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Revenge of the Japanese mandarins

by Masahiro Matsumura

Ever since the huge earthquake that hit Japan’s Tohoku-Pacific coast on March 11, 2011, the country’s mass media have obsessively focused on the magnitude of the physical damage and the loss of life. Repeated broadcasts of traumatic video images of the great tsunami and the damaged reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant have been seared into Japan’s collective memory.

One year later, the media will be sure to intensify its reports and broadcasts along the same lines, encouraging the Japanese public to become all the more determined to overcome the disaster. But the public may already have fallen victim to an unforeseen pitfall.

What the public has endured over the past year is somewhat analogous to what Americans experienced following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Both events severely distorted public discourse. In the United States, the government employed massive propaganda to promote public support for the “global war on terror” that it was about to wage. Video images, particularly of the World Trade Center’s collapsing twin towers, fanned the flames of conflict.

In Japan, images of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters have been used to unite the Japanese public behind rehabilitation of damaged regions by bureaucrats, as well as behind continuation of the country’s decades-long junior partner status vis-a-vis the U.S., which the public rejected in the 2009 general election.

But, almost one year after the earthquake, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government has made scant progress in postdisaster reconstruction and rehabilitation. Many evacuees continue to live in temporary shelters, and mountainous piles of refuse remain in the devastated areas. By contrast, private-sector actors quickly rebuilt major production facilities across the region, restoring crucial links in global supply chains.

Japan’s malfunctioning government, made worse by the inexperienced and ineffectual ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), is at the root of this incompetence. To be sure, the DPJ lacks a majority in the Upper House, which has the power to veto major legislation, and the last two DPJ governments have suffered from four Upper House censure resolutions against Cabinet ministers. Even with its absolute majority in the Lower House, the DPJ has been continually preoccupied with party infighting and political crisis management.

Not surprisingly, the Japanese public has become utterly disenchanted with the DPJ, which came to power promising a clean sweep of the five-decade-long rule of the Liberal Democratic Party. Voters ousted the LDP from power in 2009 in the naive belief that a change of government would somehow bring an end to the prolonged political and economic malaise in which the country had been mired since its real estate bubble burst in the early 1990s.

The DPJ’s rosy manifesto, stressing reform and economic recovery, convinced voters that Japan could return painlessly to its previous path of strong growth. Indeed, the DPJ identified the symbiotic relationship between the LDP and the bureaucracy — ties once regarded as enabling the country’s rapid postwar growth and reconstruction — as the root cause of Japan’s stagnation. Thus, the first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, made a specialty of verbally abusing Japan’s bureaucratic mandarins, even abolishing the council of administrative deputy ministers essential for governmentwide policy coordination. That helps to explain why policy coordination was woefully lacking in the rescue, recovery and reconstruction effort after the earthquake and the Fukushima disaster.

Hatoyama’s attacks did not spare the defense and foreign policy mandarins who managed the U.S.-Japan alliance, because they, too, were regarded as part and parcel of the LDP/bureaucratic power structure that was strangling Japan’s economy. For the mandarins, preserving their role in alliance management was a major source of power. As a result, Hatoyama also emphasized Japan’s need to become more independent of the U.S. within the framework of the alliance, while proposing a vague “East Asian Community.”

Nine months after the DPJ’s electoral victory, Hatoyama resigned, owing primarily to his bungling of alliance management, particularly the issue of relocating the U.S. Marine Corps base on Okinawa. He promised to remove the base from Okinawa, and, at the same time, was obliged by the countries’ bilateral agreement to build a replacement facility there.

After Hatoyama’s resignation, the succeeding prime ministers — Naoto Kan and Noda — backpedaled on reform efforts, both in alliance management and domestic policy. Nowhere is the return to bureaucratic/governmental symbiosis more conspicuous than in Noda’s emphasis on business-as-usual alliance management, or in his single-minded pursuit of doubling the 5 percent consumption tax (necessary for protecting their mandarins’ fiefdoms), despite deepening deflation.

The sense of helplessness that now grips the Japanese public makes voters increasingly susceptible to political manipulation that emphasizes the need to rely anew on the bureaucracy for swift rehabilitation of quake-devastated areas, and that underscores the importance of the U.S. military’s disaster rescue and relief operation. Revealingly, the DPJ government has re-established the council of administrative deputy ministers that Hatoyama abolished.

Like Americans, Japanese will need some time, perhaps several years, until they become aware that they have been deluded. Until then, the mandarins have nothing to fear.

Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of International Politics at St. Andrew’s University (Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku) in Osaka. © 2012 Project Syndicate