In Between East and West

Wait, New Japan Just Forgot About Russia? –A political consequence of Japanese election 2013 on Russia-Japan relations

August 16, 2013


        The returning Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have successfully regain full control over the upper and lower congresses of Japan in July 2013; now they are equipped with an ever-mightier momentum and democratic mandate to push forward agendas of the most pressing national importance. In Russia as well as abroad, the result of Abe’s landslide winning provoked a variety of discussions; yet, a few international analyses have outlined how the election was fought and what were the major casting points. Based on a joint research summary made by Japanese political analysis firm Piped Bits Co., Ltd and Waseda University Institute of Manifesto Studies, this article aims to examine the real impact of the last election on Japanese politics and its implications for Russian foreign and economic policy in Asia-Pacific region. According to a comprehensive policy comparison among major Japanese political parties, the last election was competed over following twelve policy priorities:[1]



Photo: Goo News


1.     Constitutional amendment

The LDP claimed that Japan should amend its pacifist constitution to establish an integrated defense army; procedurally, the current rigid requirement of constitutional amendment (2/3 super majority at both upper and lower congress) should be eased to simple majority of ½.


2.     Economic revitalization

How to get out of the two-decade recession and economic decline; the LDP insisted a growth-led strategy of controversial Абеномика that jointly utilizes inflation targeting, quantitative easing, and dynamic investment promotion.


3.     Energy security

All parties agreed that Japan should further invest in renewable energy resources; while the LDP did not clearly articulate how to deal with the Fukushima issue.


4.     Agricultural policy

The LDP firmly stated that the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement is beneficial to Japanese agricultural sector, while other parties were reluctant to accept Japanese participation in the trade regime.


5.     Post-nuclear disaster management

There was practically no difference among policies of all political parties; uncertainty remains and no clear roadmap to clean up the mess was outlined, although some proposal was made to strengthen national and regional disaster response systems.


6.     Foreign relations and national security

All parties including the LDP did not specify the prime threat to Japanese national security, but interestingly, they altogether called for a mightier marine patrol system and further cooperation with the U.S. Practically, this indicates their preoccupation with growing Chinese maritime presence in the Asia-Pacific region.


7.     Social security and elderly welfare

Similar proposals were made to enhance the quality of life of Japanese senior citizens, however, no drastic policy change was proposed amid Japan’s apparent demographic crisis.


8.     Tax regimes

The LDP’s chief proposal was to raise the VAT from 5% to 8% “sometime soon” and eventually to 10%, while simultaneously cutting corporate taxes to foster investments. Other parties capitalized more on the development of income redistribution mechanisms that would provide a better safety net for lower income households.


9.     Education

The LDP proposed a controversial policy of “territorial education” which aims to enhance awareness and knowledge of Japanese history, culture, geography, and territorial integrity among school children.


10.  Child welfare

Concrete proposals to tackle the issue of “childless society” were almost nonexistent; instead, some quantitative measures to enlarge kindergartens and nursing facilities were discussed by major parties without any major policy disagreement. 


11.  Regional decentralization

Major parties (including the LDP as one of the strongest supporter) articulated the necessity of the 道州制 (Doshusei: state system) which aims to reintegrate the current 47 provinces into American style state system to foster regional policy coherence and integration.


12.  Political and administrative reforms

Some minor electoral reform plans were outlined to enhance equity and equality of each vote. Along with the proposal of state system, drastic reformation of electoral districts was also proposed by major parties.




        First and foremost, manifestos (policy proposal briefs) at the last election can be seen as a fairly good indicator of how each political party selects, frames, analyzes, and offers solution to their policy agendas. However, there was a disturbing fact: the LDP seemed to just “forget” about Russia in articulating their policy portfolio. Out of its 22-page manifesto, America/ U.S.-Japan relations were mentioned 8 times while we could not find any sentence or even any phrase written about Russia[2] (for comparison, the losing opponent Democratic Party of Japan mentioned Russia or Russia-Japan relations twice out of its 13-page manifesto whereas America/ U.S.-Japan relations were mentioned 6 times).[3] As Russia-Japan relations are currently undergoing a process of revitalization and reshaping, the LDP manifesto might have reflected this transitional interest, although Russia-Japan relations are one of the most crucial agendas in Japanese foreign policymaking.[4]


