Posts Tagged ‘Abe Shinzo’

Yasukuni and the Politics of Remembrance

Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine is a place and a political controversy that features in a number of posts on this site. Many of the views you’ll read about the shrine are shrill and one-sided; I thought it might be useful, as a reference piece, to write up something more balanced about the shrine’s history and its present role in politics and society.

August 15th marks the anniversary of Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. It’s an important and emotive date for many Japanese people. Many still alive today recall the events of 71 years ago. Countless others have memories of parents, siblings or friends lost to the war. The anniversary, by coincidence, falls during Japan’s Obon festival, during which the souls of one’s ancestors are worshipped, and graves and shrines visited.

In recent years, August 15th has taken on large and unfortunate significance for observers of Japanese politics and East Asian geopolitics. It’s become a barometer for the strength of Japan’s right-wing, revisionist political lobby, who argue for an end to the nation’s post-war order and to “masochistic” views of wartime history. Related to this, it is a barometer for the state of the relationships between Japan and its nearest neighbours, South Korea and China.

At the heart of that significance sits Yasukuni Shrine. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro lit a match under the shrine’s political role when, in 2002, he pledged to make official visits to the shrine each year. The power of that pledge within certain nationalist circles points to the significance of Yasukuni beyond being a war memorial. While for the vast majority of its visitors it is a site at which to pray for ancestors who died in the service of Japan, for others it has become a way to deliberately provoke and strike out at China, at South Korea and at Japan’s own pacifist majority.

This is not how Yasukuni Shrine was envisioned at the outset. Originally established by the order of the Meiji Emperor in 1869 to commemorate the war dead of the conflicts which ended the Shogunate and created modern Japan, its role has expanded to cover the commemoration of almost 2.5 million named soldiers who died during various wars (at the main shrine), all of those who have died in the service of Japan, including non-Japanese nationals (at the Honden building), and all victims of the Second World War, regardless of affiliation or nationality (at the Chinreisha building).

In that regard, Yasukuni is not dissimilar to a national war memorial like Arlington Cemetery in Washington. The vast majority of Japanese people who visit Yasukuni do so for the same reason that Americans visit Arlington; they come to pay their respects to family members who died in the service of their country (however misguided their country’s aims may have been at that time).

Yasukuni’s contested political role arises from its crucial differences from Arlington. The post-war Constitution of Japan created a fairly strict separation of Church and State – or in this case, Shrine and State – which meant that Yasukuni Shrine could no longer be a state war memorial. The occupation authorities originally planned to raze the shrine entirely, but were persuaded to keep it by the intervention of the Roman Catholic Church, so it was handed a private religious corporation. This has led to a complex situation wherein neither the government nor the Emperor can exercise control over the nation’s most important and internationally recognised war memorial.

The lack of official state control was largely unimportant until the late 1970s, when one Matsudaira Nagayoshi took over as chief priest of the shrine. Matsudaira was a historical revisionist who rejected the verdict of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and took it upon himself to add (“enshrine”) the names of all 14 convicted class-A war criminals at the shrine in a secret ceremony in 1978.

Matsudaira retired in 1992 and died in 2005, but his influence on Yasukuni remains powerful and damaging. The Showa Emperor refused to visit the shrine in the wake of Matsudaira’s appointment and the secret enshrinement of the war criminals. His son, the present Emperor, has taken the same stance, and no member of the Imperial Family has visited the shrine – which lies only minutes away from the palace – since 1975. Many Prime Ministers have also chosen to avoid Yasukuni, especially in the wake of harsh criticism from China when Prime Minister Nakasone visited in 1985. Given the legal separation of state from religion, Japan’s symbolic and actual leaders are powerless to intervene in affairs at the shrine or demand the removal of the war criminals from the shrine’s registers (which its religious authorities insist is impossible). For the past thirty years, most leaders have taken the only option remaining to them – snubbing Yasukuni entirely.

The influence of Matsudaira and of the revisionists whose reign at Yasukuni he ushered in is also felt in physical form. The shrine’s grounds house controversial memorials that directly challenge the established historical narrative of the war and the guilt of Japan’s convicted war criminals. Chief among them is the Yushukan – a war museum which is an exercise in dichotomy, with genuinely powerful exhibits from the war being grotesquely undermined by accompanying text and interpretation that has one foot in fantasy and the other in farce.

