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What to Expect from Japan’s “Unified” Local Elections, First Half

Things are fairly quiet on Japan’s national political front, in keeping with the old-school consensus (some would say indecisive) politics of Prime Minister Kishida. Despite recent rumours of a snap election, the next Lower House vote might not happen for another two years, and the same can confidently be said for the Upper. On a local level, for the last week, tell-tale square posters have gone up around most of the country and loudspeaker vans have been busy waking everyone up at 8 a.m. sharp.

2023, like other years of the Rabbit (and Sheep and Boar) plays host to a quadrennial cycle of elections known as the tōitsu chihōsen or “unified local elections”. This is something of a misnomer, as due to various historical quirks of timing there is a local election happening somewhere in Japan on pretty much any Sunday one cares to mention. However, a large proportion of them are clustered this month. Perhaps most notably, a full 41 of 47 prefectures (first-level administrative divisions; states, provinces, etc.) will decide the makeup of their assemblies for the next four years.

The elections are divided into two halves. The first half, which will be covered in this article as the polling day is the 9th of April, consists of elections for nine prefectural governors, the aforementioned 41 assemblies, six mayors of “designated cities” (20 cities deemed, usually because of how large they are, by the government to be worthy of powers usually granted to prefectures), and 13 of said designated cities’ councils. The second half, scheduled for the 23rd of April, will see about a third of Japan’s regular city, town, and village councils elected, along with about an eighth of their mayors. The day also sees Tokyo elect most of its ward councils and five national by-elections take place, four in the Lower House and one in the Upper, after a long delay caused by a lawsuit concerning constituency sizes.

This means that most of the elections deemed large enough to fall within Asia Elects’s remit will occur in the first half. Rather than posting 69 separate twitter threads on the day, the elections will be briefly introduced here. Updates will be posted on polling night when NHK projects the winner of a gubernatorial or mayoral election, and when a prefectural assembly or city council has filled all of its seats.

The Macro

First, what is the political world – the national political world – going to be looking out for? The big number, the one that may well be splashed over the front pages on Monday, concerns the total seat count. If you add together every prefectural assembly seat across the nation, will Kishida’s ruling LDP still win over half of them, as they did last time? Will we see an Ishin surge as in the national elections in 2021 and 2022? Will the CDP and/or JCP get their mojo back? What about unlikely victories by parties that didn’t exist at the time of the last unified locals, like the left populist Reiwa Shinsengumi, the crypto-Bannonite Sanseito, or the ever-changing N-Koku?

Kishida’s current average approval in polling, as measured by electoral analyst Miharu Mitsuki, is about 37.5%, compared to about 46.5% disapproval. This compares to about 47.5%-34.0% in favour of Shinzo Abe’s cabinet on the eve of the 2019 unified locals. Cabinet approval is on a clear upward trajectory, so there is upside for Kishida, but the same was true of Abe’s already positive approval in 2019. Party approval is also less positive for the LDP this time around, by around three points, and the main opposition CDP is performing marginally better than in 2019 and unlike then is not in the midst of a months-long poll decline.

There are also reasons to believe that the recent uptick in Kishida’s approval might not benefit the LDP as much as they might hope. It has not been accompanied by a spike in LDP support, and has been linked to the PM’s personal actions in recent weeks, such as visiting Ukraine and striking a diplomatic deal with South Korea. Meanwhile, many of the issues that have dogged Kishida’s premiership, most notably the Unification Church scandal, are more to do with his party than the man himself – exactly what you don’t want in local elections.

Then again, the Abe era taught us that voters sometimes forget major scandals rather quickly. The lack of vigour in many regional branches of opposition parties hasn’t disappeared, either; despite the first problematic inflation in decades and LDP politicians across the country being caught cordially greeting predatory cults, the ‘regular’ opposition has only managed to mount even a credible campaign for perhaps two of the nine prefectural governorships up for grabs – and they’re behind in the polls in both. Likewise, over a third of constituencies in prefectural assemblies are going uncontested due to lack of candidates (as in, three people putting their names forward for a three-seat constituency), and the medium-sized-constituency system in play in prefectures and designated cities can itself be a barrier to change, limiting marginal seats to those with enough LDP voters to support about one and a half LDP candidates, or two and a half, et cetera.

