On the Campaign Trail in Japan

By Brittain Barber,  Japan Studies M.A. program alumnus.

Insight from Nagano, Japan.

In the summer of 2009, I had the opportunity to  intern for two weeks with the campaign office of Representative Shinohara Takashi, then the proportional representative for Nagano District 1 in Japan’s Lower House. Rep. Shinohara is a graduate of the UW Law School and graciously allows students from the Japan Studies Program to work as summer interns in his Nagano and Tokyo offices. He is a member of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and a former official in the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. At the time, the DPJ was the opposition party, although the writing was on the wall for the probable exit of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

During the week I was in Nagano, the inevitable Lower House election date had not yet been set, but everyone knew it was coming and campaign activities were fully underway. Japan is a Parliamentary Democracy, which means that the government is structured more like the United Kingdom or Canada, rather than a Presidential system as in the US. The Diet is bicameral, though most power resides with the Lower House. (Again, similar to the UK.) Whichever party controls the Lower House selects the Prime Minister, with elections coming at irregular times within a five year term limit. Japan also uses a Proportional Representation system much different from the US.[1] Constituents cast two votes, one for a candidate and one for a party, with some portions of the seats awarded to parties based on how many votes they received. The LDP had exercised almost unbroken control of Japan since 1952, an electoral run of staggering length. Opposition parties came and went; at present, most non-LDP politicians have coalesced around the DPJ.

Rep. Shinohara faced a unique set of challenges in this election. Some of these I expected going in, but others took me completely by surprise. Campaigns in Japan bear only a superficial resemblance to their US counterparts. Some differences can be written off as “cultural differences,” but most result from the structure of Japanese campaign and finance laws.

Even within the Japanese system though, Rep. Shinohara’s plight was notable. The DPJ draws enough votes in the area and Rep. Shinohara had enough seniority in the party to feel relatively safe as the proportional representative, but there was a noticeable drop in prestige for those that must take the perceived back door into the Diet. His opponent for the electoral seat in Nagano 1 was among the most entrenched Japanese politicians in recent history, leaving an uphill battle for any challenger. This remained true even in a year when the LDP appeared poised, at long last, to fall from power.

Like other campaigns in Japan, Rep. Shinohara didn’t rely on a media presence. Little if any political communication effort goes into TV, radio, or newspaper ads, because of highly restrictive campaign laws. Instead, most Japanese politicians take barnstorming speech tours and trucks equipped with speakers that my friend calls “Shouty Trucks.” Anyone who has been in Japan during election season will recognize the sight of politicians giving speeches at train stations or the sound of Shouty Trucks blasting candidates’ names at painfully loud volumes. I was too early to ride in the Shouty Truck, to my great disappointment, but did spend time handing out fliers at Nagano Station while Rep. Shinohara exhorted commuters from a makeshift podium.

Most of our time in Nagano was spent canvassing door to door. This is where Rep. Shinohara’s particular disadvantages started to appear. His opponent was Kosaka Kenji, the fourth generation of the Kosaka family to hold the seat. In fact, no politician not named Kosaka had ever won in Nagano 1. This is an incumbent advantage almost unimaginable to US voters, as loyalty to the Kosaka family has been passed down since the Meiji Era, in ways both personal and professional. The clan also has significant business interests in construction and media. (I don’t believe that any of this influence was used in illegal or unethical ways per se, but after 100 years, the Kosaka position was almost impregnable.) In addition to explaining his positions and seeking support, the Shinohara campaign would often ask to place signs on people’s property. I was consistently surprised by the number of responses that were some variation of, “I don’t like the LDP, I’m planning on voting for you, but I just can’t support you publicly. What would the neighbors think?”

At that time, the LDP approval ratings were abysmal. Nobody expected them to win the upcoming election, and everybody knew that everybody else would vote for the DPJ. Even then, the perceived social pressure that buoyed Rep. Kosaka, at least superficially, was too much to overcome. Clandestine DPJ support abounded, but few were willing to go public with it. We didn’t even bother with houses clearly attached to the construction industry, knowing the close ties most held with the Kosaka family.

Throughout my internships, Rep. Shinohara explained more of the challenges to me and his constituents. He received little, if any, coverage in the local media. Again, nothing nefarious or libelous, just a quiet neglect. When school children visited the Diet building on their field trips to Tokyo, Kosaka saw to it that the students were only shown his office. School officials acquiesced, because Kosaka allies controlled much of local politics. Rep. Shinohara had a solid base of support within the region, but nothing to compare with many decades of Kosaka prominence. He had run against Rep. Kosaka before, but still trailed far behind in name recognition with no easy way boost his signal.

There are some analogues to US politics, but far more differences. Campaign laws in the US prohibit obnoxious sound trucks (fortunately), but any candidate with money can buy up unlimited media time, billboards, or print ads to get the word out. Certain districts have gone reliably to a single party for decades, but the loyalty in the United States seems much more party- than personality-based. Long tenured politicians have extensive networks of backers that place obstacles in the path of upstarts, but very few families manage to create a multi-generation dynasty.

Finally, the biggest differences lie with Americans themselves. I have lived as part of both a persecuted political minority and an overwhelming majority, and in both cases, the opposition was loud and proud. Indeed, the smaller a political faction, the more insistent it often becomes. Rep. Shinohara would have no trouble hanging signs in this country.

For those wishing for some spoilers, I will skip ahead a few months. I spent a week in Nagano, then a week in Tokyo (stories for another post!), then bequeathed the intern position to other JSIS students. In late summer, Prime Minister Aso finally bowed to the inevitable and called for a Lower House election. The DPJ hammered the LDP at the polls. Most observers predicted the victory, but it was a tidal wave beyond expectation.

Rep. Shinohara rode the anti-LDP sentiment to a comfortable victory in Nagano 1, unseating a Kosaka incumbent for the first time in modern history. The regional polling was so bad for the LDP that Kosaka couldn’t even get on the proportional ballot. In a normal election year, I’m not certain that Rep. Shinohara could have won, despite a disciplined, enthusiastic campaign. In 2009, however, the overall disgust with the LDP after years of scandal and economic blundering  was finally enough to overpower whatever personal loyalty many voters felt for the Kosaka family.

Epilogue: Despite the DPJ’s grand triumph, persistent incompetence, a shotgun approach to untenable campaign promises, and finally the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami doomed them to a single term. In the next Lower House election, the LDP regained control of the government as voters rejected a DPJ now seen as unprepared to run a country. Nevertheless, Rep. Shinohara maintained control of his seat, while Rep. Kosaka joined the Upper House in a proportional seat. Rep. Shinohara has by now largely erased his previous disadvantages (helped, no doubt, by Rep. Kosaka’s jump to the Upper House) and seems fairly entrenched. If he survived the last election, he may prove difficult to unseat without the benefit of a big name from the LDP. Nagano 1 appears to be safely in the DPJ’s hands for the foreseeable future.

[1] For a more comprehensive explanation, please proceed to https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/polit/damy/BeginnningReading/howprwor.htm.


Brittain Barber graduated with his MA in Japan Studies in 2008, returning to the States after many years in Kyoto. He has remained in Seattle, working in IT and staying involved with the regional Japanese community. He can also be found working the local music scene, writing about science fiction, and coaching youth soccer.