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What to Expect from the Second Half of Japan’s Unified Local Elections

Following on from the first half of the local elections, this Sunday will mark polling day in another vast swathe of the country. As explained previously, while the previous half was all about the more powerful types of local authority (prefectures and designated cities), this time it’s the turn of the much more numerous normal-sized type – regular cities, towns, villages, and Tokyo’s wards.

However, the headlines are likely to be taken up by the five parliamentary by-elections happening on the same date. Many of these by-elections have been delayed for over a year due to Japan’s neverending legal battles over vote disparity (AKA mutually-agreed gerrymandering – just look at the Lower House voter numbers further down), and the fact that there are five at once, four of them competitive, has led some to comment that this is something of a midterm election for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his conservative LDP.

The Macro, Updated

What has happened between the last tranche of elections and this one? Well, for a start, the PM narrowly avoided getting hit by a faulty pipe bomb in Wakayama. This has raised the spectre of Shinzo Abe’s death last year, as if it hadn’t already been raised by the by-election in his old seat, although it is unclear how related the two incidents actually are. Although it appears possible (but again, not proven) that the defendant in the case may have been motivated by some sort of distrust of Japan’s genuinely skewed election system, the very forces he once professed to hate – chief among them the LDP – may well be the chief beneficiaries of this, just as there is some evidence that Abe’s death ‘saved’ the LDP from a worse result in the Upper House election.

Other than that, the trends have been fairly similar to last time. Kishida’s cabinet approval rating stood at 39.7% on the 20th of April, while disapproval stood at 43.3%. This compares to approval in a statistical tie with disapproval around the 41% mark just before the last comparable set of by-elections, in 2021, which the LDP lost 3-0 despite including one contest in the usually safely conservative Hiroshima. Party approval, meanwhile, sees the LDP standing at 34% party support, compared to 37% last time around and the centre-left CDP at 6.4% compared to about 7.5%. The biggest change is the Osaka-based libertarian Ishin party, which since its surge in the first half of these elections has reached 7.2%, ahead of the CDP, compared to just 2.8% two years ago. These are consistently worse numbers for the prime minister and LDP, but it is not entirely clear how much the numbers are actually true given the lack of poll weighting, and how much they would affect local and by-election voting behaviour even if they were – one need only look at the first half of these locals and the LDP’s lack of decline to see that.

The Elections

There are, quite simply, far too many small town elections to cover properly, so apologies to anyone particularly concerned about any one in particular who can’t speak Japanese – reply to an Asia Elects tweet and I might try and find a way around it. The by-elections, however, are worth covering in a bit more individual detail.

Lower House, Chiba 5th (452,920 voters)

  • Arfiya Eri (LDP, backed by Komei [Centre-right])
  • Junko Okano (DPP, Centre-right)
  • Mitsue Oda (N-Koku, *)
  • Kentarō Yazaki (CDP)
  • Tomoyasu Kishino (Ishin)
  • Kazuko Saito (JCP, Left)
  • Kentarō Hoshi (Ind)

The Chiba 5th district (or rather, former 5th district – new boundaries will be in place for the next election), a chunk of inner Tokyo suburb perhaps best known as the home of Tokyo Disneyland, has been LDP for the last four election cycles, but its incumbent MP Kentarō Sonoura (this place really does like the name Kentarō) was forced to resign after it was revealed that he may have tried to conceal 40 million yen worth of political funds. Perhaps because of the apparent safety of the seat, the opposition parties have utterly failed to coalesce behind one candidate, and the LDP themselves have also taken a risk by fielding half-Uyghur-half-Uzbek naturalised citizen Arfiya Eri as their candidate. Eri is not popular; her posters talk ‘diversity’, but many in her own party would rather see a more ‘typical’ candidate, while opposition voters may wonder what on earth a child of immigrants is doing standing for the LDP just as the party tries to make it easier to deport asylum seekers.

Perhaps more importantly, however, there is a clear pattern of post-scandal by-elections turning against the LDP. The contest in Hokkaido 2nd district in 2021, won easily by a CDP candidate running with unified opposition backing, is as good an example of this as any. Thus, Eri seemingly started this race behind the CDP’s Yazaki, whom most voters seem to have agreed is the opposition candidate worth watching here. However, she has apparently since caught up and is now running pretty much neck and neck with Yazaki.

