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Japan's Prime Minister Isn't Popular, But His Coalition Won A Supermajority

Japanese Prime Minister and ruling party president Shinzo Abe smiles after the general election Sunday in Tokyo in which his ruling party won a clear majority.
The Asahi Shimbun
The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Japanese Prime Minister and ruling party president Shinzo Abe smiles after the general election Sunday in Tokyo in which his ruling party won a clear majority.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition now has a two-thirds supermajority in the parliament. That's after capturing more than 300 of the 465 seats in Japan's lower house that were up for grabs on Sunday.

Abe dissolved the parliament and called a snap election just weeks ago in a bid to move on from cronyism scandals that dogged him and to get a mandate for issues from economic stimulus to a controversial revision of Japan's postwar, pacifist constitution.

He appears to have gotten it. But it doesn't mean the Japanese are particularly enthusiastic about their leader. Tokyo voter Omi Kumiko braved the outer bands of a typhoon to cast a ballot against Shinzo Abe's ruling party — the liberal democrats — or LDP.

"I know that turnout tends to go down when there's rain so I made sure to come and vote," Kumiko said. She's among the minority of voters who picked anybody but candidates in Abe's party. His ruling LDP represents Japan's establishment conservative wing and it has dominated Japanese politics all but a few times since 1955.

"The LDP might not win a lot of enthusiastic endorsement from voters, but they are considered better than the alternative," says Jeffrey Kingston, who heads Asia studies at Japan's Temple University.

In the run-up to this election, the existing alternative — the opposition Democratic Party — split up. And the upstart parties that replaced it to challenge Abe are only weeks old. They lacked money, momentum and a turnout machine.

"[Abe] doesn't really have plausible, strong rivals. And he's gonna make the case to everybody look flaws and all in the middle of a national security crisis, do you really want to trust these untested leaders of newbie parties? And he's winning that argument," Kingston says.

It was enough to convince many Japanese voters to choose the LDP.

"Rather than policy, it's about electing someone you can trust," voter Akira Wada said, after calling his ballot in Tokyo's Shinjuku. "I believe they're trustworthy."

The trust issue comes into focus especially during tense times. Twice this year, North Korea's missiles have flown over Japan, triggering sirens, the J-alert emergency text message system and giving residents a scare.

"This creates a rally around the flag tendency and so this has clearly benefited Abe and the LDP," Kingston says.

Still — as he pushes ahead with economic stimulus and possible changes to Japan's postwar, pacifist constitution, Abe is not personally popular. A majority of respondents in public opinion polls said they don't want Abe to continue as prime minister, but he will — because of no plausible alternatives — and voter apathy.

"It doesn't matter who gets elected, nothing will change. So why even vote?" said Tokyo resident Daichi Kimura. He speaks for the nearly half of eligible Japanese voters who didn't cast a ballot at all in this election.

"Even if people at the top change, nothing is going to change in Japan," Kimura said.

To make those frustrations known, a group called the "Support No Party" party got on the ballot this time around. Enough voters picked it at the ballot box that the "No Party" party captured some 125,000 votes. Its signature issue is that it's sick of politicians.

Jake Adelstein contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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