        In a previous article “Who Makes What in Japan –An Insight of Japanese Policymaking System,” I have written how the Japanese policymaking system works, concluding that even the LDP’s supermajority both at the upper and lower congress does not guarantee a smooth and swift policymaking process, let alone the realization of LDP’s final foreign policy objectives. That said, the last election certainly shifted power balance in Japanese politics and Russia should carefully watch the course of LDP’s reemergence. In my view, at least seven out of the twelve priority agendas (constitutional amendment; economic revitalization; energy security; post-nuclear disaster management; foreign relations and national security; social security and elderly welfare; and education) are directly related to Russian foreign and economic interests. On the one hand, none of these agendas alone is detrimental enough to require immediate response and drastic adjustment from Russian side; on the other hand, it is rather combinations of these concurrent developments that may result in widening window of opportunity, or vulnerability, for Russia. I analyze that there are at least, but not only, two salient political consequence of the last election from a perspective of Russian interest.



1.     Pivotal triangle of U.S.-China-Japan relations (constitutional amendment; Foreign relations and national security)


        Today’s U.S.-Japan relations cannot be portrayed without seeing China on its horizon. Many claim that Prime Minister Abe’s ambition to amend Japanese constitution comes from his nationalistic perspective and personal history; born into an environment where many of family members and relatives were former prime ministers, foreign ministers, and congressmen, his personal attachment to Japanese nation is understandable. Yet, a larger agenda behind the proposal of constitutional amendment, along with his determination to enhance the effectiveness of Japanese naval capabilities, aims to deter ever-growing Chinese ambition in the region. Russia should not misinterpret the intention of new Japanese military practices; rather, she can play a vital role as mediator to stabilize the regional political and military dynamics.


        It is undoubted fact that U.S.-Japan alliance sheds a shade over Russia-Japan relations, especially since the "reset of the reset" has been happening in the U.S.-Russia relations recently over the Snowden issue. Yet, an important factor that we should not dismiss is that, Japan is critically dependent on the U.S. as much as U.S. is dependent on Japan (or at least on Japanese territory's strategic geopolitical position) to portray its overall Asia-Pacific strategy. This interdependence is enduring factor that hinders a better development of Russia-Japan relations; and no substantial change can be expected to be happening any time soon. Although U.S. and Japan do not hold any NATO-like security organization, Japanese defense system is highly integrated into that of the U.S. and it would take decades to initiate any institutional change. Some say that, with its highly advanced military equipment and military facilities, Japan has capability to defend herself and deter regional any threat. According to various figures and statistics, it seems true that the Japanese Defense Force (JDF) has one of the supreme military capabilities among other national forces; yet, the JDF is primarily designed to act against in-land invasion and coastal conflict. Anything goes beyond this realm is assumed to be American responsibility, at least according to various security cooperation regimes established between the U.S. and Japan. Due to this highly institutionalized regime, Japanese dependency on the U.S. is highly unlikely to be diminished unless American side aims to do so.


        But since China has gaining more and more power in recent years, and with its assertiveness ever-growing, I believe that there will be a casting point when the U.S. will begin reconsidering a possibility of Russia as a strategic regional partner. With American influence relatively declining and the U.S. troops dragged into world conflicts from the Middle East to Afghanistan, it is not American interest to confront "Russia-China vector" in the Asia-Pacific region, even with a solid U.S.-Japan alliance. Therefore, new Japanese security and defense policies should not be seen as a simple reflection of Abe’s nationalistic desire but rather as a consequence of asymmetrically deepening U.S.-Japan relations to counter Chinese influence. Recalling that the U.S. has long been putting tremendous (sometimes too much) pressure on the world’s second super power, the day may come when Russia will be called for security cooperation to balance the regional power distribution.



