Japan’s early election: Reading between the lines to find the facts
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Japan’s early election: Reading between the lines to find the facts

September 27, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe to call snap election and dissolution of lower house

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to dissolve the lower house of parliament on Thursday and then call for a snap election to be held next month, a year ahead of schedule. Abe said on Monday he would call the early election to gain “a mandate from the people” on national affairs, including his policy on North Korea and his plans to make changes to Japan’s education and social security programs.

Abe said revenue from a planned October 2019 sales tax increase from 8 to 10 percent would be redirected to education and social security programs and to address “major issues facing” the working population, like child rearing and care for the elderly. (See Context for more.) He said the new policy measure, an economic package of 2 trillion yen ($17.8 billion) of diverted annual tax revenue, will also help Japan meet April 2020 budget goals. The tax increase is estimated to generate an additional 5 trillion yen in revenue, 4 trillion of which was originally planned to be used for government debt repayment. Abe asked cabinet members to prepare the stimulus package by year-end.

In relation to North Korea, Abe said he wants to “forge ahead with strong diplomacy,” calling the situation a “national crisis.” In the last month, North Korea has fired two ballistic missiles over Japan into the North Pacific Ocean and performed its sixth nuclear test. On Sept. 14, North Korea said it would “sink” Japan for its support of new sanctions passed by the United Nations Security Council on Sept. 11.

The prime minister will run for a third term as leader of the Liberal Democrats Party (LDP), which combined with coalition partner the Komeito party holds a two-thirds majority (323 seats of 475 seats). Abe said he would resign if the LDP did not win a majority government, AP reported.

Abe’s party will also be running against the Democratic Party, the Japanese Communist Party, and the new Kibo no To (Party of Hope), as well as smaller opposition parties. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike announced earlier on Monday that she has founded and will head a new national Party of Hope. According to Koike, the party will campaign for a reduction in politicians’ salaries and for more women in the workforce. She says her party will also work toward eliminating carbon emissions and nuclear power.

A Nikkei business daily poll from the weekend estimated 44 percent of voters support LDP, eight percent support the main opposition Democratic Party and eight percent support the new Kibo no To party. A Kyodo news agency poll estimated 27.7 percent of voters plan to vote for LDP and 42.2 percent of voters are undecided.

Abe did not officially announce an election date, though The New York Times reported it would be held on Oct. 22, and campaigning will begin on Oct. 10.

Distortion Highlights

  • News coverage often mixes fact with opinion, which can distort our understanding.
  • If you just want the facts, you have to separate them from the spin.
  • Using coverage of Japan’s election announcement as an example, we show you how.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Gamble

    BIG GAMBLE? (Reuters)

    Abe gambles on snap election as Koike surprises with new party (Japan Times)

    Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Monday that he will dissolve the Lower House for a snap election when the Diet convenes for an extraordinary session Thursday, in a high-stakes political gamble that observers say could determine whether he survives as Japan’s leader. (Japan Times)

    A snap election at this time is a gamble the leader cannot afford to lose. (Japan Times)

  • Scandals

    For months, Mr Abe’s popular support has been badly hit by a string of scandals and unpopular policies. (BBC)

    Editorials in several mainstream newspapers accused Mr. Abe of cynical timing and of trying to avoid answering tough questions about a pair of influence-peddling scandals in which he is accused of giving favors to friends in the education sector. (The New York Times)

  • Tumultuous

    The main opposition Democratic Party went through a tumultuous leadership resignation in July and is currently struggling with single-digit poll ratings.  (BBC)

  • Severely Compromised

    The prospects of an outright victory, however, were severely compromised Monday as charismatic Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike made the surprise announcement that she will found and head a new national political party called Kibo no To (Party of Hope). (Japan Times)

  • Jeopardizing

    By calling a snap election, however, Abe is jeopardizing his ruling coalition’s grip on power. (Japan Times)

  • Humdrum Nature

    Aiji Tanaka, a political science professor at Waseda University, agrees the ruling coalition’s bid to maintain a two-thirds majority is within the realm of possibility, but at the same time pointed out that the humdrum nature of the election could dissuade not only swing voters but also casual supporters of the LDP from going to vote. (Japan Times)

  • Anxiety

    Seizing on anxiety over tensions about North Korea and the opposition’s weakness, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan called Monday for an early election next month. (The New York Times)

  • Robust Rhetoric

    But Mr. Abe’s robust rhetoric after North Korean missiles recently flew over Japan has helped distract voters from a series of scandals that dogged him all summer. (The New York Times)

  • Cronyism

    The prime minister had been expected to face a grilling over the cronyism scandals during a session of parliament from Thursday and opposition party officials saw the move as a ploy to avoid difficult questions. (Reuters)

    Abe’s image as a strong leader has bolstered his ratings amid the North Korea crisis and overshadowed opposition criticism of the premier for suspected cronyism scandals that eroded his support earlier this year. (Reuters)

