26 – What Can the DPJ’s Overwhelming Victory Mean for Japan? (31 Aug 09)

    The significance of yesterday’s Japanese election results goes beyond a relatively new and untried political party ending half a century of rule by a competing party; if the new leaders turn out to be true leaders and are allowed to carry out their declared intentions, this will fundamentally change the Japanese power system. That power system has in modern times always been averse to genuine political leadership. It has been relatively good at administrative governance, with career officials maintaining policy stability and initiating adjustments to stick to a course set by accident or imagined national expediency before their time.
    This means that with few exceptions the elected officials – politicians in Japan’s parliament, in the Prime Minister’s office, and ostensibly as heads of government agencies – besides reassuring their own citizens and the outside world that Japan is a democracy, have played a mostly marginal role, as powerbrokers at best. We can actually single out an architect who set it up this way just before the turn of the century before last: Yamagata Aritomo. Rather than here telling the story of this remarkable man, who created Japan’s modern bureaucracy along with its early 20th-century military establishment, I will copy an essay about him that I wrote in 2001 in a sub-jotting hereunder. What Japan’s new government will be up against is essentially what he wrought and, in a modified way, has endured for over a century.
     To say that the task that Hatoyama Yukio and his fellow leaders of the Minshuto have set themselves is daunting would be putting it very, very mildly. One must be wary of using the label ‘revolutionary’, but if they succeed this would be appropriate in the context of Japan’s controlling political institutions. Considering their manifesto there can hardly be any doubt that correcting the severe imbalance in the relationship between Japan’s elected politicians and career bureaucrats is their priority. What they want is nothing out of the ordinary for most other countries.
    They want to have cabinet meetings with well-informed ministers who may deliberate on policy and bring up new business, rather than putting their hanko (Japanese name-stamps substituting for signatures) on documents prepared the previous day at the regular meetings of the administrative vice ministers, in a ritual lasting little more than twenty minutes.
    They want to introduce a national budget reflecting final decisions by the premier and this council of ministers, which may imply overruling the priorities of the Budget Bureau of the Ministry of Finance.
    They want to eliminate the enormous waste and misappropriations of the nicknamed ‘second budget’, which in some years is almost as large as the national budget, but which is administered by the Trust Fund Bureau of the Ministry of Finance and is allocated at the discretion of the bureaucrats.
    Having gained political leverage that would be considered normal for democracies, they want to rethink national purposes that have long been taken for granted. One could say that the national purpose that emerged quite naturally from post-war economic reconstruction, after that had been completed, was the nursing at all costs of Japanese industrial production capacity regardless of profits or social welfare. That was in the late 1950s and, while there have been many adjustments and new secondary priorities, bureaucratic routine and bureaucratic self-preservation have, essentially, kept Japan on that course for half a century.
     This will be the first time that Japan will be governed by a party also representing the urban middle class; all earlier attempts to create sarariiman parties have failed. After an LDP that catered mostly to the special interests needs of farmers, business, and small shopkeepers, this meets much neglected needs created by the relative economic uncertainty of the past couple of decades. Politically aware Japanese, especially in the cities, have long known that something is fundamentally wrong with the manner in which their country is governed.
    Until 1993 this was regretted but believed to be inevitable, as if it were a fact of nature. Shikataganai – it cannot be helped – seemed to be the most important term in Japan’s political vocabulary. Then a party political upheaval took place which brought to the fore a number of articulate reformist politicians, and energised the political community with a plethora of exposés in mainstream media about how Japanese bureaucratic power is exercised. Ever since the notion has lingered in the back of the public’s mind that fundamental reform is not only desirable but also possible; but because of its overuse in thousands of political speeches and election campaign rhetoric this idea has lost its original force.
     The early reformist politicians who tried their hands at actually governing for some 11 months in 1993-4, while the yesterday defeated LDP waited on the sidelines, discovered that they didn’t know where to begin, and that they had to fall back entirely on the knowledge of the bureaucrats they were supposed to lead. Originally ensconced in splinter parties, they found each other and formed the Minshuto, which only in the past two or three years began to take on the shape of a credible and electable opposition party. The Socialist Party before them had betrayed the Japanese electorate for four decades by never seriously trying to take over from the LDP.
     The voice of Minshuto could hardly be heard above the media-created hullabaloo preceding the previous lower house elections, four years ago, about the plans for cleaning up the LDP of the then Prime Minister Koizumi. He was Japan’s first TV celebrity prime minister, and succeeded in creating the illusion that he would embark on a political overhaul of Japan, while in actual fact helping a group of finance ministry bureaucrats in, among other things, continuing their decades old project to curtail the spending excesses initiated by Japan’s post-war genius politician Tanaka Kakuei. Koizumi kept the LDP together for years after it began showing strong signs of political exhaustion. But with those lower house elections in 2005 he also laid the basis for yesterday’s defeat, by destroying a large part of its grassroots apparatus. I told the story of this spectacular previous election, and the portends of the LDP’s future demise, here and here in articles written for the Asahi Shimbun.
     Will Japan’s new government be able to do what the reformists could not possibly accomplish in 1993? Sceptics point at the divisions within the Minshuto. And it is true that within a very short time a large number of politicians had to be found to fill the ranks of this increasingly successful opposition party. These do not share the experience and the original idealism of the central party figures. Many of them will be asked by the party to begin monitoring the conduct of the bureaucrats for which there are no precedents in Japanese political history, and for which they are obviously not properly prepared.
     But my impression is that the individuals of the inner core of the party are deadly serious about what must be done to turn their country into what one of them, the most senior and most experienced Ozawa Ichiro, has in his writing called a ‘normal country’. I also think that they work well together, having taken turns at the presidency of the party. Ozawa is credited of having been the main strategist behind the recent election campaign, and he is likely to be Hatoyama’s main council where it concerns mapping out effective diplomacy vis-a-vis the various ministries. Also crucially important is Kan Naoto, a very intelligent and steadfast politician who made history with his unprecedented demand that the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Health and Welfare, which he briefly headed, tell the truth about blood products tainted with the HIV virus that they had knowingly allowed to be marketed. He helped introduce the very notion of ‘accountability’ in a domestic political discourse that had until then stopped at the idea of ‘responsibility’.
     A huge part of the exercise of Japanese power follows informal lines, and is kept hidden. The new ruling party will have to discover many things that the departing LDP was not terribly interested in, unless it directly affected the status and re-election chances of individual members. There will undoubtedly be continuous attempts at sabotaging what the Minshuto intends to accomplish. The crucial role of the media has, so far, proven to be unreliable when Japanese politicians have the temerity to stick out their necks. One may expect anonymous rumours to emerge from certain bureaucratic quarters, and they may well be amplified into a scandal to undermine the about to be formed government. In some parts of the bureaucracy there is considerable ambivalence about the need for Japan to have a political steering wheel. As I myself have found in numerous conversations over the years with Japanese officials, quite a few of them have for some time realised that the national interest is not served by the rudderless political system as a whole, and by the absence of guidance for some of their ministries in particular. But the belief is ingrained with many of these officials, and shared by important newspaper editors and commentators, that Japanese politicians are simply not competent enough to run the show. No wonder if they have rarely had an opportunity to try their hands at it.
     The Japanese who have been frustrated with unfulfilled expectations prompted by 16 years of promised fundamental change can only hope that their new government is given much time (and peace from scandal mongers) to work out an effective and productive collaboration between elected and career officials – simply the single greatest political problem of modern Japan.