Questioning the need to question the public

Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga was asked (jp) at a recent press conference whether, given the administration’s insistence on the sanctity of the principle of going to the public on big policy decisions, the election would also be about getting the public’s verdict on collective self-defense changes implied by the July 1 cabinet declaration. Suga responded that as constitutional revision is in the LDP’s manifesto, then it was not necessary for them to get the public’s opinion on collective self-defense specifically, and implied that it was not as important a decision/significant policy change as Abe delaying a tax increase.

So, (controversially) changing the constitutional fabric of the nation without even a parliamentary vote is not a big decision, but putting off a tax increase which everyone supports and where you already have the statutory power to do so, is?

When reporters pushed back by pointing out to Suga that the secrets law was not written in the manifesto, he retorted “there is no need to go to the public on every issue…only for important changes.”

So, despite arguing for the last two years that both collective self-defense and the secrets law were essential for Japan’s national security, now they are suddenly not very important decisions?

This line of questioning came from Abe’s 18th November criticism of the DPJ for pursuing a consumption tax hike that was not indicated in its 2009 and 2010 election manifestos (although, it was certainly in the LDP’s manifesto!).

Criticism also came (jp) from the (quite far) right of the spectrum as well, with Next Generation sec-gen Yamada Hiroshi (likely exasperated that his party’s continued existence is doubtful) arguing that there was no need to dissolve the house, and that while a tax increase would justify going to the people, he’d never heard of a case where someone would go to the people for a tax reduction or to not implement a tax increase. Other opposition leaders have also raised the small technical problem of the fact that both the public and all the opposition parties support not increasing the consumption tax at this point, so it was not, philosophically speaking, possible for it to become an election issue of contention and the focal point of legitimation. Thus it was clear to everyone that the LDP was only acting on the basis of self-serving party and partisan interests. Two terms you are likely to hear a lot from the opposition  over the next three weeks in this vein are 党利党略 (privileging party interests) and 自己中解散 (self-centered dissolution).


Big Drop in Support for Abe, Still Considering an Early Election?

Two recent surveys have indicated quite bad news for the Abe cabinet. Particularly so, because the polls overlapped with recognition in the Japanese media that Abe had managed to score a meeting with Xi Jinping at APEC.

First, NHK (n=963; CI=3.2%) showed (日) a drop of 8 percentage points from 52 to 44 percent in Abe’s support rate, with an increase of 4 percentage points in disapproval to 38 percent. This was at the lowest level the NHK had recorded for Abe 2.0. Interestingly, the public is less convinced not only with the implementation and results of Abenomics, but are also becoming sceptical of the policy program itself. 47 percent evaluated Abe’s economic policies positively to at least some degree, while 48 percent were unconvinced to a lesser or greater degree. Only 10 percent said that they could feel a recovery, while 54 percent said they could not, and 33 percent were not sure either way. 77 percent said that to at least some degree they felt that food prices had become a greater burden, while 19 percent said otherwise. With the consumption tax, 20 percent indicated it should go ahead as planned, 41 percent said implementation should be delayed, and 33 percent were simply opposed to an increase.

The Asahi Shimbun (n=1898; CI= 2.2%) also recorded (日) a drop of 7 percentage points compared to its survey taken only two weeks before hand. It’s current level of 42 percent is precisely the same as the level just immediately prior to the cabinet reshuffle in September. Abe’s disapproval was up 6 points to 36 percent, one point higher than September. The LDP also dropped 4 percentage points in support to 33 percent, although this support did not go to any of the other parties. 48 percent now say that they do not support any political party.

The Asahi asked respondents whether they felt their livelihood had improved because of Abe’s economic policies; 4 percent said it had improved, 28 percent said it had gotten worse, and 66 percent said it had not changed. In regards to the consumption tax increase, the Asahi’s question were more straightforward, with 67 percent being opposed and 24 percent in favour. It was 71 percent and 22 percent respectively two weeks prior. There was strong sentiment that a tax rise to 10 percent would be very bad for the public – 84 percent said that they felt concerned that the rise would have a negative impact upon the economy (27 percent saying a significant negative impact), while 13 percent said they did not feel so.

