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Something is wrong with Japanese politics

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In Brief

In September last year, in the lower house general election the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) scored an overwhelming victory, greatly exceeding a majority taking 308 seats. Prime Minister Hatoyama and Secretary-General Ozawa formed the so-called 'O-bato (小鳩) system', the books were closed on this hectic change-of-government period, and many people thought that stable government would continue. However, at the beginning of this year the DPJ government began to waver around the issue of the questionable or inappropriate handling of political funds by both Hatoyama and Ozawa.

In addition, the government was shaken badly by the 'Okinawa Futenma base relocation problem', Prime Minister Hatoyama's approval rating fell sharply, and eventually on June 1 the issue was put to rest by  Hatoyama's and Ozawa's resignations, and the political situation now enters a new stage with the emergence of the new Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, and an upper house election.


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The political situation in Japan has changed dramatically in just 8 months.

The continuing trend of short lived cabinets since Prime Minister Koizumi, of Abe, Fukuda and Aso, has seen international confidence in the Japanese political system sink and itself is exacerbating a sense of political instability in Japan.

How does Japanese politics measure up now?

First there is the disposition of the politicians themselves. The public thought that what Prime Minister Hatoyama was saying made sense and that he had captured the sentiment of the nation. Their expectations and support of him ran high. But his exercise of the responsibilities of office failed to match his rhetoric. Flowery and elegant rhetoric wore thin and Hatoyama’s approval ratings plunged (Mr. Hatoyama!, you too?) as feelings of disappointment in his performance exploded.

But there is no need for the prime minister to step down as soon as he stumbles in the implementation of policy. The problems of ‘Futenma’ and ‘politics and money’ were certainly serious problems. But they weren’t the only problems that weighed on his administration. The problems were more deep seated – impossible to tackle one-by-one, requiring commitment to wholesale social reform across many aspects of society. These problems won’t be solved by short-term one-shot political leaders who have no resolve.

Second, the Japanese media are mesmerised by short term opinion polls, hastily jumping to conclusions and making judgements about the meaning of fluctuations in approval ratings. And the public too are swayed by this. The media and the public need to reflect deeply on this behaviour. US President Obama, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, and Australian Prime Minister Rudd all came to office with high approval ratings. Due to the financial crisis, recession, employment problems and other issues their approval ratings dropped quickly too. By weathering it out, they are sticking to their policy guns and today have relatively stable political administrations.

Naoto Kan became prime minister relatively smoothly, so, from a domestic viewpoint, Hatoyama’s resignation might not appear to be a problem for domestic political stability. But if prime ministers resign on a whim, Japan will produce administration after administration without capability of achieving anything. Each time the people will lose hope and international society’s confidence in Japan will corrode. With the problems Japan confronts today, it cannot afford this merry-go-round of administrations, passing problems off from one administration to the next in a game of political make believe.

Third, Hatoyama’s exit will not solve the problems of Japanese political leadership this time round.  The truth is that Japanese political leadership has a serious problem. In the past, the bureaucracy did the policy spadework and carried politicians with them, exercising power without political responsibility. With the advent of the DPJ government, the public repudiated the system of bureaucracy led government. The ‘government expenditure review program’, for example, shows a stage of political development where the public are groping for the construction of a truly new policymaking process.  This new policy making process requires the construction of institutions for public participation in the policy making process. This will take time.

In the end whoever takes charge of the political administration of Japan will face a tough time from here in. The new prime minister will need conviction and determination and the public and the media will need longer term yardsticks whereby to judge good and bad policies than they commonly have in the past.

Satoshi Amako is Professor and formerly Dean of the Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.

This essay was translated by Ben Ascione, a graduate research student at Waseda University.

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