T HE FIRST general election of the Reiwa era went smoothly. Voters shuﬄed into polling booths, cast ballots, and gave the LDP a victory, as they have done all but twice since the party's founding in 1955. In one sense, it is a story of stability, despite frustration over the pandemic and worry about the future. Yet in an election with little competition, it is unclear what voters chose.
In the past, competition came from factions within the LDP , says Gerald Curtis of Columbia University: "There was lots of corruption and money politics, but there was a real dynamism." But factional influence has waned. The opposition oﬀered competition for a time, even winning power from 2009 to 2012. But after the disaster on its watch, it has become like the akiya that dot Japan's countryside: no price is low enough to entice voters. The marketplace for ideas in Japanese politics has broken down.
Without a threat of losing power, any ruling party becomes unaccountable. Demographic change exacerbates things: some 20% of local politicians are elected without a contest. The result is a government that, in many ways, does not look or think like its people. Less than 10% of new Diet members are women; just three out of 21 cabinet ministers are. Only two are under 50. Dynastic politicians still dominate.
Society is changing faster than established powers. Japan is in the midst of a quiet transformation, argues Hosoya Yuichi, a political scientist: "There is a new wind, but within an old-fashioned structure." On social issues from gay rights to family law, the LDP is out of step. Many voters feel they cannot change the system, which drives some into business or civil society, not politics. "People are kind of giving up on the country," says Mr Yanagisawa from Gojome. "Maybe it's not our issue to think about the country, maybe we should just think about the community."
The absence of competition creates little incentive for political leaders to take risks. Politicians often lament the lack of "animal spirits" in Japanese business. But the Diet could use some too. Local leaders, especially in ageing regions, feel more urgency. "We can't just rely on old models or past experiences," says Mr Satake, Akita's governor.
Mr Kishida, the new prime minister, touts a "new model of capitalism". But so far it looks like the old one. He also likes to boast of his listening ability, doubtless an admirable quality. What Japan really needs are leaders with vision. Whether Mr Kishida and his successors can demonstrate this will determine if it emerges from the Reiwa era as a model or a cautionary tale.
They should keep three risks in mind. One is external shocks, such as natural hazards and nasty neighbours. A second is internal: today's mild frustration could turn into something worse. Japan has largely avoided populism and polarisation. But nothing makes it immune to internal divisions. Only 60 years ago Japanese fought in the streets over the security treaty with America. And then there is the risk of aimless drift. Polls find roughly two-thirds of respondents reckon their lives will be "similar" in the future (9% think they will get better, 27% that they will get worse). Complacency could yet rob the country of a brighter future.
The world, in turn, would be wise to pay more heed. Japan used to capture attention mainly as a threat, first in military terms, then in economic ones. Since its "lost decades", it has fallen out of the headlines. It now generates global interest mostly as a cultural dynamo, a travel destination or a source of tales of "weirdness". But supposedly unique Japanese phenomena have a habit of appearing elsewhere. Excessive focus on the mystique of Japaneseness obscures how the country is changing, and how policy choices shape this.
It is time to retire the narrative of a stagnant, isolated country in terminal decline. Japan is central to this century's geopolitics; its international role belies the outdated stereotypes. Big disasters forced the country to change; as a result, it has become more resilient to natural hazards than most. It does not have answers to all the challenges of demographic change or secular stagnation, but it has so far done better on the front line than is often recognised.
Japan should be looked upon as a laboratory for studying shared challenges. The world has an opportunity to draw insights from its successes and its failures. It would be better off if it assimilated more from the outside world. The lessons of the Reiwa era will differ from those of Showa or Heisei, but they will be no less valuable. Japan is no longer Number One, but it still has plenty for the world to learn from. ■
Japan On the front line
- A country that is on the front line
- Why Japan needs more forceful defence
- Japan has a chequered record on climate change
- The big city that is also pleasant to live in
- An ageing country shows others how to manage
- Japan's economy is stronger than many realise
- Letting more migrants in by stealth
- The future could be brighter
This article appeared in the Special report section of the print edition under the headline “The future”
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