The Japanese are some of the most politically disinterested people I have ever seen. A far cry from the virtually rabid political circus that is the US, and recently the UK. Most of my Japanese friends have neither interest nor much knowledge in politics at a local or even a national level.
So it seems to have taken the whole country by surprise, including Prime Minister Abe Shinzō (安倍 晋三) and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), that their disapproval rating has just shot passed their approval rating. A recent poll in the Mainichi Shimbun (毎日新聞) newspaper saw the approval rating of the government drop by 10 points to 36% and its disapproval rating rise by almost the same amount, to 44%.
To those of us that have at least a little understanding of politics, we are more surprised that everyone else is surprised at the increasing unpopularity of the government, especially given that each day seems to bring a new scandal or act of incompetence. It seems to have created a vicious circle; as the voters become less motivated, the caliber and quality of the politicians plummets causing the voters to become even more unmotivated.
One of the biggest events to impact the approval ratings is the recent Kake Educational Institution (学校法人加計学園) scandal. The scandal came about after some documents suggested that it was at the will of Prime Minister Abe that the opening of a new university veterinary department be fast tracked; the department was to be headed by a personal friend of his. The subsequent investigation by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology (文部科学省) was something of a farce full of contradiction and interference. Nearly 75% of those polled were unhappy with the government's explanation, though I'm not sure they even have one.
Normally, this kind of scandal in Japan would be met with a collective "meh" from the electorate. However; it comes hot on the heels of the recent Moritomo Gakuen (森友学園) scandal where the Prime Minister's wife was named as honorary head teacher for a new school that was embroiled in a dodgy discounted land deal, not to mention issues of ultra-nationalism and racism at a kindergarten run by the same people. While the Abe connection has becoming something of a side-note, Kagoike Yasunori (籠池泰典), the man behind Moritomo Gakuen, is still making headlines following his arrest with the raiding of his home and offices as part of a fraud investigation.
Another crucial event to have a big impact on the ratings is the recent ramming through of the controversial "Anti-conspiracy" bill. This is a very vague new bill that adds nearly 300 new crimes and can now lead to arrest under the guise of combating terrorism.
Critics, including the UN, state that the bill seriously infringes civil liberties and gives the government the power of mass-surveillance with no checks. To make matters worse, the government employed a rarely used move to force the legislation through right at the end of the last cabinet session before recess, thus avoiding any sort of debate. This even led to protests in Tokyo by the normally apathetic youth.
Gaffes and Incompetence
If all that wasn't bad enough, the generally poor quality of the Japanese political class has created a breeding ground of shitsugen (失言) political gaffes. The press pays very close attention to everything said by politicians and is not above a little vengeance from time to time. A good example is the recent resignation of former reconstruction minister, Imamura Masahiro (今村 雅弘).
He commented in a speech that “it was good” that the devastating Tōhoku earthquake of 2011 happened there and not in Tokyo. Given the greater population and economic density in Tokyo, he wasn't technically wrong and most people knew what he meant, though he could have chosen his words more wisely. The press however spun it all out of proportion after Imamura raged out against a freelance reporter a few weeks earlier.
Other examples include a popular, young politician, Miyazaki Kensuke (宮崎 謙介) who made a big show of his intention to take paternity leave only for it to be discovered that he was having an affair while his wife was pregnant. This is not a new phenomenon by any means and the Japanese political landscape is littered with the smoldering remains of careers ruined through idiocy. Some of the greatest offenders were also some of the most high profile, including two former Prime Ministers, Asō Tarō (麻生 太郎) and Mori Yoshirō (森 喜朗) and former Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro (石原 慎太郎) who even claimed President Obama tried to have him assassinated. Their exploits are many and amusing, some of which can be seen here and here. Oh, and here as well.
If that's enough to put you off, Japanese news shows on TV often show clips of politicians fighting, and general acts of childishness like stealing notes and papers during cabinet sessions, so it's no wonder people have little respect for those in charge.
Harnessing The Power of Youth Voters
Hopefully these recent figures will force the government to rethink some of its recent contentious and ill-conceived policies. Even more so, I hope the gaffes will inspire the younger generations in Japan to sit up, take notice and start becoming more involved in safeguarding their futures.
The political parties here might want to take a look at Jeremy Corbyn and the recent surge in the popularity of UK's Labor Party. While they didn't win the election, they destroyed the ruling Conservative Party's majority, thanks in part to the younger voters rallying against an increasingly out of touch establishment.
Any party that can figure out how to utilize this largely untapped resource could easily become a force to be reckoned with. But, looking at the current political climate in Japan, this is probably still a long way away.
And given that with just 30 seconds of Googling, I found dozens of articles about gaffes, alleged corruption, bad policy and general incompetence, should the government really be surprised that they are unpopular?
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