Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Japan’s Democratic Party Failing to Live Up to Promise

Enthusiasm for the Democratic Party of Japan ran high when it came to power last autumn. People were stunned by cabinet ministers speaking their own words rather than reading from scripts prepared by bureaucrats. They believed it when DPJ leaders said the prime minister and cabinet would decide policy rather than continue the practice of mostly rubber-stamping decisions made by civil servants. It seemed to many that Japan was going to have a new kind of politics — more open and responsive to citizens than to the special interests that had captured the Liberal Democratic Party.

Eight months later, hope has turned to disappointment. Public support for the DPJ is in free fall, down from a high of more than 70 percent when the DPJ took over to less than 25 percent today. While Yukio Hatoyama, the prime minister, vacillates, members of his cabinet have become increasingly vocal in staking out competing positions on important policy issues. The government is in disarray.

Though he is the party president as well as head of the government, Hatoyama has ceded power over the DPJ to Ichiro Ozawa, the party’s secretary general who rules with an iron fist. Ozawa’s strategy for winning a majority for the DPJ in this summer’s upper house election is drawn from an old LDP playbook. He has sought the support of interest groups that long backed the LDP, and is recruiting television personalities, good-looking female announcers and other political amateurs with high name recognition to run on the DPJ ticket. He exerts his influence over Hatoyama and the government mostly from the shadows so no one is quite sure who is in charge. So much for openness, newness and cabinet-centered decision-making.

Japan’s political situation might not be so dire were there an opposition party with a chance to secure broad public support. But there is not. As unhappy as people are with the DPJ, they are loath to see the LDP back in power. Having recently suffered some high-profile defections, the LDP’s very ability to survive is in doubt.

The big guessing game in Tokyo is how much longer Hatoyama is going to last as prime minister. Replacing him will not solve much whenever it happens. The basic problem is that Japan lacks political leaders who either understand or are willing to tell the public what needs to be done to get the nation’s fiscal house in order, break free of the drag that deflation exerts on the economy and promote growth. An increase in the consumption tax earmarked for social security expenditures is gaining support across the political spectrum. But, in the absence of an overall package of tax and regulatory reform, that will only make matters worse.

One does not run into many people in Japan who rue the LDP’s demise. Nor are there many with a kind word to say about how Hatoyama and the DPJ have run the country. But it is not inconceivable that the DPJ may yet turn things around.

To do so, it must find the courage to level with the people about the severity of Japan’s fiscal crisis. Ministers need to stop talking out of both sides of their mouths about eliminating highway tolls and scuttling postal system reform. Saying they are sticking to the “principle” of free highways while increasing tolls for 80 percent of the drivers who use them fools no one and exposes the government to ridicule.

Doubling the ceiling on deposits in the postal system bank will cause funds to shift from private, especially regional, banks. The postal system invests nearly all its money in Japanese government bonds. Given more money, it will buy more bonds, relaxing pressure on the government to exercise any kind of fiscal restraint.

Moreover, Hatoyama has to figure out how to climb out of the deep hole he dug for himself when he decided to abandon a US-Japan agreement on where to relocate a US air base in Okinawa. He has failed to come up with a feasible alternative or even a coherent process for arriving at one.

For a party that came to power only months ago to press the restart button is risky. But if it sticks to its current course, this government will soon collapse and an extended period of political turmoil and ineffective government will follow.

East Asia Forum

By Gerald Curtis Burgess professor of political science at Columbia University, and a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Of course the DPJ failed to live up to expectations. What the hell did this bozo expect? This is JAPAN we're talking about! Nothing ever changes in Japan, especially their politics. It will take a major asteroid impact or something equivalent to get Japan to change.