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Why Are Japanese Millennials Voting Against Their Own Interests?

SNA (London) — Since Shinzo Abe stormed back into power in December 2012, he and his Liberal Democratic Party have been able to count upon Japanese millennials as a steady and reliable support base. In last month’s House of Councillors elections, 41% of those aged 30 or younger voted for the Liberal Democratic Party, according to Asahi Shinbun exit polls; a similar number plumped for the party in the 2017 snap elections. But the Liberal Democratic Party espouses stances on a variety of issues which run directly counter to millennials’ interests, hopes and beliefs.

Take LGBTQ+ rights as an example. As many as 83% of 18-29 year olds say homosexuality “should be accepted” within society. Dentsu polling shows that a massive 87% of 18-29 year olds back the legalization of same-sex marriage. Among the entire Japanese population, the numbers are similar, with nearly 80% supportive of legalization.

Yet only 9% of Liberal Democratic Party candidates in last month’s elections supported it. The party’s official stance regarding same-sex marriage is even more dire; a spokesperson said that “there are no plans in our party to debate any same-sex law at this point,” adding that it is “incompatible with the Constitution.” Shinzo Abe himself has actively opposed efforts to legalize it.

The claims that some Liberal Democratic Party politicians have made regarding the LGBTQ+ community are staggering. Mio Sugita insisted that they “don’t produce children” and hence “lack productivity and… do not contribute to the prosperity of the nation.” Katsuei Hirasawa postulated that Japan “would collapse” if all its citizens were members of the LGBTQ+ community. Both politicians remain within the party to this day.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community encounter countless obstacles over the course of their lives and face discrimination at every turn, simply for expressing their true identity. The only effective barrier that stands in the way of what would be a huge boost to the long-suffering LGBTQ+ community are out-of-touch Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers.

Another contentious area is the Liberal Democratic Party’s unacceptable stance on sexual harassment. As the Shingetsu News Agency reported last year, the Abe administration has endorsed the idea that “the crime of sexual harassment does not exist.” This stance has shown to not be just pure rhetoric; Abe’s attempts at preventing sexual harassment went only as far as “urging” corporations to deal with the issue themselves, with no punishment meted out for the harassers involved.

Several individual cases which the Liberal Democratic Party have found themselves entangled in are particularly concerning. Journalist Shiori Ito alleged in 2015 that Noriyuki Yamaguchi, a well-known rightwing Japanese journalist who is close to Shinzo Abe, raped her; his arrest warrant was suspended at the last minute by Itaru Nakamura, the former secretary of Yoshihide Suga, Abe’s chief cabinet secretary. Nakamura admitted to suspending the warrant but has never explained his decision. In another case, a female journalist reported that she was harassed by Junichi Fukuda, a top finance ministry bureaucrat; Finance Minister Taro Aso proceeded to blame the victim.

The Liberal Democratic Party is also disappointing on women’s rights in general. Abe claims to advocate a society where “all women can shine,” but the facts show this is little more than mere fluff.

As an example, a recent petition submitted to the Health Ministry by actress Yumi Ishikawa urged for an end to the legal requirement that women wear high heels in the workplace. It attracted more than 20,000 signatures and spawned a wider movement, known as #KuToo. Yet Takumi Nemoto, Abe’s labor minister, dismissed the petition, claiming that requiring women to wear high heels in the workplace is “necessary and appropriate.”

Under almost eight years of Liberal Democratic Party rule with Abe at the helm, Japan fell nine places in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report to a dismal 110th place out of 149 surveyed countries. Only 3.7% of Japanese company executives are female, and not a single Nikkei 225 listed company has a woman as chief executive officer. Only one of the nineteen members of Abe’s current cabinet are female; and in last month’s elections, only twelve of the Liberal Democratic Party’s 82 candidates were female. The gender pay gap is still the third highest in the OECD, and Abe’s attempts to increase female representation in the workplace have been extremely timid.

There are other issues as well. The Liberal Democratic Party is doing little to combat karoshi, death by overwork. Millennial Japanese have made up many of the high-profile karoshi deaths recently. Last November, suicides among young adults hit a thirty-year-high. The Liberal Democratic Party hasn’t done much to tackle this issue, nor the societal stigmas which lie at the root of the problem.