Given this, it’s not hard to see how official visits from government ministers inflame tensions with Japan’s neighbours, whose people were the victims of the war criminals enshrined there and whose suffering is deliberately questioned and erased by the childishly fantastical reimagining of history in the Yushukan. Cognisant of that, and either wiser or more capable of listening to good advice than he’s often given credit for, current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has steered clear of Yasukuni Shrine since 2013. Other cabinet ministers and members of the Diet have been less circumspect; this year, Olympics Minister Marukawa Tamayo and Communications Minister Takaichi Sanae (previously noted on this blog for her threats to shut down broadcasters who don’t toe the government line) visited, as did former Defense Minister Nakatani Gen. It’s not only LDP ministers who visit Yasukuni; there is a cross-party group of MPs who lobby for politicians to make official trips to the shrine, and among this year’s August 15th visitors was Democratic Party leadership hopeful Nagashima Akihisa.

Other Diet members and ministers made private visits earlier, or will do so later. Criticism of those private visits is somewhat distasteful; whatever else Yasukuni has come to symbolise, it remains a place at which countless Japanese people, including Diet members, pray for departed ancestors and to give thanks to millions of people who gave their lives for the nation. It is important to draw a line between those who visit for private moments of worship and those who arrive with pomp, insist that their visit is official rather than personal, and make certain the cameras are waiting. Michael Cucek rightly describes this contrast as being between those who visit out of reverence, and those who visit out of a desire to transgress. If it seems to be in terribly bad taste to use a shrine commemorating a nation’s war dead and enshrining the relatives of millions of Japanese people simply as a way to jam one’s thumb in the eye of neighbours with whom you don’t get along, well, that’s because it absolutely is.

This is not to say that China and South Korea are blameless in how this dispute has developed. Both countries are guilty of stirring up national anger over Japan and wartime history in order to deflect attention from various failures of their own governments. There’s a long, long tradition of this in the post-war era. The Communist Party in China has always emphasised and on occasion enhanced Japanese wartime brutality not least in order to draw attention from its own brutality in the years after the war. South Korea’s post-war military dictatorship quietly took reparation money from Japan without informing its populace or distributing it to victims for whom it was intended, instead teaching its citizens that Japan had never apologised or paid reparations. In the case of both nations, matters of wartime history are made even more murky by the promotion of versions of history that, while closer to the truth than those of Japan’s historical revisionists, remain problematic and one-sided.

This all points to the fundamental problem with Yasukuni, with August 15th and with the whole question of how the war and its remembrance feeds into East Asian geopolitics. The problem is that almost none of this is actually about the war, or about history. It’s about contemporary issues; it’s about the fear, in Japan, of a declining nation thrown into sharp relief by the rise of China. It’s about the fear in both South Korea and China of an end to decades of rapid economic growth, and the prospect of a future not unlike Japan’s lost decades. It’s about concerns about political stability and national identity, and the utility of an external foe to focus attention away from stagnation and social problems at home. Each of the three governments shares some unequal portion of the blame for using history not as a way to establish fact, and remembrance not as a way to learn from the past and avoid its mistakes, instead using both as tools to achieve cynical, short-term political ends.

Yasukuni itself, however, remains an internal Japanese problem. The duality of its nature, simultaneously a legitimate place of worship and commemoration and a site for transgression and right-wing peacocking, makes it a thornier problem than many observers admit. Suggestions that the nearby Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, a state-operated and much less controversial memorial, should replace Yasukuni as the focus for remembrance are simplistic and slightly naive. They misunderstand the differing roles of the memorials; the secular Chidorigafuchi is a “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, honouring some 350,000 soldiers whose remains could not be identified. The religious Yasukuni is a much more broad-ranging memorial and, crucially, enshrines the specifically named souls of some 2.5 million people. Removing Yasukuni from the nation’s rituals of war memory is an unreasonable demand. Expecting neighbouring countries to smile and nod at the deliberate provocation of politicians acting in an official capacity is equally unreasonable.

The “solution”, if any such thing can be achieved, will be a fudged, unofficial compromise – a return to a status quo in which nothing has actually been solved, but Japanese governments put their senior officials on shorter leashes, while Chinese and Korean authorities mute the tone of their statements. There’s some evidence of movement in that direction over the past couple of years, of a slow de-escalation of rhetoric and provocation around Yasukuni. Given time to bed in, perhaps such a compromise will allow Japanese people to commemorate their lost relatives at Yasukuni without rude interference from their own nation’s right-wing fringe.

