In a competitive democracy, it is common for an up-and-coming political party to be attacked by the party in power, out of fear of being supplanted, but also by the bulk of the opposition parties, concerned that they will be pushed aside into obscurity.
At this moment in Japanese politics, there is no doubt that the up-and-coming political party gaining the attention of rivals is Nippon Ishin. A recent poll showed that Ishin was the most supported opposition party, outstripping the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), currently the largest opposition in the Japanese Diet, by 1.8 percentage points.
Another poll back in June showed that 47 percent of respondents identified Ishin as the opposition party for which they had high expectations, while 29 percent said the same of the CDP. Also, a study from Sankei Shimbun found 44.9 percent of participants desired Ishin to become the largest opposition party.
The rising prospects of Ishin are a reflection of the growing number of Japanese voters who perceive them as an alternative to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a mantle that opposition parties have failed to carry since the collapse of the Democratic Party of Japan. However, although a significant portion of the public – who are disenchanted by the noncompetitive nature of Japanese politics – are beginning to invest themselves in Nippon Ishin, the party’s detractors remain vocal.
Especially from the leftist elements of the Japanese political spectrum, the criticisms aimed toward Nippon Ishin are fraught with intensely negative emotions. Koike Akira, who is the secretary general of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP), has described Ishin as a more dangerous party than the LDP. The JCP’s periodical, The Akahata, regularly criticizes Ishin at both the national and regional level, arguing that Ishin is pushing the LDP farther to the right at the national level while also accusing Ishin of ineptitude in governing the prefecture of Osaka.
Other left-wing parties and politicians have also followed the JCP’s suit in pointing out the “radical” nature of Nippon Ishin, insisting that it is worse than the LDP on every front. Former Prime Minister Kan Naoto, who is now chief advisor of the CDP, sponsored a study where he called out Ishin as “Japan’s most dangerous populist right-wing party” and argued that the party stands for “bullying the weak, disregarding the lives and livelihoods of the people, and violating peace and democracy.”
In addition to Kan, Oishi Akiko, a Diet member of Reiwa Shinsengumi, a progressive party that advocates for the abolition of the consumption tax and nuclear power plants, published her own literature to explain the wrongs of Nippon Ishin. In her book titled “Dislike of Ishin,” Oishi, who was a former public servant at the Osaka Prefectural office, implies that the confrontation she had with Hashimoto Toru, the founder of Nippon Ishin who was then the governor of Osaka, was the genesis of her running for office. Oishi described Ishin’s politics as “evil,” “deceptive,” and “dictatorial.”
Although the Japanese left claims that Nippon Ishin’s policy orientation is even more distant than the LDP’s, on the most contentious social issues Ishin aligns with their positions. For instance, as is the case for all leftist parties, Ishin is in favor of same-sex unions, supports married couples having separate surnames, and advocates a more liberal stance on detention policy for foreigners who violate the immigration act.
Moreover, although it is true that Nippon Ishin sometimes advocates for policies that are to the right of the consensus opinion of the LDP – such as nuclear sharing, which involves the introduction of U.S. nuclear weapons on Japanese soil to bolster deterrence – the public views Ishin as a liberal-leaning centrist party. Ohamazaki Takuma, the head of J.A.G. JAPAN Corp, a Japanese electoral consulting company, opined that, based on his firm’s research, more than 40 percent of Ishin voters perceived it as a “liberal” party, while 22.7 percent of the same voters answered that Ishin was a “conservative” one.
The gap between the Japanese left and the general populace over the perception of Nippon Ishin could be attributed to the diverging economic policy inclinations of each side. While the leftist parties and the LDP generally prefer more spending and an expansive role of government, Nippon Ishin is unique in the Japanese political context in that they openly call for the opposite.
Since its debut in national politics, Ishin has branded itself as a reformist-minded party particularly interested in downsizing the role of government under the banner of “reform that requires sacrifice” (身を切る改革). On the local stage, particularly in Osaka where the party dominates both the executive and legislative branches, Ishin has slashed public spending, privatized the municipal subway, and decreased the fixed number of elected officials.
Nationally, Ishin’s Diet members donate part of their salaries to the party for disaster relief, and highlight their motivation to endure “sacrifice” for the sake of the public good. As a campaign promise, Ishin has announced a significant effort to cut red tape using a “2-for-1 rule,” where they will revoke two regulations whenever a new one is proposed – an idea borrowed from the former Trump administration in the United States, which implemented the same policy.
The policies that Nippon Ishin has implemented and advocated both locally and nationally may be called neoliberal, which goes against the very principles that left-leaning parties stand for – more protection and an increase in welfare spending. This makes them inclined to use apocalyptic rhetoric to denounce Nippon Ishin, in spite of its being perceived as a “liberal” party by the people and standing for “liberal” policies.
However, in spite of the warning from the Japanese left, there are reasons why a broad swath of the public is drawn toward Ishin. Most of the public agrees that there is too much wasteful spending on the part of the government that balloons the deficit, a stance reflected in Ishin’s insistence that government bureaucracies cut costs. Also, on social issues, the public broadly has a liberal inclination, and on defense spending, they support the government’s plan to bolster it; both positions align with Nippon Ishin.
If the Japanese left wants to remain relevant in the political arena, there needs to be a change in tactics. The rise of Nippon Ishin clearly show that its caution doesn’t resonate with the public, and its insistence on using the same rhetoric regardless shows that it is not cognizant of its real influence in society. When it comes to Nippon Ishin, the Japanese left needs to take a hard look at the big question: Who is really farther from the center of public opinion?