By Bruce Stokes, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bruce Stokes is director of the global economic attitudes project at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are his own.
Japanese voters head to the polls on Sunday to elect half of the members of the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s Diet, the national legislature. The ballot is shaping up as a referendum on the seven-month tenure of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government.
Abe is riding high in the polls, and pre-election public opinion surveys show the ruling Liberal Democratic Party prevailing in the upper house vote. Victory will enable the prime minister to pursue his domestic economic reform agenda, dubbed Abenomics, which entails monetary and fiscal stimulus and regulatory reform to improve Japan’s competitiveness.
But an LDP victory would also bring high expectations. After more than two decades of economic turmoil and political transition in Japan, the public’s mood is on the upswing. Satisfaction with Japan’s direction is at its highest level since the Pew Research Center began regular surveys of the country in 2002. Economic sentiment in Japan, for example, has improved 20 percentage points in just the last year, while optimism about the nation’s economic trajectory over the next 12 months is second only to that found in the United States among publics in advanced economies. This may help explain why about seven-in-ten Japanese have a favorable opinion of Abe.
Also, while just 33 percent of Japanese are content with the direction of their country, such sentiment is up 13 percentage points from 2012 and 21 points from the quite gloomy view in 2002, according to a Pew Research Center survey of Japan conducted March 5 to April 2, 2013. Moreover, Japanese satisfaction with how their nation is doing overall is now better than that in South Korea, Britain or France, and comparable to that in the United States.
Still, only 27 percent of Japanese think their economy is doing well – hardly an endorsement of current economic conditions. But such sentiment is a dramatic improvement over the 7 percent who thought the economy was good in 2012. The Japanese economic mood has rebounded to roughly that in 2007, before the Great Recession.
The economic optimism that the Abe government has hoped to engender through Abenomics appears to be working. Fully 40 percent of Japanese think their economy will improve over the next 12 months, an optimism that is up 25 points in the last year and is the highest in seven Pew surveys in Japan since 2002.
But the Japanese electorate’s rising expectations about the future have their limits. People are deeply pessimistic about prospects for the next generation. Only 15 percent believe that today’s children will be better off than their parents, meaning only the French are more pessimistic than the Japanese about the future for kids among results in advanced economies in our 2013 survey.
And the Japanese public is worried about the challenges facing the economy – about 60 percent think public debt and the lack of employment opportunities are very big national problems. And when asked what their top priority is for action by the Abe government, 52 percent say create more jobs.
So an LDP victory in Japan’s upcoming upper house election could prove a double-edged sword. It will confirm public backing for Abenomics and give the LDP the votes it needs to push long-overdue economic reform through the Diet. At the same time it would reflect very high public expectations, raising the stakes for the Abe government to deliver on its promises.
The LDP may be about to learn the wisdom of the old saying: “be careful what you wish for.”