Shifting Society No. 15 - A New Age for Japan?

It's been only six weeks since August 30, the day the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ousted the entrenched Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) from power in a landslide victory. The trouncing was spectacular: the DPJ won 308 of the 480 seats in the Diet's House of Representatives, while the LDP won only 119. These numbers are a complete flip of the pre-election parliament in which the DPJ had only 115 seats and the LDP had 300.

What caused this dramatic reversal? Was it the DPJ's grand election manifesto that impressed the electorate? Or its leader's charisma? How else could the LDP, a party that had almost never failed to convince the voters that they were the only safe choice for the country, loose the game so disastrously?

Most commentators agree that it was not the DPJ's election platform that did the trick. It was indeed wide-ranging, with its promises to end the bureaucracy's decisive role in politics; curtail wasteful infrastructure projects; introduce child allowances; improve relations with China and Korea; become America's "equal partner"; and many other major plans to change the country's direction. But many thought the program was altogether too ambitious - and unaffordable.

It could hardly have been the leader's personality that seduced the voters. Mild-mannered and introspective, Yukio Hatoyama, 62, is the grandson of a previous LDP prime minister and the son of a former foreign minister. Educated at Tokyo University and Stanford, he holds a doctorate in industrial engineering. He helped found the DPJ in 1996 and served as its secretary-general before succeeding Ichiro Ozawa as president in May 2009. He has a philosophical bent and introduced his concept of "fraternity" during the election campaign. He came across as serious but uninspiring.

If it wasn't the election promises or Hatoyama's allure that swayed the voters, then what was it? The consensus among commentators was that the election result did not represent a pro-DPJ sentiment but a rejection of the LDP. The electorate was tired of (corrupt) business-as-usual, the scandal of the massive loss of pension records, the sorry record of three weak prime ministers in as many years, to name but a few of the many sources of frustration and discontent. The voters were fed up, and ready to give the Opposition a chance. But columnists and the man-in-the-street alike doubted if a DPJ government would actually succeed in changing the ingrained political culture. An LDP return to power in a year or two was widely expected. It seems the people were just taking a breather, while watching the party they had just elected stumble as the LDP old pros prepared for a comeback.

Perhaps with just such a scenario in mind, Hatoyama and his team hit the ground running. Defying their critics and surprising even their supporters, the new leaders have already taken some remarkable, even drastic steps to implement their election pledges:

  • Civil servants have been informed that henceforth policy will be set by politicians, and the bureaucracy is to follow ministers' instructions. Bureaucrats have also to stop holding regional planning meetings with local business leaders, a practice that had been seen as a source of chronic corruption for decades, especially in relation to major construction projects.
  • Foreign residents with permanent residency status - including some 400,000 Koreans - are to be given local-level voting rights.
  • A 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels has been pledged by Hatoyama at the UN, about triple the target announced by the previous government in June.
  • Hatoyama has proposed forming an East Asian Community, patterned on the EU, in meetings with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts. He has also declared his intention to clear the air about Japan's wartime record in Asia by acknowledging past atrocities, and building a new, secular national memorial to take over the function of honoring the war dead from the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.
  • In line with their pledge to curtail "wasteful public works", two major dam construction projects that were in advanced stages of preparation were cancelled, and 48 other dam projects were at least temporarily suspended.
  • Steps have been taken to open up ministerial press conferences to all media, an initiative that is meeting strong resistance from the major media, who until now benefited from exclusive "press club" membership access to such press briefings.
  • Highway tolls will be abolished.
  • The new Minister for Welfare is requesting a Yen 200 billion (about $ 2 billion) budget allocation to sort out the scandal of the 50 million "lost" pension records within two years.

Though not all of these initiatives have reached the implementation stage, it is without doubt an impressive record for a government that has only just come to power.

But will these and other measures still in the works actually constitute a fundamental shift in Japanese society?

Curtailing severely the power of the bureaucracy - including the abolition of the "amakudari" practice of allowing retiring civil servants to accept cushy jobs with companies they once oversaw - will surely reduce corruption, and thus benefit society as a whole. Measures aimed at putting more money into the pockets of ordinary citizens will stimulate domestic demand and help reduce Japan's reliance on exports. Curtailing CO2 emissions will require new technologies for developing energy alternatives to fossil fuel and nuclear power, and create new jobs in the process.

On the other hand, little attention seems to be paid so far to the plight of temporary workers and the sharp rise in the number of the unemployed, for whom there is no social safety net. The resulting increase in the number of homeless people, and of those without health benefits, needs to be addressed. Also, the planned abolition of highway tolls, at enormous cost to the government's coffers, seems at odds with the ambitious CO2 reduction target.

There is little doubt, however, that on balance DPJ's many initiatives will have major consequences for the Japanese economy and social structure.

But the chief impact of the change of government - and the new rulers' unexpected determination to actually carry out the promises they campaigned on - may well be the voters' realization of their own power, not merely to punish one unwanted party but to elect another for good reasons. Put differently, a conviction among the hitherto rather indifferent electorate that active political engagement can translate into better government may well have long-term consequences in the areas of public debate, the role of the media and educational policy, to name a few.

And such a development would truly represent a fundamental shift in Japanese society.

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© 2009 Hans Brinckmann