Japan: Collapse of vote for Liberal Democrats

New government will push workers and young people to build struggle against capitalism

The edifice of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule has finally come tumbling down with the dramatic defeat it suffered in last week’s Lower House Elections. The LDP, which, with the exception of 11 months of coalition government in 1993, had ruled Japan for the last 54 years, saw its share of the popular vote reduced dramatically, falling from just under 48% in 2005 to under 27% in the present election. The finance minister plus a slew of former ministers and party big-wigs lost their seats as well as most of the public spokespersons of their smaller ally, the Buddhist Komei party. The LDP was defeated both in the rural areas, which under a rigged electoral system had provided its main bastions of support since 1955, as well as in the major cities.

In reality, the LDP regime has been in a prolonged period of crisis since the bursting of the bubble economy in the early 1990s, although the first cracks in the monolith were apparent even earlier. The bursting of the bubble was followed by what has been called ‘the lost decade’ (although in reality it was closer to fifteen than ten) – a period of stagnation. Successive LDP governments failed to bring back the prosperity of the boom years. The much vaunted ‘life-time employment’ system began to fray at the edges as permanent employees were replaced by temporary workers. Now these workers make up over a third of the workforce. Working conditions worsened but people still got by somehow. The LDP staggered on, mainly because the lack of an opposition with a clear alternative policy. Eventually, though people began to lose faith in the LDP.

New Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio

Zig-zags of LDP

The LDP’s fortunes seemed to enjoy a brief revival under the right-wing populist Koizumi Junichiro at the turn of the century. The right was helped by international events, in particular the revelation that North Korea had kidnapped and held Japanese citizens. However, Koizumi’s popularity was largely based on his success in portraying himself as an enemy of the old guard in the LDP. A section of the urban middle-classes bought into his neo-liberal ‘reforms’ as offering a way out of the stagnation. Koizumi left office at the height of his popularity, before the full effects of his policies became apparent. Ironically, rather than save the LDP, his policies laid the basis for the devastating defeat. His policies of Postal privatisation and a reduction of support to farmers led to a split in the LDP and a weakening of support in its rural strongholds. His ‘structural reforms’ and neo-liberal economic policies led to an explosion of poverty and growth in inequality.

The onset of the world recession in Autumn 2008 marked a dramatic turning point in the situation. There has been wave after wave of lay-offs, with temporary workers being the first to go. Unemployment, which now stands at 5.7%, has risen rapidly and, with only 42 positions available for every 100 applicants, is almost certain to rise further. Some business analysts have estimated that it would stand at 12% if all ‘excess workers’ were unemployed.

Those in work have fared little better. For example, in June monthly wages were 7.1% lower than a year earlier. There has been a massive expansion of the working poor, who are now said to number over 10million. Japan now has the fourth highest rate of poverty in the OECD. While it is still in its early stages, there have been the beginnings of popular movements against the government like the Hakken-mura (literally temporary workers’ village) movement in support of dismissed and homeless workers

It is not surprising, given this situation, that the majority of Japanese – working class and middle class – lost whatever faith they once had in the ability of the LDP to offer a way out of the crisis, paving the way for the landslide victory of the Democratic Party of Japan in the present election.

The DPJ is likely to form a coalition government with the much smaller Social Democratic Party (a rump left from earlier splits) and the People’s New Party (a right-wing populist party formed by a section of Diet members expelled from the LDP for opposing Koizumi’s postal privatisation). The DPJ actually has a majority on its own in the Lower House, but has announced the intention to form a coalition, in part to help it get legislation through the Upper House. What kind of party is the DPJ and what will its government mean for Japanese workers?

The Democratic Party of Japan

The DPJ is a second party of Japanese big business. Most of its leaders were former members of the LDP. Hatoyama Yukio, the DPJ leader and present prime minister, is the grand-son of former prime minister, Ichiro Hatoyama, whilst his father was foreign minister. His mother was the daughter of the founder of the Japan-based Bridgestone Corporation – the largest tyre manufacturer internationally.

