Will a change of govt alter Japan’s politics?

July.23 : The world seems to have stopped paying attention to Japanese politics as Prime Ministers come and go in quick succession — the present holder of office, Taro Aso, is the fourth in three years — and the perennial ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in office for five decades except for a short break in the mid-90s, staggers on. Yet Mr Aso’s travails have a new edge stemming from his decision to call a general election on August 30 after the LDP lost heavily in local elections.

These are difficult times in the economic field for Japan, as for most developed countries, with the forecast of 3.4 per cent shrinkage in the current year. In fact, Japan witnessed the sharpest decline on record with a drop of 14.2 per cent between January and March. But we have it on the testimony of the country’s central bank that "economic conditions have stopped worsening".

Mr Aso did not need the economic downturn to add to his woes. As with his predecessors, his popularity ratings have been plummeting, as have the fortunes of the LDP. And with some luck the main Opposition, Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), weighed down with its own problems, is set to win the election. Efforts to unseat Mr Aso in the LDP as also to defeat the ruling party in the lower house failed.

The world must pay attention to the political turmoil in the second-largest economy because Japan is facing several crises and contradictions which will have consequences for the region and farther afield. The ossified dynasty-driven political structure in the country has not changed since the US-fathered Constitution was put in place after its defeat in the last World War. The economic miracle of the second half of the 20th century dazzled the world, leading to self-doubt in the US, to make talk of political reform almost irrelevant. The only chance the Opposition got to rule it botched up and the worthies of the LDP quickly reclaimed their slot.

In the DPJ, the pugnacious Ichiro Ozawa had to resign from the leadership position with his chief aide leaving his post after a scandal, Yukio Hatoyama replacing him in May. But will the party’s likely victory in the general election bring about a change? The DPJ was founded in 1998 by the merger of smaller parties and the Opposition succeeded in thwarting the ruling party in obtaining a majority in the Upper House, leading to a legislative stalemate on many issues.

It will take more than a DPJ victory in the election to change Japanese polity because family dynasties and party factions coalescing around little shoguns run party and national affairs. Next in importance to these shoguns is the powerful bureaucracy, which has successfully frustrated attempts to reform it. The only recent politician who came with the promise of changing the way politics is played, Junichiro Koizumi, failed to leave an abiding legacy. He appealed to the electorate above the heads of the party heavyweights, gave his party a landslide victory and pursued the landmark privatisation of postal services, but failed to break faction-ridden personality-based politics.

In the foreign policy field, two issues have dominated Japanese politics: the security relationship with the United States and the relationship with China, with developments in North Korea playing an important role. The rise of China and the maverick nature of the North Korean regime, now flaunting nuclear capability, have served to deepen Tokyo’s defence relationship with Washington. Japan, it must be remembered, bears the preponderant share of the financial burden in the stationing of American troops on its soil.

Mr Koizumi was a hawk and his regular visits to the Yakusuni shrine, housing among other remains those of the condemned in the war crime trial, resulted in fraught relations with China. His successors were less keen publicly to honour the war dead although Mr Aso angered the Chinese by sending a potted plant to the shrine. The Chinese regularly bring up the Japanese wartime record when it suits them, often calibrating popular sentiment to diplomatic needs.

With the North Koreans, the Japanese have a less distant historical record to settle: the abduction of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang to train its spies and its reluctance to give a full accounting of the survivors. Even more acutely felt is the perceived threat from North Korea which has been firing missiles across Japan or into the Sea of Japan.

Any possible Japanese response leads to a discussion of the Constitution.

The Koizumi regime pushed the envelope by sending Japanese troops, known by the euphemism of Japan’s Self-Defence Forces, to Iraq and helping the Afghanistan operations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) through support ships in the Indian Ocean. But as the only country to suffer from atomic bombings of their cities in the last World War, the Japanese peace lobby remains strong and resists efforts to expand the role of Japanese troops.

Should the DPJ come to power, the relationship with China is likely to improve because it will make a greater effort to respect Chinese sensitivities. Economic recovery, which is bound to come, will make the task of governing easier but the party’s effort is likely to be concentrated on maintaining its cohesion. With the larger than life Mr Ozawa out of the race, it will fall on Mr Yukio to bring dissidents into line.

Yet a change of government provides the first realistic opportunity overall to the creaking Japanese political structure.

For a change, the economic downturn has led to changes in guaranteed lifetime employment in companies and corporations. Besides, there are stirrings of change in the outlook of women, usually given a subservient status, and the young are beginning to rebel against the preordained rules of how to live. Whether the DPJ, if it comes to power, can galvanise these favourable factors to give the country’s polity a much-needed overhaul remains to be seen. Japan is on the cusp of change, if only the new rulers would seize the opportunity.

S. Nihal Singh

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