Respondents were also asked about the previous consumption tax increase to 8 percent in April – 70 percent said that to at least some degree they had felt its impact, while 29 percent said otherwise.

The Asahi also ran with the question about the likelihood of respondents continuing to support/not support Abe’s cabinet. There was little change compared to the September poll, with 17 percent of the public appearing to be hardcore Abe supporters, 53 percent being potential Abe supporters, and 22 percent vowing to never support Abe.

For the 42% who support the Abe Cabinet:

I will support the Abe Cabinet from now on

42% (17% of total respondents)

My support for the Abe Cabinet is not guaranteed

55% (23% of total respondents)

For the 36% who do not support the Abe Cabinet:

I will not support the Abe Cabinet from now on

59% (22% of total respondents)

It is possible that I will support the Abe Cabinet 

35% (13% of total respondents)

Despite this, there is still quite vigorous discussion about Abe possibly calling a snap election, to take place before the year is out, especially if he decides to delay the consumption tax rise to 10 percent. This might seem extremely unusual given his now plummeting support rate and the fact that the public does not want to see an election.* It would be seen as a very cynical ploy and there would be questions about exactly what it is Abe would be campaigning on. Future consumption tax rises, turning on nuclear power plants, and a still yet unclear record on improving the economy (at least from the average voter’s point of view)?

The problem is, none of that may matter. As noted above, effectively 2/3rds of the electorate that does not support the LDP do not support any of the other political parties, with the DPJ still hovering around 6 percent support. Furthermore, voters may not have actual real choice to vote against the LDP anyway. While the LDP now has only 5 seats to fill for its 286 Single Members Districts (SMDs), with Komeito being effectively handed 9 SMDs without LDP competition (total 295 SMD seats), recent reports put the DPJ at less than half of those SMDs having official candidates. Hashimoto’s and Eda Kenji’s party (Ishin no Tō) also have only around 50 candidates at last count and are aiming for around 70 to 80. While Kaieda Banri might be talking tough (日) by daring Abe to call a snap election, if it was called this year then there may be a very large number of SMDs where the most prominent LDP alternative would be the Japan Communist Party.

* In the aforementioned NHK survey 15 percent said they wanted to see an election soon, 26 percent said they thought it should be put off for a while, while 50 percent preferred an election when the current House of Representatives term ends in December 2016.

Back to Square One for Abe?

The last set of posts reported on Abe arresting his declining cabinet support rate, and then reversing the trend after the cabinet reshuffle. A series of “scandals” involving these new cabinet members and financial and electoral improprieties has greatly undermined the working of the new cabinet, and Abe appears to be back where he was in July after the first round of post-CSD declaration polls came in.

Approval: Abe’s Popularity Declines

On the approval side of matters, the change has not been so severe. The polls from TV networks show a 4.8 percent average drop (Figure 1), with the traditional media showing a 6.1 percent drop, for an overall drop of 5.5 percent (Figure 3). For the latter result, however, we see the Nikkei and Yomiuri seeing rather larger drops compared to their rapid reaction polls taken immediately after the cabinet reshuffle (Figure 2). A lesson to be learned there for these two pro-LDP papers, perhaps, as the changes coming from these two polls has magnified  Abe’s drop in approval.* Or it may well suggest that Abe’s increase in approval after the reshuffle was not really as high as initially estimated. Figure 4 shows that the drop in this month overall was as high as the drop that we saw after the Collective Self-Defense decision in July. Whether this is due to the cabinet failings, due to increasing frustration with the lack of progress on various reform measures, or due to the perhaps artificially high post-cabinet reshuffle numbers is another question (Click on figures to see full size).