Photo: The Voice of Russia



2.     Population dynamics and silver democracy (energy security; post-nuclear disaster management; social security and elderly welfare; education)


        Japan is by any definition the most rapidly developing aging society in the world with its elderly population (age beyond 65 years old) is expected to reach around 30% of the entire population until 2020 (already 12.2% in 2012).[5] At glance, this dynamic trend does not seem to bring any threat or opportunity to Russia; however, I argue that this is one of the most crucial factors directly related to Russian interests. It is empirically proven fact that elderly people tend to go for voting more often than working population. Furthermore, they are usually more savvy on political agendas, due to their more frequent exposure to medias (such as lunchtime TV reports that no worker or student likely to watch daily) and have more vested interests in electoral results that may determine welfare and pension policies. When their population size is not significant, they are less likely to be a casting point at elections. But when their population is large enough, the elderly begin to possess disproportionate influence over electoral results. This disproportionately augmented political influence is one of the “failures of democracy,” termed as “silver democracy”[6] where any policy that goes against the elderly interests would bring fatal defeat to political parties that propose such plans.


        The symptom of silver democracy is clearly evident in Japan; after comparing the manifestos of major parties, no significant difference can be observed, since any degradation to the current welfare regimes (that is criticized to be too unsustainable) or any plan of drastic reform would be political suicide. Nuclear management, as well as energy security, also augments their significance to this point, because elderly citizens generally prefer stability, familiarity, and predictability. After encountering a series of strong oppositions and grave manifestations, the LDP could not choose to take a strong stance against nuclear power generation since it might bring uncertainty and unpredictability for daily lives of the elderly. For major Japanese political parties, it also might be difficult to call for a more friendly relation with Russia since most of the elderly Japanese citizens were brought up in an environment of the Cold War and still tend to believe that Moscow is “Soviet imperial capital.” Since it is more common to own private house in Japan, I have seen some houses of the elderly still have world map bought decades ago with Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian territory clearly named as the USSR (with the symbolic red star flag on top of it).


        The longstanding territorial dispute also can be analyzed from the perspective of population dynamics. In my view, the LDP proposal of “territorial education” which aims to enhance awareness and knowledge of Japanese history, culture, geography, and territorial integrity among school children did not only aim to present a strong national unity but also intended to make a firm appeal for the elderly that the new Japanese government is determined to defend the traditional interests of Japan. That said, as of any threat, the population dynamics can also create tremendous advocacy opportunities for Russia. For example, energy security can be framed in a way to greater stability and predictability besides its evident contribution to further economic development. The influential elderly population is more interested in security and stability rather than high growth, which in exchange might bring minor or even major economic distress.  


Photo: GE Reports




        As I have scrutinized several political consequences of the last Japanese election, I conclude that Russia should incorporate these foreign and domestic dynamics of Japanese politics into its policy formula in the greater Asia-Pacific region. As I have argued, there are no good policy or bad policy (although there can be success and failure as a result of policy implementation). Even the increasingly nationalistic stance of Japanese government can serve for Russian foreign and economic policy interests when wisely framed and utilized. In a forthcoming article, I will further elaborate on economic consequences of the last Japanese election building on this political analysis.


[1] Seijiyama Manifesto Comparison Chart of The Upper Congress Election 2013, Accessed on

[2] 2013年衆議院選挙自由民主党マニフェスト(The Manifesto of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan 2013), Accessed on

[3] 2013年衆議院選挙民主党マニフェスト(The Manifesto of the Democratic Party of Japan 2013), Accessed on

[4] For example, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and its Diplomatic Bluebook 2013 (Japanese equivalent of Russian Foreign Policy Concept that is updated annually) frequently refer to Russia or Russia-Japan relations as one of prime foreign policy agendas, whereas Russia was completely absent from the LDP’s new manifesto in 2013. See Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan Diplomatic Bluepapar 2013, accessed on

[5] Government of Japan Cabinet Office, 2013 高齢社会白書 (2013 Aging Society White Paper), Accessed on

[6] Alexandra Harney, Japan’s Silver Democracy –The Costs of Letting the Elderly Rule Politics, Foreign Affairs 18 July 2013, Accessed on


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