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Beware Japan’s new political beast

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By C B Liddell

Japan can now wipe the political dribble from its chin and step into its own freshly pressed and creased pair of democratic long pants. It may even be allowed to stay out late and fill the occasional pipe. In other words, the nation has finally grown up. That seems to be the international consensus following the victory of the Democratic Party of Japan in last month’s elections.

The crushing defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled Japan for all but 11 months since 1955, has—so political pundits believe—finally ushered in a mature two-party system of the kind enjoyed by such “Blue Ribbon” democracies as Britain and the United States.

The DPJ got 42% of the popular vote and 64% of the seats, while the LDP and its coalition partners got almost 38% of the vote and 29% of the 480 lower house seats. Given that incumbent political parties tend to lose support, we can expect the LDP and their allies to return to power in a few years’ time, and for the two parties to then take turns in the hot seat, just like the Democrats and Republicans in the United States or Labour and the Conservatives in Britain.

The emergence of Japan’s own two-party system has been the result of the electoral reforms made when the LDP briefly lost its grip on power in 1993. These changes created a hybrid system that combined directly elected constituency members (300) with proportionally elected block seats (180). This allowed smaller political factions to survive, while encouraging them to coalesce. Needless to say, this was custom-made for Japanese politics in the ’90s, a time of breakaway factions, new parties, and mergers that eventually led to the formation of the present DPJ.

With two powerful political blocs now competing for voters’ affections, the feeling is that things can only get better. The sleaze, cronyism, and pork barreling that characterized Japanese politics during the LDP’s one-party rule will be a lot harder now that the public’s hand is on a lever that can open a trapdoor under any administration.

But while it may help solve some old problems, a two-party system also raises new dangers. As we see in the West, it is likely to lead to a narrowing of the political spectrum, as the two major parties fight for the all-important center ground.

The effects of this can already be seen. In terms of hard policy differences, there is little to separate the two parties. In the eyes of the voters, the DPJ seemed to put political blue water between itself and its opponents on just enough issues to convince them that they offered change. These were opposing "amakudari" (descent from heaven), whereby retiring bureaucrats take jobs in industries they formerly supervised; family-friendly proposals, like child allowances and free public high schools; and toll-free national expressways.

But these differences hardly constitute a yawning ideological chasm. Amakudari is not so much an LDP vs DPJ issue, but rather the result of Japan’s history as a one-party system and the creeping corruption this allowed. By the time of the next election, the LDP will probably have taken on the unlikely role of pointing out government sleaze and graft.

The other two manifesto commitments, aimed respectively at families with children and motorists, were clever vote winners, but will need additional government funding. The DPJ also had an important fourth policy: income support for farmers. Designed to steal support from the LDP in its core rural constituencies, this was yet another plan with a price tag on it.

This leads us to the real dangers of Japan’s new political system. With two alternating parties going head-to-head, what you get is less a debate on the best way to raise the overall fortunes and quality of a country, but instead a competition to offer voters more benefits at less cost. In essence this means a cut-tax-and-increase-public-spending approach.

Japan’s astronomical public debt—almost twice as big as the GNP—was mainly created by recent LDP administrations prompted into spending vast amounts of money they didn’t have on economic stimulus packages by political opponents promising to spend even more, creating an economic time bomb. If the LDP grip on power had been as secure as it was in the ’60s and ’70s, such economic mismanagement would have been unlikely.

With the DPJ now regaling the masses with promises of public largess, the LDP has two choices: either reposition itself as the Draconian party of fiscal responsibility, get annihilated at the next election, but have the last laugh when the Japanese economy finally collapses, or beat the DPJ at its own game by suggesting even more publicly funded benefits for voters. I would recommend free massages for the elderly, tax breaks on dog clothing, bicycle parking grants, etc, etc. In this way, we can enjoy the spectacle of a country passing rapidly from political infancy to senility without an intervening period of adulthood.

This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

12 Comments
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I will trust Hatoyama when I see him support a sound fiscal policy. Japan's national debt level is completely insane, and the annual deficit only makes it worse. The national debt is approaching 200% of GNP- this is unbelievable, a horrid legacy for the current generation to burden their children with.

