LONDON — Reading the accounts in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun and the Financial Times of the shenanigans inside and outside the Japanese House of Representatives over the no-confidence motion against the Mori government, I could not help laughing, but I also felt despair about the future of parliamentary institutions in Japan. If this sort of nonsense continues, I thought, surely the Japanese people will become increasingly disillusioned with party politics.
There seemed, at first sight, to be some similarities between what is happening now and the situation in Japan in the 1930s. The uncertainty prevailing then had provided an excuse, albeit a specious one, for the military to intervene to “clean up” politics. There is, of course, a significant difference now. The Self-Defense Forces are under civilian control and even if some members wished to intervene, which I doubt, they would not have public support. But that does not mean that parliamentary democracy in Japan is safe. Growing disillusionment and public apathy could allow sects or people with dangerous ambitions to gain power.
The factions and their leaders in the Liberal Democratic Party have changed over the last half century, but the infighting and power-broking does not seem to have changed much, if at all. There has been little real policy debate, and personalities still seem to count most. For anyone used to parliamentary democracy in other Western countries, the Japanese political scene is bizarre. Japan has a deeply unpopular prime minister whose capacity for gaffes seems unlimited. His Cabinet is largely filled by nonentities, except for the minister of finance and the minister of foreign affairs, and the Cabinet’s average age is much too high for a government that faces formidable problems, including a huge and growing burden of public debt. Japan needs a younger and more vigorous group of ministers. The over-80s should be “put out to grass” if they will not retire gracefully. No British party would put up with the present situation in Japan, especially with an election looming. Even former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was eventually forced out by a Conservative Party that finally realized she was becoming a liability. When will Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and the LDP realize that he is a liability?
The no-confidence motion seemed to reflect public opinion in Japan, but it was bound to fail if the coalition kept together and the LDP did not split, as it had done on an earlier occasion.
The LDP has been determined to cling to power. The Japanese electoral system operates very much in their favor and in recent years they have worked to ensure that it remains that way. The Japanese Parliament cannot claim democratic legitimacy when there remains such a huge gap between the value of votes in rural areas and that in urban areas (roughly 2-to-1). Under the Hosokawa government, the imbalance was reduced, but insufficiently. Japan needs a permanent and independent parliamentary-boundaries commission to work fast and hard toward achieving much greater equality between constituencies. Sadly, the LDP will do all it can to prevent that.The LDP used to be strongly critical of Komeito, and New Komeito is no different from its predecessor. It is still the political mouthpiece of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, which, except among its members, is not popular in Japan, where government is supposed to avoid any involvement with organized religion. However, New Komeito’s support was necessary if the LDP was to retain power. So the LDP ignored history and compromised its principles. Like Faust, they made a pact with the devil.
The LDP’s main problem has been avoiding a further split. Many party members are fed up with Mori and the old guard, but they rely on the faction bosses for the money they need to secure re-election. They could not afford to revolt unless important faction leaders were prepared to take a firm and principled stand and stick by their followers. Koichi Kato and Taku Yamasaki appeared ready to do this and at first seemed to be carrying their factions with them. But when it came to the point, the threat of expulsion from the party was enough to make the faction members change their minds. Kato and Yamasaki were “prevented” from taking part in the vote by members of their faction and the whole affair ended in farce. Kato then apparently burst into tears. Were these brought on by disappointment or rage? Who knows? But to television audiences in Japan they surely suggested that Kato was not prime ministerial quality. Indeed, after this debacle it is hard to see much of a political future for him at all.
It is difficult to understand how Kato could have got himself into this mess. Before he started what would inevitably be seen as a challenge for the party leadership, he should surely have worked out a careful strategy that took account of the various problems that might arise. This should have involved sounding out all the members of his faction and assessing the risks involved in splitting the party. He needed to decide how he and his faction would react to threats of expulsion. If he had not thought the problems through, he showed a lack of foresight and judgment; in the view of many, this failure should disqualify him from the highest office. If he did have a carefully thought-out plan, did it fail as a result of a miscalculation or because of a lack of political courage?
If the LDP goes into the next Upper House election with Mori as prime minister, it deserves to lose and would surely do so if there were an effective alternative. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party of Japan seems as bereft of inspired leadership as the LDP.
In fact, the LDP is almost certainly not so foolish as to retain Mori longer than is necessary for him to avoid too great a loss of face, and will nominate another leader. It is to be hoped that the successor will have more to offer than Mori (some might say that this should not be difficult), but there is no obvious outstanding LDP leader and its seems probable that the next prime minister will be yet another boring and dispiriting political type incapable of giving Japan the leadership it needs. Nevertheless, whoever he is, many Japanese may well conclude that they have no real alternative but to vote for the LDP, bad as it is.
The tragedy of this situation is that the party hacks will go on in their old, unimaginative ways carrying out policies designed to keep their lobby groups (farmers, small shopkeepers, postmasters, construction companies and the like) happy and will not get on with the political, economic and social reforms that Japan so urgently needs. Meanwhile, Japan’s ability to influence international developments will be diminished. Mori has forfeited any international respect he may ever have had, but it is hard to see any possible early successor who would be able to play a significant world role.
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