Lower House, Wakayama 1st (305,106 voters)

  • Hirofumi Kado (LDP, backed by Komei)
  • Yumi Hayashi (Ishin)
  • Hideaki Kunishige (JCP, backed by SDP [Centre-left])
  • Takahira Yamamoto (N-Koku)

This is the race which Kishida was supporting his party in when the pipe bomb incident occurred, but ironically enough, it appears to be one of the few where no sympathy vote will come through for the PM. This by-election is being held to replace Shuhei Kishimoto, the DPP member for this district who resigned for a successful run for governor of Wakayama. Although an LDP-JCP-Ishin race would usually see most opposition supporters back the JCP, this is Kansai, and the undisputed best-placed candidate to topple the LDP is Ishin’s Yumi Hayashi, who ironically enough was herself elected to Wakayama City’s council via another by-election last year. If Ishin win, it will become their second FPTP Lower House seat outside of the prefecture of Osaka.

Asia Elects fans may also be interested to hear that this election marks another turning point in the long-running LDP feud between Toshihiro Nikai and Hiroshige Seko (the article on which is currently bogged down with copyright formatting, apologies). It appears as if the two have come to a compromise, as Nikai has avoided Seko parachuting himself into the Lower House while Seko prevented Nikai’s close ally Yōsuke Tsuruho from doing the same himself, but the result is a fairly weak candidate in Hirofumi Kado who is still Nikai faction, so Nikai seems to have won this battle. What will change if the unthinkable happens and Wakayama voters rebel against both at once (even Kishimoto is backing his former rival Kado) remains to be seen.

Lower House, Yamaguchi 2nd (284,320 voters)

  • Hideo Hiraoka (Ind, backed by CDP and JCP)
  • Nobuchiyo Kishi (LDP, backed by Komei)

Yamaguchi, LDP stronghold and home to the Abe-Kishi political dynasty, hosts two by-elections at once that stand a chance of ending its Diet representation in one fell swoop. The 2nd district, in the east of the prefecture around the city of Iwakuni, is notable as the only one in the prefecture to have fallen to the centre-left DPJ landslide in 2009, but the LDP, specifically Abe’s younger brother Nobuo Kishi, took it back three years later. Kishi served as defence minister under Kishida before resigning over the Unification Church scandal that followed his brother’s death, and later resigned as MP over “health issues”. As with Abe himself, it is clear that Kishi had genuine health issues, perhaps exacerbated by the sudden passing of a dear relative, but some may question the timing.

The LDP have fielded Kishi’s son Nobuchiyo, who has been a political secretary to Kishi for some time and appears inexperienced in the ways of elected politics. The opposition has latched onto this as a case of everything wrong with Japanese dynastic politics, and has secured a strong candidate in the form of the area’s former MP Hideo Hiraoka. Therefore, unusually for Yamaguchi, this is a competitive by-election. However, all polls have shown either a marginal or a slightly less marginal lead for Kishi junior and the gap seems to be slightly widening.

Lower House, Yamaguchi 4th (245,493 voters)

  • Hideyuki Takemoto (Ind)
  • Yoriko Ōno (Ind)
  • Yoshifu Arita (CDP, backed by JCP)
  • Shinji Yoshida (LDP, backed by Komei)
  • Ai Watanabe (N-Koku)

The Yamaguchi 4th district, centred on the prefecture’s largest city and national puffer-fish capital Shimonoseki, was the long-time fiefdom of Shinzo Abe. In some countries, such as the UK, the tradition is for major parties to not contest by-elections held due to a murder, but this does not appear to be the case in Japan; instead, the opposition have gone full steam ahead with the Abe angle, fielding former MP Yoshifu Arita. Arita is mainly known as a journalist, specifically focusing on, yes, cults. Unfortunately for him, however, this is still very safe LDP territory, and every poll is showing a safe win for former Shimonoseki city councillor Shinji Yoshida. He may have huge boots to fill, but he won’t have to for long; the seat is slated to disappear at the next election.

Upper House, Oita (945,934 voters)

  • Aki Shirasaka (LDP, backed by Komei)
  • Tadatomo Yoshida (CDP, backed by JCP and SDP [Centre-left])

Oita, with its industrial base, is by far and away the swingiest prefecture in conservative Kyushu, and has long been one of the last redoubts of the SDP, the small centre-left party that is the direct successor of the old Japan Socialist Party. Kiyoshi Adachi, who won this seat in the 2019 Upper House election’s biggest upset, resigned to unsuccessfully run for governor, but the opposition has managed to find an equally big name to replace him: Tadatomo Yoshida, Lower House MP and former SDP leader. Yoshida was one of many prominent names from that party to leave and join the CDP in 2020. The polls are looking fairly good for him, and only two out of ten have shown him behind. The LDP are very much not out of this, but if they win Oita, expect headlines referencing a triumph in all five by-elections before long.

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