Japan Correspondent

TOKYO, Japan — Japan goes to the polls on July 10 for the election of the Upper House of the Diet, with the rising cost of living, stagnant wages and national defense the key issues for the average Japanese person. 

Of all those issues to ponder over the ballot box, soaring prices  particularly of fuel and household staples — are of the greatest concern, which means that many people have scrapped their plans to go on a spree of “revenge spending,” the Japanese term for lashing out on a luxury because the coronavirus pandemic has largely meant they have not been able to travel abroad or go out to nice restaurants for well over two years.   

Consequently, while there was optimism in the travel industry only a matter of weeks ago that falling coronavirus rates combined with regulations for anyone entering Japan being relaxed would see more Japanese booking an overseas vacation this summer, those hopes may have been dashed by rising prices and shrinking household budgets. 

Flights with Japanese airlines are more expensive due to the rising cost of fuel and travel firms’ prices are higher as they try to claw back some of the income they lost during the enforced shutdown across much of the industry — but the biggest impact on the average family’s vacation plans has been the rapidly falling value of the yen.  

The Japanese currency is hovering narrowly above Y136 to the dollar, a level not seen for around 20 years and down sharply from between Y110 and Y120 against the U.S. currency as recently as mid-March. And analysts are of the opinion that the yen will resume its downward slide and may soon hit the Y140 level.

Inevitably, that makes trips to dollar destinations significantly more expensive for Japanese travelers.

Okinawa became an attractive option for Japanese who could not travel overseas.
Photo courtesy of Visit Okinawa Japan

“Of all the issues that the voters are facing now, I would have to say that most people are most worried about rising prices,” said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

“When filling the car with petrol costs visibly more, or the weekly trip to the supermarket is surprisingly expensive, that registers with people,” she told the Journal.  

“In Japan, it is traditionally up to the wife to manage the family budget and they are the ones who are making spending decisions right now, and the housewives that I know are saying that the priority has to be paying the bills,” she said. 

“They are saying that Guam and Hawaii can wait, because this year they are staying closer to home to keep their budget under control.”

Another factor that is influencing vacation decisions is the lingering regulations on anyone entering Japan, including nationals returning after an overseas vacation. PCR tests can be expensive, especially for a family, and a positive test will mean home quarantine and problems with employers, Murakami said. 

“Right now, a lot of people I know are looking at a beach vacation in Okinawa,” she said. “It’s close and prices are the same as mainland Japan, so it’s an easy decision.” 

The security situation in East Asia is another area of concern for many Japanese, with more than 60% of people responding to a recent survey saying they want the government to increase spending on defense. 

The Russian invasion of Ukraine took many in Japan by surprise, but with the conflict being played out nightly on news programs, the fear is that the next war could break out in the Asia-Pacific region. 

China has been acting with growing belligerence for a decade, unilaterally took control of islands in the South China Sea and has unabashed designs on Taiwan. Chinese government ships have also frequently intruded into Japanese territorial waters around disputed islands in the East China Sea, defying requests from Japanese Coast Guard vessels to leave the area.

North Korea remains unpredictable and is widely assumed to be expanding its arsenal of conventional missiles and nuclear weapons, while the Russian Pacific Fleet has also been active in waters off northern Japan. 

Tokyo has already responded by increasing the development and deployment of new surface warships and submarines, is upgrading its missile defense systems and fighter aircraft stationed in southern Japan. It is expected that further investments will also be made on defense.

Despite the numerous challenges that it faces, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner in the coalition —Komeito — are expected to win the majority of the 125 seats that are being contested in the election for the 248-seat house. 

That would give Prime Minister Fumio Kishida a solid base from which to push ahead with his agenda, which could potentially include revising the Constitution, which conservatives here believe was imposed on a defeated Japan by the Allies in the immediate aftermath of Tokyo’s surrender in 1945. mbj