Figure 1: Cabinet Approval Rates from TV Networks (April to October)

Figure 1: Cabinet Approval Rates from TV Networks (April to October)

Figure 2: Cabinet Approval Rates Traditional Media (April to October)

Figure 2: Cabinet Approval Rates Traditional Media (April to October)

Figure 3: Average Approval Rates of all polls

Figure 3: Average Approval Rates of all polls

Figure 4: Average Change in Approval

Figure 4: Average Change in Approval

Disapproval: Consistent Increases in almost all Polls

On the disapproval side, then there have been perhaps more worrying changes for Abe. Abe’s approval ratings have been bouncing around for a while now as voters appear ambivalent about his policy program. Disapproval seemed to move a little bit less dramatically, however. The last month saw reasonably significant upward movement in Abe’s disapproval after two months of improvement. Last month’s increase in disapproval was more than double the increase in disapproval after the CSD cabinet declaration in July (Figure 8). In this case, the upward trend in disapproval was more or less equally shared among the surveys, although a lack of movement from the Jiji and Asahi polls made this result less bad for Abe (Figure 6).

Figure 5: Cabinet Disapproval TV Networks

Figure 5: Cabinet Disapproval TV Networks

Figure 6: Cabinet Disapproval Traditional Media

Figure 6: Cabinet Disapproval Traditional Media

Figure 7: Cabinet Disapproval Average

Figure 7: Cabinet Disapproval Average

Figure 8: Average Change in Disapproval

Figure 8: Average Change in Disapproval

Abe’s Buffer: Net Support

Nonetheless, Abe has for close to two years managed to maintain a positive net support rate (Figure 9). While the last month was almost as bad as the decrease in his buffer in July (Figure 10), the lack of an effective opposition continues to ensure that he sits in the comfortable position (for a Japanese prime minister) of being more popular than unpopular.

Figure 9: Net Support (Approval subtract Disapproval)

Figure 9: Net Support (Approval subtract Disapproval)

Figure 10: Change over Time of Net Support

Figure 10: Change over Time of Net Support

Election Watch

Nevertheless, with much to do and the government suffering setbacks and the opposition going after the LDP in parliament, Abe has probably missed his chance to call a snap election this year under this cabinet, if this was ever really seriously on the cards at all. He would look like he was running scared and with few real achievements to call upon in campaigning. The LDP would still win, but would unlikely improve its position. If Abe’s reshuffle had seen two to three months of stability and a policy success or two, then a snap election, leading into early December, could have been a possibility. With budget season coming up, Abe and his cabinet tied up in parliamentary proceedings other than policy, it is unlikely that an early election will take place before August next year.

An ideal time for the LDP could be the unified local elections next year after the budget has been passed, something that will be less onerous for the LDP than it was during the DPJ years. However, Komeito is extremely unlikely to support this due to wanting to maximize their organizational resources during two separate campaigns rather than a local and a national one at the same time. After April, the LDP is likely to go into top gear to try and get legislation approved to make good on the commitments made in the US-Japan Revised Defense Guidelines, and any other enabling legislation deriving from the policy commitments noted in the July 1 cabinet declaration on Japan’s seamless defense that the LDP might be confident of getting through. Abe is likely to want to get through what he thinks he can get through reasonably uncontroversially, and then attack more controversial legislation perhaps after an election with a renewed mandate. This could be after the full term has been served, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if a snap election was called in August next year just before Abe goes up for reelection for the LDP leadership, if he is in any condition to contest one or the other of these elections. If Abe is strong, a national election before the LDP election would put him in a strong position to force through a change in LDP rules at some point to allow a third term as president, which would be required for him to serve out the full four years of a new House of Representatives term  and avoid a mandatory change in LDP leader less than one year out from an election (and also allow Abe to just make it all the way to the Olympics if successful again in 2019). If Abe’s position at the time makes him vulnerable to a challenge, this would change the calculus again, however – an election is likely to take place after the LDP election in such a case.