 

Abe’s Reshuffle Gun is Firing Blanks

Cabinet reshuffles are a big deal in Japanese politics. Where in other nations a reshuffle is generally of interest only to those with skin in the game and those desperately afflicted with a fascination with politics (it’s no way for a person to live, I assure you), in Japan reshuffles are given enormous attention and seen as key milestones in a government’s tenure. This is understandable when you look at the history of Japanese democracy in the post-war era; the Liberal Democratic Party has ruled, with or without the support of a minor coalition party, for around 56 of the past 60 years. When every election returns the same party to government, merely expanding or reducing its majority, the only real vehicle for reform lies in cabinet reshuffles – whose outcome has traditionally been determined by the jockeying for position between the LDP’s various internal factions. The hegemony of the LDP has made reshuffles more politically important than the majority of elections.

This makes reshuffles into a powerful tool for a prime minister; as well as providing a means to placate, reward or punish party factions for their support (or lack of same), the reshuffle has also traditionally been a magic bullet for the all-important cabinet approval rating. Cabinet approval is the public opinion figure which every prime minister must watch with anxious eyes; when it drops below a certain level, conventional wisdom suggests that the prime minister is now an electoral liability to the LDP and should be replaced, making him vulnerable to challenges from within the party. A reshuffle is a shot in the arm for cabinet approval – voters generally seem willing to give a new cabinet time to prove itself, so the approval rating shoots up after a reshuffle.

Abe Shinzo, the current prime minister, has lived a charmed life in terms of his cabinet approval ratings thus far. Indeed, his approval rating is a conundrum that puzles many commentators on Japan. Abe’s rule has boiled down to a succession of deeply unpopular measures – last year’s 秘密保護法 (Official Secrets Bill) and this year’s 安保法 (Security Bill) provoked major ongoing demonstrations around the country, while the slow-but-sure restarting of nuclear power plants continues to be opposed by a significant majority of voters and provokes headline-grabbing local protest with each restart. Meanwhile the much-vaunted “Abenomics” economic programme has had a mixed reaction from economists (it’s largely only managed to crank the levers of monetary stimulus, and has failed miserably to provide the kind of economic reform originally promised), and definitely a failing grade from voters, many of whom have seen their real incomes drop precipitously in recent years and almost none of whom say they have felt any benefit from Abenomics. In poll after poll, the Japanese people hate the Abe cabinet’s policies – they don’t like the bills it passes, don’t support its broad agenda on security and energy, and don’t feel any benefit from its economic policy. Yet in the same polls, they continue to support the cabinet, and the LDP, at a remarkably high rate.

This is only a puzzle if you consider the government in isolation; look at it in the context of Japan’s opposition parties, and it makes perfect sense. To describe the opposition as a disaster would be far too kind; the opposition is a miserable, useless catastrophe. The Democratic Party of Japan, the main party of opposition, has no coherent policy platform and almost zero visibility on key issues; other parties such as the Japan Innovation Party are consumed with in-fighting, and opposition parties split, merge and split again with a weary regularity that makes it perfectly apparent that their membership are far more concerned with shuffling for position and status in a tiresome game of musical chairs for avaricious old men, than in actually representing a constituency or, god forbid, a coherent ideology. Even as the government faced widespread resistance from the populace in passing legislation like the Security Bill, the main opposition parties were distracted with the side-show, the cat-herding pipe-dream, of assembling a broad opposition alliance. It was once said (by one of his own backbenchers, no less) of the well-meaning but slightly hapless Irish opposition leader Alan Dukes, “if it was raining soup, the man would be out in the street with a fork”; it rained miso soup for Japan’s opposition in recent months, and they all ran out into the streets holding chopsticks. If the Japanese electorate dislike Abe Shinzo’s policy platform, they despise the opposition, and have supported the Abe cabinet largely on the basis that any alternative to the LDP is, at the moment, nigh-on unthinkable.

Even so, the Abe cabinet’s approval rating sank to a low (albeit still far higher than justified by support for its policies) ebb when the Security Bill was passed, so; quick! Pull the reshuffle lever! Out with the old, in with the new, and back in with some of the old. There are new faces in some quite prominent positions (I plan to write a little later this week about former pro wrestler Hase Hiroshi’s appointment as Education Minister, which is already shaping up to be very interesting), some hints about which factions are in Abe’s good books, and lots of speculation about what it all means for the theory that he’s going to anoint fanatical right-winger and historical revisionist Inada Tomomi as his successor; she would be Japan’s first female prime minister, marking a real “two steps forward, three steps back” for the progressive cause. The conclusion of most commentators, incidentally, is that leaving her in charge of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, rather than promoting her to a more public cabinet position, suggests that she’s not the shoo-in for the succession many had assumed.

