I do think there is an identity crisis as a result of this merger. I do also think it might have resolved some problems internally for the Democratic Party, because the DPJ also had an identity problem. The DPJ didn’t know who they wanted to be either. Realistically, we just said that a lot of the people from the JIP used to be in the DPJ, so they’re just coming home. A lot of people in the DPJ used to be in the LDP. So, there’s a lot of musical chairs that goes on in Japanese politics. The DPJ was largely identified as not being the LDP, and there were people within the DPJ who would see themselves as being very leftwing, who used to be in the old Socialist Party. There are people in the DPJ who would see themselves as economic liberals. They don’t necessarily get along very well together. There was talk until quite recently that the economic liberal faction might split. So rather than an opposition alignment, you were going to see opposition fragmentation ahead of this year’s elections. What this JIP merger has probably done is cemented the cracks. It’s brought some more neoliberal, economically liberal people into the party that those existing economic liberal people can feel comfortable alongside. And it’s given a kind of sense of unity to the party, at least on a social level, if not on a policy level.

Penn: Before we leave this point, you believe that this merger will solidify the new Democratic Party as a party that’s basically in favor of economic neoliberalism?

Fahey: Not necessarily. It’s not really about ideology. It’s about whether these people feel comfortable working with one another. That’s a constant ongoing factor within Japanese politics. Everyone’s ideology seems to be quite malleable. It’s a question of who they can work with, who they’re willing to share a party with, who they’re willing to share a platform with. I think that the introduction of the JIP into the DPJ and the creation of this new party has probably ended talk of a split. But I don’t necessarily think it’s fixed. The question of what their ideology is, or what they believe in, or what policies they want to implement. You can see that from the fact that the next thing they’ve moved on to talk about aligning themselves with the Communists in the next election.

Penn: You mentioned the Japan Communist Party. There’s been some really remarkable developments in that sphere. The Japan Communist Party, since last year, seems to be making a concerted effort to move to the political center, and they’ve even proposed to the other opposition parties to possibly create a coalition government that they’ll participate in. How do you evaluate this.

Fahey: It is a very big change for them, because they’ve been political outsiders for a long time. But the changes that they’re making in terms of what they’re offering in terms of changing their policy platforms are not all that different. It’s not actually that much of a big sacrifice for the JCP, because since the 1950s, they’ve been more of a democratic socialist party than a communist party. I think all of us hear the word communist and have a very clear idea of what that means, but the JCP hasn’t really stood for that since the 50s, which is why they were permitted to continue being active here, even under the allied occupation. The Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan had no problem with the JCP, they actually saw them as very cooperative and pro-constitution. That’s kind of continued until now. They are a party of protest. They are a democratic socialist party, but they’re not really communist in the Soviet or Chinese sense of the word.

Penn: Democratic socialism is what Bernie Sanders is calling himself. Are you saying that the Japan Communist Party is what we should see as the Bernie Sanders of Japan?

Fahey: Yes. In very much the same way that Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom is on a very similar platform. One of the reasons that the JCP is so keen to appeal a little bit more broadly at the moment, is because they’re one of the only parties picking up new votes. Particularly, if young people go out to vote, they primarily vote for the JCP. That also has parallel to the Sanders movement in the United States. He wins a very large majority of youth votes. When the JCP manages to motivate people under 35, under 40 to go out and vote, they vote for the JCP. The other parties have very little appeal among younger voters. There’s a lot of reasons perhaps around that. I think a big part of it is that if you were born since the early 1980s, the word Communism or the word Socialism doesn’t have the same connotations for you. There’s a whole generation growing up in Japan, in Britain, and America who simply don’t see Communism or Socialism as necessarily being an evil, but just an alternative. Of course, that means that it’s very difficult for the JCP to pick up voters at the higher end of the age spectrum. That’s why they’re in alignment with other parties. They are in an interesting position. They’ve won electoral victories in the last three or four years that no one would have believed possible ten years ago. Nobody’s thinking they’re about to have a breakthrough and become a main party of opposition, but realistically, they could be a very powerful party of a coalition government.

Penn: You say that, but they’re mostly certainly going to nail down the number two opposition party position, except Osaka Ishin would be a possible rival.