But the way things have been going lately, and with Abe losing his aura of invincibility, these long-term scenarios look much more doubtful than they did even two months ago. And this will make it all the more difficult for him to tackle the already tough issues of nuclear power plant restarts, the consumption tax rise, and making concessions on the TPP.

* The Yomiuri in its polling after the cabinet reshuffle pushed respondents a little bit harder to come down on the side of either approval or disapproval than some of the other survey organizations.

Striking while the Iron is (Very) Hot

In the very quickly put together post-Cabinet reshuffle surveys, both the Nikkei and Yomiuri (日) Shimbun have found 10 percent plus increases in support for Abe. Much of this appears to have to do with the appointment of five women in the cabinet roughly in line with Abe’s goal of having 30 percent of executive positions being occupied by women by 2020, and Abe leaving in place senior politicians such as Aso (consumption tax), Amari (TPP), Suga (everything) and Kishida (diplomacy, getting an APEC date with Xi) with jobs to do in the upcoming 13 months until the 2015 September LDP election.

Kyodo found slightly less dramatic results, but still recorded an increase (日) from 49.8% to 54.9% in cabinet support, and a healthier reduction in disapproval (日) of 10 percent. Mainichi bucked (日) the trend and recorded no change in support rate (47%) and a not particularly significant 2% decrease in disapproval.

Nevertheless, with the Yomiuri finding 64 percent support, and the Nikkei finding 60 percent support for the Cabinet, and 46% and 44% support for the LDP respectively, this will not put the rumours of a snap election to rest. Two surveys taken just prior to the cabinet reshuffle suggest, after all, that both Abe and the LDP will likely never look so good.

When survey organizations in Japan inquire into cabinet support, the follow-up question is usually about why the public supports (or does not) the cabinet. Party support is usually left as it is – a problem when more than 50% of the electorate across surveys is generally undecided about the party that they support. This can give general insights into whether it is policy, party, or personality that is driving up or down support, but is otherwise unhelpful. The Nikkei and the Asahi Shimbun decided to do things a little differently in August. I hope they continue. The Nikkei followed up the usual question on party support by asking the 61 percent of unaffiliated voters who they leaned towards in terms of preferences. Here are the results:

Currently, which political party do you support? (N=1039)

Party support


For those who don’t support a party or can’t say/don’t know, if you had to choose one party that you feel some affinity for, please indicate below (n=633)

Party Affinity

Total of party supported/affinity (n=1039)

Combined Affinity Support for Party

With the exception of the 2005 postal reform snap election, the 37 percent is not too far from what the LDP has usually achieved in the proportional representation vote component at election time over the last decade, whether it has done well or not in terms of receiving parliamentary seats. For the LDP to score in the mid-40s in line with the Nikkei and Yomiuri polls is an aberration in many ways if truly indicative. More importantly, there is practically no support, explicit or implicit, for any of the opposition parties. The DPJ seems close to dead as a political brand. They have only identified 131 candidates for the next election to stand in the 295 single member districts. The Unity Party and the JRP still have not settled on a way to work with each other, let alone proceeded on to figuring out an accommodation with the DPJ for contesting the single member districts; settling on an anti-LDP candidate for each of the single member districts is the fundamental priority for the opposition if it wishes to contest an election with the LDP, even an unpopular one, in any meaningful way.

The Asahi just a week before the cabinet change inquired into support for the cabinet. They found only 42% support (n=1581). They went further and essentially asked respondents whether they would be likely to shift their views on supporting/not supporting the cabinet.

For the 42% who support the Abe Cabinet:

I will support the Abe Cabinet from now on

42% (18% of total respondents)

My support for the Abe Cabinet is not guaranteed

52% (22% of total respondents)

For the 35% who do not support the Abe Cabinet:

I will not support the Abe Cabinet from now on

60% (21% of total respondents)

It is possible that I will support the Abe Cabinet 

34% (12% of total respondents)

This would suggest that while 52 percent of respondents either support Abe or would be willing to support him, only 18 percent of the electorate are “hard core” Abe supporters.

