Japanese marines on the march. Photo: AFP / Richard Atrero de Guzman / NurPhoto

TOKYO – In the lower house elections of the Japanese parliament, held on November 31, the biggest surprise was the impressive showing of a hitherto unheralded right-wing party.

The conservative, populist Japan Innovation Party, or Ishin no Kai, nearly quadrupled their seats from 11 to 41.

That result makes the JIP the third largest political party in the Diet’s powerful lower chamber, after the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party and the main opposition liberal Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan.

The JIP is already amassing power. An early, post-election agreement with another minority party, the Democratic Party of the People, or DPP, grants them the numbers needed to propose budget legislation.

The JIP has cast itself as an alternative to the cobwebbed traditional parties – ruling and opposition – that have long dominated Japan’s predictable political scene. Still, on many policy issues, it looks aligned with fellow conservatives in the LDP.

For Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, this means the JIP is now a force to be reckoned with – and perhaps bargained with.

For Chinese President Xi Jinping, the arrival of the JIP is cause for concern.

Firstly, the Osaka-based party is less reliant than much of Japan on Chinese tourists. Secondly, it is more hawkish than the LDP on territorial issues, favors increasing military spending – and looks set to resurrect a dormant debate on the revision of Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Osaka’s populist party takes off

The JIP was founded in 2012 as a local political machine in Osaka. The party has always had a populist slant, supplied not only by its policies, but also by its personalities, who have won nationwide media exposure.

It was first led by lawyer-turned-politician and later TV commentator, Toru Hashimoto. Reportedly the son of a low-level yakuza, he parlayed early appearances on television as a legal expert and commentator into politics. He climbed that ladder to become governor of Osaka and later mayor of Osaka City.

Though he is now out of politics, this fall he was a cheerleader for the JIP. “The national media relied on Hashimoto for comments,” Kensuke Takayasu, a political scientist at Seikei University, told Kyodo News. “He strongly supports the JIP, both from an ideological and a political perspective.”

Current party leader Ichiro Matsui is the mayor of Osaka. However, it is the vice-president of the party and governor of Osaka, the young and good-looking Hirofumi Yoshimura, who really powers the JIP political machine.

Ichiro Matsui, the leader of Japan Innovation Party. The slogan next to him reads ‘There is a revolution that only the JIP can achieve.’ Photo: Matsui Home Page

Yoshimura made a name for himself in the fight against the novel coronavirus when he criticized then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over what he saw as radically insufficient Covid-19 countermeasures.

His sky-high media profile, along with that of Hashimoto, granted the party a nationwide PR bonanza. At the hustings, Yoshimura drew massive attention. The party won all 15 prefectural seats in which he actively supported candidates.

Policy-wise, the JIP has garnered support from Osakans thanks to the successful privatization of the subway system and populist policies like free education and pay cuts for lawmakers. And like a local sports team, the JIP enjoys fierce fan support in Osaka.

Japan’s second-largest city is a major financial center and Osakans often greet each other with the phrase, “Making any money?” Though known to be brusque and direct, their city is known for its multicultural and cosmopolitan character.

In addition to the Osaka Securities Exchange, the city is the headquarters of Japan’s largest trading company, Itochu, and electronics colossi Panasonic and Sharp. A number of major universities are located in the city.

Yet, despite nearly quadrupling their number of Diet seats from 11 to 41, the party won only one constituency other than Osaka. And that was in Hyogo Prefecture’s 6th district, which includes Takarazuka City and Itami City – both bedroom communities of Osaka.

From local to national

Striding from the Osakan to the national stage, the JIP is building on past successes. It stands for federalism, free education, limited government and neoliberalism.

At a time when long shadows are spreading over the strategic landscape of a region which is also engaged in a multi-front arms race – from missiles to aircraft carriers – the JIP’s manifesto is strongly pro-military.

During the national election, the party garnered not only right-wing support. More broadly, it also became a “third force” for those unhappy with both the LDP and the traditional opposition.

The big question is going to be how successfully, over the next four years, the JIP can shift its Osaka appeal to the national stage.

“It is not impossible that the JIP will break away from being the ‘party of Osaka’ and grow into a national party,” Masahiro Zenkyo, a professor of Political Behavior at the Faculty of Law at Kwansei Gakuin University wrote in a recent essay. “But there are still many issues to be resolved.”

The party clearly knows this and is astutely leveraging its newfound oomph to secure allies in the Diet. The center-right Democratic Party for the People (Kokumin Minshu-To) is leaning toward the JIP.

Both parties claim to be reform-oriented and “middle-of-the-road.” The first unofficial announcement of the alliance came via conservative broadcaster Fuji TV on November 7.

DPP leader Yuichiro Tamaki told Fuji TV: “There are many areas where I agree with the JIP that we are promoting,” he said. “We want to move forward, where we can, together in the Diet.”

The JIP’s Yoshimura appeared on the same program. “We have similar values to the DPP,” he said. “It is important that we work together to realize our individual policies and bills.”

The JIP and the DPP reached a cooperation agreement on November 9. With their combined strength of 51 Lower House seats, the two parties (just) exceed the 50 seats needed to submit budget-related bills.

They are already pushing ahead with populist measures.