The lever duly pulled, the new Abe Cabinet (“Abe 2.2”, perhaps, as it’s the second cabinet of his second run at the prime minister’s job) sat back and waited for the approval bump… Which never came. Approval did rebound slightly from the level it hit after the security bill passed, but even in the most optimistic of polls, this looked like a dead cat bounce – the natural rebound when even the most moribund of objects hits a hard floor – rather than a boost from the reshuffle. In approval terms, at least, the reshuffle has been a total write-off; perhaps reflecting the increasingly presidential style of Japanese prime ministers since Koizumi Junichiro in the early 2000s, public attention seems focused on Abe himself, and cabinet approval rating is inexorably tied to his person, regardless of the cabinet with which he surrounds himself.

This is troubling for Abe, who has managed – largely off the back of the weakness and disarray both of the opposition and of the much-diminished LDP internal factions – to stay in power for almost three years, far longer than most Japanese Prime Ministers of recent decades. It seemingly removes from him one of the key weapons in the Prime Minister’s arsenal, rendering the reshuffle useless for juicing public opinion numbers – though of course, it may simply be that this reshuffle was handled incompetently, being carried out while the public was still angry over the passage of the Security Bill, and thus burdening the new cabinet with that anger rather than giving them a fresh start. On the other hand, it also reinforces the importance of Abe Shinzo himself, suggesting that while Prime Ministers may still fall victim to weak cabinet support ratings, the era of the disposable and nigh-on faceless Japanese Prime Minister (honestly, even political science academics here struggle to recall some of the nobodies who have held the office in recent decades) is over. Abe will be toppled only when someone within the LDP is strong, prominent and supported enough to topple him; the old system, in which a Prime Minister could be deposed by a broad group of plotting factions without a figurehead, and replaced with whatever doddering codger they felt well-disposed towards that week, is no longer viable. This will make it easier for the PM to see threats coming, the most obvious of them at the moment being Ishiba Shigeru, the hugely ambitious if questionably competent Regional Revitalisation Minister who recently launched his own LDP faction, seemingly with a view to challenging Abe for party leadership in the future. If Abe’s approval slides heavily again (the next big challenge is next year’s double header of House of Councillors elections and TPP ratification), it’s from Ishiba that the only truly credible attack on his position would come – and until the opposition parties get their house in order and start providing a believable alternative, that internal LDP drama is, once again, the only way that Japan’s government is going to see change or reform.

Oh! What a Lovely War Bill

JSDF troops with their flag

Today, Japan’s lower house of government, the House of Representatives (broadly equivalent to the House of Commons in the UK, and rather less equivalent to the US Congress), has passed bills permitting Japanese military forces to participate in action against nations which are not directly attacking Japan. This will be the first time since the end of the Second World War almost exactly 70 years ago that Japan has permitted itself this right, and represents one of the largest changes to the nation’s security policy since its independence was restored by the Allied occupation in 1952.

It’s not a popular change. Opinion polls suggest that fewer than 30% of Japanese people support the bill, opposition parties have protested that the bill is being railroaded through parliament, and tens of thousands of people have gathered at rallies in Tokyo over the past few weeks to protest the legislation. It’s not popular with constitutional scholars, either; Japan’s post-war constitution, authored by Americans but supported by a majority of the Japanese people, renounces war and the use of force in international disputes, and forbids the maintenance of “war potential”. Last year, the government sought and achieved the latest in a series of revisions to the legal interpretation of that article (Article 9), which would allow the Japan Self-Defence Forces to participate not only in direct self-defence of the Japanese nation, but in “collective self-defence” – the right to assist Japan’s treaty allies should one of them be attacked, even if that attack is not directly on Japan itself. Today’s bill is the next step in pushing that change into law, but constitutional scholars remain convinced that the reinterpretation has stretched Article 9 past breaking point; a large majority of them have come out against the bill.

The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, knows it’s not a popular bill. After it passed the committee stage yesterday, he commented that the government has failed to explain the bill adequately to the public and will need to work on that in future; it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at such a statement, but this sort of cart-before-horse, father-knows-best approach is pretty much de rigeur for politicians all over the world when matters of national security or international relations are being discussed. It doesn’t excuse such behaviour, but it’s nonetheless worth pointing out that this doesn’t make Abe a fascist or evil; it just means that he’s a politician.

