Date: 11-11-2003

HONOLULU (Nov. 11) -- The most significant outcome of Japan's parliamentary election may not point to momentum for political change and a two-party system but instead voter apathy and disillusionment, an East-West Center specialist said.

Voter turnout Sunday was approximately 59 percent, one of the lowest in the post-World War II period, said Sheila Smith, a Japan expert. That compares to 70 percent in the early 1990s before Japan's long move toward political change began.

Also, the vast majority of newly elected parliament members were bureaucrats and "seshuu gumi," or 2nd, 3rd and 4th generations of politicians. Smith pointed out that 81 percent of the seshuu gumi running for office were elected, compared to 15 percent of new faces and 23 percent of women candidates. Of the bureaucrats running for election, 73 won seats in the 480-member parliament -- about 15 percent of the total.

Smith said this election saw the demise of Japan's socialist and communist parties, the strongest post-war opposition voices up to the early 1990s. Clearly on the rise is the five-year-old Democratic Party, which put forward a policy "Manifesto" that received much media attention.

"There's been a myopic focus on the development of a two-party system," Smith said. "For all the rhetoric and media focus about political change and a new rising party, the voter turnout was one of the lowest in the post-war period.

"There is increased apathy on the part of Japanese voters. They are not that enthusiastic about change or new opportunities. The question is, are people really interested in reform?"

Smith said the growth of the Democratic Party, now the main opposition party that gained 40 seats, means it will give the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) a "run for its money" if this trend continues. The LDP, which has governed Japan almost continuously since 1955, lost 10 seats. With its coalition partners, however, it managed to hold onto power.

"We need to be more cautious in how we embrace the results of this election," Smith said. "There's no clear-cut picture on the future of political change in the short and medium term."

Smith said, moreover, that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who will likely be in power until 2006, will have a tougher road ahead of him because of a public that is less engaged and an opposition party that will undoubtedly be more vocal.

Sheila Smith can be reached at 808-944-7427 or

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center