The Japanese archipelago will be deafened by the din of election campaigning for the Lower House for about two weeks beginning today. Given the growing public distrust of politics, however, the ranks of voters who claim no party affiliation are swelling. Political parties have repeatedly embraced unprincipled realignments in pursuit of power, putting policies to the side. Quite a few successful candidates have confounded their supporters by quickly changing their parties after being elected.
It is not that voters are losing interest in politics. According to an NHK poll released June 5, 86 percent of respondents said they will go to the polls. This suggests that voter turnout in the June 25 election might reach an unexpectedly high rate.
The Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partners set the election date before July’s G8 Kyushu-Okinawa summit in order to get sympathy votes for the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who died an untimely death as a result of overwork. In the NHK poll, however, more than half the respondents said Obuchi’s death would not affect their voting decision.
Moreover, the approval rating of the new Cabinet has plummeted to just 16 percent. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has come under heavy fire from the opposition and the media, not only for the covert way in which he was named as Obuchi’s successor, but also for his verbal gaffes (including his characterization of Japan as a “nation of gods with the Emperor at its center”). As for the opposition, the Democratic Party of Japan, the second largest after the LDP, is slipping in popularity. As things stand, it is difficult to predict how the election will come out.
Mori’s much-maligned remarks are not as bad as they would seem, if his ex post facto clarifications are what he really meant to say. The Emperor is defined by the Constitution as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people.” So, as a matter of formal logic, it is not wrong to say that the Emperor is at the center of Japan.
Japan is different from monotheistic nations, such as those that believe in Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Japan is an animistic nation that believes gods reside in all natural phenomena. It is a polytheistic nation that deifies the souls of its ancestors, people who made great contributions to the state, those who met a tragic death, and so on.
In Japan, primitive Shintoism, which fused with Taoism, and Buddhism, which was introduced here in the sixth century, exist side by side. These and other religious faiths, including Confucianism and even Christianity, are incorporated in Japanese life and culture. Thus the Japanese have over the centuries developed a unique religious outlook. In the eye of monotheists, Japan — a nation of many gods — may seem strange indeed.
It is true, however, that during and before World War II the nation’s rulers imposed on the people state Shintoism — which deified the Emperor as a living god — and the historical view of Japan as an empire. It is also a fact that during that brief period of Japanese history those official faiths drove the nation to militarism.
It is unavoidable, therefore, that those who lived through that period, including non-Japanese, should react sharply to the expressions used by Mori, such as “a nation of gods centering on the Emperor” and “kokutai” (national polity, the prewar concept of sovereignty that defined Japan as a nation ruled by the Emperor). These expressions must have awakened dark memories of the past.
But it is reasonably clear that Mori does not have nostalgia for the kind of fanatic patriotism that some foreign newspapers fear. His “nation of gods” remark was made in a sort of clubby atmosphere, coming as it did at a meeting of a pro-Shinto political group with which he was associated. But whatever the occasion, as prime minister he should have been meticulously careful about his choice of words. He should have avoided any word or phrase that might have caused even the slightest misunderstanding. His careless remarks and repeated explanations may well call into question his very qualities as prime minister.
That aside, it is regrettable that the opposition parties are wasting time trying to trip him up on his “slip of the tongue” — this at a time when a host of national issues need to be contested in the last Lower House election of this century. With the 21st century at hand, Japan is at a crossroads, externally as well as economically. Debating Mori’s faux pas at such a crucial moment in history is a waste of time.
There are many important questions that must be urgently considered from the national strategic perspective before the Okinawa summit is held. These include: How will the North-South summit meeting in the Korean Peninsula affect the situation in East Asia? How will Taiwan-Beijing relations develop? And how should G8 nations tackle common political and economic issues?
The domestic economy is beginning to tread a recovery path, but unemployment remains a serious problem. Consumer spending is still in the doldrums as a result of uncertainties about the future. But the Obuchi style of free spending has reached its limits. The fiscal crisis will get out of hand if deficit spending continues at the expense of fiscal discipline. The question now is how best to achieve economic recovery in ways that lead to deficit reduction. Yet the ruling parties are sticking to the same old thinking, as evidenced by their vote-getting plans to boost public-works outlays.
What is needed now is a critical analysis of how much the “spend, spend, spend” economic policy has helped revitalize the private sector. The coalition government has put off the painful reforms that must be made. The zero-interest-rate policy has changed into a tool for boosting the entire economy rather than just the banks. Debt-laden banks have received a massive injection of public money. Industries burdened with excess capacity have also obtained financial aid in their efforts to restore competitiveness. The construction industry has gained tremendously as a result of stepped-up public-works projects.
As a result, the combined long-term debt of the central and local governments has reached 645 trillion yen, a staggering sum that exceeds the nation’s GDP. But most of the government-aided industries are still in a slump. The vigorous industries are those that have received no public aid, such as new industries related to information technology. Ironically, they are subject to competitive constraints, such as government regulations and high Internet access charges.
Japan may or may not return to higher GDP growth of 2 or 3 percent in the near future. Even if it does, however, it will take an inordinately long time to balance the budget through natural increases in tax revenue. Now is the time to re-examine the content of fiscal policy and to analyze the cost-benefit relationships on a case-by-case basis. In this way, spending and revenue structures should be changed in such as way as to help revitalize the private sector.
In this regard, proposals from the political parties are invariably vague. About the only notable exception is the DPJ’s proposal to lower the level of minimum taxable income. However, this plan has little chance of success because other parties do not agree.
Today, various conflicts within Japanese society are coming to a head, with different interest groups calling for different and conflicting policies and systems. Conflicts are developing, for example, between the central and local governments, urban and rural regions, new and old industries, and workers and retirees. It is the task of politics to coordinate these differences with wisdom and insight. Most politicians have been slow to act; many have proved all but incompetent. And much of the public lacks a sense of tension, being unable to rid itself of the easy dependence on politics and government.
Japan lags behind the United States and some European nations, which made an early start in reviewing policies of fiscal-demand management and income redistribution. Unless this nation gets its act together, it will lose its competitiveness. The public as well as politicians must realize this. Japan may be a nation of many gods, but no gods will save the nation unless the people help themselves. There is no such thing as divine winds.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.