Does he have any ideas on when to actually pay back the money he will need to borrow to finance his schemes? Or when the current debt load will be paid back?

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DS, a population that is shrinking and a government ready to spend money to make some changes. No one has any ideas when it will be paid back, the party inherited a huge mess and if they don't make the right changes they'll screw things up even more. Guess the world is just in for some big change and power shifts.

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Doesnt matter that the debt was inherited. It exists and needs to be eliminated. Or at least capped, but increased?!? Utter folly. Utterly irresponsible and immoral to leave it up to future generations. to pay for the greed of our own.

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DS wrote:

"I will trust Hatoyama when I see him support a sound fiscal policy. Japan's national debt level is completely insane, and the annual deficit only makes it worse. The national debt is approaching 200% of GNP- this is unbelievable, a horrid legacy for the current generation to burden their children with."

Nice comments, DS.

Yukio Hatoyama will always be a flip-flopping(party loyalty/party platforms), spineless, son-of-privilege(albeit not the only one at/near the top) to me. He and Ichiro Ozawa, Naoto Kan and the rest of the DPJ are in power for the time being simply because there weren't any other real alternatives.

They are making a lot of promises they can't keep, and some others they will but will do even greater damage to Japan's long-term financial health and the social fabric of the nation.

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I will congratulate him when he takes away useless fingerprinting and photographing of all "legal" foreign residents on each return to Japan. He is probably more foreigner friendly, right? Prove it!

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The LDP's pump-priming measures over the last 10 years have done little but provide the facade of continued wealth, when in fact all it is based on is borrowed money at low interest rates.

Japan needs to look at what sort of country it wants to be in 20 years and what it realistically can afford. The ageing population, increased deindustrialisation and the need to pay of debt are all problems that need to be addressed.

Japan needs to have a grown up debate about these issues. Increased child benefit will certainly help address one of these. Other child-related benefits would see an increased number of women in the workforce.

Reducing the construction budget is a must - the Public Works budget is 14% of the government budget, or 7 trillion yen. It is often wasteful and unecessary, leaving a significant proportion of the population in a unproductive part of the economy.

Personally, I cannot see how Japan is going to pay for all those old people and pay off its national debt, but the worst option of all is for Japan to put its head in the sand and that seems to be what it has been doing for the last decade.

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"Blue Ribbon democracies such as Britain and the United States" Well if that's blue ribbon Japan doesn't have much to work at. The US political system is a sham and hardly grown up. The Democrats and Republicans voice their positions in sound bites and slander their opponents. Wow guys you have a lot to look forward to.

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At least parties in the US actually get the chance to voice themselves. Campaigns in Japan are so short, and so restricted, that all most people see is a white glove emerging ghostlike from a white van while listening to a leather lunged harridan scream the politician's name over and over, followed by "onegai shimasu". Japan has no candidates debates at the local level (or national that are at all publicized), a horrible nepotism problem, and an amazing gerrymander with regard to the relative strenghs of urban and rural voters.

Yes, Japan has a LONG way to go.

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European1 at 09:02 PM JST - 21st September I will congratulate him when he takes away useless fingerprinting and photographing of all "legal" foreign residents on each return to Japan. He is probably more foreigner friendly, right? Prove it!

Why does this piss-off so many people? It's same the procedure faced by resident and non-resident aliens in pretty much any other country.

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European1 at 09:02 PM JST - 21st September I will congratulate him when he takes away useless fingerprinting and photographing of all "legal" foreign residents on each return to Japan. He is probably more foreigner friendly, right? Prove it!

Why does this piss-off so many people? It's same the procedure faced by resident and non-resident aliens in pretty much any other country.

Maybe because everyone thinks he/she is a citizen of the world, while everybody else are foreigners. Heheh!

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"I will congratulate him when he takes away useless fingerprinting and photographing of all "legal" foreign residents on each return to Japan. He is probably more foreigner friendly, right? Prove it!"

wow Japans big issue hey. I suspect he wont even have talked about this. anyway these checks ,etc; par for the course these days for travelling quite a few places.

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If Japan's political system has matured, the government must make mature decisions.

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