Hi Blog. Here’s a thought-provoking essay on Japanese politics from The Economist (London). Within it is a vignette on Tokyo Governor Ishihara getting all pissy about how Japanese men are being emasculated, based upon the way they are allegedly being forced to urinate. The other points within the essay are more important, but I find it singularly impressive how a leader of one of the world’s cities could go off on such an irrelevant and unprofessional tangent before a member of the international press (who, charitably, passes it off as the rantings of a grumpy old man). That’s just one more signal to me, however, of how senile Ishihara has become. Only one more year of the man left in office, fortunately. Arudou Debito in Sapporo
Things fall apart in Japan
The opposition is a shambles; but since the government is its own worst enemy, who needs one?
Apr 29th 2010 | From The Economist print edition
FOR half a century Japan, dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was a one-party state in multiparty clothes. Last August came a seismic shift, when the general election swept away the once-mighty LDP and installed the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in office. Anyone rooting for an overdue revamp of Japan’s political apparatus hailed the advent of a two-party state. Competition might even produce good policy.
They were too optimistic. A black dog of a depression has settled back over the country’s politics, affecting both main parties. In opposition the LDP has unravelled with impressive speed. In late April the country’s favourite politician, Yoichi Masuzoe, a rare combination in the LDP of ambition and ideas, joined a stream of high-profile defectors forming new parties. He calls for refreshing change: deregulation, decentralisation and—crucially for a country with too many paws on the levers of power—a halving of the number in the Diet (parliament).
For the moment, such groupings have not captured the public imagination. They contain too many lone wolves and grumpy old men, such as the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who is responsible for the naming of one notable new party, Tachiagare Nippon!—literally, Stand Up, Japan! When Banyan once called on him, he launched into a tirade about Japanese men cowed by their womenfolk into sitting down when they pee.
If the LDP seems at the end of the line, the bigger surprise is that it lasted so long. It was born of the cold war, free of any ideology save anti-communism. Its business was winning elections and dividing the spoils—and for decades it did that very efficiently. But once the communist threat had gone and economic growth had slowed, the LDP had lost its purpose. Younger reformists lost seats at the last election or are now walking out. The grizzled old guard are at a loss.
For the DPJ government the opposition’s ineptitude has not mattered, so capable has it proved at self-destruction. For a start, both Yukio Hatoyama, prime minister since September, and the DPJ’s secretary-general, Ichiro Ozawa, are under a cloud over the misuse of political funds. On April 27th a judicial panel ordered a review of a February decision not to prosecute Mr Ozawa.
Worse, the prime minister’s early promise to concentrate decision-making powers in the cabinet has come to nought. Along with a flair for airy-fairy waffle, Mr Hatoyama has exhibited breathtaking indecision.
This is most visible over a 2006 plan to move Futenma, the air base on Okinawa for America’s marine expeditionary force. Mr Hatoyama insisted on reopening the agreement—locals objected to building a new heliport on an unspoilt shore—while offering no reasonable alternative. Japan’s relations with its American ally sank to new lows. Expectations among Okinawans (90,000 demonstrated against the move on April 25th) cannot be met. At the end of May Mr Hatoyama may propose a modified version of the original plan. But when Barack Obama in April bluntly asked him whether he had it in him to get a deal, Japanese officials were too shocked to record the question, let alone the answer.
At home a spat about roads undermines all the assurances about cabinet authority. Mr Ozawa wants both to have low tolls and taxpayer funds to go on building unnecessary roads. The transport minister, Seiji Maehara, rightly objects. The cabinet should have ruled. Instead, Mr Hatoyama has passed the matter to the Diet, where members will look out for their own districts. This recalls how the LDP used to act. It bodes ill for a country that needs to tackle rapidly worsening finances and sluggish growth.
The tensions between the DPJ’s modernisers and Mr Ozawa, who undermines the cabinet from outside it, have the potential to tear the party apart. Mr Hatoyama’s popularity, which once soared, plumbs abysmal depths. Japan has gone from a one- to a two-party state, and now to what? A no-party state? A splinter-party state? Is Japan cursed by being terminally ungovernable?
Let’s twist again like we did last summer
The question will be easier to answer, first once it is known how Mr Hatoyama and Mr Ozawa weather the immediate political squalls, and then with the results of elections to be held in July for half of the seats in the Diet’s upper house. In private, the prime minister, for all his indecision, is stubborn on one point. All he wants is to stay in office for longer than another recent prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Like Mr Hatoyama, Mr Abe is the grandson of a notable LDP prime minister and, like him, was put up for the top job by a rich and domineering mother (it is not known what posture the two men adopt for urination). Mr Abe lasted all of a year. This is how low the prime minister has set the bar for himself. But Futenma may bring him down before the election.
Many DPJ reformers want Mr Ozawa to go before then too—the party’s election prospects would be better. This week Mr Hatoyama backed Mr Ozawa, the real power in the DPJ, after the ruling by the prosecutors’ panel. Certainly, Mr Ozawa’s potential to damage the DPJ is immense. For instance, Takao Toshikawa, a political insider, suggests that Mr Ozawa could challenge and replace Mr Hatoyama, call a snap election and then step down as prime minister to run from behind the scenes the kind of “grand coalition”, including with disaffected ex-LDPers, that he attempted once before, in effect creating a new LDP in his own mould.
More likely, the election will force the DPJ to seek the support of smaller groups to form a governing majority. Some of the reformist groups that have splintered from the LDP might spot a chance to wield influence. But continued alliances with anti-reform groups are also possible. Either way, the horse-trading will serve only to alienate voters further from a system that is more responsive to back-room deals than to the national need.