Besides, popularity barely matters. Though it’s taking its toll on the government’s approval rating, the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, could pass the bill through the Diet by themselves, having secured a large majority in the hastily called general election last December. Opposition politicians have resorted to frankly bizarre measures to register their displeasure, holding aloft placards during committee sessions and physically mobbing rival politicians in scenes bordering on fist-fights. The refrain, over and over, is that a bill with such low public support cannot be passed through the Diet in this manner.

This is, for better or worse, utter nonsense. The public does not support this legislation, but it hasn’t been sprung upon them as a surprise; changing the basis on which Japan’s military participates in international security is one of Shinzo Abe’s most long-held and clearly expressed desires, and the constitutional re-interpretation enabling this new law was passed before the general election last December. That election returned Abe’s LDP and their Komeito partners with a slightly larger majority than they had before. Any government, anywhere in the world, would look at that situation and conclude that whatever the public’s misgivings about this specific legislation, the LDP’s mandate to pass it is unarguable. Opposition parties were unable to turn the public’s dislike of Abe’s military ambitions into votes last December, so what aspect of democracy (as distinct from constitutionalism), exactly, is Abe riding roughshod over by passing a bill he’s openly been promoting since 2012?

It’s not that I don’t understand the anger and fear surrounding the bill, much of it focused on Abe himself. For all that he has learned to shut up about his own revisionist views of Japan’s Imperial history and decidedly neo-conservative ideas about how to make Japan’s society “beautiful” again (much of which is, as with neo-conservatism in general, little more than Fascism Lite with far less snazzy uniforms), he has been altogether less successful at getting other members of the LDP to do likewise. A great deal of the protest around the bill seems to be based not so much on fear of what collective self-defence will mean for Japan, but on a broader fear that Abe and his party want to move Japan away from the post-war pacifist consensus; to promote an ultra-nationalist agenda through schools and universities, to construct and impose rigid concepts of morality and “traditional” notions of societal duty, to adopt a more aggressive stance on the world stage and generally to return Japan to its more oppressive pre-war status quo. Opponents, who have dubbed the security legislation as Abe’s “War Bill” (which I use entirely facetiously in the title of this post), see that bill as being a huge step along the way to that objective.

They’re not wrong about Abe’s objective; you only need to read the man’s own words, in his book “Towards a Beautiful Country“, or look at the wish-list of constitutional change he and his LDP colleagues came up with before he came back to power in 2012. A man’s personal ideas and the policies he pursues in government may not always align, but it’s not unreasonable to fear the objectives of a man who has clearly laid out intentions to change his nation’s society in dangerous and worrying ways, and whose rule in government is effectively unopposed due to chaos within the ranks of opposition parties.

This broad unease only lends itself to making the protests and opposition to today’s bills seem fractured, discordant and uncoordinated. Part of the problem is that taken on its own merits, the bill is entirely reasonable. One may argue for or against the need for Japan to change the terms on which it engages with its security partners, but there are a great many logical and reasonable grounds for the claim that collective self-defence is required by the present international environment. For Japan to continue to exist securely under the US defence umbrella, even as the global influence of the US is increasingly challenged and the broad security environment of Asia remains unstable, seems untenable. A more even relationship in which Japan’s substantial military prowess forms part of the deterrent to conflict across Asia, and in which Japanese troops play a normalised part in activities such as UN Peace-Keeping Operations (as those of other militarily neutral countries, such as Ireland, do without difficulty), has much to recommend it. Ranked against that, protests claiming that this “War Bill” represents a rise of militarism – despite the fact that even with its implementation, Japan’s military engagement will remain pretty much the most restricted of any developed nation – are all too easy to dismiss.

Herein, perhaps, lies the core dichotomy and problem of Shinzo Abe’s leadership of Japan. His person suggests that he should be a disastrous leader – he is an unrepentant (if recently wisely silent) historical revisionist with barely-concealed fantasies of a return to the social and political order of Imperial Japan. His ultimate goal is a complete rewrite of Japan’s constitution which would dispense with its pacifist and human-rights oriented nature in favour of a stricter, more duty-focused constitution which he believes to better reflect “traditional” Japanese values. In some ways, this personality has indeed been disastrous; relations with China and South Korea, for example, deteriorated sharply under Abe’s leadership, though it’s unfair to lay the entire blame for that at his doorstep when the leadership of both of those countries demonstrated equal if not greater intransigence and historical dishonesty. In other ways, though, this personality and the stances it has created have been almost exactly what Japan needs; Abe’s policies have been pushed through with a force and vigour that has been sorely lacking in Japan for decades, and have seen kickstarts to employment, to inflation, to the role of women, to the broader economy, and to necessary adjustments to the nation’s international role. In each case, one can argue that Abe has pursued the right policy for the wrong reason – often horrifyingly wrong – but nonetheless, he’s achieved more in his years in power thus far than anyone since Junichiro Koizumi in the mid-2000s (and Koizumi, I’d argue, pursued the wrong policies for the right reasons, which is far worse).

