To understand Japanese politics, you need to understand the Japanese political system. Japan's parliament, the Diet, has two houses; the lower house, the House of Representatives, is the one up for election. It has 480 members; 300 elected FPTP, 180 elected by party list proportional representation. One of the most relevant features of Japan's electoral system however, is the expensive monetary deposit required to run for office.
In the heavily gerrymandered FPTP districts, where it's virtually inconceivable some sort of outsider could win, the deposit is small enough. But, to run proportional candidates is very expensive. Of course, these deposits are returned -- provided you win. FPTP seats, where representatives are rarely in jeopardy, are frequently passed down parent-to-child (or possibly another relative, if representatives don't have children.) This system is one of the many reasons that corruption (nepotism and graft) is rampant in government.
Elections for the upper house, the House of Councilors, will be held in July 2013.
A Very Brief Political History
Japan was governed 1946-1993 and 1996-2009 by its perennial party of power, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its predecessors (since the LDP's name wasn't officially adopted until 1955.) The party was elected, in basically legitimate elections, with no major opposition from 1955 onwards, always taking 45+% of the vote, a large majority of seats, with the opposition fractured between many parties (the 1993-1996 government was an 8-party alliance, where no one party actually held over 70 seats.)
The opposition during that period, such as it was, was usually primarily composed of the Socialist Party (JSP) and Communist Party (JCP) -- although this should not be taken to suggest the ideologically all-inclusive LDP was "right-wing."
This unchanging political landscape changed drastically in 1998, when Japan obtained its first, real opposition party in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ.) The DPJ was founded by a former LDP politician named Ichiro Ozawa, who was also behind the 8-party coalition from '93 to '96. As a political schemer, Ozawa is nothing short of machiavellian. After falling out of favor in the LDP in the early 90s, he broke away and formed the Japan Renewal Party. Ozawa quickly demonstrated his prowess to the larger public, rapidly luring a large number of LDP representatives from a variety of non-dominent factions to join him, and then united the disparate opposition forces into a coalition government.
After the LDP returned to power in the '96 election, Ozawa united a large number of the opposition parties (including almost all of the JSP) -- many, but not all of which, were center-left -- into the broad anti-LDP coalition party that was the DPJ. Subsequently, the remnant of the JSP (now known as the Social Democratic Party ((SDP))) and the JCP would slowly lose seats to the benefit of the DPJ, seemingly putting Japan on a gradual path toward a two-party system.
However, because of the party's nature (and Ozawa's nature) the DPJ served not only as an opposition party but also as a revolving door, that would serve as a temporary landing place for LDP MPs who fell out of favor within their party. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with LDP governance already being present for much of 1998-2009 period, because of the indiscriminate welcoming of ethically and ideologically dubious LDP MPs (and popular distrust of Ozawa -- someone who has quite a few ethical issues himself -- who was seen as pulling all the strings) the DPJ's ascent was not rapid. Nevertheless, in the midst of an unprecedented economic downturn, the DJP would come to power in 2009.
But first, to understand the context of that election, you must understand the man who led the LDP for most of its waning years, Junichiro Koizumi. Koizumi was LDP leader 2001-2006, and was a remarkable politician, who, unlike most PMs, was decidedly popular for most of his tenure. He inherited the LDP when it was unpopular, and there was a time it looked like the DPJ would win the 2005 election (an election where the LDP actually ended up expanding its majority!) Of course, he was fortunate enough to govern during favorable economic weathers; but many unpopular PMs also were.
Koizumi was a decidedly right-wing prime minister, both in foreign policy, where he's remembered for his outspoken support of President Bush and the Iraq war (a rarity in non-interventionist and pacifist Japan) as well as domestically, where he privatized the postal service. He reinvented the LDP, consolidating it as a vaguely center-right party, exorcising LDP MPs who wouldn't play along with his agenda. Because of his 'mysterious' popularity, in a country where public officials are rarely popular, many politicians seek to emulate his style, and his shadow hangs over Japanese politics to this day.
(Although much ink has been spilled on the subject, I don't think his popularity is hard to understand. It was his ideological nature that made him popular; he took stances and stood by them. Rare enough in most countries, but a near extinction in Japan.)
Unfortunately for the LDP, the man who succeeded him proved not so impressive.
