Why 2020 and 2021 Are Critical Years for Japanese Politics

As we (hopefully) head into the post-coronavirus era, there are a couple of important elections coming up in Japan.

  1. Tokyo Gubernatorial Election (July 5, 2020)
  2. House of Representatives Election (~October 2021)
  3. Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Leadership Election (September 2021)
    *You can only vote if you have paid membership fees for the last 2 years

#2 depends on whether Prime Minister Abe decides to call a snap/early election before the House of Representatives’ terms (4-year) end in October. The only time an election was held at the end of the term was in 1976.

Abe is unlikely to call an election close to the governor’s race in July, meaning the national election is likely to take place sometime early next year.

Usually, a snap election is held when the ruling party is confident that 1) approval is high enough to “win” the election, 2) the opposition is weak, and 3) no major events will interfere with voting at the time.

Calling an election now would be risky because of the numerous scandals that have rocked the Abe cabinet. Since the next Diet session begins in January 2021, some time around then would be likely.

With important elections coming up, it’s important to know who we’re voting for. This post will explain the scandals that have rocked the ruling LDP’s grip on power, while also arguing that the opposition still face an uphill battle to beat the ruling party.

A Timeline of Recent LDP/Abe Cabinet Scandals (2019-2020)


  • April: Olympics Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada resigns over multiple incidents involving inappropriate comments

    Incidents include:

    • Arriving 3 minutes late to a Diet meeting
    • Admitted to never having used a computer, despite being named cybersecurity minister  
    • Saying he was worried that swimmer Rikako Ikee’s leukemia diagnosis might dampen enthusiasm for the 2020 Olympics
    • Offended voters by suggesting that backing a fellow party member in Fukushima was more important than its economic revival (Fukushima was hit by the 3.11 earthquake/tsunami)
  • May: PM’s cherry blossom viewing party comes under intense scrutiny

    • Abe increased the number of guests to this traditional event from the typical 10,000 to 18,000 guests
    • In the past, guests were those who had distinguished themselves in the fields of politics, arts, culture, business, sports, entertainment, etc. 
    • Abe and his cabinet personally invited guests who were allegedly not distinguished people from these fields
    • The guest list (legally to be kept for at least 1 year) was destroyed before it was requested by opposition politicians 
    • Another issue surfaced regarding a dinner the night before the viewing party – 800 Abe supporters gathered at the Hotel New Otani and were charged a low fee of ¥5000 to join the dinner
    • The opposition accused Abe of attempting to buy votes and violating election law by spending money to make up the difference for the dinner fee
  • October: Double Ministerial Scandals

    Trade Minister Isshu Sugawara

    • Resigned following accusations of election law violations a month after taking the post
    • Had given gifts to voters (expensive melons and crabs) and offered condolence money in a possible attempt to buy votes—a violation of campaign law

    Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and upper-house member Anri Kawai

    • Katsuyuki Kawai resigned following accusations of election law violations 
    • Kawai allegedly handed about ¥10 million ($93,000) to local assembly members in Hiroshima to help his wife, Anri Kawai, win in the upper house election in the summer of 2019
    • Secretaries had been indicted on charges of paying ¥2.04 million to 14 campaign staffers during the upper house election (exceeding the cap of ¥15,000 per person a day)
    • The couple is set to be indicted after the end of the current Diet session (June 17, 2020) 
    • Prosecutors may also open an investigation into the LDP as they suspect the bribe money may have come from the ¥150 million given to Anri Kawai’s campaign from Abe’s party
  • December: Integrated Resort (IR) Casino Scandal

    • LDP politician Tsukasa Akimoto was questioned and later arrested for allegedly accepting ¥3 million in cash in 2017 and ¥760,000 in 2018 from 500.com, a Chinese company
    • Akimoto was the deputy minister at the Cabinet Office (August 2017-September 2019), in charge of developing policies for the IR project 
    • In January 2020, Akimoto was indicted for allegedly accepting an additional ¥2 million in cash + ¥1.5 million for a trip to Canada by the same Chinese company
    • 5 more Diet members (4 from the LDP) stand accused of receiving money from 500.com 
    • 4 LDP members maintain their innocence, while Rep. Mikio Shimoji of the Japan Innovation Party admitted receiving bribes while refusing to resign from the Diet 
    • The IR bill took a massive hit—a January survey by Kyodo News found that 71% of respondents think the casino plan should be reconsidered


