The continuance of Junichiro Koizumi’s administration beyond the summer seems like a sure bet: Support for his Cabinet is over 80 percent, his e-mail magazine is being read by hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and every time the opposition questions one of his pronouncements, they are deluged with calls from angry citizens.
However, in the last few weeks there has been a lot of head-scratching in the media regarding what seems like a contradiction in public sentiment. According to a survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun a few weeks ago, 9 percent of the respondents said they do not support any form of structural reform, while another 31 percent said they do not support such reform “if it leads to lower growth and higher unemployment.” That leaves 60 percent of the citizens supporting reform to some extent, which is still a high number but significantly less than the 80-plus percent support rate that Koizumi commands. TV Asahi’s “News Station” came up with almost the exact same number in its own survey. Fifty-nine percent of the people they interviewed said they supported reform even if it meant some kind of hardship. But, as Hakuo University professor Masayuki Fukuoka pointed out on the show, “Obviously, those people don’t think the hardship will affect them.”
The prime minister has staked his reputation and, essentially, his career on carrying out structural reform, which means you can’t have one without the other. It’s a widely held belief that Koizumi stole the idea from the Democratic Party of Japan, who did fairly well with it in last year’s Lower House elections. But now that he has commandeered the concept and become a kind of superstar because of it, the media is seriously beginning to wonder if the citizens really understand what the term means. The implication is that they don’t.
A word that is being used just as much as — and, often, in the place of — “reform” is itami, meaning “pain” or “hardship.” Itami, in fact, was last month’s word. Now, it’s gekitsu, which means “severe pain.” What’s the Japanese word for “excruciating pain?”
Koizumi tends to avoid the word itami, which is understandable since it is a term that a politician who hopes to be re-elected would never use. The acceptable euphemism is something along the lines of “economic reform related to pay scale.” In any event, it has become the media’s job to repeat it over and over until the presumably dimwitted electorate gets it through their collective skull that Koizumi is the guy who means to make your lives miserable for the next two or three years. Why do you like him so much?
But perhaps the electorate’s belief that the pain of structural reform won’t affect them is true to a certain extent. According to government projections, cleaning up the bad loans at the heart of Japan’s lingering economic malaise will cost something like 12.7 trillion yen, and will result in about 540,000 people losing their jobs. Not counting those people who eventually find new jobs and those who, due to age or sufficient savings, decide not to look for work, about 170,000 people will be made permanently unemployed. These people will come from three industrial sectors: construction, retail, and manufacturing. They are, in other words, the people at the bottom of the food chain.
These statistics, coming as they are from the government, are probably conservative. Some think tanks have projected unemployment figures in the millions, but the same basic situation would prevail: It is those who are already struggling to survive who will feel the most pain. Koizumi has said that his reform plan is difficult but fair in that all of Japan will have to go through it together, but as writer and social critic Ryu Murakami said in an interview with DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama, “Some people will obviously feel more pain than others, which means that [Koizumi] has a responsibility to tell them that they will lose their jobs.”
To paraphrase Jackson Browne, most people can’t imagine this happening simply because it hasn’t happened yet. In order to give them some idea, the media go to the United States and reports on the phenomenon of structural unemployment and the permanence of an underclass. America’s long-term economic stability and social problems are shown to be inextricably linked. This, it is implied, is what Japan has to look forward to once things like lifetime employment and economic safety nets are removed. For purposes of comparison, the media usually go to Scandinavia, where savings rates are practically nonexistent but society is stable because the government takes care of its citizens and, as a Norwegian friend once told me, “no one in Scandinavia is allowed to be more special than anyone else.”
The coming Upper House election is seen not only as a test for Koizumi as a political leader, but as a test to see whether or not the Japanese people are willing to suffer for the sake of the greater national good. However, this latter point may be a misreading. “The citizens have an unrealistic trust in their government,” said journalist Takao Saito in the Asahi Shimbun. “They think, ‘You wouldn’t really do that to us, would you?’ “
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