The central dynamic in politics is the tug-of-war between conservatism and liberalism, and while it’s always been that way, the conflict is particularly contentious these days owing to a global media culture that sees nothing wrong with taking sides. Differences are starker and less rational. In America, the rise of the Tea Party movement, which represents middle-class disgust with so-called big government, has inculcated a belief that the Obama administration is liberal, even radical. But if we apply the usual yardsticks, his policies seem centrist, in many cases conservative.

In present-day Japan, the ideological differences between the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party are mostly tactical. Much has been made of the fact that the DPJ has appropriated the LDP’s idea of increasing the consumption tax, a move that caught the LDP off guard. The LDP’s support of a tax increase was originally promoted to distinguish itself from the DPJ. But since taking over last year, the DPJ has thrown out or modified much of its manifesto to the point where its policies are not that much different from those of the LDP. It has basically adopted the agreement that the LDP made with the United States on moving the Futenma air base to Nago; pulled back on many of its public welfare schemes; and is now pretty friendly with the bureaucracy after having pledged to reduce its power.

In an attempt to figure out just where the DPJ and the LDP differ, the Asahi Shimbun and Tokyo University carried out a joint survey that solicited opinions from candidates of all parties for the upcoming Upper House elections and compared them with opinions of candidates from last summer’s Lower House election. The results were illustrated in the Asahi on a quadrant graph where the x-axis described the range of ideology from liberal to conservative and the y-axis attitudes toward economic policy from fiscal reform to maintaining the status quo.

The DPJ is almost smack dab in the center, while the LDP is in the upper-right quadrant, indicating its more conservative bent. In terms of economics, the difference is mostly one of self-interest. LDP politicians traditionally work for constituents by bringing public works projects to their districts, so they want to maintain the fiscal status quo, which is to stimulate the economy with tax money. Because the DPJ has drifted in this direction since becoming the ruling party, the LDP has to point out other differences, mainly in the areas of social and foreign policy.

Professor Masaki Taniguchi of Tokyo University analyzed the survey results and said the DPJ’s slight shift toward the status quo illustrates its realization that some of its fiscal reforms, such as the child allowance payments, aren’t feasible because of the budget. However, the DPJ has offered no detailed plans for spurring growth, rebuilding the financial sector or reinforcing the social safety net. Rather, party members’ talk centers around bringing down the national debt.

A closer look at the results indicates that many DPJ candidates actually come closer to the stated ideologies of other parties. Taniguchi says this could lead to confusion after the election, especially if the DPJ does not emerge with a clear majority. Rather than form coalitions, the DPJ may hook up with individual parties on a policy basis, a practice the professor calls barabara rengo (messy confederacies).

It would make more sense for the parties to reorganize into like-minded groups, but only the Communists and Social Democrats are well-integrated on the left side of the spectrum, while the new Sunrise Party and People’s New Party seem to be the only ones firmly situated on the right. The obvious place to look for ideological differences is in social policy, but, again, there’s little difference any more between the DPJ and LDP. In its 2009 manifesto the DPJ supported suffrage in local elections for permanent resident foreigners — an idea the LDP opposed.

However, the DPJ’s support was identified with former Chief Cabinet Secretary Ichiro Ozawa and former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, both of whom are currently in the doghouse. There is no mention of foreigner suffrage in the new DPJ manifesto. Another issue the DPJ dropped is allowing married couples to have separate names, which is the be^te noire of the conservative camp. The Minpo Kaisei Network, a citizens group that wants to revise the Civil Code, conducted its own survey of candidates and found that the DPJ was divided on the question of separate names; though, unlike members of the more conservative parties, they did seem to understand the issue.

The fly in the conservative ointment is that, according to the Asahi / Tokyo University survey, none of the parties, except for the Happiness Realization Party, say they are completely in favor of smaller government, including Your Party, whose whole reason for being is to downsize the public sector. The reason few people want to come out and say they are opposed to big government is that the citizens think they pay lots of taxes and don’t get their money’s worth. The Japanese public may not trust the government, but they’re no tea partiers. The more government services the better. It’s one reason the DPJ thinks it can pass a consumption tax increase without being thrown out, which is what happened to the last administration that hiked it.

But as much as people might wish it, Japan will never be Sweden, where the government takes care of everybody and allows major companies to go bankrupt (and where taxes are higher). Here, the government doesn’t take care of anybody except red-ink bleeders like Japan Airlines; which makes Japanese politics not so much conservative as paternalistic. The trick is for candidates to convince voters that they will pay as much attention to their needs as they already do to their own.