Will the Next Elections Save Japanese Democracy

Asahi Shimbun

Why was last Sunday a sad day for Japanese democracy? Because it was demonstrated that a TV celebrity who also happens to be the prime minister of Japan managed to hijack the cause of reform, placed meaningful policy discussion out of bounds, and was given the opportunity to continue blocking the real repairs that Japan does need. Koizumi’s achievement is amazing if you consider that genuine privatization of postal savings is unthinkable. We need to be very clear about this right away; what I write here is not controversial opinion, it is a reality anyone can see. The money collected by the post office has a peculiar function that is crucial in helping to keep the Japanese economy going through the zaisei yushishikin – which officials can treat as a “second budget”. If you expose the huge amount of money involved to real market forces – which is what privatization means – Japan’s financial system would collapse along with many of its agricultural institutions, and practically the entire construction sector would go bankrupt. Just one further detail: In combination, this fund, administered by Ministry of Finance officials, together with Japan Post itself, are the biggest holder of Japan Government Bonds, which helps to ensure that this form of government financing remains insulated from real – unreliable – market forces. The few who have immersed themselves in these details are not worried about the possibility of a calamity, seeing that as the legislation put forward by Koizumi is designed to be implemented in the dim future twelve years hence it does not begin to represent believable policy.

But if any opposition candidates told the public that Koizumi and those who had remained loyal to his plan were not offering a policy at all, their voices were drowned by the din created by the media in which “reform”, “reform”, “reform” echoed from all sides. Anything they tried to get across about genuine policy, and about Japan’s real problems was also lost in the frenzy created by Koizumi and his election tacticians; a frenzy that was supposed to reflect the Japanese public’s deep desire for reform. In forty years of watching Japanese elections I have seen many funny as well as disturbing things, but found that Japanese voters usually have some sense of balance and common sense. Last Sunday’s must have been the most nonsensical postwar election ever to have taken place in this country. Mostly due to the incredibly superficial imagery on TV and the strange Japanese enchantment with the term “reform”.

That began twelve years ago when, during the last political upheaval that brought a temporary end to LDP hegemony, a new notion took hold of a large part of the Japanese population: fundamental change in the way that Japan was being governed was not only necessary, but also possible. Before then, most politically astute Japanese had not thought that their rather rigid political system would ever allow fundamental change without a shock from outside. “Reform” became the talk of the day for at least nine months. The very word “reform” seemed to gain some magic resonance as it circulated in all publications and reverberated among the public.
And so it became an amulet; something treated as if it has a magic power of its own; with the assumption that solely by being mentioned it helps itself become reality.

Koizumi Junichiro seized the amulet when he became prime minister and he has been flaunting it ever since. In no other country will you hear so much talk of reform as here. In the months following Koizumi’s rise to the top the amulet was constantly visible; TV and newspapers were worshiping it every day. This caused a heady atmosphere. Japan was going to change for the better, change totally. There was only one curious aspect to all this. No one at the time ever bothered going into details on the thousands of occasions when the issue of reform was raised. Reform of what? And precisely how? It did not seem to matter. Commitment to “reform” was enough by itself; it had become Japan’s sacred political cause.

Four years later, what has Koizumi as prime minister managed to accomplish with respect to policy initiatives that seemed to be obviously necessary in 1993, initiatives that would turn Japan, in the words of Ozawa Ichiro, “a normal country”? Preciously little. He has essentially followed the agenda of Ministry of Finance officials who have long waged a campaign to restrain the worst excesses of public spending paid for by the “second budget”. His postal savings plan is in line with this agenda as well, making sure that in the longer term they can maintain and enlarge control over that money.

To be fair to Koizumi, whatever desire for genuine reform he might once have had, he faces the same impediment that has curbed the ability to be effective of almost all his predecessors. Japanese prime ministers simply do not in practice have the mandate that they have in theory and that comes with the job in most European or other Asian countries. The same goes for cabinet ministers who rarely have a real say over the portfolios they hold and are considered temporary visitors in their ministries. Outsiders are frequently misled on this point as elected Japanese officials are treated with an impressive show of deference, which compensates for their lack of true power over policy. It was thought to be among the priorities in 1993 to repair that situation, so that Japan could become a “normal country”. And it has been an important issue in the political thinking of the top Minshuto politicians.