The Polls

One final point of note on Japanese polling itself. Japanese pollsters do not weight their numbers; in other words, the custom is to publish the poll results as they arrive, no matter what the sample looks like. In the west, however, the custom is to use the poll results as base evidence for what the numbers would be if the sample was perfectly representative of the electorate, and then publish those modified numbers. The key factor to watch out for at the moment is age, as your typical Japanese pollster tends to heavily oversample older voters. Just look at the most recent NHK poll, which freely admits that over a third of its sample was over 70 years old and that they did nothing about it. Go2Senkyo tries to fix this by publishing two unweighted polls at once from different pollsters, which is why every Gunosy poll you see on Asia Elects looks weird next to all the others: it’s conducted online and so only targets younger voters.

Why is this important now? There are various signs from various pollsters, whether traditional (Asahi), experimental (SSRC), or foreign and weighted (Morning Consult), that the age breakdown of government approval has reversed since 2019. Older people, often with stronger pacifist values, were the most likely to disapprove of Abe, but it’s the young who have most objection to Kishida’s old-school politics. The recent spike in Kishida’s approval also seems to have been driven by older voters.

What does this mean for the unified locals? It’s hard to say. On one hand, voters critical of Kishida are being systematically undersampled, so if young voters turn out against the LDP, said party might be in for a nasty shock. On the other, that’s a big if, especially in local elections, so Kishida being stronger specifically with older voters might mean the LDP are in for a better night than 2019.

The head-to-head polls (jōsei chōsa) mentioned in the elections section below are not the same polls as the approval ones (yoron chōsa), and the custom in Japan is not to publish the actual numbers for a head-to-head poll at all, rather to use vague words such as “leading” and “in a dead heat” to hint at what the poll results were. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the custom for weighting these numbers is any different from regular polls; the commissioners are usually the same people.

Now, on to the actual elections.

The Elections: Governors

Kanagawa (pop. 9,127,323)

  • Masako Kishi (Ind. backed by JCP [Left])
  • Ken’ichirō Katō (Ind.)
  • Yūji Kuroiwa (Ind. backed by LDP [Conservative], Komei [Centre-right], and DPP [Centre-right]) (3-term incumbent)
  • Ayaka Ōtsu (N-Koku (*))

    Kanagawa is the most populous prefecture with a gubernatorial election on the 9th, but this election looks to have been decided before it began. Former newscaster Yūji Kuroiwa has never faced a competitive election, including his first win in 2011 as a de facto LDP candidate whom the then-nationally ruling DPJ (Centre-left) were coaxed into endorsing. Not much has happened to Kuroiwa since and he has kept his broad establishment coalition going; Masako Kishi was also Kuroiwa’s only opponent four years ago. Ayaka Ōtsu is technically the leader of N-Koku since Takashi Tachibana resigned last month and is the face of the party’s most recent rebranding to the “Female Politicians 48 Party”; how well she fares may be more interesting than the final margin of victory for the decidedly dull Kuroiwa.

    Osaka (pop. 8,838,908)

    • Mayumi Taniguchi (Ind. backed by LDP and CDP [Centre-left])
    • Toshiaki Yoshino (Sansei [Right])
    • Kōtarō Tatsumi (Ind. backed by JCP)
    • Hirofumi Yoshimura (Ishin [Libertarian]) (1-term incumbent)
    • Hideya Inagaki (Kunimori [Conservative])
    • Sayaka Sato (N-Koku)

    Osaka is Japan’s second most populous prefecture during the day, when much of Kanagawa commutes to Tokyo for work, and this is the most high-profile contest of these local elections. Hirofumi Yoshimura is Japan’s only officially partisan governor and, more importantly, the co-leader and de facto public face of Ishin, gaining prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic for his numbers-based response – although it is also worth noting that Osaka ranks highest in the nation for Covid deaths per capita. The Ishin local government’s policies, including a proposal to build a casino on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, are locally divisive, but in recent years Ishin has gained an electoral edge over the fractured opposition. If Yoshimura somehow lost this election, it would be the story of the night, but polls suggest he will win it easily with Taniguchi in second.

    Hokkaido (pop. 5,383,579)

    • Yoshio Monbetsu (Ind.)
    • Naomichi Suzuki (Ind. backed by LDP, Komei, and Daichi [Centre-right]) (1-term incumbent)
    • Maki Ikeda (Ind. backed by CDP, JCP, DPP, SDP [Centre-left], and NET [Centre-left])
    • Daisuke Mihara (Ind.)