Fahey: They’ll probably be number two or three, but it’s a very distant second or third. Their problem is that their vote at the moment can surge when young people turn out to vote. That’s what happened in Okinawa, where they have won a major electoral victory last year. But in general, it’s stuck around ten, fifteen percent of the vote. Not dissimilar to the LDP’s coalition partner Komeito, which has a set percentage of votes that they pretty much always win. What makes the JCP really interesting from an electoral perspective, thinking about electoral cooperation, is that if they have this loyal vote, almost everywhere in the country, and there are some places where they are a little stronger, they’re much stronger here in Tokyo for example, but if they have that loyal vote, and they can pass that on to a coalition partner in an election, they could swing quite a large number of seats towards their partner. That is a completely untested theory. It’s what’s going on in the heads of the Democratic Party, of the JCP, of all of the other opposition parties at the moment. It’s also going through the heads of the LDP, who have really stepped up the heat in the last couple of months. There’ve been some wild accusations about the JCP being kind of a dodgy criminal organization, coming out from the LDP, and if anything, has probably increased their cache with younger voters, but ultimately, everybody is looking at this, and realizing, these guys could swing a bunch of elections that are relatively close, but it is completely untested, because nobody knows what a JCP voter does when their party tells them to vote for someone else.

Penn: You mentioned that the JCP could possibly swing some elections, but if you listen to the conservatives inside the Democratic Party, people like Goshi Hosono, or Seiji Maehara, they’re ferociously against that idea. They say, no it won’t, because if the Democratic Party gets tied up with these guys, we’re going to lose as many people from the center, as we’re going to gain from the left. You say that it’s untested, but how do you evaluate that? Do you think that these guys are onto something, or are they just stuck in ideology land.

Fahey: I think the question is how ideological Japanese voters really are. Your average JCP voter must be quite ideological, or else they wouldn’t be voting for the JCP. The average DPJ voter, I’m not entirely convinced. The one thing that is tested is the counterflow. The possibility of votes flowing from the DPJ into the JCP. That’s actually very powerful. We can see that from the last House of Representatives election in 2014. There were a number of constituencies where the DPJ couldn’t stand a candidate. After they were routed in 2012, they just didn’t have enough candidates to put up in all of the constituencies. There were quite a few places where the DPJ didn’t have a candidate in play, and the JCP was the only opposition to the LDP in that constituency. In those constituencies, the JCP picked up tens of thousands of votes. So there were obviously a lot of DPJ voters who are perfectly happy to vote for someone from the JCP, if it stands the slightest chance of keeping the LDP out of power. Whether that flows the other way, I don’t know.

Penn: It sounds to me like your inclination is to say that the Democratic Party will be well-advised to link arms with JCP in order to defeat the LDP. You think that’s a more viable approach rather than to keep them at arm’s length?

Fahey: I think they need to figure out what the potential utility and the potential risks is. For one thing, linking arms with the JCP won’t defeat the LDP. I’ve run a bunch of numbers in simulations across the figures from the last couple of election cycles. Assuming that we have a double election this year, which seems to be the consensus of most political analysts, if every single vote the JCP got in 2014 were to be transferred to the Democratic Party, and I’m also making the assumption that every vote that the JIP got transfers nice and neatly over to the new combined party, which might not necessarily be true. If all of them transferred across, they would win 70 seats. 3 seats for the JCP, 67 seats for the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives. That still doesn’t give them a majority. The LDP will still be a majority. They would also be unable to get a twisted diet in the House of Councillors. The very very best case scenario, allowing for a whole load of fantastic things to happen for them on election day, is that the JCP and the Democratic Party working together, sharing votes in the most intelligent of ways, supporting candidates wherever they’re needed, the best scenario I can come out with of any model is that they split the House of Councillors evenly, 121 to 121. And a bunch of independents would probably support the government. So they wouldn’t even be able to get the 2010 results that the LDP had, where you had that twisted diet that really crippled that government.

Penn: But the sum is really greater than the parts. For example, if you looked at the polling ahead of the merger for the Democratic Party, the DPJ was polling about 7% or 8% and the Japan Innovation Party was polling 1% or under. So you add that together, that should be 8% or 9%. But as soon as they merged, they were getting 13% support in some polls.

Fahey: It kind of depends on which polls you look at though. There were others, like the Yomiuri Shinbun, which is admittedly a LDP-friendly paper, but the Yomiuri Shinbun had them polling at around 7% and 3%, they should have got 10%, and then when the first poll after the merger came out, they got 6%.

