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Japan at a Crossroads

By Brent Sutherland

It's typical journalese that any given election is referred to as the most significant election in quite some time. In the case of the incipient Japanese election it's entirely accurate. Since its founding in 1955, the Liberal Democratic Party (some say that it is neither) has run Japan. Aside from brief periods with coalition governments over the years, the LDP has run the post-war system. Now it looks at last as if the LDP might suffer a truly decisive defeat in the Diet election that they must call by September, 2009.

The point at which the LDP jumped the shark would have to be former Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa's February G8 news conference in Rome where he appeared to be intoxicated. Mr. Nakagawa followed up his apparently ethanol-fuelled news conference with a visit to the Vatican Museum where he engaged in Mr. Bean-like shenanigans such as climbing over a barrier protecting a statue of the Trojan priest Laocoon, and then literally getting a feel for some of the paintings. Needless to say the footage of the news conference became the first, and likely last, time that Mr. Nakagwawa obtained so many hits on YouTube. Despite the fact that he explained his condition was caused by an amalgam of cough medicine, jet-lag, and a single glass of wine, his resignation was immediately accepted by Prime Minister Taro Aso. It seems Mr. Nakagawa's reputation as an imbiber preceded his Roman binge.

Aside from the Nakagawa debacle, the LDP has much more fundamental problems. The LDP has succeeded over the years because they have persuaded a lot of people to vote for them. That might seem like an obvious point; but to perennial constituencies such as farmers and business people both large and small - they are the natural ruling party. As long as Japan was prospering, and there was plenty of pork to go around, the LDP did well. Now that Japan is mired in seemingly terminal economic decline and huge deficits constraining spending, the entire party feels like Mr. Nakagawa must have felt the morning after his aforementioned outing. During the 2001 to 2006 period that Junichiro Koizumi was Prime Minister, he was able to carry the party along with his personal popularity. In fact, in the 2005 election the LDP gained one of its largest majorities ever. If it weren't for the term limits imposed by the LDP charter, it's concievable that he would be still be Prime Minister to this day. However, being a wealthy bachelor bon-vivant, he likely wanted out of the spotlight, and so he declined asking the party to amend their charter.

In contrast, Taro Aso has earned opprobrium by sticking the taxpayer with an expense account that James Bond would be ashamed to submit to Ms. Moneypenny. They both patronize many of the same decidely upscale eateries in Tokyo on a nightly basis, but being a jet-setter happened to look good on Mr. Koizumi whereas the public wonders why Mr. Aso can't have his wife fix him a meal once in a while. Mr. Koizumi was able to display true leadership in a, regularly, consensus-driven Japan by way of sheer charisma. His free-market based reforms such as privatizing post-office savings went against the grain in a society that may now be capitalist, but has always been paternalistic.

Now those reforms have mostly been abandoned in favour of the traditional LDP style of status-quo, pork, and cronyism. While Mr. Hosokawa pursued his reforms, he could plausibly claim to be displaying leadership, ideological coherence, and a willingness to deal with budget deficits. Now that the LDP has fallen back on old ways, the main opposition party shows in sharp relief. The Democratic Party of Japan was formed in 1998 by the merger of several smaller parties. Over the years several prominent LDP members such as Yukio Hatayama (the present DPJ leader) and Ichiro Ozawa (long time controversialist) have crossed the floor with the explanation that LDP dominance was unhealthy for the nation. It's presumable that personal ambition also played a part in that, but many of those who had taken part in that self-selected "equalization draft" are now prominent members of the, presently, very competitive DPJ. As per the DPJ's home page, "First of all, we shall build a society governed with transparent, just, and fair rules. Secondly, while the free market should permeate economic life, we aim for an inclusive society which guarantees security, safety, and fair and equal opportunity for each individual."

Thus the DPJ has staked its territory firmly in the centre-left. Its primary appeal is to urban workers who feel their interests have been sacrificed over the years to perceived special interests such as farmers and the construction lobby. Indeed, a large part of Japan's budget goes towards ever more grandiose public engineering projects, such as the underutilized bridge-tunnel crossing Tokyo Bay. Ideological moderation and pragmatism combined with an avowed willingness to confront vested interests has an obvious appeal to people who work for a living. Over the years the Liberal Democrats have actually done things that are both, but they have also successfully co-opted all but the nuttiest fringes of the right while occasionally forming a coalition with the Socialist Party when that was necessary to cling to power. In the case of the former the visits to Yasakuni shrine (resting place of 14 Class A war criminals) seem to have sufficed, and in the latter it seems a mere taste of power was enough to entice the left into coalitions dedicated to upholding the status-quo. That is partly what has made the present-day Social Democratic Party an essentially spent force, although their wooly-sweater variety of rhetoric and ideology makes them seem out of touch to many voters. For example their implacable opposition to US military bases in Japan is a non-starter at a time when relations with North Korea are so tense.