If we factor in that on average the Asahi usually finds around 5% less support for the LDP government than other surveys (without passing judgement on which is the “true” figure), then, all other things being equal and normal, a support rate of 55 percent plus should be seen as the maximal, high watermark support rate for Abe at this point in time.

If they are going to go for a snap election, they may as well do it now – notwithstanding it’d probably be seen as too clever by half.

Abe Arrests Deteriorating Support Rate: Still Has Promises to Keep

Please see my introduction to this series. Very Brief “Methodology” Note Here

Find below a brief run down of cabinet support rate data tracked since April 2014 (when the first increment of the consumption tax rise was implemented). Where necessary for the sake of readability, I have split the data from individual polls into two categories – data coming from television organizations in Japan, and those coming from “traditional” print media organizations.

As we can see from the charts below, both television and print organizations recorded an overall downward trend in cabinet approval over the last 5 months, with significant drops from May until and including July being discernible.

Television Organizations – Cabinet Approval



 Print Media Organizations – Cabinet Support



 Combined Average Support



Cabinet approval appears to have stabilized or increased between July and August, however. The exact cause of this is hard to discern as no particular issue or event stood out during August. Perhaps the perception of “safe-driving” after Abe de-emphasized the urgency of security changes subsequent to reading the July polls has been a factor.

The overall average trend, nevertheless, reveals an average drop off in cabinet support of six percentage points from 54 percent to 48 percent during the April-August period.

Of interest is that that in July, after the “collective self-defense” cabinet decision, we saw an average of a 5.15 percentage points drop in cabinet support across all polls in a single month, with that month seeing net support for the cabinet drop by 11.14 percentage points across all polls. The average net support (approval minus disapproval) is tracked by month below. We find a general deterioration in the Abe administration’s “support buffer” from April onwards, with the July results suggesting that it might only be a matter of time until disapproval outweighed approval for Abe Cabinet 2.0. August however, was a relatively good month with all but two polls showing an increase in support and net support, and a stabilising of disapproval (also below). Critical to the Abe administration, particularly after the today’s reveal of Abe Cabinet 2.1, will be whether this August trend can be sustained, or at least net approval maintained at around the current rate. Given the perilous state of the opposition, maintaining the current levels of support will deliver to Abe and the LDP victory in any election, thus ensuring Abe remains safe in his role as LDP president. This could be even more important if the long-standing rumours of a snap election in the coming months come true (see Shisaku here for the most recent incarnation).

Combined Net Support

Combined Average Net Support

Combined Average Disapproval

Combined Average Disapproval August

The Perils of Making and Fulfilling Promises

There are still a number of variables than could collude to  upset or even unseat Abe, despite appearing to have arrested the slow decline of his premiership. Abe and his cabinet have been masterful at putting off these issues and thus not antagonizing the public or important stakeholders and constituencies too much over the last 1.75 years.

There are the issues connected to the nuclear power plant restarts, especially with the Fukushima gubernatorial election coming up. Without the restarts, Abe’s goals of stimulating the economy and/or sustaining the (still unconvincing) initial gains from Abenomics will remain subject to the ever present drag of higher cost energy imports, irrespective of what happens with the promised “third arrow” reforms that are supposed to be forthcoming. Okinawa and Futenma relocation facility tensions loom on the horizon.

The decision over the promised, but very unpopular rise in the consumption tax from 8% to 10% will also need to be negotiated (possibly in the ostensible form of making concessions to Komeito taking the tax off necessities and fresh foods – a bureaucrat’s dream come true of little policy sense).

Abe has also raised the stakes around the Sino-Japanese relationship. Can Abe, by foregoing a Yasukuni visit in August, convince Xi Jinping to meet with him at APEC in November? Is Xi waiting to see what Abe’s domestic position is like around November before deciding one way or another? There would, after all, be no point in meeting with Abe if it looks like the PRC can wait him out. Also important to factor in is that Xi not meeting with Abe could, or I would argue is likely to, precipitate another visit to the Yasukuni shrine in December, with unpredictable political consequences for most, except for the CCP and Xi who will look wise and not unreasonable.