    Japan’s northernmost large island is one single prefecture owing to it not being part of Japan for most of the nation’s history. Hokkaido has long been seen as fertile ground for the opposition, with former DPJ prime minister Yukio Hatoyama being elected from a Tomakomai-area district, and former MP Maki Ikeda is likely a strong candidate. Furthermore, the entire opposition bloc, right up to the DPP, has backed Ikeda, making this the only straightforward government-versus-opposition governor race of the nine. However, polls show a likely victory for incumbent Suzuki, who was the youngest governor in Japan when elected and who has had a rather mixed record since.

    Nara (pop. 1,365,008)

    • Makoto Yamashita (Ishin)
    • Sho Hiraki (Ind. backed by prefectural LDP chapter and CDP)
    • Itsuzō Oguchi (Ind. backed by JCP)
    • Shōgo Arai (Ind. backed by DPP) (4-term incumbent)
    • Nobuko Nishiguchi (Ind.)
    • Takashi Hatano (Ind.)

    The race for governor of Nara looks set to be the most nationally intriguing of these nine. Arai, a four-term incumbent with a taste for large public works projects, is unpopular, having only won the last election on a plurality. It would appear that the local LDP, recently taken over by right-wing heavyweight Sanae Takaichi, has noticed, and Takaichi has worked to move her party’s support away from Arai and towards her parliamentary secretary Hiraki. While some in the local LDP still back Arai, he has fallen behind Hiraki in the polls. What is more surprising, however, is that Hiraki has himself marginally fallen behind Yamashita. Ishin (or any party other than the LDP) winning a governorship with a partisan may be the headline-worthy possible event of the night most likely to actually happen, so keep an eye on Nara.

    Ōita (pop. 1,166,729)

    • Kiichirō Satō (Ind. backed by LDP and Komei)
    • Kiyoshi Adachi (Ind.)

    Ōita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu is mostly known for its plentiful hot springs, so perhaps it was destiny that someone in local politics would find themselves in metaphorical hot water to go with the literal. That someone is Kiyoshi Adachi, who has gambled his marginal Upper House seat on winning the governorship of his home prefecture after the 5-term, 20-year incumbent retired. Adachi was an opposition candidate when he won his seat and the various opposition parties have kept varying degrees of distance at his request, but most of their support will likely flow to him anyway. The trouble is, although the race is not settled, said support does not seem to be enough to overcome the support base (soshiki) inherited by Satō from his predecessor. A competitive opposition should be winning a gubernatorial election like this, but it appears unlikely that it will happen, especially as the election, like most, lacks any defining points of local conflict between the candidates.

    Fukui (pop. 787,099)

    • Tatsuji Sugimoto (Ind. backed by LDP, CDP, and Komei) (1-term incumbent)
    • Yukie Kanemoto (JCP)

    Of Japan’s five least populated prefectures, four of them have elections today, starting with Fukui. This part of the Hokuriku coast is traditionally rock-solid LDP country, but every so often a competitive election appears here out of nowhere, such as in the Upper House last year. Or, indeed, in the last gubernatorial election, where part of the local LDP, spurred on by Ishin, managed to elect Sugimoto, against the other part of the local LDP, who had teamed up with the CDP and DPP. Those battle lines, however, have since faded to nothing, as even the CDP now backs Sugimoto. This gubernatorial election is likely to be a JCP-versus-the-rest contest of the sort Fukui last saw in 2015, so expect low turnout and a prompt race call at 8pm on the day, despite the prefecture’s importance in national politics as the nuclear power capital of Japan.

    Tokushima (pop. 756,063)

    • Tōru Miki (Ind.)
    • Motonori Furuta (JCP)
    • Masazumi Gotōda (Ind.)
    • Kamon Iizumi (Ind. backed by LDP) (5-term incumbent)

    If you’re going to focus on one gubernatorial election tonight that isn’t Nara, make it Tokushima, on the island of Shikoku, the “last but not least” of the big four. Concentrate now, because this is about to get messy. Here goes. The local LDP was divided four years ago over whether to back Iizumi’s re-election bid, with the local branch of the national party in favour and the party’s prefectural assemblymembers mostly opposed. Notably, Gotōda, then a Lower House MP, also supported Iizumi’s opponent, a former LDP assemblymember. Iizumi fairly narrowly won that election, and what is more, his supporters got their own back on Gotōda, who lost a fair few soshiki to the infighting and lost his seat to an opposition-aligned independent in the 2021 general election. Miki, up until this point a loyal LDP MP in the Upper House, must have seen some sort of weakness, as he jumped into the race against Iizumi earlier this year, only for Gotōda himself to follow suit. Miki is a more respected figure than Gotōda in the party at this point, but amongst the wider electorate, things may be different: although the polls are close between all three conservative candidates (to the extent that the respected Asahi newspaper has pondered whether Gotōda’s apparently rocky relationship with his popular wife might cost him the election), Gotōda apparently has the slight advantage. The saga of Tokushima politics looks set to continue.