Penn: I find that to be a little…

Fahey: I also find that to be a little unusual, it might just be a lack of name recognition for the new name, but I think there is a question mark over how well the two parties perform together. One big concern I have is that almost all of the JIP’s MPs are proportionally elected. So they only bring four single seat constituencies with them. And they’ll win those four single seat constituencies. Everywhere else, they’re genuinely relying on voters in the proportional ballot being able to weigh in behind this party. So there’s a possibility of a lot of those JIP seats disappearing in the next House of Representatives election.

Penn: As we swing into the final section, I want to step back a little bit. It seems to me from my sense of speaking to Japanese people about the opposition parties and what they feel, is there’s just a lack of trust there. They don’t feel that they have the capability to govern. The LDP, they say we hate them, but at least they put together a reasonably competent government, which the DPJ, during its three years did not give the impression of having done. If the Japanese people get the sense that the opposition is actually a viable governing alternative to the LDP, I think they could win quite easily.

Fahey: The difference between the LDP being in government, and the opposition being able to form a government is turnout. The LDP has won all of its elections since the DPJ went out of power, all of Abe’s elections have been won on a very, very low turnout, with a smaller actual number of votes for the LDP than Taro Aso got when he lost to the DPJ in 2009. Shinzo Abe has never won as many votes as Taro Aso won. That’s embarrassing.

Penn: That’s interesting.

Fahey: But it’s because turnout collapsed after the collapse of the DPJ, because an awful lot of Japanese people, feeling exactly what you’ve just said — the opposition was not offering a realistic alternative — rather than say, “Oh well, I’d best go out to vote for the LDP then,” they just stayed home. When those voters see that there’s something out there that is a genuine alternative that gets them off their backsides to go to a polling station on polling day, the LDP will be out of power again. But at the moment, there’s really very little sign of them offering that. The opposition at the moment offers nothing but opposition, which sounds like a silly thing to say, but all they do is criticize the government. They never seem to have an alternative to offer. At the start of this segment, we talked about the fact that it’s very hard to pin down what it is that the Democratic Party actually stands for. Nobody really knows what the Democratic Party would do if they were in government. We know that they wouldn’t do Abenomics, because they don’t like Abenomics, they wouldn’t do nuclear the same way. They’ve sort of weighed in behind a lot of public protest issues: Abenomics, nuclear power, the security bills, whatever is on the news right now. And they’ve said, yes, this is terrible, without ever saying, “and here’s what we would do differently.”

Penn: It’s actually worse than that. I recently interviewed a Democratic Party lawmaker, and his opinion was that it’s completely hopeless for us to try to sort out policy within our party right now. First we have to win power, then we’ll figure out the policies.

Fahey: And that’s not how it works. The fundamental thing about a democratic system is that you can’t vote against a party. You cannot go to the polls and vote against the LDP. Some people will just go and vote for anyone that isn’t the LDP, but fundamentally, the vast majority of voters will either go out and vote for something that they want in power, or will stay at home. And that’s what we’ve seen since 2012. Voters that don’t see anything that they like on the opposition benches stay at home. The DP is never going to be in power until it sorts out a policy platform, and until it shows the Japanese people, here is our alternative. You can’t win power, and then figure out what you want to do with it, unless you’re a medieval king, which they’re not, I think.

Penn: I think that’s an interesting point to end on. We’re not medieval kings ourselves.

Fahey: Sadly not.

Penn: But we can right now have a feast as we are medieval kings. So The Pink Cow restaurant here is a Cal-Mex restaurant which serves burritos and other delicious things.

Fahey: Those were very popular with medieval kings.

Penn: Yes. I know, many kings in England were burrito fans.

Fahey: Yes, big into burritos.

Penn: Would you be willing to stick around for a little longer to have dinner with us before you take off?

Fahey: I’ve been offered a feast, how could I refuse.

Penn: There you go. He’s been offered a feast, and you have also been offered a feast of this latest episode of What’s the Rumpus?, a feast of the mind of course, we hope.

Fahey: Is that as good as burritos?

Penn: Well, it’s not as good as burritos, but it’s good as they’re going to get. So thank you very much for joining us, and we’ll see you next week. Yes, we do have a guest next week. See you later. Bye bye.