The New Political Forces Emerging in Japan

Japan’s Independent Voters, Yesterday and Today


Japan’s independent voters have undergone remarkable growth and now amount to half the electorate. Because of a poor understanding of their interests, however, politicians and pundits find them hard to read. Waseda University Professor Tanaka Aiji explains where they came from and what issues they want parties to address.

The Rise of Japan’s Independent Voters

While the term mutōha-sō (unaffiliated voters) has been in use for quite some time, it was only in 1995 that it gained popular currency. Political scientists began their examination of it during the 1970s, at which time it was commonly called seitō shijinashi-sō (voters who support no party). Both these terms might be defined as “the segment of the electorate not committed to a political party.”

The term commonly used by researchers of voting behavior in the United States is independent voters. It was in the 1960s that this segment of the American electorate began to attract scholarly attention. Accounting for only some 6% of all voters before that, it started to swell suddenly in 1966 and moved above 20% early in the 1970s. The growth of the independents coincided with the spread of the student movement in the United States. By the middle of the 1970s some 35% of all American voters were describing themselves as independents. While there have been some minor upward and downward fluctuations since then, in general the independents account for roughly 35% of the electorate, the Democrats also have a share of about 35%, and the Republicans have a share of about 25%.

A similar trend occurred in Japan. Until the 1960s only some 6% of the electorate was not an adherent of any party, but in the 1970s, after the student movement spread widely and many young Japanese began looking at politics with a sense of nihilism, the share of independents surged past 20%. The growth continued at a slower pace thereafter, until it reached the 35% level at the start of the 1990s. At that point the independents in Japan and the United States were roughly the same in scale. But there the two countries parted ways. The number of Japanese voters saying they favored no particular party went right on climbing, making this a distinctive feature of the Japanese political scene.

In the following I will discuss the growth process in the segment of independent voters based on data from Yomiuri Shimbun opinion polls, which I analyzed with the cooperation of the Yomiuri Shimbun Public Opinion Poll Department. The newspaper’s surveys were initiated in 1948, but only in 1962 did they begin to ask voters if they were unaffiliated or supported no party. For this reason, I used the time span from 1962 to the June 2012 poll for a graph I prepared to trace the path of these independents along with supporters of the Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Japan, and other parties (figure 1). To facilitate visual comprehension of the growth of the independents, I made them the bottom stratum in the graph.

With our focus on the independents, the pattern in figure 1 can be described as follows. The first period of rapid growth in Japan’s independents took place from the end of the 1960s through the early 1970s, and the next surge got underway early in the 1990s. This portion of the electorate remained close to the 10% level until the mid-60s, but it rose to roughly the 20% level in 1970 and has remained at or above that range ever since. As a result of the growth during the 1970s, we may say that on top of the 10% of the voters who had traditionally been independents, a second layer of independents accounting for about 15% of the electorate was newly added. Their total numbers continued to increase slowly after that, reaching about 35% in the early 1990s. Then, in 1993, the Liberal Democratic Party split apart, and for the first time since its founding in 1955, it fell from power, giving way to the short-lived administration of Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro. At that point the ranks of the independents rapidly swelled, eventually reaching 50% in January 1995.

In order to examine the growth of the independent segment in somewhat greater detail, I also prepared a timeline chart of the shares of the supporters of the respective parties and of the independents (figure 2). The green curve depicts the share of voters committed to the LDP and the dark blue curve tracks the independents. The orange curve is the combined result for two parties, the Socialists (now called the Social Democratic Party) and the Communists (Japanese Communist Party). The light blue curve combines two centrist parties, the New Komeitō and the Democratic Socialist Party (now defunct). The violet curve shows the total support for the various new conservative parties, many of which have ceased to exist. They include the New Liberal Club, Japan New Party, New Party Sakigake, Japan Renewal Party, New Frontier Party, and, more recently, groups including the People’s New Party. The red line appearing in 1996 indicates support for the Democratic Party of Japan.

If you look closely at figure 2, you will see that during the 1960s and 1970s, the downtrends in the LDP curve coincide with uptrends in the curve for the Socialists and Communists. In and after 1993, however, the sharp drop in LDP supporters is mirrored by a substantial increase in the number of independents. In other words, the tension in the political arena had come to express itself in losses for the Liberal Democrats and gains in independent voters. Even before then the number of independents had been increasing each time the LDP stumbled, as in the period leading up to when Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei was brought down by money scandals in 1974 and when various prominent politicians were caught up in the Recruit scandal, which forced the resignation of Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru in 1989. Then the even larger spurt in the number of independents occurred around 1993, when political don Kanemaru Shin became ensnared in a corruption scandal and the LDP split apart. These were times when the public was upset with LDP administrations as a result of scandals and other problems. If we make a distinction between people who are simply not interested in politics and those who have no favorite party, we can argue that it was mainly this latter group that grew larger. Having lost faith in politics, numerous voters ceased to support any of the parties.

