The year 2010 will be a watershed year for the administration of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, which came into power last September, ending the Liberal Democratic Party’s almost unbroken rule since November 1955. If the administration fails to produce results that meet people’s expectations this year, the change of government achieved by the Democratic Party of Japan will become almost meaningless.
The approval rating of the administration has dropped from around 70 percent just after its inauguration to around 50 percent in late December. It’s time for Mr. Hatoyama, Cabinet members and the governing party to give substance to the main philosophy expressed in the party’s election manifesto: ending the traditional practice of relegating the development of policy measures to bureaucrats and, instead, realizing politics in which a ruling party’s politicians work out policy measures in a responsible way under the principle of “valuing people over concrete” and of building a society of “fraternity” in which each person is useful to another and feels at home.
The historic general election of August, in which people chose to let the DPJ lead the nation, showed that they had lost trust in the politics of the LDP and its junior coalition partner Komeito. Mr. Hatoyama and DPJ lawmakers should realize that if the DPJ-led government fails to create its distinctive political style and to develop policies that bring real change to the nation, many people could despair to the point of losing trust in politics altogether. That could put Japan at a political dead end, spawning either deep-rooted political apathy or some form of extremism, or a combination of both.
It is not that the Hatoyama administration has not produced meaningful results. Ministers, senior vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries of government ministries — all elected lawmakers — are trying to work out policies on their own (although they should learn to make the best use of bureaucrats rather than antagonize them).
The administration has introduced a system in which the Government Revitalization Unit scrutinizes budgetary requests before public eyes and eliminates wasteful use of public money. Although the scrutiny saved only ¥677 billion compared with some ¥7 trillion that the administration needed to implement the DPJ’s campaign promises, it represented an attempt to bring transparency to budget compilation.
While relying on bond issues totaling some ¥44 trillion, the administration has successfully included some of the DPJ’s main campaign promises in the fiscal 2010 budget, such as the monthly child allowance of ¥13,000 per child without an income eligibility cap on households and a fund to make high schools tuition free.
True to the DPJ’s slogan of “valuing people over concrete,” it has slashed spending for public works projects by 18.3 percent while increasing social welfare spending by 9.8 percent.
Unfortunately, people have not viewed Mr. Hatoyama as one who exercises strong leadership. Instead, people have seen confusing flip-flops that could do irreparable damage, especially in diplomatic matters such as where to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station on Okinawa Island.
Given the economic downturn and commensurate loss in tax revenues, Mr. Hatoyama’s job as Japan’s top leader should be to select a limited number of attractive and rational policies that will help stabilize and revitalize people’s lives, including job creation.
This may lead to a revision of the DPJ’s election manifesto. But an important role of leadership is deciding which promises to drop and which to concentrate on. Mr. Hatoyama should realize that he cannot satisfy everybody. At the very least, he must choose policies that can be understood by people who feel left behind socially or economically.
Institutionally, Mr. Hatoyama should strive to quickly give a legal basis to the National Strategy Bureau headed by Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan, so that it can establish an overall direction that Japan should pursue in terms of economic and social development. The job should include working out strategies for improving education and scientific research — the basis of Japan’s industrial competitiveness — strengthening agriculture, and encouraging the healthy growth of industries related to medical and nursing care services and child rearing, which are bound to become increasingly important as Japan’s population ages and dwindles.
Some Cabinet members have made mutually contradictory statements about important policy matters. Mr. Hatoyama should do his utmost to smooth communication and create unity within the Cabinet, and between the Cabinet and the DPJ, while making decision-making processes transparent. He should understand the important role that language plays in politics. He should speak to people more often, enunciating his decisions and policies in a persuasive manner.
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