The new year will then bring a final agreement on the re-revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines. This will require the Abe government to implement the promises made to the United States as well as fulfil the expectations raised by the July 1 Cabinet decision. This could still be a fraught process (see forthcoming CPI article. Up now).

The new year will likely also bring the TPP back onto the agenda – if Obama somehow manages to acquire “fast-track” authority from Congress, then it is likely a final deal will be done. The implementation will require another promise to be fulfilled to the US (the credibility of the pivot will be greatly enhanced or undermined by having Japan sign off or not on a TPP agreement, even a “compromised” one) as well as to Abe’s most vigorous domestic backers in the form of the Keidanren and corporate Japan.

Throw in Abe’s most long-standing promise – yes, the one that basically launched his career – to bring home or establish the whereabouts of the remaining DPRK abductees. Success of any substantive kind could be a massive coup for Abe, and may even bolster the Abe administration even if the economy worsens or governing becomes distinctly more difficult as described above. Of course, just writing the words “North Korea” and “Kim Jong-un“, and “strained DPRK-PRC relationship”, should be enough to demonstrate why this is a pretty dubious expectation to rely on for Abe to demonstrate leadership and independent diplomatic strength.

So far the Abe administration has been generally masterful in avoiding the big decisions and not alienating itself too much from its supporters and public sentiment. The question is, how long will they be able to get away with this?


The Secret Life of a Kiwi PhD Candidate

I will be starting today what I will endeavor to make a monthly feature. Growing out of my PhD, I have been tracking a large amount of polling information over the last few years and further back into the past in regards to Japanese politics and foreign policy. If the data exists, I likely know about it, if not have already worked it into a chart of some sort.

While most of this information and the associated analysis will be kept under wraps for the time being, in an effort to blog at least once a month I will provide a run down of the latest cabinet support rate data from over 11 different survey organizations, and analysis of any other survey questions from the previous month that piqued my interest.

The quality of the analysis will likely be directly correlated with the amount of time I have, but if you have a better take on the data than I do, then please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments.

Very Brief Methodology Note: I am using polls only from organizations that take a nationwide probability sample, preferably using two-stage stratified random sampling methods. These polls generally derive 1000 participants from a population sample, although some organizations such as the Asahi often acquire a sample size of up to 2000. Assuming a minimum sample size of around 900-1000 participants, the confidence interval for these surveys is approximately 2.2 percent at a 95 percent confidence level, and 2.9 percent at a 99 percent confidence level.  Most of these survey organizations’ surveys have participation rates of around 50 percent, which in contemporary surveying is actually quite robust. That said, this does not mean all polls are created equal and I will over time point out those polls which yield results that deviate consistently from the median and average poll results.

Collective Self-Defense and Japan: Readings and Analysis

The big change to Japan’s post-war constitutional fabric announced on July 1 has unsurprisingly brought all sorts of analysts out of the woodwork determined to have their say.

For example, there is myself.

At the risk of deprecating others by putting them in the same category as myself, here are some other notable contributions:

Jeremy Yellen from Harvard

Adam Liff from Princeton-Harvard

Tobias Harris, formerly of MIT, now with Teneo Intelligence (paywalled)

Shelia Smith from CFR

James Schoff, former DoD official and now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

If there is a common theme between these articles it would be that there is still a lot of political water to go under the bridge before anything like the anticipated gains relating to deterrence can be realized, if that is your concern. It would also be remiss of me to not mention that the process undertaken to rework the government’s interpretation of the constitution was less than popular, and of questionable political legitimacy. Bryce Wakefield and Craig Martin provide the most forceful articulations of such a view.

I will also have an article up on East Asia Forum soon (up now here) which will work through the implications of the ‘legalization‘ of Japan’s unique version of collective self-defense assuming that the Abe administration achieves their stated objectives to the fullest extent.