This tendency is still evident. When Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō overrode opposition from within his own party and pushed forcefully for his plan to privatize the postal services, the LDP managed to secure the return of numerous voters it had alienated and scored a smashing victory in the 2005 snap election for the House of Representatives. The size of the independent segment greatly decreased then, and it continued to drop until 2009, when the DPJ rode into power. Those were days of rising expectations for political parties. In short, what we can glean from figure 2 is that after Koizumi stepped down in September 2006, the tension between the LDP and independent voters shifted to a tense relationship between the DPJ and independents. Starting from around 2007, the decreasing size of the independent segment was a result of growth in support for the DPJ. But the tide turned when Hatoyama Yukio, the first DPJ prime minister, made a series of badly calculated moves, and the independent segment began to swell again in 2010 due to rising disenchantment among fans of the DPJ. This reversal gained momentum during the administration of Prime Minister Kan Naoto as a result of the confused and tardy response to the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami and the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

Three Types of Independent Voters

The growth in the segment of independent voters followed the pattern I have just discussed. It may be argued, however, that the dynamics of this growth varied over time. That is, it appears that while one voter type became independents during their first phase of rapid growth, which was in the early 1970s, a somewhat different voter type joined them starting from around 1993. This enables a threefold breakdown of the independent segment. Type 1 independents are citizens who are disinterested in politics, and their share of the electorate is about 15%. Because of their political apathy, they support no party. These people tend not to have much education and not to read about politics in newspapers or other media. Probably just about all of the independents in the 1960s were of this type. Type 2 independents are voters who have rejected parties. Despite being keenly interested in politics, they tend to be strongly disinclined to say they support any of the parties, preferring to cast their votes for the party they find most appealing in each election. They came on the scene in the 1970s and by the early 1990s accounted for about 20% of the electorate (20.7% in 1991). Type 3 independents are voters who have lost their partisan attachment. Renouncing their former party allegiance, they made their entrance around 1993 as a new group of independents and grew quickly to about 15% of the electorate (13.7% in 1995). In this way, the independent segment of the Japanese electorate can be divided into three types of independents who together amount to about 50% of the electorate.

Within this three-type classification, I use the term passive independents for type 1, since they do not become politically active because of their lack of interest in politics. By contrast, both the type 2 independents who have rejected parties and the type 3 independents who have left parties show a high degree of interest in political affairs, and this makes it reasonable to group them together in a single category I call active independents. If we further compare the voters who belong to parties with this twofold breakdown of the independent segment into passive and active parts, three patterns of political interest in the electorate come into clear view. (See the accompanying table.)

Three Patterns of Political Interest in the Electorate

 a. Party supportersb. Active independents
(Type 2 + Type 3)
c. Passive independents
(Type 1)
Share of electorate About 45% About 35% About 15%
International issues: The global perspective
Ethnic conflicts Interested Greatly interested Disinterested
Long-term economic performance Interested Greatly interested Disinterested
Competitiveness of Japan’s economy Interested Greatly interested Disinterested
Domestic issues: The Nagatachō perspective
LDP presidential elections Greatly interested Slightly interested Disinterested
Coalition governments Greatly interested Slightly interested Disinterested
Factional strategies Greatly interested Slightly interested Disinterested
Content of party platforms Greatly interested Slightly interested Disinterested
Community and quality of life issues: The postmaterialistic values perspective
Environmental issues Slightly interested Greatly interested Disinterested
Improvement of day-care centers Slightly interested Greatly interested Disinterested
Improvement of parks Slightly interested Greatly interested Disinterested

When we look at the electorate using the three patterns of political interest, distinguishing between (a) party supporters, (b) active independents, and (c) passive independents, we can see clear features of the active independents (pattern b). Accounting for about 35% of the electorate, these independents are fairly well educated (having the highest rate of graduation from college). By contrast, the passive independents (pattern c) have the lowest level of education. Second, whereas the active independents tend to be young, the party supporters (pattern a) are mostly older. Third, the passive independents have a low voting rate and generally do not bother to vote; this marks a clear dividing line between them and politically active independents. No party can formulate an effective strategy to attract independents without taking this distinction between active and passive independents into account.

