Japan’s House of Councillors election on July 10 is set to be slightly fairer and more inclusive than past races, following the redistribution of electoral districts and the extension of suffrage to 18- and 19-year-olds.
Under amendments to the Public Officers Election Law, four electoral district boundaries have been redrawn to address a long-running disparity in the weight of votes between constituencies, largely along an urban-rural divide.
The issue has built up over decades to the alarm of the Supreme Court, which labeled the last upper house race in 2013 “in a state of unconstitutionality.”
The sparsely populated prefectures of Tottori and Shimane on the Sea of Japan coast, previously electing two seats each, have been merged into a single two-seat constituency, as have Kochi and Tokushima prefectures on the island of Shikoku.
The change also halved the number of seats in Miyagi, Niigata and Nagano prefectures, while adding seats to Hokkaido, Tokyo, Aichi, Hyogo and Fukuoka.
The total number of seats in the upper house has thus remained unchanged at 242, half of which are contested every three years. Official campaigning for the July election kicked off Wednesday.
The changes are unlikely to rattle Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, which rules in a coalition with junior partner Komeito. The party, which has maintained a near-constant grip on the Diet since the end of World War II, tends to fare well in Japan’s agricultural heartland.
According to Michael Cucek, an adjunct professor at Temple University in Tokyo, the reforms are a drop in the bucket.
“This is a makeshift measure the LDP thinks is the minimum it can do to meet the standards set by the Supreme Court,” Cucek said.
Article 81 of Japan’s Constitution gives the top court the power to determine the constitutionality of any law, order, regulation or official act.
But there are practical limits on how the court’s rulings are enforced, and “the LDP has never been encumbered by the Supreme Court,” Cucek said.
In the first place, there is no need for Japan’s bicameral Diet to require a proportional representation system in both houses, according to Corey Wallace, a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the Free University of Berlin’s Graduate School of East Asian Studies.
“A system where the lower house has a one-to-one vote value and is thus a popular representation of the national electorate, and where the upper house acts as a break on this ‘popular’ house by giving some power to the regions, would make sense,” Wallace said.
“The public has not really paid much attention to this issue, thus the incentive for the LDP to do something radical to resolve the issue once and for all is very low,” he said.
To the candidates now tasked with campaigning in the merged constituencies, the change is plenty radical.
Tokushima native So Onishi, 53, has rented an apartment in Kochi since February for his upper house campaign as an independent, but complains the two-hour, 30-minute drive between the prefectural capitals puts a damper on his productivity.
Onishi’s rival, 36-year-old incumbent LDP lawmaker Yusuke Nakanishi, has enlisted his wife as a surrogate campaigner. Treating the race as a “simultaneous battle for two constituencies,” he has designed two distinct sets of pamphlets.
While the regional disparity is far from solved, the amended electoral law has also injected some youth into an electorate growing grayer year by year as Japan’s birthrate flounders.
Nationwide, an estimated 2.4 million people aged 18 and 19 will be able to vote in a Diet race for the first time next month after the amendment lowering the minimum age from 20 took effect Sunday.
The age was last lowered from 25 under the post-war U.S. occupation in 1946, the same year women gained the right to vote.
The education ministry repealed in October last year a 1969 ban on people aged 18 or older participating in campaigning and other political activities while they are still attending high school.
The move brings Japan into line with its international peers regarding legal recognitions of adulthood, and is a welcome step to counter the sheer demographic might of middle-aged and elderly voters, Cucek said.
“But you may see a lowering of the overall percentage of people who turn out to vote, if the rate of 36 percent of those in their 30s is anything to go by,” Cucek said.
The effect of the change on election outcomes and policymaking depends on whether young people actually make the trip to the polling booth, he said.