Local Election Roundup: Strong Showing for Ruling Parties amid Weak Turnout


On Sunday, April 12, ballots were counted in the first wave of this year’s “unified local elections,” a nationwide set including 10 gubernatorial contests. (The second wave is scheduled for April 26.) Yesterday’s voting also selected mayors for five major cities, city assemblies for 17 cities, and prefectural assembly members for 41 of Japan’s 47 prefectures.

Low Voter Turnout, Ruling Coalition Wins

Two gubernatorial elections, those for Hokkaidō and Ōita Prefectures, were closely watched as contests pitting candidates supported, respectively, by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and opposition Democratic Party of Japan against each other. In both of these contests, the LDP-supported candidates won handily. Indeed, all 10 of the gubernatorial contests saw candidates backed by the LDP and its coalition partner Kōmeitō come out on top. In one of the few bright spots for the opposition parties, the Sapporo mayoral election—which featured five first-time candidates on the slate—saw Akimoto Katsuhiro, a former deputy mayor backed by the DPJ, Japan Restoration Party, and other opposition groups, win the office.

Other keenly watched elections were those for the Osaka prefectural assembly and Osaka city assembly. In May Osaka will hold a public referendum on the question of whether to turn Osaka into a metropolitan district like Tokyo, doing away with the two-layered municipal/prefectural government in the city of Osaka. The Osaka Restoration Association, which favors this change, maintained its position as the top party in both the prefectural and city assemblies, but was unable to gain a majority of seats in the prefectural body, its target for the election. The DPJ, meanwhile, saw all 11 of the candidates it fielded in the municipal election go down in defeat—a result underscoring the party’s lingering inability to regain the vigor it once had on the national stage.

Voter turnout rates were low across the nation. In prefectures including Kanagawa, Fukui, Tokushima, and Fukuoka, where the LDP and DPJ effectively backed the same incumbents, fewer than 50% of voters went to the polls in the gubernatorial contests. Many of the prefectural assembly contests throughout Japan also marked all-time lows for voter turnout, with the lowest figure, 37.01%, coming in Chiba Prefecture.

A Strong Showing for Former Bureaucrats

Fully 9 of the 10 governors selected in this round of elections have previously served in bureaucratic posts in the ministries and agencies of the central government. The lone exception, Kanagawa Prefecture’s incumbent governor Kuroiwa Yūji, was originally a TV newscaster before entering politics.

As of this weekend’s election, 29 of Japan’s 47 prefectural governors—more than 60%—are former mandarins. These include some who were sidetracked after leaving the bureaucracy, such as Hiroshima Prefecture’s Yuzaki Hidehiko, who left what is now the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry to join a Silicon Valley venture capital outfit and later to launch his own venture business before turning to politics. But for the main part these governors made the jump directly from bureaucracy to political office.

Many of these winning politicians were recruited by the LDP or the ruling coalition to leave their senior positions in Kasumigaseki, the seat of the central bureaucracy, and run for office in their home regions. Their previous careers allowed these candidates to stress the strong connections they maintained with the powers that be in Tokyo.

Of the 29 former mandarins now occupying governors’ offices, 14 hail from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC; previously the Ministry of Home Affairs). This near majority is followed by the eight from METI (previously the Ministry of International Trade and Industry), three from the Ministry of Finance, two from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, and one each from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (or the former Ministry of Transport) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The two longest-serving governors in Japan, Hashimoto Masaru of Ibaraki and Tanimoto Masanori of Ishikawa, both won their sixth terms in office as former Ministry of Home Affairs officials.

Hokkaidō’s First Four-Term Governor

Takahashi Harumi, reelected as governor of Hokkaidō on the back of support from the LDP and associated forces, became the first governor of Japan’s northernmost prefecture to secure a fourth term in office. She defeated Satō Noriyuki, a newscaster supported by the DPJ who ran on a platform of removing nuclear power from the northern island’s energy mix.

Hokkaidō’s capital of Sapporo, though, produced an election outcome at odds with the prefectural mood in choosing Akimoto Katsuhiro over his opponent, Honma Nana—a former MIC bureaucrat backed by the LDP—and maintaining the pro-DPJ makeup of the city government. Akimoto secured the support of several conservative leaders of the local business community to construct his win.

Hirose Katsusada, backed by the LDP and Kōmeitō, defeated Kugimiya Ban, a former mayor of the city of Ōita, in what was effectively a two-horse race. Kugimiya enjoyed DPJ support, and this was expected to be a close contest, but in the end Hirose garnered roughly double the votes of his opponent to win reelection.

(Originally written in Japanese on April 13, 2015. Banner photo: Takahashi Harumi receives a bouquet from campaign staff after winning her fourth term as governor of Hokkaidō on the evening of April 12. © Jiji.)

politics election mayor governor Hokkaidō bureaucracy Oita