Decay of Japanese politics

by Shinji Fukukawa

Japan’s politics in recent years has lacked dynamism and incurred people’s distrust. The purpose of politics is to present a vision for the nation’s future, identify the systems and policies needed, and ensure the safety and prosperity of the nation and its people. Recently, though, Japanese politics has not lived up to these expectations.

What disappoints people most about Japanese politics is that the position of the prime minister appears to be carrying less and less weight.

In the eyes of many people, Prime Minister Taro Aso, rather than exploring new paths for development of the nation, seems intent on staying in office as long as he can. His behavior and words cast doubt upon his virtue and culture, adding to public distrust in the prime minister.

And within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which was supposed to have chosen Aso last year as a man who could help the party survive the general election, lawmakers continue to engage in internal struggles out of fear that the party will lose power with Aso at the helm.

The opposition camp, meanwhile, has focused its strategy on cornering the ruling coalition and pushing the prime minister into dissolving the Lower House as quickly as possible — rather than on challenging the government over the choice of future paths for the nation.

Several factors have contributed to this deterioration of Japanese politics. The first is the detachment of politics from people.

In the last Lower House election in 2005, the LDP — then led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — won a landslide victory. In the election, voters supported the Koizumi-led LDP by an overwhelming majority, but one year later Koizumi himself resigned as prime minister as his term as LDP president expired. Shinzo Abe was chosen as his successor, but Abe suddenly quit after only a year, citing health reasons. Yasuo Fukuda took over, but again his administration came to a sudden end in about a year, paving the way for Aso to become LDP chief and prime minister.

Even as people called for dissolution of the Lower House, three consecutive LDP prime ministers — dictated by the LDP’s internal logic — took office without ever passing the judgment of voters.

What made matters worse was the talk that surfaced during the Fukuda administration — at the initiative of opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa — of a “grand coalition” between the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Such a development in the political sphere had nothing to do with the wishes of the electorate.

The approval ratings of the Aso Cabinet, which initially hovered around 50 percent, have fallen below 20 percent. Still, Aso kept pushing back the timing of Lower House dissolution until he finally dissolved the chamber July 21 for a general election set for Aug. 30.

The second factor is that the political decision-making institutions are not effectively working. For politics to remain dynamic, there needs to be an environment where a change of power is possible and political parties compete with each other to gain people’s support by presenting their policy platforms. It was for this objective that the single-seat constituency system was introduced in the 1993 revision of the Public Offices Election Law. However, political parties have used their manifestos as mere tools to curry favor with voters, and one governing coalition after another has continued with priority given to political parties’s own interests.

The opposition camp captured majority control of the Upper House in the 2007 election, creating the so-called divided Diet. But the tactics used by the opposition parties in this new situation have often bordered on harassment of the ruling coalition, and the two sides have never engaged in constructive dialogue toward high-level political decisions aimed, for example, at consensus through consultation between the two chambers.

The third factor is the decline in the ability of political parties and individual politicians. A series of political reforms including introduction of the single-seat constituencies and tighter political funds control have reduced the power of LDP factions, which had earlier dominated the politics inside the longtime ruling party. That in itself led voters to expect that political parties would boost their control over such matters as selection of candidates in elections, but things did not necessarily work out that way.

Policymaking capabilities of the parties remain weak. Each of the major parties has organizations like policy research panels, but they have not fully developed such key functions as analyzing world affairs and social phenomena and making policy proposals.

Previous attempts by some parties to establish think tanks of their own ended in failure due to the low mobility of intellectual human resources in this country and the reluctance of many talented researchers to become associated with specific political parties. The reality is that, despite all the criticism, the ruling parties have essentially relied on the bureaucracy to make policies.

If the purpose of a general election is to allow voters a choice of which parties to put in control of the government, each of the parties needs to present its manifesto to the electorate. Voters want the political parties to demonstrate the capability to create such policy platforms.

There is also widespread public distrust of the qualifications of politicians. This author does not intend to say that all “nisei” (hereditary) lawmakers are bad, but the realities in election campaigns show that candidates who “inherit” the funds and supporters in the constituencies of their retiring fathers have the clear advantage over their competitors.

Another background element that has contributed to a decline in the quality of politicians is that certain candidates benefit from the “wind” that blows in each election — most recently the 2005 Lower House election — although this is a problem for voters.

Many politicians may mistake calls for a “politics-driven” administration mechanism as a “politicians-driven” mechanism where individual politicians appear at center stage. Some politicians spend a lot of energy demonstrating their power over the bureaucracy, while others try to increase their exposure on TV shows, rather than spending more time studying policies.

The fourth factor is that Japanese politics has become inward-looking. In this era of globalization, voters want Japan to make international contributions commensurate with its status as the world’s second-largest economy. Regrettably, however, Japan’s diplomacy gets low marks from the rest of the world, and its power to make proposals to, and communicate with, international society remains fairly weak. It has also not been able to establish strong intellectual networks with overseas think tanks.

Japan’s attempt to secure a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council has not obtained wide support from the international community. Rather, it appears that the rest of the world is making light of Japan — as suggested by the phrase “Japan passing.”

Even though the nation remains the world’s No. 2 economy, Japan has reduced its overseas economic aid each year due to fiscal constraints. Once the world’s largest aid donor, it has now slipped to the fifth rank.

And even as the nation’s trade with the rest of Asia has topped its trade with the United States, Japan has failed to build trust with many of its Asian neighbors. It has not been able to share a common value that Japan and Asia should coexist for mutual benefit.

Furthermore, Japan remains unable to sufficiently contribute to a successful conclusion of the trade liberalization talks under the World Trade Organization due to strong political interests in protecting its farm industry. This has also hampered the nation’s efforts to conclude bilateral free trade agreements and economic partnership agreements.

Shinji Fukukawa, formerly vice minister of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) and president of Dentsu Research Institute, is currently chairman of the Machine Industry Memorial Foundation.