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“Japanese politics today lacks principles,” former Health and Welfare Minister Junichiro Koizumi said when I met him recently as a member of a journalists’ group. Koizumi also criticized government budget outlays of 80 trillion yen, against national and local tax revenues of only 50 trillion yen. He lamented that the government is covering the deficit by issuing bonds. The outstanding balance of government bond issues has climbed to a record 300 trillion yen.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s administration may appear to be taking political leadership in national affairs, but it is playing only a secondary role. Behind the scenes, the business community and the bureaucracy are effectively running national affairs. Government policies, which should place more emphasis on stimulating the economy and creating jobs, seem to have the effect of making the rich richer and the poor poorer, as in the United States.

Until last year, there was rationality in Japanese politics. The Obuchi administration and the opposition forces confronted each other squarely on economic policies and the banking crisis. Obuchi’s top aide, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka, schemed to form a coalition between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Liberal Party to deal with legislative difficulties stemming from the LDP’s lack of majority in the Upper House. He then engineered moves to obtain New Komeito’s support in the Diet to establish a majority in the chamber. Nonaka’s strategy was not unreasonable.

But this year, things went awry with the Obuchi administration and the opposition forces. The Obuchi administration went ahead with a plan to bring New Komeito into the ruling camp for a tripartite alliance, without ironing out basic policy differences between the LP and New Komeito. The LDP was only playing a political numbers game.

New Komeito’s conduct was odd, too. Since its founding, the party had campaigned for peace, clean government and protection of the underprivileged, maintaining an anti-LDP policy stance. But sensing Nonaka’s strategy of wooing New Komeito into the ruling camp, the party reversed its position and became supportive of government-sponsored legislation, long before talks started on sharing power. Now New Komeito has agreed to join the ruling coalition, without giving a full explanation for its move. There is little doubt that joining the ruling camp is the greatest priority for New Komeito.

There is widespread speculation among political pundits that New Komeito has agreed to join the ruling coalition in order to influence the timing of an imminent Lower House election and maximize its gains through its unique election strategies.

Moves to pander to the ruling camp are widespread in politics, not only in the LP and New Komeito, but also in other opposition groups. The top opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, includes former members of the LDP and the defunct Democratic Socialist Party, who differ little from LDP legislators in policy stance. Some young, conservative DPJ legislators, who call themselves “pragmatists,” are calling for amendments to the war-renouncing Constitution. Only the Socialist Democratic Party, now a minor presence in the Diet, and the Japan Communist Party are real opposition parties, ready to challenge the government with their policies of preserving the Constitution and protecting the underprivileged.

The lack of principles in politics is obvious in the recent Diet passage of a series of important bills with little amendment and little substantial debate. These bills include legislation for implementing the guidelines for updated Japan-U.S. defense cooperation, restructuring the central bureaucracy and decentralizing power, allowing wiretapping in police investigations into organized crime, assigning ID numbers to all citizens, legalizing the Hinomaru and the Kimigayo as national symbols, and establishing a government council to consider constitutional amendments. Most of the bills were based on a conservative policy stance, and few of them required urgent enactment. Many opposition legislators voted for the bills.

I started my career in political journalism in 1950, but I have never seen the kind of political situation we are witnessing. I feel as if Japan’s postwar democracy is crumbling. The new ruling coalition is akin to Japan’s wartime Imperial Rule Assistance Association, which Nonaka was avowedly averse to.

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