    Mr Abe’s support has surged as rising tensions with North Korea have overshadowed criticism of alleged cronyism. (BBC)

    He denies allegations of cronyism and on Monday said dissolving the lower house was not an attempt at avoiding those allegations. (BBC)

  • Volatile

    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would dissolve parliament’s lower house on Thursday for a snap election, seeking a mandate to stick to his tough stance toward a volatile North Korea and rebalance the social security system. (Reuters)

The news is meant to inform us about what’s going on in the world, and sometimes it does that well. But other times it gives us opinion about what’s going on, which can actually obscure the facts. Opinion is usually based on facts, so there’s usually some data underneath the opinion and dramatic language. We as readers sometimes need to dig through, read between the lines or make assumptions about what something might mean in order to get down to the actual data of what’s happening.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples below from coverage of Abe’s announcement that he’s going to call a snap election. First, we show you what the news said, including opinion and subjective, dramatic language (spin) marked in blue. Then, we show you what the corresponding facts would be, or what the opinion might be based on.

Opposition in “disarray” and “weak”

BBC: Abe’s “decision comes amid rebounding approval ratings after a record low over the summer and with the opposition largely in disarray.” And, analysts say he’s trying to “exploit the current weakness of the opposition.”

The New York Times: “…it was clear [Abe] had the advantage against the chief opposition Democratic Party, which has been in disarray since the July resignation of its leader, Renho Murata, and several recent defections.” And, Abe is “seizing on” the “opposition’s weakness.”

Facts:

  • In July, Renho Murata resigned as leader of the Democratic Party, or main opposition.
  • A Nikkei business daily poll this weekend showed 44 percent of voters support the LDP, and 8 percent each support the Democratic Party and the Koike’s new party. (Another poll shows less support for the LDP and more indecision.)

The media might be basing the opinion that the opposition is “weak” and in “disarray” on the above facts. But because “disarray” and “weak” are spin, and not measurable facts, we have to just assume this is what the news means.

Election is a “gamble”

Japan Times: Abe will call the election “in a high-stakes political gamble that observers say could determine whether he survives as Japan’s leader.” And it’s “a gamble the leader cannot afford to lose. Failure would suggest his shaky grip on power in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is weakening further…”

Reuters: “BIG GAMBLE?” (sub-header), and Abe “is gambling his ruling bloc can keep its lower house majority even if it loses the two-thirds ‘super majority’…”

Facts:

  • Abe’s LDP party and a coalition with the Komeito party currently hold a “super majority,” or two-thirds majority, in the parliament. That could change depending on the election results.
  • Abe, in his second term as prime minister, said he would resign if his party did not win a majority, or 233 seats.

As with any election, seats might change hands. And if the LDP loses seats, Abe may even lose support within the party. So is that what the outlets mean when they call his decision a “high-stakes political gamble”? Their version doesn’t just stick to facts.

The above aren’t the only examples in today’s coverage, but they show how we have to unpack the opinions to find the facts. And as news consumers, we can always become better at distinguishing fact from opinion. But if the news is designed to inform us of the facts, should we have to search for them?

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 45% Spun

  • 65% Spun

  • 67% Spun

  • 83% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

The Japan Times

“Japan [is] in the grip of a rapid demographic shrinkage…”

Japan’s population dropped by 308,084 last year.

The New York Times

“Seizing on anxiety over tensions about North Korea and the opposition’s weakness, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan called Monday for an early election next month.”

Abe said he will call for an early election next month.

The New York Times

Abe “is also able to leverage the fact that he is one of the few world leaders to maintain a close relationship with President Trump and manage the often unpredictable American president.”

Abe has met and spoken with with U.S. President Trump.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Japan’s economy is showing growth. (The New York Times)


This information, which may help to inform people of the country’s economic standing, is missing from the Japan Times, Reuters and BBC. According to government data, the country’s Gross Domestic Product has increased each year since 2011, going from 494 trillion Japanese Yen (JPY) in 2011, to 537 trillion JPY in 2016.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Implies a relationship between the election and the North Korean situation, with the word “amid.”

Abe said he wants a to gain a “mandate” on his North Korea policy, but he also spoke about other issues, so focusing on this in a headline could make it seem like the most important one.

Sets up a battle between Abe and Kim.

