Japan has stepped into the 21st century under not-so-comfortable political circumstances. Public approval ratings for the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori remain extremely low, and half of the nation’s voters say they have no political party to support. While the government has launched one stimulus package after another, policy measures to reform the economic structure have not achieved their intended effects. Many Japanese lament that the nation’s future is doomed unless something is done, but the government appears to be at a loss over how to accept and respond to such calls, which in turn has fueled voter apathy toward politics.

At this turn of the century, it is now evident that the ways of politics that have governed the nation for the past four decades have become obsolete and ineffective. This is most clearly illustrated by the declining clout of the Liberal Democratic Party. Political leaders also appear to have lost a sense of direction on policy matters. They are pressed to change both “what” they do and “how” they do it.

Seen from a different angle, it can be said that politicians today rely on the strong legacy of their past successes. Put more simply, politicians are confronted with a choice: whether to follow a path of decline as part of the legacy of the nostalgic past, or top break from such nostalgia and embark on the rough seas of the new century.

A number of Japanese people consider this problem to be a question of political leadership. Voters sensitive to policy issues and critical of the government no longer believe that the nation will be run the same way no matter who sits as prime minister. While voters see relatively strong leadership in a number of local government heads today, national politics continue to fail their expectations in this respect. Many people attribute the gap to the fact that, for example, prefectural governors are elected by direct public vote while the prime minister is not. Such an argument could lead to doubts over the parliamentary system of democracy itself.

The imminent transition to a new system of national government administration is aimed at allowing lawmakers to exert this much-needed political leadership. It is designed for the government to break from its dependence on the bureaucracy, and pursue decision-making under the initiative of the prime minister and his Cabinet. The prime minister will be given the power to appoint personnel to a wide range of government positions, and political appointees will start to play an important role in this country. This in itself is a revolutionary change in Japan’s political history. But regrettably, the public, due to the gloomy political circumstances mentioned above, does not seem to have any hope in this grand project. In fact, it is far from clear whether Diet members themselves realize the significance of this reform.

Introduction of this new system, whereby lawmakers take the center stage, is a positive development in that it will help liberate Japan’s politics from such deficiencies as opaque decision-making and lack of leadership. But why did it take so long before such a system was introduced? It seems doubtful that members of political parties have made sufficient preparations to fully utilize the new mechanism. Last October, the National Conference to Create a New Japan, a private group of academics and business executives, conducted a survey of Diet members, asking them how they understand this new system and what preparations they have made for it. The results were severely disappointing: Many of the pollees knew that lawmakers will have to take the place of bureaucrats in playing key roles in policy formulation, but most of them have extremely vague ideas on how they can exert leadership.

A mere 13 percent of the Diet members replied that the new system requires the prime minister and the Cabinet to play a central role in policy decisions. The survey exposed how the political parties are unprepared for such reforms, triggering serious doubts over whether the lawmakers really understand and are ready to utilize the new system of their own choice. A number of Diet members appear unwilling to change the conventional decision-making mechanism, and they do not seem to realize that this was the very mechanism that allowed the bureaucrats to maintain their grip on power. It is as if they are still under the spell of the past. For the time being, all we can do is add pressure on lawmakers to improve their ways under the new mechanism and to meet public expectations for their leadership.

In addition to the issue of “how,” let us turn to the question of “what” lawmakers do. In the new century, we need to review the postwar myth that “Japan is an exception.”

First, the rapid post-World War II economic growth that was almost unrivaled in modern history planted in us the fixed notion that Japan will always be economically prosperous and is “not supposed to” face any economic difficulties. Even today, politicians are still bound by the idea that all government policies should be based on such beliefs. Second, there is the perception that Japan “cannot and will never” be involved in any armed conflict. This, together with the question of how to interpret Article 9 of the Constitution, has long been a topic of debate, but it has been left vague on what criteria the nation should consider its national security policies. It is undeniable that such perceptions have prevented Japanese lawmakers from thinking globally and, consequently, have inactivated Japan’s politics as a whole. Policymakers are caught in their own trap, and radical ideas in policy management are discouraged.

A major problem in Japanese politics is that lawmakers have grown so accustomed to formulating policies based on the assumption of steady economic growth, that they have had little experience in thinking how to make the economy strong. Figuratively speaking, they have only been intent on how to distribute eggs laid by the chicken, assuming that the chicken would always stay healthy and lay eggs. Japan’s politicians still seem to believe that their job is to distribute the dividends of growth among the people. Since the 1997 financial crisis, however, the biggest challenge of the nation’s economy has been to make economic activities more healthy and put them on track toward a new stage of development. This is a job that Japanese lawmakers have never done before – and never would have wanted to do. They may have picked up some knowhow in the distribution of eggs, but they have never engaged in efforts to make the chicken healthy. Up to a point, Japanese politicians never actually believed that joblessness would become a serious political issue. This clearly illustrates how the fixed perceptions mentioned earlier have affected the ways of politics in this country.

