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The Spectre of Doomerism: How a ‘Boring’ Prime Minister Became This Hated

A stark example of what the country has become: the PM meets the electorate in an evacuation centre in Ishikawa Prefecture after January’s devastating earthquake. © Japan Cabinet Public Affairs Office, Cabinet Secretariat, via Wikimedia (Govt. of Japan Standard Terms 2.0, compatible with CC BY 4.0)

If you’ve been following Japanese politics or polling at all, you will know that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his cabinet are not exactly being seen as national saviours. Received wisdom has it that cabinet approval of under 30% spells curtains for a PM; at the time of writing, Kishida is sitting on an average of 21% and hasn’t left the danger zone in months. Bear in mind that the last person this happened to was Tarō Asō in 2008, who went on to obtain that rarest of achievements, losing an election as the Liberal Democratic Party.

But why? Kishida is almost centrist by LDP standards, and for a long time was defined by his non-confrontational, ‘boring’ political style, but the Japanese government is now less popular than at the height of the Unification Church scandal, the darkest days of the pandemic, or the fallout (no pun intended) from Fukushima. To make things more confusing, the rest of the polling data is all over the place. Pollsters were recently unable to decide whether the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party was neck-and-neck with the LDP or a full 19 points behind in party support. It’s very odd, and nobody knows what will happen, but there are one or two signs of what might be happening. Here is what your correspondent has to say about all this.

First of all, it’s not the scandal

Japanese headlines have recently been dominated by the uragane jiken or “slush fund scandal”. This started as an exposé of the widespread LDP practice of funnelling donations to politicians via their factions, and has since evolved into a wider investigation into – for example – what exactly it is LDP representatives do with the billions of yen they sometimes receive for “policy activities”. This caused the LDP’s faction system, almost the basis of national politics for decades, to collapse in name, although we don’t know if it will yet survive behind the scenes. Any stories about Kishida’s popularity, then, are likely going to talk about slush funds. The numbers, however, imply that that’s a mistake.

A graph of cabinet approval ratings under Abe, Suga, and Kishida. Original © Mitsuki Miharu (use of graphs from outside of paid content allowed by author, bar misrepresentations). English annotation by Makoto Akamatsu

Consider this graph from Mitsuki Miharu, showing cabinet approval from 2013 up until the start of this year. Various notable political events have been added for clarity. Notice how recent cabinet approval is about 10 points lower than its previous low points in this time frame? Those low points correspond to scandals that, unlike the slush funds, were literally deadly. Civil servant Toshio Akagi took his own life after being made to fabricate documents for then-PM Shinzō Abe’s personal benefit in 2017-18’s Moritomo Gakuen affair. Meanwhile, the Unification Church, the home-wrecking Korean cult whose ties to the LDP were revealed in mid-2022, was likely responsible for many lives lost to suicide and domestic violence, including two in the family of Abe’s infamous killer. Should we interpret from this that slush funds resonate more with the electorate than death?

That seems unlikely; for one, today’s low government approval has nothing to do with slush funds. One can observe that most of Kishida’s popularity drop happened before that scandal broke in December. In other words, something else must have happened to the PM. The most notable negative news story about the government during the sharp drop was a long, drawn-out series of technical errors around the MyNumber national identification system, the use of which the government plans to make compulsory in order to use the health insurance system. The trouble with that explanation, however, is that, similarly to comparing slush funds and death, it implies the government’s popularity plummeted twice as far as with your average scandal because of some tech problems and small-scale data breaches, which seems far-fetched. Something else is going on, but luckily, there is one last source of concrete data at our disposal.

Kishida’s cabinet approval in the two years to October 2023, broken down by age group. Graph by Makoto Akamatsu based on Yomiuri polling data. A few months (around elections) featured two Yomiuri polls; this graph records each in order without doubling month length.

The kids aren’t all right (or left)

Japanese pollsters don’t usually go into much detail, and finding crosstabs can be frustrating. The Yomiuri, however, released an age-based breakdown of cabinet support back in November, which is more informative than it might first appear. We can see that the older age groups’ support for Kishida follows a pattern recognisable to Japan-watchers: starting off strong in the honeymoon phase, then plummeting when the first scandal (the Unification Church and Abe’s historically unprecedented state funeral) broke, rising again in early 2023 when foreign policy hit the headlines, and then falling once more as the MyNumber issue (more salient among older voters as it involves both technology and healthcare) hit the headlines.

