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A Yama Gets Wacky: Politics Lessons from a Paradoxical Election, Part One

Last month, a Japanese prefecture (think state or province in other countries) elected its governor, after the previous one announced his decision to retire after sixteen years in office. A candidate backed by roughly the same coalition of parties as the incumbent, including the national ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and mainstream opposition forces, soon became so favoured to win that nobody even bothered to poll the race. He ultimately won on the day with over 80 percent of the vote, defeating two challengers, one from the Japan Communist Party (JCP) and the other an independent without major partisan support. Turnout stayed stubbornly below 40% for the third election in a row, perhaps not surprising when the last time a gubernatorial vote here was truly competitive was almost three decades ago.

Admit it; unless you’ve been following Asia Elects or live in the prefecture in question, you have no idea where in Japan I’m talking about, because about three-quarters of the time, you’re going to hear the same story atop every mountain and along every shore of these islands each time someone chooses their governor. As it turns out, the prefecture in question was Wakayama, in southern Kansai, but it could have been anywhere. Or could it?

A map of prefectural governors in Japan, as of June 2022. The map works just as well at the time of publication; eight gubernatorial elections have been held in the meantime, two of them without an incumbent, but none of them resulted in a change of governing coalition. © Makoto Akamatsu, Asia Elects

When is an ainori not an ainori?

Granted, there are some parts of this election that really were the same as anywhere else; first and foremost, the pattern of candidates standing. Candidates backed by both the national government and main opposition (known as ainori kōhosha in Japanese) account for about half of Japan’s prefectural governors and are common in other types of local election too. There are several theories commonly used to explain this: Japan’s system of local funding is tied to the central bureaucracy, so ex-bureaucrat pro-LDP candidates have an unbeatable advantage when ‘pork-barrelling’; supporting a strong incumbent is in the interests of local politicians with an agenda to push; the mainstream opposition don’t want to embarrass themselves by fielding candidates who they know will lose anyway, and so on. Such theories are open to question; for example, what’s the advantage, vote-wise, of getting money from central government for projects voters don’t want anyway?

But this story is not actually about ainori. At one point, the Wakayama governorship was not even expected to have an ainori candidate. Why that was is hinted at by the identity of the victor: Shuhei Kishimoto, until he stood for this election, served as an MP for the Democratic Party for the People (DPP), a centrist mainstream opposition party.

There is one other aspect of Japanese local politics worth exploring in more detail before diving into the Wakayama story. This is the phenomenon of the soshiki-hyō or “organisational vote”, the means by which candidates who may seem mediocre or unsuited to their local area can count on tens of thousands of votes being sent their way every time election season comes around. Given how many races are decided by these votes, and how Japanese-language media treats their existence as common knowledge without need of any explanation, the fact that they are all but ignored by anglophone media (a search of the Japan Times archive reveals exactly one reference to “organisational voting” and none at all to the Japanese phrase) feels rather odd. So first, let us look at these soshiki-hyō a little more closely, and save the actual story of what happened in Wakayama, closely linked to these “organisations”, for part two.

Tools of the trade: election leaflets and kōenkai dispatches used to remind voters that their MP, supposedly, exists. © Makoto Akamatsu

Soshiki-hyō, or the postcard-from-your-boss voter base

The basic pattern of a soshiki-hyō reaching a candidate looks something like this. The leader of the Wakayama City Association of Noodle Shop Owners wants to make sure that any policies passed are good for his (it’s almost always a his) organisation, soshiki in Japanese, so he sidles up to local politicians that look like they’ll be elected and offers his support if he gets something in return. This support can take the form of direct funding, in the form of paid annual kōenkai (“support group”) membership guaranteeing chances to talk to the politician face-to-face, or it can take the form of promises to funnel votes from the organisation’s members to the politician. Having made the promise, the organisational head then has to lobby the noodle magnates surrounding him, promising them that their noodle businesses will prosper if they maintain good relations with the politician. This chain of promises and of social pressure to follow the boss cascades down through Wakayama’s noodle industry until each shop owner is singing the praises of their soshiki candidate to the staff, and come election time, their votes flow to the politician at the centre of it all, now indebted to the organisation to the point that their opponents, were this the West, would accuse them of being ‘in the pocket of Big Noodle’ or some such phrase. This system is often helped by particularly zealous soshiki members sending postcards to their friends, acquaintances, employees, and so forth, complete with a big picture of the politician’s face and a standardised format that makes it obvious what is being asked of the recipient.

Most local district-level soshiki networks, the ones responsible for weird-looking election results such as hipsterish bits of Tokyo being represented by hard-right LDP members, are made up of hundreds or thousands of these relationships, held together with a fair few personal friendships and connections up and down the political ladder. If a particularly large organisation becomes part of a politician’s network of soshiki, such as the local agricultural cooperative (an LDP classic) or a major employer’s trade union (a mainstream-opposition classic), they have the potential to flip districts on their own. One could see this in action in the Upper House in 2016, when the LDP lost most of their seats in the rural north due to those prefectures’ agricultural cooperatives rising up in revolt against then-PM Shinzō Abe’s support of an unpopular trade deal.