North Korea has fired tests missiles over Japan, so it’s important for Japan to address the issue. But language like “squares up” and “warmongering” dramatizes and could inspire fear, rather than inform the public about what Abe said.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Abe is a strong leader who’s likely to win. (BBC, Reuters, the New York Times)
  • BBC and Reuters say Abe called the election to gain a “mandate” of support for his policies, without questioning his motives. On the other hand, Japan Times suggests that despite what he says, he’s just using the policy “mandate” as an excuse and an “attempt at self-preservation.” He seems duplicitous. (Japan Times)
  • The election is a big “risk” and a “gamble” for Abe. (Japan Times, The New York Times)
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • We’d need more information about what Abe has actually accomplished during his two terms as prime minister to evaluate how he is as a leader. Although his party is ahead in the polls, we don’t know for certain he’ll win.
  • Ultimately, we don’t know why he’s calling the election, and it may be for more than one reason. Also, is there anything wrong with a leader wanting to be re-elected?
  • The nature of elections, assuming they are fair and open, is that there can be shifts in power. So in a sense there’s always a chance of losing, but framing it as a “gamble” and “risk” adds uninformative drama.

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

How is Japan’s government structured?

Japan is a constitutional monarchy with an emperor and three branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. The emperor formally appoints the prime minister to the position. The emperor also appoints the chief justice of the supreme court, signs laws into effect, grants various honors, and opens sessions of the Diet, Japan’s legislature.

The prime minister runs the government, appoints the cabinet of ministers, controls the military, signs bills and can declare states of emergency.

The Diet passes legislation, manages the budget, approves of treaties, and handles constitutional amendments. The legislature includes the House of Representatives (the lower house) and the House of Councillors (the upper house), both of which are elected by the popular vote.

  • The House of Representatives has 475 available seats. Each member holds a four-year term unless the prime minister dissolves parliament.
  • The House of Councillors has 242 available seats, and each position holds a six-year term, with half of the members elected every third year. The House of Councillors cannot be dissolved.

What political parties are represented in Japan?

House of Representatives

Speaker of the House: Oshima Tadamori (Ind)

Below is the lower house makeup prior to the proposed dissolution.

ABRV

Party Name

Number of seats

LDP

Liberal Democratic Party

287

DP

The Democratic Party and Club of Independents

87

KM

Komeito

35

JCP

Japanese Communist Party

21

JIP

Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party)

15

LP

Liberal Party

2

SDP

Social Democratic Party

2

Ind

Independent

23

*The house had three vacancies prior to its dissolution.

House of Councillors

Councillor president: Date Chuichi (Ind)

ABRV

Party Names and Coalitions

Number of elected members*

LDPPJK

Liberal Democratic Party and The Party for Japanese Kokoro

126

DP-SR

The Democratic Party and The Shin-Ryokufukai

49

KP

Komeito

24

JCP

Japanese Communist Party

14

JIP

Nippon Ishin(Japan Innovation Party)

11

HC

Hope Coalition(Kibou)

6

IC

Independents Club

4

OW

Okinawa Whirlwind

2

Ind

Independents

5

* The house currently has one vacancy.

Who is the Prime Minister?

Shinzo Abe, (LDP), started his political career in 1982 as the executive assistant to the Minister for Foreign Affairs (his father and grandfather had also been involved in politics). In 1993, he was elected to the House of Representatives, and won reelection in seven consecutive races. In 2006, he became the president of the LDP and the country’s prime minister, but stepped down from the role in 2007. He was nominated prime minister once again in 2012 and has maintained that position since.

What are Abe’s policies?

“Abenomics”:

In 2013, the prime minister launched “Abenomics,” which consists of three “policy arrows” aimed at “aggressive monetary policy, flexible fiscal policy and growth strategy including structural reform.” The government claims this policy has steadily increased Japan’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) since its implementation.

Abenomics includes policies and funding aimed at:

Tax increase:

Abe also has plans to increase the sales tax from eight percent to 10 percent by 2019. It had previously risen from five percent to eight percent in 2014. The government had planned to increase it in 2015, but it was delayed twice to 2017 and then to 2019. BBC reported that the delays are due to a slow economic recovery. The tax increase is needed to fund certain stimulus packages, according to the outlet.

The tax increase is estimated to generate an additional 5 trillion yen in revenue, 4 trillion of which was originally planned to be used for government debt repayment. Abe plans to redirect 2 trillion yen to education and social security programs and to address issues like child care programs and care for the elderly.

Constitutional change:  

Abe also said he wants to amend the 1946 constitution. Under Article 9 of the U.S.-written document, the government cannot maintain a military. It reads, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” Abe says the existence of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) contradicts the constitution.

“I believe that we must establish the status of the SDF explicitly in the constitution during our generation’s lifetime and leave no room for contending the SDF could be unconstitutional,” Abe said in May. The Japan Times notes that Abe may seek additional constitutional changes as well, without providing specifics.

Constitutional changes need the approval of a two-thirds majority in parliament, and approval by a vote of the general population. Per the constitution, “Amendments to this Constitution shall be initiated by the Diet, through a concurring vote of two-thirds or more of all the members of each House and shall thereupon be submitted to the people for ratification, which shall require the affirmative vote of a majority of all votes cast thereon, at a special referendum or at such election as the Diet shall specify.”