Japanese Lower House Campaigns in Transition: Manifest Changes or Fleeting Fads?

Article excerpt

Electioneering for the Japanese Lower House has undergone significant changes in recent years. While voter mobilization strategies still figure prominently in the local-level campaigns of individual candidates, political parties increasingly use voter-chasing strategies at the national level. Such chasing strategies, whose manifestations in Japan have so far included the manifesto and the media-spin approach, target in particular the growing number of independent voters. The concurrence of elements of continuity and change in electioneering has led to a "hybridization" of Lower House election campaigns. The article examines this phenomenon in the light of newer conceptual and theoretical approaches to electoral politics in democratic settings.

KEYWORDS: election campaigning, mixed-member electoral system, voter targeting, voter mobilization, voter chasing, manifestos, Japan

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Election campaigns for the Lower House (LH), the more important chamber of Japan's bicameral parliament (the Diet), have undergone significant changes in recent years. Well into the 1990s, electioneering for the LH was characterized by a distinct emphasis on voter mobilization. Campaigning was largely a local-level affair that centered on individual candidates' attempts to obtain a sufficient percentage of votes in their respective electoral districts. Candidates relied on vote mobilization qua local networks and organizations and, especially in the case of government-linked candidates, on promises to deliver "pork" to constituencies. Individual candidates extensively used personal support organizations for cultivating links with voters between elections. While the salience of national issues and party leaders varied depending on the particular election, national election platforms did not play a substantial role for most parties in LH campaigns.

In recent years, however, new approaches to campaigning have entered the scene. Starting with the 2003 LH election, party manifestos have begun to figure prominently in general elections. Contested issues in national politics have moved to the center of the official campaign discourse. The 2005 LH election then saw centralized and well-orchestrated campaign management on the part of Japan's dominant party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Yet, the advent of new approaches to general election campaigning in Japan does not equal a radical break with more "traditional" approaches. Voter mobilization at the local level and the use of personal support organizations still figure prominently in the strategic and organizational repertoire of Japanese politicians running for (re)election to the Diet. In sum, campaigning in the early twenty-first century is characterized by a state of "hybridization" in which older and newer approaches coexist--if somewhat uneasily.

In this article, I seek to answer two core questions with respect to campaigning in LH elections. First, in what ways and to what extent has campaigning changed in recent times? And second, how can we explain these changes? In trying to answer these questions, I update the existing literature on electioneering in Japan and refocus it in analytical terms. While there are numerous treatments of electioneering up to and in the 1990s, more recent developments have yet to be analyzed in a comprehensive manner. To shed light on these developments, it is not sufficient just to concentrate on the effects of existing electoral rules--the focus of many recent studies of campaigning in Japan. I argue here that two theoretical discussions concerning, on the one hand, voter-targeting strategies and, on the other hand, the worldwide diffusion of "US style" campaigning provide important conceptual and analytic lenses for improving our understanding and explanations of contemporary campaigning in Japanese general elections. I suggest that recent changes in campaigning have been driven, at the most general level, by the introduction of a mixed electoral system for the LH and by the rise of independent voters. …