Incidentally, this is the real reason why so many politicians in Japan are dynastic, why it is so much easier to be elected in Gunma prefecture if your surname is Nakasone. Apparently, it is a lot easier for a politician to convince their soshiki network to back their successor when the latter is a blood relation. There are other ways to ‘transfer’ soshiki, though, as Yasushi Katsume proved when he won Kyoto’s 1st district in 2021 with a campaign entirely based around his endorsement by previous, soshiki-laden incumbent Bunmei Ibuki.

How to get endorsed by the Buddha in the proportional block: national soshiki-hyō

Soka Gakkai’s “Hall of the Great Vow for Kosen-Rufu”, knowledge of which might come in very useful indeed if you’re after Kōmei votes. © Sinhako via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Soshiki networks can also operate at a national level. Companies or unions from the same industry can team up behind one politician, often in the Upper House’s national proportional block, to deliver votes from every corner of the land, allowing their chosen politician to leapfrog other candidates of the same party and making sure that the industry’s ‘voice’ gets heard in parliament. Soshiki-type tactics are also commonly used by other types of organisation; perhaps the most feared soshiki of them all is that of the Sōka Gakkai, a Buddhist sect (there is much argument over how to describe it) that claims to have over eight million members in Japan. Sōka members, plus the friends they diligently send postcards to, account for almost the entire voter base of the Kōmei party, currently the junior national coalition partner.

And yes, while we’re on the subject of religion, the Unification Church, the Korean-based cult better known as the Moonies whose family-wrecking practices and close ties to LDP politicians have been the top news story in Japanese politics for half a year now, are also a soshiki. While most UC support for the LDP has been in the form of directing its followers to volunteer for the party at large, it has been all but statistically proven that Upper House member Yoshiyuki Inoue secured his proportional seat by using the UC’s believers as his soshiki. Inoue’s vocal rejection of LGBT rights, also passionately opposed by the UC, can be no coincidence.

Do people really do this?”: when soshiki stop working

“Prep work done. Let’s switch regimes.”: the soshiki‘s worst enemy, political willpower. © shibuya246 via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The idea of a soshiki, especially for people at several degrees of separation from the actual politician, leaves a lot of questions unanswered for the non-Japanese observer. How does social pressure work when everyone is entitled to a secret ballot? How can the LDP balance the interests of all these presumably conflicting interest groups without some of them rebelling? And who, who on earth, decides who to vote for by waiting for a postcard from their boss? The answers to these are not entirely clear, but they seem to relate to issues faced by the Japanese system as a whole. A very high level of political apathy and a widespread feeling that only the LDP actually know how to operate the levers of power can lead to low turnout and even small soshiki having oversized influences on election results.

It is fitting, then, that the one known ‘antidote’ to soshiki in an election is that rare and precious thing, a mass outpouring of political sentiment. In 2005, Japan’s citizens decided to back then-PM Koizumi’s reformist agenda by voting for his“assassins”, candidates (including future Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike) parachuted in by Koizumi to defeat soshiki-backed rebels stripped of party support. By 2009, though, the old LDP had reared its balding head once more, and the effect repeated, local organisations across the country swept away as voters reminded their old masters of the taste of defeat. The soshiki only re-emerged in 2012, when turnout crashed once more and the LDP put most of its organisational politicians right back in the seats they had only just left. While voters since then have largely gone back to the old patterns of despair, one can still find the odd sign that history might repeat: Kiyomi Tsujimoto’s fearsome soshiki not being enough to save her Osaka 10th district as Nippon Ishin no Kai’s policy-driven campaign swamped Kansai last year, for instance. And yes, that year, Osaka saw a larger turnout spike than any other prefecture.

Specific local effects can also overcome a soshiki. Part of what makes these long-distance personal connections, only rarely based on policy in the first place, so effective is that Japanese voters have few chances to hear about reasons not to vote for specific candidates. Some of this is down to Japan’s strict election laws; there are so few methods available for politicians to interact with voters that, according to research, senkyo kā, the infamous vans that blare out politicians’ names at what everyone agrees is way too many decibels, actually do attract votes. Some of it, though, is due to a general political culture of candidates almost never running any sort of ‘attack ad’ against their opponents, however much there may be to criticise. When a politician does appear in the news and alert their constituents to their actions, they are more likely to experience a sudden swing against them in their district. One of the 2021 Lower House election’s most dramatic results happened in Chiba’s 8th district, where scandal-hit junior minister Yoshitaka Sakurada (most famous overseas as the cybersecurity minister who had to admit he didn’t know how to use a computer) managed to lose badly enough that a safe LDP district was transformed into a safe CDP one overnight.

Such is the way of Japan’s soshiki politics: like a woolly mammoth, it required very specific conditions to evolve, but having done so positively thrives, right up until the day conditions change and a new kind of politics makes itself known. In part two, I’ll explore what all this meant in Wakayama, where even as the world warmed around it, the mammoth blundered happily forward.

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