Japanese Voters Give Shinzo Abe A Big Win In Snap Elections

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to call a snap election pays off big time.

Shinzo Abe Japanese Flag

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s gamble to call early elections appears to have paid off big time:

TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan appeared to be on track to win a majority in parliamentary elections for his party on Sunday, NHK, the public broadcaster projected, based on exit polls. The preliminary results fueled his hopes of revising the nation’s pacifist Constitution.

Early projections by NHK suggested that Mr. Abe’s governing Liberal Democratic Party and its allies had captured two-thirds of the seats in the lower house of Parliament.

The apparent victory came despite public opinion polls showing lukewarm support for the prime minister’s policies and competition from a party founded by Tokyo’s popular governor, Yuriko Koike, as well as another new center-left party.

For Mr. Abe, the results were a vindication of his strategy to call a snap election a year earlier than expected, and they raise the possibility that he would move swiftly to change the Constitution to make explicit the legality of the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan’s military is known.

The Constitution, in place since 1947, calls for the renunciation of war, and Mr. Abe said in May that it should be amended to remove any doubt about the military’s legitimacy.

Amending the Constitution requires the support of two-thirds of both houses of Parliament. Mr. Abe’s party and its allies had those numbers before Sunday’s elections, but the prime minister’s political woes earlier this year, along with public doubt about a constitutional change, raised the possibility that he would lose the supermajority in the lower house.

The victory on Sunday could also embolden Mr. Abe to run next year for a third term as leader of the Liberal Democrats, which could make him Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

The results were a setback for Ms. Koike, who started her new party, Kibou no To, or Party of Hope, with great fanfare just hours before Mr. Abe called the early election last month. But after she decided not to run for office, voters lost interest.

Analysts said Mr. Abe’s victory did not represent an endorsement of his platform so much as a lack of strong alternatives.

“The story of this election, it would seem, is Abe didn’t so much win it as the opposition just was totally unprepared,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

Mr. Abe’s public approval ratings dipped below 30 percent over the summer as he was dogged by a series of scandals, and opinion polls taken during the campaign found that more voters disapproved of Mr. Abe’s hawkish strategy toward North Korea than approved of it.

“There is an Abe conundrum,” Professor Kingston said. “How does a guy who is basically unpopular with voters, whose policies are not particularly popular, who doesn’t get high marks for leadership, and yet he keeps winning in elections?”

While I’m not going to claim any expertise on Japanese politics, from the coverage of the campaign and the election results that I’ve been able to follow it seems clear that Abe’s big win has more to do with the lack of a strong opposition party than with an explicit endorsement of his policies. As The New York Times article quoted above notes, Abe’s personal popularity in Japan is not particularly high, but he benefited from the fact that the opposition is weak and divided, something strongly indicated by the fact that the political party that led by his primary opponent in the election was formed only a short time before elections were called, a fact that Abe likely was exploiting when he called new elections more than a year earlier than necessary at a time when the opposition wasn’t close being ready to take on the ruling party. An additional factor appears to be that Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has been the majority of the time since Japan has returned civilian rule after World War II and the adoption of the new Constitution. During that seventy year period, the LDP has been in power for all but five years, once in the nineties from  1993-1996 and once since 2000 during the period from 2009-2012. (Source) Additionally, Abe himself now ranks as the fifth longest-serving Prime Minister in Japanese history, and his tenure ranks as the third longest since the end of World War Two. (Source) If he wins re-election as party leader next year, which seems likely given the outcome of these elections, and serves until the next round of elections, he’ll move even further up on this list. Given this and the lack of any apparent crises for the party in power, it’s not entirely surprising that Abe and his party won re-election.

The most interesting aspect of the outcome of this election, of course, concerns the impact it could have on Japanese foreign and military policy, especially with regard to the recent uptick in tensions on the Korean Peninsula. As noted above, Abe has long advocated a formalization of the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Force in the Japanese Constitution, which has banned an active military ever since it was written under American supervision after the end of the Second World War. Much has changed in that time, of course, and while Asian nations remain wary of the idea of a rearmed or more assertive Japan, the looming threat of an even more potent threat from Pyongyang seems to have caused at least some of those feelings to wane. Additionally, the fact that the DPRK’s leader Kim Jong Un has made explicit threats against the American military bases in Japan and civilian area in Japan. Additionally, several of the missile tests that the North Koreans have fired have flown toward Japan, or in a few cases right over, Japanese airspace. This reminder of the potential threat that the DPRK poses to the region likely played a role in the minds of many voters who decided to stick with the devil they know even if they don’t like him all that much.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. B. R. Bong says:

    How does a guy who is basically unpopular with voters, whose policies are not particularly popular, who doesn’t get high marks for leadership, and yet he keeps winning in elections?”

    How did Nixon/Trump win? I don’t know anyone who voted for him!

