Japan’s elections don’t make sense

Fortunately I missed all of the hullabaloo surrounding the U.S. presidential election – the ads, the mass mailings and the frequent phone calls from “unknown” callers.

My wife and I moved to Tokyo last May, before the campaigns really started heating up. However, last week I did experience my first election in Japan. All I can say is, it was quite different from the American electoral system.

While I do not profess to be an expert on the Japanese political system, here is what I can cobble together based off my wife’s explanation and information from the “experts” on Twitter.

First, the basics. The Japanese government is based off of the British parliament. Japan has an emperor who is merrily a figurehead just like the Queen of England. Then there is the Japanese parliament which has an upper house and a lower house. Parliament is led by the prime minister.

Got it so far? Good, because here is where it starts to get murky.

There are two major parties in the Japanese system – the Democrats and the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats is the conservative party.

Confused yet? So am I.

The Liberal Democrats, or the LDP, formed as a political party after World War II when the United States obliged to write Japan’s new constitution, stating that never again will Japan be able to militarize.

The new constitution also took all political power from the emperor and gave it to the hands of the democratically elected parliament.

Now granted, since World War II, things have been going fairly well for Japan, especially in the 80s when Japan became a world economic power thanks to its cheap, reliable automobiles and advanced electronics. The LDP stayed in power this entire time. Then in the early 90s Japan hit a recession, which they have very, very, very slowly been recovering from.

The Japanese people are fairly patient, but by 2009 they had had enough. China had overtaken Japan as the economic power of Asia, Singapore gained the title as the finance capital of Asia and all of the manufacturing jobs were going to Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam. All of a sudden Japan was on the outside looking in.

So in 2009 there was a bit of a political coup in parliament. The Democratic Party of Japan (the DPJ), the liberal counterpart to the Liberal Democrats, gained control, and thus got to select the new prime minister.

The LDP’s most recent prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, proposed to raise Japan’s consumption tax (similar to the income tax) from 5 percent to 10 percent by 2015. The reason for the tax increase is that Japan has the largest amount of debt among industrialized nations and the aging population will soon add $13 billion in annual social security pay outs.

While many Japanese view the tax increase as necessary (at least my wife does), overall it was wildly unpopular, especially with the older, voting population, and Noda saw his popularity rating drop to 20 percent.

The second issue in the election was China. You may or may not have heard about this over the summer, but there has been an ongoing flap between China and Japan regarding the Senkaku Islands. These are tiny rocks sticking out of the Japan Sea roughly half way between the two nations. Ownership of the islands was never clearly delineated following World War II, and while the area is considered to be rich fishing ground, it was never much of an issue until they decided there might be oil reserves underneath them waters.

China, which is Japan’s largest trade partner, decided to flex their economic muscles and boycotted many Japanese businesses. This proved to be quite disastrous for the Japanese economy which was still reeling from the 2011 earthquake.

So Prime Minister Noda has been taking a diplomatic approach with China because, you know, China could wipe Japan off the face of the earth if they wanted to.

World War II was only two generations ago, and the senior population of Japan, the voting population, still have some negative feelings towards China. So in order to win this recent election, the LDP and their leader, Shinzo Abe, took a rather hawkish stance towards China. Abe has even gone on record to say he would like the Japanese constitution to be amended to allow Japan to build a military.

So there you have it, those were the two major issues.

However, this was not an election year. Yet Japan held an election anyway.

As I mentioned before, Japan parliament (also called the National Diet) has two houses – the upper house and the lower house. The upper house holds an election for half its members every three years, like clockwork.

The lower house is more like the U.S. House of Representatives. They are supposed to hold an election every four years, unless they want to change the prime minister.

Japan is now changing prime ministers for the sixth time in six years.

Why the high turnover?

Here’s the simple answer: members of the Japanese lower house of parliament are a bunch of whiny, jerks.

See, the prime minister isn’t elected by the general public. The prime minister is selected by whichever political party has the majority of the seats in lower house.

If the U.S. followed this system, it would mean that Rep. John Boehner would be president, and you wouldn’t have a say in it.

To change prime minister it requires two-thirds of a no confidence vote from the lower house. Apparently this happens every year.

This year ias a little different. Prime Minister Noda is generally popular among politicos and political pundits. He was making real changes in a government that is generally stagnant. And it was obvious they were not going to get the necessary two-thirds vote to oust him as prime minister.

The only way to push through with the election was if Noda himself dissolved parliament and gave the okay. And this is just what he did. Why? Because his public opinion polls were so low. He said giving the voters what they wanted was the honorable thing to do. This would be like Barack Obama stepping down back in 2011 when his approval ratings were at an all time low.

Last month Noda stepped aside, even though politicians in the LDP approved of him more than they did their own candidate Shinzo Abe.

So how was Abe chosen as the next prime minister?

Actually, the position isn’t new to him. Abe was prime minister from 2006-2007. He mysteriously resigned because of a chronic bowel ailment, also known as diarrhea. This excuse was believed to be a cover for his administration’s incompetence, which was rife with accusations of improprieties.

However, Abe talks a good game when it comes to riling up the nation’s masses.

The LDP rules the agricultural areas of Japan, which actually hold more voting power than the urban areas. This is like my home state of Iowa holding more electoral votes than Florida.

During his campaign Abe promised a stronger stance against China, abolishing the proposed tax increase and promising more infrastructure jobs in rural areas.

In last Sunday’s election, on Dec. 16, Abe and the LDP won in a historic landslide.

It’s back to business as usual for the Japanese government.

I wonder whose going to be prime minister next year?

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