  • May: The Kurokawa Scandal

    • Japan’s second-highest-ranking prosecutor, Hiromu Kurokawa, resigned after admitting he played mahjong for money with reporters while the country was under the state of emergency 
    • The Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that their employee had played mahjong with Kurokawa 4 times after PM Abe declared the state of emergency on April 7
    • Kurokawa became the center of attention earlier in January when the cabinet extended his tenure past retirement age (63)—possibly in an attempt to name him successor to Prosecutor General Nobuo Inada, the top prosecutor set to retire in July
    • Kurokawa worked extensively with the Abe cabinet and previously worked for the Justice Ministry—the move was seen as an attempt to name a pro-LDP prosecutor to the top job
    • The LDP/Abe cabinet sidestepped criticism that this move violated a law regarding the Public Prosecutors Office by revising another law to raise the retirement age of prosecutors to 65
    • The proposal also enabled retirement to be deferred for 3 years for individuals granted Cabinet approval on a case-by-case basis

    Why Does This Matter?

    • Kurokawa may face criminal charges as Japanese law prohibits unauthorized gambling, but small bets are an exception
    • Prosecutors have the authority to indict a sitting prime minister and have traditionally been seen as independent from politics (revising the law would jeopardize that) 
    • After criticism from opposition parties & the public, the LDP decided to shelve (and could eventually scrap) the bill 
    • Abe’s approval rating took a hit, sinking 13 pts to 27%; disapproval jumped from 45% to 64% (Mainichi Shimbun poll)

How Have These Scandals Impacted Support for the LDP?

An NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) poll in May shows that cabinet approval ratings are at 37%, while disapproval was at 45%.

Source: NHK (Blue indicates disapproval; Red indicates approval)

A breakdown of the poll shows that the LDP still holds a sizable lead over other parties. However, the majority of respondents don’t support any party.

Political PartySupport (%)
Liberal Democratic Party31.7
Constitutional Democratic Party4.7
National Democratic Party1.0
Japan Innovation Party 2.4
Japanese Communist Party3.4
No Party43.8
Source: NHK

Mainichi also found that approval ratings had dropped to the 20% range, seen as the “danger zone” for maintaining government status.

An FNN (Fuji News Network) poll found that disapproval was slightly higher than the NHK poll, at 52.5%. The general trend is that the numerous scandals—coupled with the coronavirus response—have led to a decline in approval numbers.

While LDP approval ratings have taken a hit, notice that opposition parties aren’t doing any better. The support the LDP lost has not translated to approval for opposition parties.

It is still far more likely that the LDP wins the next election (while losing seats), with opposition parties winning a dozen or so seats (at best).


The answer to this is found in the NHK poll mentioned above. In it, 55% of those who approved of the Abe cabinet said they supported Abe because there were no other options. Even with the mounting scandals, no other party was seen as a viable alternative.

It doesn’t help when the top opposition party (CDP) cannot seem to control their own politicians. While the opposition parties grilled the LDP over the coronavirus response, a CDP politician, Rep. Takashi Takai, ignored the state of emergency and entered an “adult entertainment club” in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho entertainment district.

The opposition party should, to the best of their ability, maintain a high work standard to show their commitment to voters. By keeping a clean record (no scandals like this), people may eventually decide to trust them more than the LDP.

A common opinion I hear about the opposition is that all they do is obstruct the government’s work and waste time. There’s no chance for the opposition to become the majority party without proving their ability to create sound policy consistently.

A strong, competitive opposition is necessary to keep the government in check. Let’s hope they’ll do better in the next few months.

What to Do

Currently, the LDP seems to get away with most things without losing significant support. This has been proven time and again and is evident from the lack of support for other parties.

Even if you support the LDP, this lack of oversight should be a cause for concern.

People can start by voting against LDP politicians to show the party that things cannot continue the way they are. Once the LDP feels threatened, they may be forced to change the way they operate.

This seems like the only realistic way to ensure things change.

The next two years will be critical for Japanese politics. Let’s make it count by holding the LDP accountable for their negligence and help mold a competitive opposition party. In turn, this would help foster a political system that listens to the people.

The final message is this: we need both sides to do much more than they are now.

Image: Ajswab (CC BY-SA 3.0)

6 thoughts on “Why 2020 and 2021 Are Critical Years for Japanese Politics

  1. Totally understandable why the cybersecurity minister has never used a computer. You can’t hack him if he doesn’t have one and there’s nothing more cyber-secure than that.

    Liked by 1 person

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