Japanese politics is continuing its tradition of throwing up a cast of eccentric candidates who can charitably be described as “fringe” as voters prepare to head to the polls on Sunday.
They include representatives of parties that are dogmatically wedded to a single issue and the mildly famous who have been talked into standing in the hope that voters will overlook their party’s policies and tick the box next to their name simply because they have heard of them.
Yet there are some definite differences as Japan braces for Sunday’s vote for 124 seats in the 245-strong House of Councillors, the upper house of the country’s parliament, with changes in society being reflected in a new generation of candidates.
Taiga Ishikawa became one of only two openly gay male politicians to win an election in Japan when he took a seat following 2011’s vote for Tokyo’s Toshima Ward. Nine years on, 45-year-old Ishikawa is aiming to win over voters on the national stage and is running for one of the 50 proportional representation seats for the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ).
Similarly, Hiroko Masuhara is also standing for the CDPJ in Kyoto and had no hesitation in declaring that while she was “scared that I was different from people around me” when she was a teenager, she is now open about being a lesbian.
Both Ishikawa and Masuhara say they want to reach out to people who feel they are “different” and make Japanese society more understanding and welcoming.
On her website, Masuhara says she wants to make “a society where anyone can live in their own way, without fear of discrimination or exclusion. We will work with the aim of becoming a society where you are free and recognised”.
That is a message that is likely to resonate with younger voters, in particular, who do not share their parents’ and grandparents’ belief in the old Japanese maxim that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.
“I was talking with my daughter about this just the other day,” said Keiro Kitagami, a former member of the Democratic Party of Japan who is planning to run as an independent in a Kyoto constituency in the next lower house election.
“She is a university student and it is clear that young people are far more open towards minorities – whether that be LGBT people, those from other countries or other minorities – and they welcome them into Japanese society,” he said. “Among older people, however, there is still a lot of prejudice.”
Women are also stepping forward to take part in this election like never before. A record 104 candidates are women, accounting for 28 per cent of the total – though critics point out this still falls short of the parity in politics which new legislation that went into effect in May last year set out to create.
One of the women running is Rie Saito, who once worked as a hostess in a bar but is completely deaf and relied on writing messages on notepads to communicate with her customers. She uses the same tactic to discuss politics with voters and on her website saitorie.com.
Significantly, Saito is yet another candidate for the CDPJ, which is on the verge of taking over as the nation’s most influential opposition party, believes Steven Reed, a professor at Chuo University who specialises in Japanese elections and political parties.
“The CDPJ is gaining ground on the Democratic Party for the People (DPP), which is fading rapidly,” he said. “The opposition parties have been very divided for a long time and that has made things quite easy for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but it’s possible that we will see a realignment after this election with the DPP folding and its members joining the CDPJ.”
If the different opposition parties can unite, Reed said, there is a possibility that they will attract more attention and support and gradually evolve into the efficient and organised opposition that would keep the LDP and the government on its toes.
That scenario becomes even more plausible if parties can work on specific issues with the Japanese Communist Party, which is “ready and willing to work with other parties because all they want to do is stop [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe”, Reed said.
There are, as always, a number of very minor parties that will not win seats but may serve to dilute other parties’ support – and could play a significant role in closely contested constituencies.
The newly formed Reiwa Party could conceivably put the cat among the electoral pigeons in Okinawa, where it is campaigning against the US military bases in the prefecture but could weaken other parties with a similar message, Reed said.
Elsewhere, the Euthanasia Party has a single message that it wants to get across, while the Japan No. 1 Party is “almost fascist in its message”, said Kitagami, and is modelling its campaign on US President Donald Trump’s messages and philosophy.
Takashi Tachibana is another would-be politician who is running on a single issue and, if his website is to be believed, seems to have a degree of support among the public, even if his campaign is a curious one.
Head of the Protect the Nation from NHK Party, Tachibana is an apparently aggrieved former employee of Japan’s national broadcaster and his sole demand is that the public refuses to pay the monthly licence fee on the grounds that the broadcaster “repeats falsehoods” and is a hotbed of crime.
The party insists that money from the licence fee is funnelled to organised crime groups when NHK pays inflated fees to cover baseball matches and sumo tournaments, senior staff are paid too generously and that NHK staff have been involved in dozens of crimes in recent years.
The party’s website goes as far as to list many of the employees’ transgressions, including allegations of falsified accounting, fraud, shoplifting, sexual harassment, insider trading, drug abuse and even murder.
The party will never win a seat, Reed agrees, but at least its candidates are making things colourful.