As it became apparent to sections of the ruling elite that the LDP’s rule could not last for ever, a plan was hatched to create an opposition party that could be safely relied upon to do their bidding should the LDP fall from power. Major movers in the formation of the DPJ have been the leaders of the right-wing company unions organised in the Rengo union federation. Under the pretence of building a "party that could defeat the LDP", they orchestrated a break-away of the right-wing of the Japan Socialist Party, which at the time was the main opposition party. They merged with the cold war warriors of the Democratic Socialist Party and assorted dissidents from the LDP to form what eventually became the DPJ. Hatoyama and his brother, who later returned to the LDP, used their mother’s fortune to bank-roll the new party.

The electoral system was changed, with the introduction of single-seat constituencies and a reduction in the number of seats elected by proportional representation. The ‘two big-party system’ was born.

Resembling the Democratic Party in the USA, the DPJ is a capitalist party with a wholly bourgeois leadership, but with a support base that includes conservative labour unions. Like many Japanese parties, the DPJ as an organisation, is more a federation of support groups for individual members of the Diet (lower house of parliament) than a unified political party. It lacks any kind of unifying ideology. Hatoyama has espoused support for the philosophy of ‘Yuai’ , roughly translated as ‘fraternity’, although it is doubtful whether many in the DPJ other than Hatoyama take this at all seriously. The party’s representatives include both former members of the right-wing of the Japan Socialist Party and ultra-right nationalist diet members who visit the Yasukuni Shrine (where the 14 ‘Class-A’ war criminals are buried) each year.

The DPJ has sought to present itself as all things to all people. It is the party of small government and free markets to supporters of Koizumi’s structural reforms, while at the same time, distancing itself from, and promising to reverse, his liberalisation of the dispatching (sub-contracting) law in an attempt to win working class support. In the middle of the election campaign Hatoyama first called for a Free Trade pact with the USA, and then dramatically reversed course when he realised that this would undermine the DPJ’s support in farming communities.

This political schizophrenia was probably taken to its extreme by one of the minor party candidates, former Nagano governor, Tanaka Yasuo, who, with DPJ support, won in the industrial suburb of Amagasaki between Osaka and Kobe. His leaflets featured pictures of Sakamoto Ryoma (one of the architects of the 1868, Meiji restoration), Barack Obama, and Che Guevara! It is doubtful whether such an electoral alliance can remain intact for any length of time. The DPJ will not be able to reconcile the interests of the forces that voted for it in this election for very long.


In order to win the election, the DPJ was forced to make a number of electoral promises, which include a guaranteed minimum pension of ¥70,000 ($750), a monthly allowance of ¥26,000 ($280) for all children under 15 and abolition of fees in state high schools. The last two are intended to address the problem of declining population. These are in addition to the reversal of the liberalisation of the dispatching law, and sops to the environmental movement such as a promise of a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Already the employers’ organisation, the Keidanren, is exerting pressure for the DPJ to reverse course on the dispatching issue and carbon emissions and is pushing for other measures to be financed by an increase in the sales tax. There is a great deal of scepticism about how the DPJ is going to finance these reforms in a country where the National Debt is approaching 200% of GDP.

The DPJ’s answer is that they will pay for the reforms by a reduction of "wasteful" spending. In particular by cutting back on publicly financed construction projects. Many of the LDP’s large construction projects have served little purpose other than to fill the pockets of their financial backers. They are environmentally destructive and agreed with the collusion of bureaucrats who have often exaggerated the need for the project and who may receive back-handers or guarantees of employment on retirement from the construction companies in return. These projects have often provided few benefits, while local people have been left to pay in their taxes. However, a wholesale cutback in spending on public works is likely to mean mass redundancies amongst construction workers and carries the danger of deepening the recession.