Abe’s personality and his party’s regular gaffes colour everything they touch. Even as a supporter of its content, I will find it deeply uncomfortable to watch the “war bill” pass today, with the storm-in-a-teacup of protest making little or no odds to its progression through the various stages of government. I will find it even more uncomfortable if the Supreme Court, a far less aggressive and independent branch of government in Japan than in the USA, permits the bill to stand despite its extremely dubious constitutionality. I’d like to see Japan’s security position change, but I’d like to see it done right – with a constitutional amendment by popular vote, following a proper campaign of education and outreach about the reasons for its necessity. When a politician’s vigour and force extends to simply ignoring constitutional legalities, then no amount of democratic mandate (which, again, the LDP unquestionably possesses at present) can justify their actions. But perhaps that’s Abe in a nutshell; doing the right things for awful reasons, in awful ways, and making even those who support the actions uncomfortable along the way. He may be the most effective prime minister Japan has had in decades; he may simultaneously be the worst leader the nation has had in the post-war era.

Japan in 2012: Anger, Apathy and the Ballot Box

Tomorrow, Japan will hold a general election for the first time since 2009. A lot has changed since 2009. At home, the impact of the 2011 Touhoku Earthquake is still felt, especially in the area of nuclear power policy; abroad, Japan has ended up in unwelcome territorial disputes over a handful of rocky islands with South Korea and, more worryingly, China.

Tomorrow’s election won’t be about any of those things. Not really.

The 2009 election was momentous for a simple reason – it elected the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to office. This was the first time since 1955 that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had not held power. The LDP was created in 1955 as a broad but tightly managed coalition of conservative political groups – including many whose wartime histories were murky, to say the least – and it held the reins of power throughout the remainder of the 20th century, becoming so deeply intertwined with Japan’s powerful bureaucracy that it could be hard to tell where the LDP ended and the civil service – the machinery of government itself – began. Yet in 2009 they were thrown out of office, losing to the DPJ in a landslide.

Tomorrow, it’s almost certain that the people of Japan will vote the LDP back into office. The most likely scenario is that they’ll have a majority (along with their perennial coalition partners, New Kōmeitō, which is effectively the political wing of the powerful Buddhist group Sōka Gakkai and as such commands a moderate but very reliable share of the vote from Sōka Gakkai followers), but will still need to work with other parties to get legislation through the Upper House. Some media outlets, though, are confidently predicting that the LDP, with New Komeito, will enjoy a “supermajority” – 320 seats in the Lower House (Japan uses the Westminster parliament system, so this is equivalent to the House of Commons in the UK), enough to force through almost any legislation it wants, regardless of how the Upper House may vote.

How might we interpret this? After less than three and a half years in office, Japan is throwing out its first non-LDP government in 54 years and inviting the LDP to return – what does it mean?

A few broad ideas have been thrown around by the press and a variety of commentators. One idea is that Japan is lurching to the right, politically – that the re-election of the conservative LDP, which includes factions with some worryingly revisionist views about World War 2 and a hawkish desire to “re-interpret” Japan’s pacifist constitution, means that the Japanese people are becoming more militaristic and hardline in their views. Another idea is that the election is a referendum on the DPJ’s handling of the Touhoku Earthquake, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and subsequent events. So; “it’s all about militarism”, say one group of talking heads; “it’s all about nuclear power”, say another.

Those are nice, convenient talking points. They’re also incredibly simple, which should ring warning bells. They betray a deep desire to find a simple narrative for this election, when none exists, and they speak more about the biases of their authors (who are personally obsessed with “Japan’s attitude to WW2” or “Japan’s attitude to nuclear power”) than they do about the feelings of the Japanese electorate. In less polite terms, they’re flat-out wrong.