    Shimane (pop. 694,188)

    • Shin’ichi Mukose (JCP)
    • Tatsuya Maruyama (Ind. endorsed by LDP, CDP, Komei, DPP) (1-term incumbent)
    • Masaaki Moritani (PCKEACU, *)

    It is perhaps ironic that Shimane’s most famous historical figure is Greek-born Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn, as this is a deeply rural prefecture in the LDP heartland of Chugoku. This election has all the hallmarks of an all-too-typical rural governor race, with a JCP partisan (the official partisan badge being a sign of weakness) going up against a governor not too far to the right backed by all established parties. Masaaki Moritani, who has absolutely zero chance of winning, seems to have turned his one-man movement to uncover the truth about some sort of cover-up in his home town of Hamada involving the local mayor, a city employee, and alcohol in some shape or form into a gubernatorial campaign. For whatever reason, he has formed his own party for the purpose, the Party to Crush Kubota’s Employee Alcohol Cover-Up. Your correspondent has nothing else to say about Shimane other than admitting that he briefly considered whether to translate Moritani’s party name as Party to Illuminate Kubota’s Alcoholic Concealed Hamada Undersecretary, just for the acronym.

    Tottori (pop. 573,648)

    • Hideyuki Fukuzumi (JCP)
    • Shinji Hirai (Ind. endorsed by LDP, CDP, Komei) (4-term incumbent)

    See above, but with one fewer oddball independent. This is the same stretch of Sea of Japan coast, pretty much the same partisan lineup, and even the same sign that the JCP are even weaker than usual as a sole opposing force.

    The Elections: Designated Mayors

    Osaka (pop. 2,755,626)

    • Hideyuki Yokoyama (Ishin)
    • Taeko Kitano (Ind. backed by LDP, CDP)
    • Yasuhiko Aramaki (Ind.)
    • Nepensa (Ind.)
    • Toshihiko Yamazaki (Ind.)

    The Osaka mayoral election is essentially a version of the simultaneous election for prefectural governor that’s less obviously favourable for Ishin. Nonetheless, the incumbents are still in the lead. Party leading light Ichiro Matsui is retiring from politics, leaving one of the two most powerful posts in Osaka (the idea that the two go together suits Ishin well, who narrowly failed to merge the city and prefecture in two separate referenda but nonetheless want to de facto do it anyway) open. Ishin have opted to defend the post by holding a US-style party primary, which was won by prefectural assemblymember Hideyuki Yokoyama. His chief opponent is former LDP city councillor and long-term Ishin opponent Taeko Kitano, who like her counterpart in the prefectural race is also backed by the mainstream opposition. Unlike in the prefecturals, however, the JCP are not fielding their own candidate in this race. It’s more plausible that Kitano will be able to turn this one around, but don’t hold your breath. (P.S. “Nepensa” is an author running under his pen name, not an immigrant.)

    Sapporo (pop. 1,957,338)

    • Hideo Kibata (Ind. backed by JCP)
    • Katsuhiro Akimoto (Ind. backed by CDP, Daichi, LDP, Komei, DPP) (2-term incumbent)
    • Kaoru Takano (Ind.)

    Here we see the proof that voters can have short memories. Katsuhiro Akimoto is running with the same coalition as last time (i.e. everyone but the JCP), and looks set to prevail – the closest poll of the four released for this election was the one conducted two weeks before the other three. His chief opponent appears not to be the JCP-backed Kibata, but the truly independent Takano, who is running on a platform to cancel Sapporo’s bid to host the 2030 Winter Olympics. Yes, run by the same IOC that imposed the Summer Olympics on Japan during the Covid pandemic and at one point had 80% of the population wanting to cancel them, and likely sponsored by the same companies currently embroiled in a corruption scandal relating to said Olympics. One might think Takano would have a better chance at this, especially in liberal Sapporo, but apparently not.