He was succeeded by a man named Abe Shinzo (a man who many people believe to be literally mentally unstable because of his erratic behavior.) Shinzo welcomed back the "rebels" from the postal system reform with open arms (most of whom were duplicitous and corrupt opportunists, who simply obstructed Koizumi when it was unpopular, and then were shocked to find themselves shut out after Koizumi gained popular support for privatization. In other words, Shinzo and the LDP learned no lessons.)
Multiple cabinet shuffles and one suicide (by one of Shinzo's agricultural ministers) into his term, the LDP was crushed in the 2007 House of Councillors elections, and the DPJ gained control of the upper chamber. Standard practice for losing an election like that would be resigning as party leader, but Shinzo refused to, sending the LDP into temporary chaos. He then said he would resign, before backing off again. And then resigned anyways. Shinzo then claimed it was because of medical issues (it was not) and checked himself into a hospital.
He was replaced by the more level headed Taro Aso, but the LDP never recovered from Shinzo's antics, and, weighed down by the economic crisis, also lost the ensuing 2009 House of Representatives election to the DJP.
Results Of The 2009 Election
DPJ Coalition - 50.73% districts, 49.78% proportional, 320 seats
Democratic Party (DPJ) - 47.43% districts, 42.41% proportional, 308 seats
Social Democratic Party (SDP) - 1.95% districts, 4.27% proportional, 7 seats
People's New Party (PNP) - 1.04% districts, 1.73% proportional, 3 seats
New Party Nippon (NPN) - 0.31% districts, 0.75% proportional, 1 seat
New Party Daichi (NPD) - no district candidates, 0.62% proportional, 1 seat
LDP Coalition - 39.79% districts, 38.18% proportional, 140 seats
Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - 38.68% districts, 26.73% proportional, 119 seats
New Komeito Party (NKP) - 1.11% districts, 11.45% proportional, 21 seats
Communist Party (JCP) - 4.22% districts, 7.03% proportional, 9 seats
Your Party (YP) - 0.87% districts, 4.27% proportional, 5 seats
Others - 1.53% districts, 0.66% proportional, 0 seats
Independents - 2.81% districts, no proportional candidates, 6 seats
● The SDP and NPN have since left the DJP coalition, and NPD has been disbanded.
The DPJ was swept into office with high hopes, but quickly would become unpopular. The first DPJ Prime Minister would be Yukio Hatoyama, one of the old LDP members Ozawa had brought with him in the very beginning. Hatoyama was soon ensnared in a series of scandals around the party's financing (the kind that have plagued the LDP for decades) and was forced to resign.
He was succeeded early in 2010 by Naoto Kan, an Ozawa foe (who defeated Ozawa himself in the leadership election.) Kan is a good man, but a bad politician. Despite coming into power popular, he lost the DPJ the 2010 House of Councillors election (which happened soon after he became PM) by inelegantly proposing a hike in the consumption tax. His handling of Fukushima was subsequently derided as incompetent and he was forced out as well.
In 2011, the DPJ elected their third PM (in as many years), Yoshihiko Noda. Noda, also an opponent of Ozawa, narrowly defeated Ozawa proxy candidate Banri Kaieda in the leadership election, on a platform of ending factional infighting. Politically, Noda is a moderate technocrat, who proposed sharp cuts in public spending to compliment the DPJ's tax hikes.
Things did not improve for the DPJ.
As part of his platform of appeasing the disparate DPJ factions, he appointed his first cabinet by appointing various ideologically divergent, septuagenarian, faction leaders to important positions. Unsurprisingly, this cabinet proved rife with corruption and incompetence, and the DJP continued slipping in the polls, falling below 20% in the polls early this year.
In July of this year Ozawa packed his bags. He and 52 MPs resigned en masse (leaving the DJP perilously close to losing their once massive majority -- already weakened by a slow trickle of resignations since '09 -- in the House of Representatives) and formed a new party, People's Lives First ("People's Lives First" was also the DPJ's '09 slogan.)
Then, in September, the LDP made what might have been a fatal blunder. They actually (re)elected Abe Shinzo as their leader. This was after another candidate, the much better liked and moderate Ishiba Shigeru, won a large majority when the rank and file voted. The anachronistic LDP leadership ignored the local chapter vote, and selected the unpopular and erratic Abe Shinzo. Just in case you might be wondering if the LDP might have learned anything in their three years in the wilderness, the answer is a resounding no.
And yet the DPJ did not recover. Despite wide majorities saying they did not want Shinzo as PM, the LDP's numbers remained flat, and the DPJ began to average closer to 13-15% in the polls.
