The Electoral Origin of Japan's Nationalistic Leadership: Primaries in the LDP Presidential Election and the "Pull Effect"

Article excerpt

In recent years, some Japanese prime ministers have exhibited a nationalistic tendency, particularly in their foreign policies. The increasing nationalistic appeal by recent leaders marks a sharp contrast with previous leaders, who were unwilling to cause friction with other countries and thus took more centrist positions. More interestingly, those recent leaders, including Koizumi Junichiro, previously adopted a more modest stance. This article seeks to explain the increase in nationalistic appeal, particularly between 2001 and 2006, among Japanese leaders by focusing on some important changes in the Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP's) presidential election procedures. Drawing on the study of US primary elections, I argue that the increase in the weight of rank-and-filers' votes vis-a-vis the LDP Diet members' votes in the LDP presidential election encouraged some candidates to take more ideologically extreme positions. In other words, much like US primaries, the LDP presidential elections can have a tendency to pull some candidates toward extreme positions.

KEYWORDS: Japan, nationalism, leadership, foreign policy, Koizumi Junichiro, LDP presidential election, divisive primary hypothesis


The former Japanese prime minister Koizumi Junichiro is widely known for his nationalistic policy stance and uncompromising attitudes toward neighboring countries. Existing studies have analyzed his strong and bold leadership by focusing on his personal character (Otake 2006; Uchiyama 2007) or the administrative reform that empowered the Office of Prime Minister (Takenaka 2006; Iio 2006). However, the context behind the recent increase in nationalistic appeal by Japanese leaders has not yet been fully explained.

One of the reasons why some Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) prime ministers pursued nationalistic policies while they were in office was their campaign pledges during the LDP presidential election. Their actions were often bound by their campaign pledges, which had prolonged impact on their foreign policies. For example, in the 2001 LDP presidential election, Koizumi pledged to visit the Yasukuni Shrine every year if he was elected. Koizumi kept his pledge and visited the shrine in spite of the intense opposition from China and Korea. There is, however, a paucity of analytic work on the impact of the LDP presidential election on Japanese leadership. So, by exploring this critical but often overlooked topic, this study tries to make an important contribution to a deeper understanding of nationalism and political leadership in Japan.

Interestingly, until 2001, almost all candidates refrained from discussing such controversial issues at the LDP presidential elections. For instance, even some nationalist politicians, such as Hashimoto Ryutaro, did not make nationalistic pledges and acted as if they were centrists. A more intriguing but often ignored fact is that even Koizumi behaved like a centrist in his earlier bid for the LDP presidency. This does not mean, however, that LDP politicians never made nationalistic appeals in the past. In fact, many nationalists existed in the party, but when they ran for the LDP presidency, they presented themselves as centrists. Nonetheless, in recent elections, Koizumi overturned his initial stance, and his successors--Abe Shinzo and Aso Taro--also bucked the centrist trend by declaring nationalistic pledges.

What explains the increase in nationalistic appeal by LDP presidential candidates between 2001 and 2006? Why did the LDP leaders in the past advocate more moderate policies than recent leaders? Why did the party select a centrist leader, Fukuda Yasuo, in 2007? This article tries to answer these questions by focusing on the "pull effect" in the LDP presidential election. The main argument here is that the 2001 and 2006 LDP presidential elections, which significantly increased the weight of rank-and-filers' votes vis-a-vis the LDP Diet members' votes, encouraged some candidates to take ideologically extreme positions and made these candidates more successful, much as in US primary elections. …