Younger voters, however, followed their own pattern. Cabinet approval amongst the youth started out above average, perhaps a lingering effect of how popular the Abe cabinet was with them, but bagan to decline shortly after the 2021 election. It then slowly declined, reaching the mid-thirties round about when other age groups’ approval did, perhaps because younger voters were much more likely to support Abe’s state funeral. Young people reacted far less to the foreign policy spike than their elders did (note that these two effects together imply that Abe’s staunchest personal supporters were young while the biggest fans of his hawkish foreign policy are old; more on that later), and even the slight increase may have been to do with early 2023 marking the end of mask mandates in Japan. Another crash round about the same time as the MyNumber headlines, finally, brought youth approval right down below the 30 percent mark.

Japan’s electorate, then, may have split in two, with only one of those halves, mostly (but not entirely) older voters, acting according to received political wisdom, while the other, younger, half follows some new logic, less sensitive to scandal and social issues but more sensitive to… what? Something must have happened starting from early 2022 to set cabinet approval on its downward slope. The task, then, is to find out what that something else might have been. For that, imagine a newspaper in 2023. Yes, page one would have been Moonies and MyNumber.

And page two?

The clue is in the (nick)name

Japan in 2023 was not the happiest of places. There was good news early on, as the last of the pandemic restrictions were finally lifted, but the dream soon evaporated into everyday life that was a special kind of dreary for some. 2022’s global inflation did not spare Japan, and to make things worse, the yen crashed, realising a 2012 ‘Abenomics’ promise just as import prices were becoming more relevant to everyday consumers than exports. Meanwhile, Japan’s infamous demographic time-bomb kept on ticking loudly in full view of everyone.

Old-school LDP Kishida responded to this with old-school LDP inertia. His campaign rhetoric of “new capitalism” faded away after compromises with the rest of his party, and the traditional ‘spring offensive’ of established unions in Japan designed to secure wage increases failed to match inflation, especially for the majority of workers without a traditional company union. As for longer-term angst, while the government announced a huge stimulus package for childcare support, it kept light on the detail at first in the usual Japanese way; in the meantime, cries of ‘how are you going to pay for it?’ hit the rafters. Again, perhaps driven by intraparty compromise, Kishida utterly failed to deny rumours of funding it through tax hikes on working-age people, which were seen as cancelling out the actual benefits of the stimulus. The general gloom thus continued unabated, and in time, these rumours gave Kishida his enduring nickname of zōzei megane, translated by the Japan Times as “the four-eyed tax hiker”. He has since been called zōzei megane to his face in the Diet on multiple occasions, and to cap the year off, the “[written] character of the year”, voted on by the public to reflect the national mood, was… zei, “tax”. Even the slush-fund scandal seems to be in the process of getting re-spun as a story of large-scale tax avoidance by politicians through legal loopholes.

It’s tax fever, then, and without any actual tax hikes at all – well, unless you count the invidious “invoice system”, a 10% tax increase and bureaucratic burden for small businesses and freelancers disguised as an innocent accounting rule change. The mood did not even change when Kishida announced a temporary tax cut, as voters rejected his suggestion that it was an inflation measure and accused him of throwing them a blatant pre-election bung.

Could a tax regime that mostly doesn’t exist yet, though, really be the reason why Kishida is floundering? How come the “bung” didn’t work? It may be because something deeper is going on, something of which the tax talk is as much of a symptom as a cause.

Japan’s political depression incarnate: an LDP poster space promising “reforms for the future”, situated on a long-abandoned building in rural Wakayama. Photo by Makoto Akamatsu

A matter of boring doom

Consider this. You’re a young-ish worker in Tokyo, increasingly insecure about the “ish” bit. Your power bill has gone up, your food bill has gone up, your wages have stayed precisely the same, and your favourite sushi chain has just taken things off the menu because it’s become “difficult” to source at the price. The headlines talk of national collapse if people don’t start having more children, but you’ve been single for almost a decade now, and how do they expect you to date on your working hours anyway?

You look up for a second, wondering who else is in the old coffee shop you’ve found yourself in this afternoon, but it’s just the TV; specifically, it’s Kishida’s bespectacled face, saying something deliberately complex and politicalese. Damn, you think, this is when he’s going to announce that tax hike, isn’t it?

This is life in modern Japan: increasingly grim news about demographics and the economy, combined with increasingly grim reality for everyday Japanese people. It’s a slow-burn sort of grim. It’s not a case of mega-tsunami, Lehman Shocks, demagogues, culture wars, Brexits. It is simply what was predicted in the nineties coming true and being responded to with sad shrugs of the shoulder, and like Kishida’s rumoured tax hikes, it’s felt more keenly amongst people a long way off retirement – if that concept will even exist in decades to come. Welcome to the world of boring doom.