Finally, in October, Noda snapped, and reshuffled the cabinet. His new cabinet was very different; a merit-based line up of young (not one cabinet member is over the age of 50) technocrats like himself (derided by the opposition as the "Kiddie Korps.") Not a single person who had ran against him in the leadership election received a post, despite the fact this presented a very real possibility of falling into the minority in the House of Representatives as their supporters ditched. Noda was already resigned to a snap election at this point, and was preparing, from his prospective, to salvage what could be salvaged from the DPJ.
Noda quickly struck a deal with the LDP (who agreed to raise the consumption tax in return for a snap election) while a slow, but increasing, number of DPJ MPs handed in their resignations and began to look for other parties to join, with several starting their own.
Then Noda dropped the bomb on his remaining caucus; he intended to alter the party platform to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial free trade agreement, despite many DPJ Representatives coming from rural, agricultural districts (Japan's expensive agriculture business is dependent on the tariffs Noda intended to eliminate) -- and run in the next election as a mono-liberal (in the european sense) party, ready to join a (ironically enough) LDP-led government as a rump centrist party. Any MP who refused to put, in writing, their support of his platform was expelled.
The demand for these "loyalty oaths" to Noda naturally led to many resignations within the ideologically fractured DPJ, including from several rising stars in the party, as well as former PM Yukio Hatoyama. Noda clearly does not care. He has given up hope for the DPJ in its current incarnation.
The DPJ and LDP have both seen a significant decline in support since the 2009 election, with both now polling less than 20% (although they still remain on top overall, with "undecided" leading in all polls by a significant margin, with nearly half (40-45%) of voters undecided.) The Japanese political scene has seen major upheaval, with the rise of many new parties seeking to take advantage this.
Within The DPJ-LDP Paradigm
Of the DPJ's '09 allies, only one remains in coalition with the DPJ. The People's New Party (PNP) is a small party formed by LDP dissidents forced out by Kouzumi, unlike the DPJ's other minor partners from '09 (most of them also formed by LDP dissidents) who fled when the DPJ became unpopular, the seemingly oblivious PNP has been happy to let the DPJ speak for them, and set their agenda. It is unclear if they will reenter parliament.
As it happens, the LDP also has an electoral partner, their eternal sidekick, New Komeito (NKP.) NKP has traditionally been the third largest party in parliament. NKP tends to be a submissive partner to the LDP, with the only point of contention between the two being Japan's pacifist status (which NKP supports, but many LDP bigwigs take issue with.) As you can see from its '09 result, the party shares much of the electoral base of the LDP (NKP's proportional result + LDP's proportional result almost exactly = LDP's district result.) Although the election of the hawkish Abe as LDP party leader can be expected to strain relations some, the LDP and NKP remain bound at the hip. NKP is expected to reenter parliament with a similar number of seats as it currently holds.
New Parties And Minor Parties
The most prominent of the new parties breaking onto the political scene is the Japan Restoration Party (JRP.) The JRP was officially formed in mid-September, but has unofficially existed since early May (and for several months the party led both the DPJ and LDP by a large margin in polling.) JRP was formed by the popular conservative mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, who is well known for his clashes with the teachers unions (over his proposal to require teachers to daily recite "Kimigayo" -- the national anthem.) Hashimoto wisely refused to be co-opted by the political establishment, and allowed only a few select MPs from the DPJ and LDP to defect to his party as it gained popularity.
JRP adopted many conservative and nationalistic positions, being the first to support the TPP free trade agreement (long before Noda "saw the light" when an election was imminent) while also wanting to change Article 9 of the constitution (which is the article that forbids "acts of war" by the state.) The party is also socially and culturally conservative, supporting policies such as forbidding government workers to have tattoos, and requiring a daily recitation of the national anthem by government workers. The JRP has also co-opted other popular positions, such as opposition to nuclear power.
Nevertheless, the party's popularity was hampered by revelations Hashimoto had an extramarital affair, and Hashimoto's own refusal to run for the Diet, preferring to stay on as mayor. Once Hashimoto ruled out running, the party suffered from a lack of exciting candidates, and slowly declined to the 5-7% range in polling. Looking for a way to revive his party, in October Hashimoto merged with another new party (The Sunrise Party, formed by the far-right, nationalist, outgoing Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara) only days after its founding, and subsequently handed over the leadership of the party to Ishihara.
This is a great showcasing of how empty most campaign season rhetoric is in Japan, since Ishihara both opposed the TPP, and supported nuclear power. However, he was willing to throw his principles to the wind to get in bed with Hashimoto.