The question, then, is why do so many millennial Japanese vote for the Liberal Democratic Party?

The answer seems to lie with the macroeconomy. After all, on a surface level, the economy is booming. The Liberal Democratic Party’s “Abenomics,” the party’s economic plan of Keynesian stimuli and yen devaluation, has led to a rise in GDP and a resuscitation of the Nikkei 225. Japan’s unemployment level is fairly low, and 97.6% of university graduates who looked for jobs were hired last March.

Many young people also appear to have swallowed whole the Liberal Democratic Party’s fear-mongering of the opposition parties, such as Abe’s assertion that the Democratic Party of Japan administration “was like a nightmare,” and that if any opposition party got into power, it would be a regression to that “nightmare.”

Without even considering the validity of Abe’s assertion that Democratic Party of Japan rule was a “nightmare,” the argument that if opposition parties got into power it would be a repeat of the Democratic Party of Japan era still doesn’t hold up.

The Democratic Party of Japan failed to do much because of poor timing (the geopolitical and economic situation at the time), along with poor communication and planning (the government’s sprawling bureaucracy refused to do as told simply because the Democratic Party of Japan said it wanted to scale it down), and inter-party conflict, which the party spent most of its time embroiled in (between the progressives and more rightwing politicians who would have felt more at home in the Liberal Democratic Party).

But there is no reason why the progressive opposition parties would not have learned from their mistakes. The Democratic Party of Japan has since dissolved, with the more rightwing bloc heading to the Democratic Party For the People and the progressive wing fleeing to what is now the largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

Progressive parties such as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Japan Communist Party, and Reiwa Shinsengumi can present a truly credible alternative for Japanese millennials, if they work together in a way that is effective and captures the public imagination.

At the moment, Reiwa Shinsengumi has stolen the show in terms of capturing the public imagination, winning 4.5% of votes in the House of Councillors elections and 300 million yen (about US$2.7 million) in donations, even though the party was set up a few months prior to last month’s elections.

Taro Yamamoto, the party’s charismatic leader, has been dubbed “Japan’s Bernie Sanders” and his street addresses have gone viral online. Former TEPCO employees, professors, former bankers, Okinawan Soka Gakkai members fighting against Komeito’s complicity with the Liberal Democratic Party, and former environmental NGO workers came together to stand as candidates representing Reiwa Shinsengumi, all rallying around the same progressive message.

The party’s policies on the whole are inspiring, pledging to cancel student loan debt (a policy which is likely to appeal to millennials), increase the minimum wage to 1,500 yen (about US$14.15) and broaden social services.

But some of the party’s policies are admittedly a little unrealistic or rather vague: Scrapping the consumption tax and replacing it with a higher corporate tax is, while laudable, a populist move which could be impractical. Also, while most of the party’s candidates support same-sex marriage, it lacks concrete policies on LGBTQ+ rights and women’s issues.

This is where the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Japan Communist Party come in.

While the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan ran a largely uninspiring, dispirited campaign last month, a number of its policies have a lot of potential, especially in terms of its policies dealing with LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. More than 90% of lawmakers in the party support the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the only two openly gay politicians in the Diet, Kanako Otsuji and Taiga Ishikawa, are Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmakers.

More than half of the Japanese Communist Party’s fielded candidates last month were female, and its policies are also very promising. Like Reiwa Shinsengumi, it also plans to abolish the consumption tax, but it proposes a number of concrete alternative solutions such as reducing military spending and increasing tax rates on the rich. The party also advocates a number of economic policies which could directly appeal to millennials, such as reforming the graduate job recruitment process, making university free, and forgiving student loan debt. Like the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the party supports same-sex marriage and advocates a variety of progressive policies in the areas of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.

In Japan, the bizarre situation in which millennials vote for a party which directly opposes their own interests but produces good surface-level economic results need not continue. If the truly progressive opposition parties, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, Reiwa Shinsengumi, and the Japanese Communist Party, work in unison, they can offer a truly credible alternative to the Liberal Democratic Party. It is a future worth voting for.

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