A more important point involves the policy fields that draw the interest of the active independents. The table lists some of the policy issues that are of interest to the electorate. Active independents tend to be greatly interested in international and macroeconomic issues. Indeed, their interest is far stronger than that shown by party supporters. Similarly, they are also greatly interested in issues relating to the quality of life and what might be called the postmaterialistic values perspective, such as environmental problems and community concerns. These are issues that party supporters tend to be only slightly interested in. But when it comes to the political issues that enliven debate in Nagatachō, the heart of Japan’s political world in central Tokyo, active independents show very little interest. Party supporters are far more keenly interested in these kinds of issues.

Herein lies a huge blind spot in Japanese politics. The fact of the matter is that active independents are not at all interested in the things that fascinate politicians, registered party members, political reporters, and others who know a lot about the latest developments in Japanese politics, phenomena that in the eyes of Nagatachō are the very essence of what politics is all about. As a result, political insiders tend to make the mistake of assuming that active independents are not interested in politics. And yet these independents rush to the polls whenever a crisis arises in the Japanese economy or environmental destruction or some other problem threatens their community, and they cast their ballots in ways that those on the party side are unable to anticipate.

When Half of the Voters are Independents

Are the three types of independent voters today much the same as they were back in 1995? The type 3 independents are those who have lost partisan attachment, so they are a group that as of 1995 had a party they had clearly preferred up until around that time. Probably most of them were in their forties, fifties, or sixties. Now 17 years have passed, so they are between the ages of 55 and 80 or so. Some of them will have passed away, while others presumably no longer go out to vote. Accordingly, the number of type 3 independents should be in decline.

By contrast, we should see the type 2 independents, who from the start reject the path of party support, as a group whose star is on the rise. That is, in every age you will come across type 1 independents, people who are not interested in politics. They are the traditional independents, and it is likely that their share of the electorate, which is about 15%, undergoes little change over time. The type 3 independents, meanwhile, also accounted for about 15% of the electorate in 1995 but are now decreasing. In the meantime, many young people have reached voting age. Surely most of those who became independents joined the ranks of type 2, where they offset the decline in type 3. Whatever the case may be, the category of active independents is the total of type 2 and type 3, and its scale today is on the order of 35%.

The latest opinion poll (taken in July 2012) shows that the independent segment has reached 57%, the highest level yet. Evidently large numbers of voters are highly disappointed with all the parties and refusing to say they support any of them. Let us look once again at figure 2, focusing on recent years. We can see that a spike in the LDP curve lifted it slightly above the independent curve in 2006, while a spike in the DPJ curve raised it as high as the independent curve in 2009. But the independents then rebounded, and their share of the electorate is now larger than the size of the DPJ and LDP supporters combined.

There have been a handful of politicians able to tap into the sentiment of younger independents in Japan’s cities—in other words, the active independents—and gain the support of this group. Among them have been Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō and Hashimoto Tōru, the current mayor of Osaka. It is not my goal in this essay to evaluate these men’s political qualities, and I will leave that for other analysts; but I would note that these two politicians were remarkably well attuned to the interests of highly educated younger urban voters.

From now on, the leaders and politicians of each of the parties must come to grips with the reality that any recovery in support rates, whether for their party or for any other, will only last for a short while. During the years since 1995, the Koizumi boom turned many voters into supporters of the Liberal Democrats, and the change of government engineered by the DPJ caused many voters to pin their hopes on the Democrats, but these were transitory phenomena. Basically, Japan’s independents today have the potential to exceed 50% at any time. Over the years to come, accordingly, temporary surges in popularity may give a lift to some parties and put a dent in the independent segment, but these will be superficial phenomena. It is probable that there will be no long-lasting change in the basic structure of the contemporary electorate, in which independents have a presence at or above the 50% level.

If over the next decade Japan’s political parties can learn to behave as responsible parties, formulate a persuasive vision of the state’s future, and capture the interest of the young people who will soon reach voting age, they should be able to realize sustained growth in their support rates starting from about 10 years down the road, thereby initiating a trend of decline in the independent segment. But to accomplish this they will have to become parties that truly behave in a responsible manner and present the public with an original roadmap. Only by doing this will they be able to draw independents into their fold.

(Originally written in Japanese on July 18, 2012.)

Kan Naoto Democratic Party of Japan Liberal Democratic Party election Hatoyama Yukio support rate opinion poll Yomiuri Shimbun Tanaka Aiji independents voting rate Recruit scandal active independents passive independents party supporters student movement voting behavior new conservative parties centrist parties