Policies aside, the 80-year-old Ishihara is well known for his controversial and nationalistic rhetoric, and is known as "Japan's Le Pen" for his racist rhetoric against immigrants and his whitewashed view of Japanese history. Ishihara has said Japan should forbid immigration from Africa (because Ishihara believes Africans are genetically inferior), denies the Rape of Nanking (the regional equivalent of denying the Holocaust), that "old women who live after they have lost their reproductive function are useless and are committing a sin," and said that political opponents who died in the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami earlier this year deserved to die.
Under Ishihara the JRP's poll numbers have recovered somewhat, and the party now runs about even with, or slightly behind, the DPJ in most polls. The party will enter parliament, but likely with noticeably fewer seats than the DPJ, due to the DPJ's structural advantage in the FPTP districts.
The other important new party in Japan is on the left end of the political spectrum, the Japan Future Party (JFP.) JFP is a new party formed just 9 days ago by the SDP Governor of the small Shigawa Prefecture, Yukiko Kada. Kada quickly merged her party with Ozawa's People's Lives First, and a variety of other small DPJ splinter parties. JFP is an environmentalist party, that wants to phase out nuclear power by 2022. JFP also opposes the TPP and the DPJ's consumption tax hike. Despite the party being the only serious leftist party contesting the election, it has been held back by its association with Ozawa and friends (Ozawa, again, is very personally unpopular, and his faction is viewed with suspicion.) JFP tends to poll in the 5-7% range, to break out, Kada will need to prove she's not Ozawa's puppet -- a daunting task in such a short time frame. If it ends up taking off seriously, the DPJ will face a real collapse in support. Either way, the party will definitely enter parliament, although likely with significantly less than the 61 incumbent representatives who have defected to the party.
Your Party (YP), a small neoliberal party formed by breakaway LDP MPs shortly before the '09 election, flirted with forming a coalition with the JRP for the election, but ultimately didn't take the plunge when it felt it couldn't be guaranteed a good deal in terms of which districts the parties would run candidates in. It should reenter parliament with similar support as it currently has.
The Social Democratic Party (SDP), the tiny remnants of the old Socialist Party, tends to be a mostly moderate center-left party that runs far to the left on environmental issues and foreign affairs (indeed, foreign policy disagreements were behind the original MPs refusal to join the then-new DPJ) should reenter parliament by the skin of their teeth, but its days at the national level remain numbered.
The Japanese Communist Party (JCP), a neocommunist party that was stringently opposed to the Soviet Union, should reenter parliament, despite the party's perennial refusal to cooperate with other parties. The JCP (and SDP for that matter) -- unlike most major parties (DPJ, LDP, JFP) which are simply Diet member clubs -- has a strong base in local politics. For example, the JCP has more members elected to local municipal assemblies than either the DPJ or LDP (a lot more.) This gives the party a small, but resilient, base at the national level.
To give a better sense of the current political landscape, I'm including the two most recent polls from Japan's two largest newspapers, Asahi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun.
Asahi Shimbun, 1-2 December:
LDP - 20%
DPJ - 15%
JRP - 9%
JFP - 6%
NKP - 4%
JCP - 3%
YP - 3%
SDP - 1%
Undecided - 39%
Yomiuri Shimbun, 30 Nov.-2 Dec.:
LDP - 19%
DPJ - 13%
JRP - 13%
JFP - 5%
NKP - not included
JCP - not included
YP - 5%
SDP - not included
Undecided - 45%
The high number of undecideds reflects the widespread despair with a political spectrum with a political system where not only do parties lack a cogent ideology, but so do individual politicians. As Jochen Legewie writes in the Japan Times:
Japan's no-decision, no follow-through politics is feeding off the basic lack of policy direction pervading each party. The DPJ is well aware of this and has asked each member to sign and submit an application to run on the party's ticket. This "written oath" requires that each member support the DPJ manifesto. As internal differences over the TPP came to the fore, however, the party again managed at the last minute to avoid clarifying its stance on this crucial topic.
There is no real revival in the cards for Japan unless the major parties can determine what they stand for. Without this, any statesmanship or public debate will represent nothing more than shadow boxing for Diet seats. The political and economic implications are obvious: Japan's ability to conduct fundamental long-term policymaking will decline further and its muddle-through ways will continue to be the norm.
Regardless of who emerges on top, nothing will be able to be accomplished until the upper house elections in July.