Blame the pragmatic feel for DPJ’s popularity slide

by Takamitsu Sawa

Ever since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in September 2009, the DPJ administrations have turned out unexpectedly unpopular.

There is no doubt that this is due in part to unfortunate events on diplomatic and security fronts. But why has the rate of approval plummeted so fast for the administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the DPJ? I will seek to identify some of the fundamental causes.

In his first policy speech since assuming office, delivered before the Diet on June 11, Prime Minister Kan said: “The third policy challenge is that foreign policy and national security policy will be grounded on responsibility.

“Today, international society faces major changes that can be likened to a tectonic shift. The changes extend not only to economic but also foreign policy and military fields. In this situation, we must clarify our position [in the international community] and pursue a foreign policy based on ‘balanced pragmatism.’ “

He stated that he had long admired the late professor Yonosuke Nagai of the Tokyo Institute of Technology as a scholar of politics known as the champion of pragmatism. It is hard to believe, though, that Kan, who was a civil activist in his youth, really had such high respect for Nagai.

On June 15, responding to an interpellation in an Upper House plenary session, Kan stuck to statements that sounded as though they were coming from a Liberal Democratic Party-headed regime. They included his pledges to firmly maintain the security setup with the United States and to preserve appropriate defense capabilities. These words undoubtedly represent an expression of pragmatic policies on national security.

The DPJ and the LDP are no different from each other in the sense that neither possesses a firm philosophy. In today’s world, where drastic changes occur too frequently, is it impossible for an idealist to head the government?

Kojien, a widely used Japanese dictionary, defines pragmatism as an “attitude to resolve issues realistically, without being bound by a principle or philosophy. Sometimes, it becomes synonymous with an opportunistic attitude of succumbing to fait accompli.”

On the other hand, it defines idealism as a “noble attitude of attaching the meaning of life to efforts to translate ideals into reality without compromising [one's values] with what is actually happening and without hesitating to accept disadvantage and suffering.”

Socialists as well as market economy advocates favor idealism in a sense that both have the common goal of an “ideal” society. As a matter of fact, at the time of the 2008 global financial crisis, the U.S. government’s legislative bill for stabilizing financial markets was first rejected by the Senate, but a revised bill was later approved by both houses of Congress after some amendments.

A bill to save General Motors and Chrysler was turned down by both the Senate and the House, but it was decided that the two automakers would be rescued after all under the financial market stabilization law. This was because those lawmakers who were loyal to the ideal of a market economy refused to go along with the idea of saving losers in the market with taxpayers’ money.

The collapse of major banking institutions would have dealt a serious blow to the nation. Therefore, the financial market stabilization bill was passed by Congress after necessary amendments. After the bill for the bailout of Detroit was rejected, and it was decided that the bailout, too, would be carried out in the name of stabilization.

The Chinese government refused to let Liu Xiaobo to attend a ceremony in which he would have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It kept him under detention, placed his wife under house arrest and asked other countries not to send their ambassadors to the awarding ceremony.

Liu is serving his prison term as the leader of a democratic campaign demanding a multiparty political system. The Beijing government, whose “ideal” is a socialist system under single-party rule, has been prepared to face international public criticism by sticking to its ideal.

I had thought that the DPJ administration would pursue liberalism or a “third way” as its ideal. Indeed, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama was an idealist dedicated to realizing ideals. For example, in August 2009, prior to taking office, he proposed a medium-term target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from the 1990 levels by 2020. In March this year, his government drafted a basic law to combat global warming. In a speech before the conference of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol (COP 15) in Copenhagen (December 2009), Hatoyama called on participants to work toward a powerful political agreement even if flawed.

In stark contrast with Hatoyama, Kan has proved himself to be a true pragmatist, as he has remained totally detached from, and uninterested in, the climate change issue and has gone so far as to kill the basic law, apparently to win support from business lobbies.

Furthermore, while Hatoyama, to a certain extent, had succeeded in shifting political initiatives from bureaucrats to elected lawmakers, Kan has not hesitated to give the power back to bureaucrats.

I am totally puzzled as to why Kan, who started his political career with the Social Democratic Federation, appears more remote from idealism than Hatoyama, who formerly belonged to the LDP.

The DPJ won a stunning victory over the LDP in last year’s general election because a large number of voters who had become fed up with decades of pragmatism under LDP rule cast their ballots for the DPJ in the hope that the ideal of liberalism would be pursued.

It must be said that the DPJ’s defeat in the Upper House election and the dwindling approval rate for the Kan administration and the DPJ derive from people’s disillusionment with the political style of Kan, who thinks of himself and paints himself as a pragmatist.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.