This is not to say that issues like militarism and nuclear power haven’t featured in the election – but they have not been major issues. On militarism, many of the politicans involved have form, but have seemed to quite deliberately keep their mouths shut. The LDP is led by Abe Shinzo, a man who was previously prime minister for a fairly disastrous one-year term in 2006/7. He is well-known as a hawkish character with rather revisionistic views on Japan’s wartime history and a strong desire to “re-interpret” the constitution to allow the building up of Japanese military power, but during his period as Prime Minister, he reined in those impulses (although he never seemed happy doing so, and this may have contributed to his early exit from the job). He’s reined them in once again on the campaign trail this year – he’s been gaffe-prone as ever, but not over issues of national security or history. Other hawks are also to be found on the campaign trail; the newly created Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), for example, is led by Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru, who wants a referendum on the pacifist clause of the constitution (Article 9) and picked a bizarre fight with teachers over the treatment of the Japanese national anthem in classrooms. His new political partner is former Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro, a loud-mouthed and vainglorious right-wing ideologue whose entire career has been spend picking bizarre fights with intellectuals, pacifists, foreigners, women or whichever minority group he could think of to insult on the spur of the moment. Yet even these two characters have kept squeaky-clean through the campaign, avoiding being tarred with the nationalist brush as much as possible. Hashimoto has even emerged as an extremely moderate voice on foreign policy, suggesting, for example, that Japan should share administration of the disputed Senkaku and Dokdo islands with China and South Korea respectively.

Why put firebrands in charge but then make them shut up? Because there’s no appetite in Japan for right-wing, nationalist firebrands. The “lurch to the right” narrative about Japan simply collapses when you look at ground truth – across every meaningful opinion poll, the Japanese people strongly support Article 9 of the Constitution (which renounces the nation’s right to wage war) and reject advancing militarism or nationalism. Having neighbours like North Korea or China is frightening, certainly – and recent events have made the region feel even less safe – but the last thing the Japanese electorate wants is a hawkish leadership who directly provoke their neighbours through such actions as military build-up. Moreover, in this election in particular, the opinion polls are clear – foreign policy as a whole is a long way down people’s lists of concerns.

What of nuclear power, then? As it turns out, that’s a long way down the list of concerns as well. Perhaps that’s because the status quo isn’t working out too badly – most of the nuclear reactors are still offline and Japan hasn’t experienced any power shortages (the impact of boosting imports of fossil fuels in order to cover up the shortfall may not have been felt yet – expert commentary on that differs greatly). Either way, it doesn’t seem to bother people greatly that none of the parties are committing to a rapid end to nuclear power, or that the LDP in particular doesn’t seem committed at all to winding down the nuclear power industry which it was so directly instrumental in creating. Only one party, the Tomorrow Party, focuses on nuclear issues; it’s led by Kada Yukiko, the likeable and sincere governor of Shiga Prefecture, but mostly made up of former DPJ politicians who bailed out of the party a few months ago, following their powerful faction leader (and DPJ co-founder) Ozawa Ichiro. Everyone knows that Ozawa is the real power behind the Tomorrow Party, and neither Kada’s role as a human shield nor the party’s strong anti-nuclear stance is likely to prevent it from being wiped out at the ballot box.

Okay. So it’s not the military, and it’s not nukes. What, then, are the people of Japan voting on? How have they made their decision to return to the embrace of the LDP?

That’s a trick question. They haven’t made that decision at all. The sad, dull reality of the 2012 General Election in Japan is that the populace isn’t returning to the LDP; they’re not actively choosing to elect Abe Shinzo as their next Prime Minister. They’re just getting the default option, because “None Of The Above” doesn’t feature on their ballot papers.

With only a handful of days left before the election, the LDP was sitting at around 23% support in the opinion polls. This is a party which is expected in some quarters to get a “supermajority”. Twenty-three per cent. A “supermajority”. To put that in context, that’s the same percentage of the vote as the Liberal Democrats in the UK got in 2010 – and in the 1997 UK general election, when the Tories were wiped out by a Labour landslide, they still got nearly 31% of the vote.

Still – the LDP are doing better than the DPJ, who languish at 11% to 14%, depending on which polls you read. The newbies in the Japan Restoration Party manage similar numbers – 8% in the lowball polls, 13% in the optimistic ones.

Who’s really winning this election, according to the polls? “Don’t know”. Only days before polling closes, “Don’t know” is in for a sweeping victory, with around 40% of the vote. After all the wrangling, the posturing, the temper tantrums for the cameras, the angry accusations, the manifestoes, the TV appearances and the endless shouting of slogans from the loudspeakers on top of cars in busy urban areas, nearly half of the people of Japan still don’t know who the hell they want to vote for.

Six months before an election, that’s understandable. Three months before an election, it’s understandable. A month in advance, you’d start to worry. Less than a week in advance, those figures no longer mean “Don’t Know”. What they actually mean is, “None of the Above”. What those voters are really saying is, “A plague on both your houses”.