    Hiroshima (pop. 1,188,649)

    • Kazumi Matsui (Ind. backed by LDP and Komei) (3-term incumbent)
    • Hiroshi Ōyama (Ind.)
    • Atsumi Takami (JCP)

    This is Kishida’s home turf, and as one would expect, the LDP incumbent, who also has the backing of the union federation behind most CDP and DPP support, looks set to win easily. Once again, though, one can question where those expectations come from in the first place, in this case because Hiroshima is, well, Hiroshima. The election is set to be dominated by the question of whether Matsui is doing enough to further the city’s stated mission of making sure its tragic past will never be repeated, especially because the G7 will be meeting in the city in May. Nonetheless, the signs still somehow point to another 70-point victory or something along those lines.

    Hamamatsu (pop. 781,596)

    • Yūsuke Nakano (Ind. backed by LDP and Komei)
    • Hiroshi Shimada (Ind. backed by JCP)

    Another mayoral election, another clear polling lead for the establishment, although in this case the incumbent is retiring. Hamamatsu is not a fundamentally conservative place – its prefecture, Shizuoka, is one of the few to be run against the wishes of the LDP, and the governor responsible for that is a Hamamatsu man. Other than that, there is little to say about this election: the supposed points of contention are the usual regional revitalisation and depopulation issues, but the candidates are still unlikely to come into direct conflict with one another, a situation which tends to benefit the incumbent.

    Sagamihara (pop. 724,850)

    • Toshiko Takeshima (SMTK [Centre-left])
    • Hiroyuki Nomoto (Ind.)
    • Yumiko Tatebe (Ind. backed by JCP)
    • Kentarō Motomura (Ind.) (1-term incumbent)
    • Kōta Numakura

    Sagamihara is a collection of outer suburbs of Tokyo which became a designated city just over a decade ago. The last mayoral election here saw opposition-aligned Motomura defeat the incumbent, formerly backed by the entire establishment in the usual manner, partly because the LDP vote split three ways. This time, too, the local LDP are paralysed, and even though former LDP councillor Numakura is running, the local party agreed to disagree, not urging its supporters to support any specific candidate. This might lead to a more competitive election in different circumstances, but for whatever reason, the polls have Motomura comfortably ahead despite his difficulties getting policies past the city council.

    Shizuoka (pop. 680,284)

    • Makoto Yamada (Ind.)
    • Chika Suzuki (JCP)
    • Takashi Namba (Ind. backed by LDP, CDP, Komei, and DPP)

    Like in Sagamihara, the elections in Shizuoka City had the potential to split the LDP vote, but it looks like it isn’t happening. Former LDP councillor Yamada has failed to secure the party’s endorsement ahead of former deputy prefectural governor Namba, although both are ahead of the JCP’s perennial Shizuoka-area candidate Suzuki in the polls. This is another contest without an incumbent, and the previous one actually failed to secure a majority last time around, but the pattern remains the same – even when the election should be competitive, it is not necessarily so.

    The Elections: Assemblies and Councils

    Most of these, like the election in Ibaraki late last year, are dominated by two types of candidate – LDP, and ‘independents’ essentially using the election as an LDP primary where the party endorses the victor from there on in. What is more, national opposition parties are often in government with the LDP at a local level, so even a lost LDP majority might not mean much. Here are a few to look out for, though.

    • Hokkaido. The opposition are fighting an uphill battle, but have fielded enough candidates to theoretically break the LDP and Komeito’s majority. It’ll be a long shot though if gubernatorial polls are anything to go by.
    • Saitama, Chiba, and Shizuoka. All of these have opposition-aligned governors, and while any path to victory for the opposition (especially in Saitama) would have to go through a lot of independents, said independents might actually have an incentive not to join the LDP.
    • Aichi. Look out for the right-wing Genzei Nippon party and if their current tally of assemblymembers – two – increases to a maximum of 13 or falls even further after Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura’s failure to have any effect on the gubernatorial race.
    • Osaka. Ishin have an overall majority, but it’s a slim one – will it hold?
    • Hyogo, Nara, Kyoto, and Shiga. Ishin are fielding way more candidates than they have incumbents in all of these prefectures, within striking distance of Osaka. The JCP are also seemingly hoping to make gains in Kyoto and Hyogo, although some of this could be token opposition in the rural areas.

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