There are two key things to point out about boring doom; firstly, it is not comprised of overtly political emotions. There are no Donald Trumps building walls, or Angela Merkels happily welcoming millions of refugees. Instead, both left and right recognise boring doom’s constituent social problems, and the depressed, depoliticised majority frustrates both. Second, it is not usually seen as something that can be overcome, especially by politics. Granted, some of this is justified, as effecting change in Japan is not easy. The education system does not encourage young Japanese people to speak out, whether on personal issues or social, and the country’s systems are also notoriously ‘cold’ and demoralising (just ask Japanese #MeToo icon Shiori Itō). In politics, bureaucrats routinely stonewall attempts at reform and pressure politicians into not blaming their woes on them, and the media landscape isn’t helpful either. Thus, when they do win, opposition politicians, inexperienced at dealing with organisations and pressure, can find themselves disappointing voters. They, in turn, can often wonder what they went through all the trouble for, dutifully bring back the LDP, and think shikata ga nai – nothing can be done. Rinse, repeat, and the doom becomes one notch more boring.

Bats on a birdless island

The boring doom hypothesis fails, on its own, to explain why it’s coming into play now, rather than with every cabinet since the nineties. One could argue that the taxes have made it obvious, as unlike global economic cycles or population ageing, taxes are directly created by politicians, so it’s harder to ignore politics’s contribution to the doom. Another might point out that the doom has simply become increasingly boring as the Lost Decades multiply, but that doesn’t explain why Abe lasted so long. There is, however, another possible explanation, and that is that Japanese politics really has been like this for ages, and that it’s Abe, not Kishida, who is the outlier.

A sense of apolitical doom logically means the government can become very unpopular, as the only real way to defend doom in the absence of a real or imagined external enemy is by feeding people’s powerlessness and claiming that anything other than voting for doom is naïve idealism. This is the LDP strategy, boosted by their vested-interest voter base benefiting from low turnout and engagement, but it’s so unlikely in some ways that it takes a very skilled performer of political theatre to pull off. The flipside of this is that, because there are fewer hot-button policies for people to consistently oppose the government on, approval can have a fairly high ceiling, and so when someone does have a good PR game, it can really pay off.

This is what happened with Abe. His policy achievements are actually few and far between, and every time he passed a right-wing one, his support rate dipped until the political theatre kicked in once more. However, the political theatre had an outsized effect on younger voters, who tend to be even less politically engaged than average (and thus less likely to be strongly left-wing, hence high support ceiling). They had also just experienced the very unpopular and chaotic 2009-12 opposition regime, which fell foul of those obstacles to change from earlier and made the idea of a non-LDP government look singularly unappealing. Thus, Abe was able to present himself as a “strong and stable” economic reformist. The only other 21st-century Japanese PM to successfully fend off boring doom was Jun’ichirō Koizumi (2001-5), who had a similarly strong media strategy and was also noted for genuinely passing several major reforms (for better or for worse, but the point stands; one could hardly call him a peddler of stagnation). In short, the Kishida cabinet isn’t much of an outlier, and only looks like one because the true outliers tend to stay in office for longer.

The samurai warlord Oda Nobunaga, upon hearing that a rival had unified the island of Shikoku, famously called him “a bat on a birdless island” (torinakishima no kōmori), implying that he had only risen above the competition because of how singularly unimpressive that competition was. Given how the LDP has worked until now, most leaders chosen to appease factional interests rather than on electability grounds, it is not surprising that most LDP leaders have been political bats on birdless islands, consistently struggling with popularity. The LDP, being in such a strong position of power, has no real incentive to reform, and so the Diet Building’s ziggurat may well host a healthy bat population for years to come.

This still leaves the question, though, of why these bats keep winning elections.

Demon slayers: how to fight boring doom and win

Both boring doom itself and the variable bat-ness of LDP leaders affect the opposition as much as the government. The trillion-yen question of Japanese politics, reflected through a Kishida-era lens, is still an open one; why, when LDP approval is at an all-time low, hasn’t anyone been able to capitalise?

Senkyo Dot Com recently asked voters what they thought was holding the opposition back, and it’s hard to get an answer from the results. No single answer dominated in either the telephone (JX) or internet (Gunosy) polls, and the plurality choice, “lack of competence as MPs”, is both vague and uses the sort of wording the LDP likes to use to stir up apathy. The other answers are almost as vague.

The party support rates offer more clues. Kenta Izumi, CDP leader of the opposition, recently held a bilingual press conference for foreign correspondents, and spent much of the time discussing very broad-stroke economic policies that most would agree with, at least in slogan form, such as pushing for a greater focus on ‘new’ industries over ‘old’. The trouble is, an LDP leadership candidate wishing to appear reformist, such as Tarō Kōno or Koizumi’s son Shinjirō, would probably say pretty much the same things. That style of politics, from government and opposition, has clearly not managed to dispel boring doom so far, so voters have no confidence that it will magically do so this time. This is reflected in the polls, as the CDP have not gained as much ground as one might expect from their diligent scandal-chasing. The Japan Communist Party faces persistent image issues, and smaller left-of-centre opposition parties have also struggled with convincing voters of their relevance, an issue that has proven tough to overcome even in countries without boring doom.