In the coming century, politicians must not rely on those old perceptions, but frankly discuss the structural illness of the Japanese economy and boldly try to win people’s understanding of the necessity of their policy initiatives. If there is still an illusion among people that Japan as an exception will be free from any economic problems — and that prosperity will automatically go on (or be maintained), lawmakers have to resolutely and frankly talk of common sense and realism. Only then can they fulfill their responsibility as politicians worthy of one of the world’s economic powerhouses.

The LDP, which has dominated ruling power for decades literally as a “distributor” of the dividends of prosperity, appears at a loss and almost looks as if it is trying to avoid confronting today’s problems. Such a policy stance guided LDP politicians toward measures to satisfy short-sighted needs, which in turn led to inefficient use of resources and put the nation into further plight. As they try to woo voter support, LDP lawmakers are unable to find anything to do but to boost public works spending — even though it is widely believed such projects would bring little economic benefits while further damaging the nation’s fiscal situation. What they do today is a showcase example of the negative aspect of Japan’s postwar “success story.” We can certainly say that the rapid and critical deterioration of Japan’s fiscal health is simultaneously endangering the nation’s economic management and world growth.

Politicians everywhere shout, “Japan is doomed unless something is done,” as they appeal for voter support in elections. A growing number of politicians have apparently come to realize that the old ways of politics, in which they merely distributed the dividend of success, are no longer effective and if repeated would only cause more damage to the country. What may have been a political version of the theory by Adam Smith — that with the “invisible hand” of God a series of microlevel pork barrel politics would eventually create a desirable macrolevel situation — has lost its credibility. Bureaucrats are the prime force behind microlevel pork barrel politics, but the bureaucracy lacks the ability to resolve the contradictions between these micro- and macrolevel factors. On the contrary, bureaucrats play the key role in preserving such a fragmented policymaking process. Therefore, lawmakers must take the lead in creating an order to this chaotic microlevel policymaking process. Only after “integrating” this fragmented process can they start macrolevel planning and talk of strategic policy formulation. Under the old mechanism, lawmakers and bureaucrats only colluded with each other over these microlevel policies and lacked any sense of strategy. The worsening fiscal crisis will inevitably necessitate policy restructuring in a number of fields. Then the question is where to set the strategic goals.

More than a decade ago, a certain group of American journalists advocated so-called revisionism, issuing a strong warning against what they perceived as a dangerous strategy inherent in Japan’s economic system. Even if they had been correct, such a system was rendered totally ineffective during the 1990s, and what we see today is the negative legacy of it. Currently, the danger appears to lie not in the strategic nature of Japan’s economic policies, but in the lack of any strategy — making it unclear what Japan is trying to do. It is extremely important for the world economy of the 21st century that Japanese politicians set reasonable strategic goals and act in a reasonable manner, rather than shelve problems for the future.

Such an argument is valid for the nation’s security policies as well. Lawmakers must realize that Japan’s security goal is to ensure peace in its territory and in neighboring areas, and set basic foreign policy directions and take necessary steps to achieve them. In recent years, however, it seems Japanese that lawmakers have been relying increasingly on bureaucrats for foreign policy matters, and it almost looks as though they have lost interest in diplomacy itself. Consequently, the nation has been unable to make key foreign policy decisions, and most items on the nation’s diplomatic agenda remain unresolved. The government has long stressed the significance of economic assistance as a key diplomatic tool to make up for the nation’s inability to play international security roles. But today people are more and more frustrated that Japan’s huge overseas aid spending has not earned the country much in terms of diplomatic benefits. The worsening fiscal situation has fueled public sentiment calling for cuts to the ODA spending. In fact, reduction in aid spending will be inevitable sooner or later. This is no surprise, because neither politicians nor the government has made sufficient efforts to convince the public of the strategic importance of the ODA program. It is even doubtful whether they are really capable of making valid explanations to the public.

Article 9 of the Constitution has frequently been cited as the primary reason why Japan cannot have reasonable debate over security policies. But the bigger problem is that politicians are using the Constitution as an excuse for giving up on necessary discussions. It almost appears as if there is a virtual grand coalition between people who oppose amending the Constitution and those who support it, both intent on forestalling meaningful discussions on national security matters. Both sides stick to their own interpretations of the Constitution and never try to depart from it. The Constitution, as it were, has been used as an alibi for people not to engage in substantial security policy debate. In this sense, the Constitution has helped both sides to avoid thinking about this issue, thereby relieving lawmakers of an important job. As a result, an extremely wide range of issues have been stepped aside simply because of the Constitution. Discussions on the need for contingency legislation in cases of military emergencies, for example, have made little progress.

As the immediate hurdle at the onset of the new century, Japanese politicians need to overcome such negligence under the excuse of the Constitution. In the past, the attention of lawmakers was so focused on pork barrel politics that they had little time working on those forgotten issues. But the collapse of those pork barrel politics may provide a good opportunity for lawmakers to turn their eyes to national security matters. What is required here, again, is not blind belief in “Japan as an exception” but realistic efforts to build up public consensus on how Japan should contribute to world peace.

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