Political stagnation and a feeling of powerlessness are often cited among the reasons that Japanese hate politics.
“Japanese are unable to voice their concerns to politicians or receive (any) form of concrete policy response that would improve their lives,” said one political analyst recently. According to him, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partners are only just beginning to realize that they cannot simply call for greater expenditures on public-works projects because many citizens know that one day the bill for those projects will come due.
Popular resentment toward the old political establishment is a defining feature of the runup to the June 25 general election, campaigning for which does not officially begin until June 13. There will be 1,278 candidates running for office.
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who has already been criticized for making a remark reminiscent of the country’s militaristic past, came under fire again last Sunday for another remark that reminded some listeners of pre-World War II Japanese propaganda.
During a speech, Mori referred to Japan as a “kokutai” or “national polity,” an archaic term used in prewar rhetoric to connote the idea of Japan as a divine, Emperor-ruled nation-state.
Mori used the term in the context of criticizing the Japan Communist Party for its rejection of the Emperor’s current constitutional role as a symbol of the state and for its opposition to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
Mori’s popularity ratings in newspaper polls have reached a low of 19 percent, down from about 40 percent when he took office officially on April 15. Despite the poor showing, Japanese analysts and Western diplomats are predicting that the LDP-led coalition will win 254 seats — which would mean Mori’s likely retention as prime minister.
The predictability of this outcome, despite the weak poll showings, highlights the reasons for voters’ dissatisfaction and feeling of helplessness. A coalition win and a successful G8 summit in late July would constitute the “revenge for a fallen samurai (Obuchi)” theme espoused by LDP Secretary General Hiromu Nonaka. Whether the younger generation of voters will go along with such traditionalist exhortations, however, remains to be seen.
The election will at least get rid of some of the most notorious old Diet names. The longevity in office of some politicians — due to money politics in their constituencies and vested interests — have voters thoroughly disenchanted. Forty members of the House of Representatives have announced their retirement from politics, saying they will not run in the upcoming election.
Going against the trend, the LDP decided to field Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, 80, and former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone,82, in the proportional representation section of the election, despite the party’s age limit of 73 for candidates.
Another practice remains that also infuriates many voters. That is the syndrome of “inherited seats.” The coming election will see 160 candidates inheriting seats vacated by family members. One in particular has attracted attention. The combination of an inherited seat and appeal for sympathy will further the campaign of Yuko Obuchi, who will try to succeed her late father in the Gunma Prefecture 5th district race.
She is not the only one. LDP politicians around Japan will attempt to capitalize on sympathy for the late prime minister. This factor will continue to be important in the wake of the June 8 official funeral and the presence of U.S. President Bill Clinton and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. “Old-fashioned Asian funeral diplomacy goes international,” the headline might well have read.
The situation in Japan has become similar to that described by E.J. Dionne, Jr. in his 1991 book, “Why Americans Hate Politics.”
Dionne said Americans “still praise democracy incessantly and recommend democracy to the world. But at home, we do little to promote the virtues that self-government requires or to encourage citizens to believe that public engagement is worthwhile.”
The voter-turnout rate in the 1988 U.S. presidential race between George Bush and Michael Dukakis was 50.2 percent. In 1992, the race among Clinton, Bush and Ross Perot drew 55.9 percent of eligible voters. In 1996, the Clinton-Bob Dole-Perot race drew 49 percent.
Japan’s turnout of eligible voters in 1998, when the LDP suffered a setback, was 58.84 percent. The historic low was the 1995 Upper House vote, which garnered just 44.53 percent.
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