Painting the town fuchsia: Reiwa Shinsengumi leader Tarō Yamamoto addresses a rally in Fukuoka shortly after founding the party in 2019. One recent Reiwa street poster’s slogan translates as “it takes an oblivious idiot to change this country”. (Dedicated to public domain [CC0 1.0] by Khronos-dolls, via Flickr)

The two formulae that have worked for the opposition so far have been rewriting the rules of the LDP’s enforced ‘realism’ and ignoring it entirely. Izumi Fusaho has gone for the first approach. The former mayor of a medium-sized city, he shot to fame for taking on the bureaucrats to deliver popular, family-friendly urban policies which had a measurable effect on demographics. Despite allegations of bullying, many would like to see him run for national office – it’s hard to say a policy change can’t be made when you have already made it happen once.

The other strategy, one could call it anti-politics, is exemplified by Reiwa Shinsengumi, a left-wing populist party founded by a former actor and which has been campaigning against boring doom since it was founded in the Abe days. They have, for example, a habit of parliamentary stunts, such as one member physically diving to block an anti-refugee bill and another holding up a placard in the chamber that read “the government and [mainstream] opposition are both a farce!”. Their policies follow a similar bent: sales tax is their public enemy number one, they seek to deficit spend even more than the LDP do, and their other policies take aim at jikosekinin, the post-bubble idea of ‘every man for themselves’ that some blame for exhausting the population. In Reiwa’s book, LDP ‘realism’, and ‘the old order of doing things’ are there to be smashed with a big pink hammer. It’s still a small party with small party problems, and its angry, cavalier image is a turn-off to many older and more conservative voters. However, it is the only left-of-centre party currently on the rise, especially amongst the younger section of the electorate experiencing boring doom more keenly.

Combine these two strategies together and you get Nippon Ishin no Kai, which promotes right-wing economic reforms, similarly to Koizumi. Founded in Osaka, they have gained increasingly strong control of its government, and have been able to push past bureaucrats and convince the local media to join their side in order to achieve change in their home city. Their campaigns point to their record of achieving local change, and are also anti-political, for example supporting salary cuts for politicians. Some would call Ishin populist, and some would not; perhaps they are in a sort of Goldilocks zone, being angry enough to cut through the doom while also staid enough to not worry conservative voters. In recent months, mishandling of the Osaka Expo and various personal scandals have brought Ishin down, but that is more of an indictment of Ishin themselves (and their LDP-splinter origins) than their strategy, and besides, their approval is not unusually low even now and they could still be in for a good election.

The batty doom-mongers look to 2024

This, seemingly, is how Japanese politics has got to where it is now; faced with decades looking increasingly lost, a large and mostly young chunk of the electorate has become extremely disenchanted with politics and with the LDP especially, giving short shrift to all but the most adept of politicians – especially when they’re threatening to raise taxes. At the same time, the traditional political dynamics aren’t being kind to Kishida either, and so the rest of the electorate are just as turned off by him. Combine the two together, and you get a singularly unpopular government.

What about what happens from here on in, though? At least so far, the polling response to the slush-fund scandal has been pretty muted, with only a few extra percentage points’ drop in Kishida’s popularity. However, that is to be expected; while the boring doom electorate may be continuing to drift away, the traditional one was already in ‘scandal mode’ from MyNumber and the lingering effects of the Unification Church shock. So, there wasn’t much more ground that Kishida could lose with yet another scandal. Perhaps the remaining 20% of poll respondents (who skew old; Japan doesn’t weight its polls) are the LDP’s organisational voters.

However, it is very hard to predict the next stage with this logic. We don’t know if the boring doom electorate, mostly young, will actually turn out, for example. We also don’t know what the structural responses to the slush-fund scandal will be; if LDP factions are dissolved, will that make it harder for individual MPs to keep their voter bases going, thus shrinking the organisational vote and destroying the LDP’s inbuilt advantage at election time? Or will we see the reverse happening: the factional way of choosing LDP leaders decline, electability become more favoured, Koizumis and Abes appear more often at the top of politics, and the LDP ultimately benefit by becoming a ‘normal’ party? Alternatively, will the current way of doing politics become more entrenched simply by dint of the doom getting more boring with each passing year?

One thing’s for sure: with an election potentially on the horizon and Kishida showing no signs of a rebound, the one thing that’s not boring is the situation we find ourselves in right now.

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