They have agreed to submit legislation to cut the salaries of Diet members by 20%, to reduce government spending. The LDP isn’t happy.

Another proposed bill by the parties would lift a freeze on cutting the gasoline tax as a way to reduce spiraling fuel costs.

Matsui is making clear that the new voices will be heard. He told reporters that the JIP “has become a presence that cannot be ignored by either the ruling coalition or other opposition parties.”

And there appears to be plentiful common ground between the JIP and the ruling LDP.

LDP and JIP, Japan and China

One initiative the JIP-DPP leaders are agreed on is likely to be watched with a hawkish eye in both the Koreas and in China – all of which retain strong memories of Japan’s past militarism. The parties agreed to promote the debate on constitutional reform in the Constitutional Review Committees of both houses of parliament.

“The Constitutional Review Board should meet every week,” Tamaki insisted. “We are paid to debate the issue, and there is no choice but to hold it.”

That would be a reawakening. For years, the board held sporadic meetings, but real debate about changing the constitution in the Diet barely got off the ground.

Previously, only the LDP had championed the belief that Japan’s post-war pacifist constitution, written by America, should be revised. It was a long-held ambition that prime minister Shinzo Abe was unable to accomplish, or even make significant headway on, during eight years in office – the longest term of a sitting, post-war Japanese premier.

Granted, the LDP may not entirely welcome input from the other two parties, as there are differing visions of what format constitutional revision should take.  

But clearly, given Tamaki’s statement, the issue will be resurrected.

This picture from the Japan Coast Guard on November 6, 2011, shows a Chinese fishing boat, left, being chased by a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands in the East China Sea. Photo: AFP / Japan Coast Guard / Jiji Press

On the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the JIP believes that Japan should “strengthen its effective control over the islands through the exercise of administrative authority.”

The LDP has avoided touching on the emotive issue in recent years because Japan is increasingly dependent on tourism from China. Almost 10 million Chinese tourists visited Japan in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic, contributing to improved bilateral sentiment.

Those numbers, however, have dropped to about one-ninth, and Japan’s image among the Chinese has deteriorated significantly in recent years.

According to Genron, a Japanese non-profit think tank, 66% of Chinese respondents said they have an “averse” or “somewhat averse” perception of Japan. This is an increase of about 13 percentage points from the previous survey in 2020.

If China isn’t happy with Japan, the JIP may not care. Osaka isn’t as dependent on tourism as other regions.

The JIP has also proposed legislation that would give Japan’s coast guard a freer hand in dealing with Chinese vessels’ frequent incursions into Japan’s territorial waters.

The rise of the JIP creates, potentially, a new dynamic for the ruling party and the ruling coalition.

Traditionally, the LDP’s long-term coalition partner, Komeito, has promoted good relations with China. Komeito is a pacifist, Buddhist political party and has long applied brakes to the LDP’s attempts to strip the critical Article 9, which prohibits war-making, from Japan’s constitution.

But with the arriviste JIP on the scene, the LDP could, feasibly, change alliances.

If that happens, Komeito would be essentially disempowered in the Diet. However, if it drops Komeito, the LDP risks losing the vote-getting machine that is Komeito – thanks to its sponsorship by the Soka Gakkai religious group.

A related risk for LDP strategists as they mull these scenarios is how much longevity the JIP will display in national politics.

Regardless of the constitution, Japan’s ongoing remilitarization has been accelerated by hawkish factions and personalities within the LDP.

North Korea continually lobs missiles in Japan’s direction, while endless South Korean animosities over historical issues have caused many Japanese to lose patience with their democratic neighbor.

Added to this is increasing Chinese regional assertiveness. Most recently, rising threats toward Taiwan, which many Japanese consider their closest friend in the region, are raising fears among the media and punditry.

Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, but traditionally has been a low military spender. Now it is climbing the ranks and is the ninth biggest military spender in the world.

And it has, in recent years, been acquiring the kind of assets it has not possessed since the Pacific War.

In 2018 it stood up a marine brigade, a force that is, by its very nature, expeditionary. It has also tested its first post-war aircraft carrier – albeit, it has not yet acquired the F35s that will comprise its air arm. A second carrier is being converted.

The Aegis Ashore anti-missile system in a file photo. Photo: US Defense Department

And after canceling – to Washington’s apparent surprise – an Aegis Ashore missile defense program, Japanese strategic thinkers are now mulling a “first strike” capability, as a high-risk, pre-emptive capability to deter missile threats.

The JIP is pro-increased military spending.

Looking ahead, with this substantial build-up having been undertaken without significant political backlash, constitutional revision looks like the next logical step. And it is more feasible now than at any time in recent years due to the new right-wing forces in the Diet.

Of course, it is by no means a done deal. The results of the upcoming upper house elections next summer will be critical in setting the scene. And even if politicians in the Diet are aligned, there are even more public hurdles to jump.

Article 96 of Japan’s constitution requires a two-thirds majority vote in each house of the Diet and a majority vote in a national referendum before amending the document.

It is far from clear if that would be achievable.

What is clear is that Japan’s overall political ground has shifted to the right. Machinations and alliances in the Diet over the coming months will bear watching.