  2. Kylopod says:

    @B. R. Bong: Nixon was very popular in 1972.

  3. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @B. R. Bong: By picking a time when the fledgling party with the strongest potential opposition candidate will defer on running instead of going all in on a short time frame and an undeveloped platform. To his credit, he made a good move. On the other side, Koike now has an even better time frame to build a party.

    BTW, Nixon won both the popular AND electoral vote.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    I’m not surprised. Japanese political parties are more collections of factions grouped around mutual interests. Aside from rather vague-sounding slogans, a lot of the who-is-in-the-party boils down to horse trading and mutual backscratching. When the head of a faction dies, it’s quite normal for the rest of the faction to split off and form a new political party or split and join another political party.

    I’ve always found it amusing that the one mass political party in existence in Japan is the Communist Party. Quite a few of the mayors of cities are Communists and do a pretty good job of running their cities.

    The LDP is supported by the rural districts and has (in my opinion) more horse sense about how things actually work than the other political parties.

    (It’s all a kabuki show, anyway. Japan is actually run by the civil service, with the politicians only there for color and to make noises in front of the camera. I should know–I used to work in the Japanese government.)

  5. the Q says:

    Grumpy, you should also tell people that in Japan, the smartest go into government, not the private sector. Every high level METI official I’ve met has invariably been a Todai graduate (University of Tokyo). Did you work for JETRO? At a Consulate? Japan EX/IM? IBJ? Just curious. Maybe we have crossed paths.

    I’ve done business in Japan for 55 years. I think I know them pretty well.

    First things first, Abe’s grandfather (on his Mother’s side) Nobu Kishi, was a class A war criminal imprisoned for 3 years while he awaited trial for his utter brutality overseeing Japan’s occupation of Manchukuo (Manchuria).

    In the post war anti Communist hysteria, Kishi was released as some influential Americans who formed the “American Council on Japan” felt Kishi was a strong anti communist and should be allowed to re-enter government. (At the time, the Occupation banned former members of the Tojo regime from regaining status).

    Long story short, Kishi became Prime Minister of Japan in 1957, and his war criminal past was soon overlooked and forgotten as the Cold War heated.

    Kishi, had a hard-on (pun intended, he literally had sex with hundreds of comfort women in China) to forgive other Japanese war criminals and this he passed on to his grandson Shinzo.

    Noticed I mentioned Kishi was Abe’s maternal grandfather. This is a big distinction in Japanese culture. Abe’s own father was in-line to become PM in the late 80s, after Nakasone but succumbed to scandal and lost out to Takeshita.

    Abe rarely mentions his father or his paternal grandfather. He invokes Kishi as influential which is an anomaly in their culture.

    So lets cut to the chase here. Douglas MacArthur for all his ego, was a genius. The manner in which he re-organized Japan and basically wrote the Constitution of Japan is, in my opinion, the greatest foreign policy triumph in American history. Look at the results.

    He insisted on pacifism and the renunciation of war. He constitutionally limited the amount of GDP which could go to defense – 1.2% and that Japan would renounce war forever.

    “Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.”

    It was brilliant and it literally set in motion Japan’s great leap forward.

    To change one letter of this, I believe would be a profound mistake. And the fact that Abe has our tacit approval to change Article 9 is abhorrent. Our Pentagon no doubt is behind this approval as we salivate at Japan becoming our armed ally in opposition of China.

    I doubt any of you know any Bataan death march survivors.

    My cousin was one of them. He spoke of Japanese guards calmly taking out their katana swords and with zero warning chopped off the heads of marching GIs. He spoke of other atrocities and war crimes. The sheer evil and brutality of the Japanese occupation of China and Korea is well documented. Not to mention treatment of our POWs.

    Like I said, I’ve been to Japan a hundred times, have done business with them for decades. The civility, manners, discipline and respect for others is unmatched in current Japan.

    It is literally inconceivable to me, in all my interactions with the Japanese, to think these mild mannered, gentle people were ever able to engage in the inhumane, murderous manner of last century. The Japanese Constitution, which we wrote, was wildly successful in wringing out any remnant of the old Shinto militarism and barbarism and when it does raise its ugly head (Mishima) it is very unpopular.

    Which is why I am strongly opposed to letting the genie of war out of the Japanese bottle.

    As we know, especially after watching Burn’s Vietnam doc or Madison’s exhortations, war brings out the worst in man. Barbarism becomes banal and trivial and accepted.

    Abe is very much misguided by the romance of his grandfather’s tales of Japanese expansionism and the war criminals as heroes of a sort.

    To risk Japanese flirtations of becoming a military power will be looked upon by future generations as one of America’s biggest foreign policy phuck ups.

    In our short sighted over-reaction to Chinese power, we have made a horrible choice to involve Japan in this struggle. The unintended consequences could be disastrous.

    PS, WR since you are the expert, please chime in with your opinion, however full of schite it might be.