Given that it bases itself on a capitalism in crisis, the DPJ will inevitably be forced to preside over attacks on the working conditions and living standards of the masses. Far from a government of reform, the coalition government will prove to be a government of counter-reform. Despite the widespread scepticism about the DPJ, the government will enjoy an initial honeymoon period. However, gradually, opposition will begin to mount and increasingly the masses workers and young people, threatened with mass unemployment, will look for a political alternative. The DPJ is well aware of this, hence their plan to further reduce the number of seats elected by proportional representation. The Japanese capitalist class wants to create a situation where discontent with DPJ rule will be channeled back into the safe-for-them sphere of the Liberal Democratic Party.


To the Left of the DPJ, although only a little to the left, stand the Social Democratic and Communist parties (the SDPJ and JCP). The SDPJ is the rump that was left of the old Japan Socialist Party which suffered splits from the right to form the DPJ and a smaller split by a section of the left to form the New Socialist Party. The Social Democratic Party is in an alliance with the DPJ and on life support. It would probably have been wiped out in this present election without the support of the DPJ for a number of its candidates in the single-seat constituencies. The fact that the SDPJ will enter the coalition government means that it is unable to provide any kind of alternative. But, given the likelihood of DPJ attacks on the pay and conditions of public sector workers – the main base of its union support, along with the DPJ’s pledge to increase the number of first-past-the-post seats in the Diet, mean that the relationship may not proceed smoothly. It could not be ruled out that, at some stage, the SDPJ breaks with the coalition.

The JCP on the other hand has attracted support from some layers of society disillusioned with neo-liberalism and hit by the effects of capitalist crisis. Surprise best-sellers last year included not only Marx’s Capital, but also Kani Kousen (Crab Boat), a novel written by a 1920s-era CP member and "proletarian novelist", which enjoyed popularity amongst a considerable section of youth. Although the share of the CP’s vote fell slightly from 7.3% last time to 7.0%, their 4,936,753 votes was about the same as last time – not a bad vote, considering the polarisation between the DPJ and LDP and the strong desire to get rid of the highly unpopular LDP and its leader Taro Aso.

However, while the JCP’s programme still formally calls for the building of socialism some time in this century, it claims that what Japan needs now is a "democratic revolution" to regain Japan’s independence from the US and the introduction of an "economy governed by rules" and an end to "excessive pro-business policies". Their election programme was a very limited reformist programme (it can be found at here). While the JCP is unlikely to be permitted by the DPJ to enter the government, far from ruling out their participation in future capitalist governments their programme actually calls for a "Democratic Coalition Government". They have promised to play the role of a "constructive opposition" to the DPJ government, supporting some of its policies while opposing others.

A section of worker activists would have voted for the JCP, but rooted in the present situation is the need for a new party of the working class, a party that fights to build a socialist society. Such a party will not be built overnight, but the need for such a party is an idea that will grow, as sections of the masses move into action against the DPJ government. Such a party will arise from the struggles of the fresh layers of the working class and the youth who will seek real change, not the bourgeois ‘politics as usual’ and empty debates that they will get from the newly-elected Diet.

Below is part of a programme of demands put forward by Kokusai Rentai in its election article:-

  • No to all redundancies including of subcontracted and dispatched workers and so-called part-time workers.
  • A living pension for all.
  • For a universal health care system free at the point of delivery.
  • Reversal of the LDP’s ‘liberalisation’ of employment laws. No to dispatch, outsourcing and the casualisation of labour.
  • For fighting democratic unions, independent of management.
  • Fight to organise workers in small and medium-sized companies, part-time, dispatch, contract workers, the students and others working as ‘arubaito’ (part-time).
  • Full democratic rights on campus. The right to organise and conduct political activity without the interference of university authorities.
  • Votes at 18.
  • No to attempts to revise the constitution in the interests of big business and imperialism.
  • Parties such as the JCP and SDPJ, that claim to represent the interests of the workers and poor and are opposed to the pro-business parties, should resist the pressure to join a Democratic Party-led coalition.
  • For an alternative based on the needs of working people. For a new party of working people based on the independent unions, citizens’ groups and the youth.
  • Fight for a Socialist Japan, for an end to a society dominated by big business and the monopolies.

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September 2009