Whether the LDP wins a supermajority or not; whether the DPJ is all but wiped out or manages to save some face; whatever happens in the election will come down to whether those 40% of voters decide to turn up, grit their teeth and vote for the least-worst option (which might well help the DPJ to save face, since Abe Shinzo’s right-wing tendencies do scare people a little, and his incompetent tenure and humiliating resignation in 2007 isn’t so long ago) – or whether they just stay at home, which would probably let the LDP romp home with a large majority but a deeply questionable mandate.

Why is this happening? If you want a neat, simplified narrative, here’s one. The LDP – and its conjoined twin, the Japanese bureaucracy – is in decline. A fragile coalition of otherwise competing interests and viewpoints was held together through the 60s, 70s and 80s by Japan’s economic miracle. Dissent was silenced by financial generosity, each special interest group or uppity politician bought off with gigantic amounts of public cash being spent on their pet infrastructure projects and local communities. Everyone got rich, so everyone stayed quiet. Nobody wanted to upset an applecart so brimming with rich harvest.

Since the financial crisis and the end of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s, things have been a lot more uncertain. The idea of the LDP and the bureaucracy managing Japan with stunning competence has been demolished by two decades of flatlining growth, declining levels of full-time professional employment and currency deflation. However, the impact of this has been delayed, for the simple reason that Japan is still a great place to live. It’s safe, it’s secure, it’s convenient – outside central Tokyo, it’s even fairly cheap. Healthcare and education are good. Poverty exists, but it’s hidden away on the margins. The applecart isn’t quite as full of ripe fruit as it once was, but it’s still not a good idea to upset it.

At the same time, dissatisfaction has set in – and it’s only grown as generations who finished university in the 1990s and 2000s realised that many of them would never have the kind of full-time employment their fathers had enjoyed. Few of them would be as wealthy as their parents had been. A large number, forced to take part-time or short-term contract jobs rather than full-time “salaryman” work, would never have enough money to buy a house or start a family. The covenant at the heart of Japanese society – “work hard, trust the government, and you’ll live well” was being broken. The LDP, authors of that covenant, seemed either not to understand what was happening, or not to know how to fix it – or perhaps both.

When the DPJ won the election in 2009, they promised a huge variety of things – their manifesto, in fact, read like a bit of a fantastical wishlist, and that quality has been used as a stick to beat the party with ever since. Their main promise, though, was unspoken; “we’re not the LDP”. Indeed, the party itself was a Frankenstein’s monster of a thing, composed of refugees, waifs and strays from across the political spectrum – including many politicians who had served time within the LDP itself. Their commonality was not anything that they were, but something that they were not. They were not the LDP. They won a landslide victory.

Tomorrow, they’ll collapse. Many of their Diet members, elected in 2009, will be unceremoniously dumped from office. The party has already fragmented; former DPJ members can be found in many of the new parties contesting tomorrow’s elections. Most will lose their seats regardless. They weren’t the LDP in name, but they reflected many of the things people hate most about the LDP in every other way – the factionalism, the in-fighting, the sheer ineffectiveness. Fukushima uncovered collusion with the nuclear industry; a humiliating cabinet resignation earlier this year came about because of connections with the Yakuza, Japan’s organised crime groups. Both incidents had a strong whiff of the old LDP around them. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

What the DPJ did offer, at least, was one place where people tired of the LDP’s misrule could place their ballots. This time around, there’s no such place. Some of the DPJ’s 2009 coalition of voters will drift back to the LDP – but few, I suspect. The LDP’s support figure of 23% is actually about the same as their polling figure in 2009. Last time, it earned them humiliating defeat; this time, it’ll win them a landslide. Most DPJ voters will have drifted elsewhere, fragmenting the anti-LDP vote. Some will go to Nippon Ishin no Kai, creating a third force in Japanese politics that could be fascinating to watch in years to come – assuming the tectonic stresses between the egos of Hashimoto and Ishihara don’t pull it to shreds first. A handful will go to the Tomorrow Party, or off to other marginals like the Japan Communist Party. Many, I suspect, will just stay at home. They took a gamble on believing in the DPJ, and lost. Politics has ceased to speak to them, or for them. That’s a volatile situation, even in a comfortable, modern nation like Japan. It leaves a void to be filled – perhaps by extremists, perhaps by non-party campaign groups, perhaps even by faith-based political movements. None of those are comfortable thoughts for the LDP – a party returning to power, but by no means back in the good books of its electorate.