Given that the summer is likely to be the first time that the DPJ will have a chance to win an election, it would only be speculation to extrapolate from what they say they stand for, in terms of predicting how they might actually govern. However, given that Mr. Hatoyama is now the odds on favorite become the first Prime Minister in a long time who is neither LDP nor part of a LDP coalition , it is worth speculating on the point. Mr. Hatoyama himself is the grandson of a former Prime Minister and the son of a former Foreign Minister. At 62 he is youngish by the standards of Japanese politics and he holds a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford. That likely gives him a broader perspective than the typical Japanese politician. His background enables him to pose as both a political insider and outsider concomitantly. Another DPJ member; Marutei Tsururen, became the first European member of the Diet in 2002. He may be a bit of a token, but this does bode well for the DPJ's stated policy of accommodating immigration and being more internationalist in general.

In terms of China-Japan relations, it seems like that could only help. It's reasonable to conclude that the sticking point of the Yasukuni visits could be resolved by just not going there. The people to whom the visits matter are never going to vote DPJ in any case. Improved relations with China would lead to the expectation that China would be more encouraged to pressure North Korea to behave. As far as the USA goes, the DPJ's centre-left ways would seem to be a logical fit with Mr. Obama's outlook. It's unlikely the domestic-policy orientated Obama administration will ever be as interested in Japan and Asia, in general, as some other Presidents were. However, as long as Mr. Obama does not vomit on Mr. Hatoyama they should get along fine. Once you get past China and the USA, everything else is more straightforward for Japan's foreign policy. Japan's financial condition may be questionable, but funding will likely be found to continue money diplomacy.

It's in domestic policy that differences between the LDP and DPJ get more interesting. Part of the DPJ's platform is trimming the bloated bureaucracy. This is a laudable goal, but it's a fact that the LDP would be unable to govern without the close cooperation of the civil-service. Diet debates are notoriously stilted because "I'll get back to you on that after I do some research so I can give you a thourough reply" is a very typical answer for any given question that comes up. What that often means is "I need to get back to my assistant minister to get an answer written up on what my department has already decided but I don't know myself". If the DPJ is truly seriously about trimming the bureaucracy both in terms of headcount and influence, then they might not receive such close cooperation. It's easy to say ministers should know their own portfolios, but the reality of Japanese political culture is that networking/fundraising/infighting takes priority over research/policy making/debate for most legislators. In Japan it may be more important for elected leaders to obtain the consent of the civil service than the public that they both ostensibly serve.

In terms of social spending, again, the DPJ proposes to trim the fat while retaining the meat. Given Japan's huge budget deficits, this will not be easy. In fact, the only realistic hope for public health and pension plans to continue at their present relatively generous levels is for Japan to have a fresh batch of young taxpayers. Japan has the lowest birthrate in the developed world at present and 21% of the population are over the age of 65. Unfortunately all exhortations to go forth and multiply, emptiomized by generous baby bonuses, etc., haven't had much effect - which brings us back to Mr. Tsururen. Ever since the economic boom of the 1980s Japan has had de facto immigration of unskilled workers. Brazilians with even the most seemingly remote Japanese ancestry were admitted as guest workers. The visa exemption that was a holdover of the Shah's reign allowed any number of Iranians to enter Japan for whatever combination of economic and political reasons they had. In fact, Japan's best starting pitcher during their 2009 World Baseball Classic victory is the son of an Iranian émigré, Yu Darvish of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.

Mr. Darvish and Mr. Tsururen have obviously found their places in Japanese society. However, it remains an insular island nation where it's not easy for newcomers to fit in, and unemployment is rising. The government has recently come up with a program where these Brazilian guest workers are paid 300,000 yen each, plus 200,000 for each dependant, to go home. For some of the dependants, though, Japan is the only home they have ever had. No matter what economic problems Japan has at the moment, a labour shortage is coming sooner or later. The LDP has recently taken baby-steps towards developing a comprehensive immigration policy, such as granting visas to foreign nurses and mulling the idea that Japanese language ability be a criterion for residency. That being said, the biggest problem remains the idea that most Japanese people can't see their nation having either a multicultural or melting-pot paradigm. Those who do try their best to assimilate are often regarded, at best, as eccentrics, and at worse, as "sell-outs". The Japanese might tolerate the strangers in their midst, but they still tend to ask them, "When are you going home?" Given the demographic imperative, changing that will likely be the DPJ's greatest challenge.

Brent Sutherland is a freelance writer living in Vancouver, British Columbia.