Because Koizumi is more flamboyant than almost all other LDP politicians, and because he is a relative outsider who does not mind breaking the unwritten rules of the traditional Japanese political elite, he indulges in political gestures that give spectators the impression of steadfastness and daring. Their results do not help Japan one bit. In the six party talks concerning North Korea – one of the most important strategic issues in Japan’s neighborhood – Japan plays an entirely subordinate role. Koizumi’s North-Korean initiative went haywire because he had not thought it through, and had not made it part of a much broader strategy that would have included a marshalling of forces so as to ensure a broad national grasp of his goal. Diplomacy with Japan’s neighbors has virtually come to a standstill under Koizumi, as relations with China, Russia, and South Korea have all deteriorated. Koizumi appears to thrive in a peculiar realm of Japanese politics where gestures and symbols substitute for policy substance, and so he worsened relations with China by stubbornly repeating his visits to that relic of State Shintoism, the Yasukuni shrine.

His “great victory” of last Sunday is likely to confirm the valor of steadfastness to himself, which is a good reason for Japan’s political players to be alert to new surprise actions that will not help Japan one bit. Those players, also inside the LDP, will help themselves and their country by keeping in mind that this victory was the result of a trick that worked because it came entirely unexpected; a sign of how vulnerable Japan’s democracy has become. Koizumi decreed that only one subject counted and the country, dazed by fake reform frenzy, went along with this deception. He played the media better than any prime ministers before him, so that he could make news stories revolve around the question of whether he or disloyal party members would win. Real policy issues as well as the opposition parties that might have raised them were shoved aside in national media attention, fatally undermining the process for which elections are held to begin with – at least outside dictatorships. The trick could have been designed by Karl Rove, the political strategy genius but totally unconscionable wrecker of democracy who is behind George W. Bush’s election maneuvers. It may all seem permissible as part of the mean art of politics, but it causes the demise of public influence over what happens in a country.

Many, perhaps most, elections in other countries are not much about policy either; the commonly heard joke in Japan about elections being political beauty contests happens to be, unfortunately, the truth in much of Europe and the United States. Democracy appears to be deteriorating everywhere. For much of the time this does not have terribly negative consequences as long as there are no emergencies and things continue to run smoothly. But isn’t new policy necessary in Japan? Since 1993 Japanese people with an interest in the future of the country seem to have been convinced of it.

So what should the Minshuto, the smaller parties, the LDP dissenters and the rest of us be thinking about while Koizumi makes his moves to give, perhaps inadvertently, the bureaucrats a longer lease on their beloved status quo?

One area that ought to be the subject of serious thought and discussion concerns the working relations between bureaucrats and politicians. Many have long understood that this is the core problem. Elected politicians have the duty ultimately to determine what a government should do. But in Japan they have had great difficulty to achieve an effective partnership with the unelected bureaucrats; professionals who know more about their area of responsibility than the politicians do. Once Japanese politicians attain knowledgeable leadership over these officials, genuine policy initiatives will become possible. A most direly needed one is tricky and complex; it concerns Japan’s support of the dollar because of which Japan loses its savings to the United States. Many of the problems that are known to the public, such as the coming pension crisis and slow growth, are connected with this unexamined policy of the Ministry of Finance. When Japanese politics reaches the stage when it can shed the bonds of vassalage to the United States and become a truly independent (and normal) country, it can begin to devote attention to the spreading of Japan’s accumulated wealth among the population. It should, even before then, begin to respond to the world as a significant and responsible political entity. There is today virtually nothing in Japan’s foreign policy thinking that reflects the momentous political changes that its giant neighbors — China and Russia — have undergone in recent times. Also the role of the United States in the world has in the past four years changed dramatically. True political leaders, when they make their appearance, will have to inspire the gaimusho urgently to develop new diplomacy to cope with an entirely new reality produced by those changes.

The best hope for all this to be accomplished is still a genuine opposition party. If Minshuto keeps itself together, fights its tendency to become a mirror image of the LDP, and continues its way toward a two party division in Japanese politics, it could fulfill that task. It would do well to start using the term “repair” instead of “reform”, whose amuletic function has rendered it meaningless. This is not the time for opposition ambitions to evaporate. Because contrary to present appearances there is actually little politically significant life left in the LDP. It used to win elections because of its subsidies and infrastructure spending. It now must seduce the voters with gross illusions, while it is badly divided and out of touch with its traditional base, all of which means that its huge breath last Sunday could be its last. Maybe the next elections will yet save Japanese democracy.