Columbia University’s Gerald Curtis recently wrote, “It is a sad commentary on Japan’s politics that after nearly 70 years of democracy a competitive party system has all but disintegrated.”
The Democratic Party of Japan is a culprit in this disintegration and slim hopes for a turnaround were dashed by last week’s party leadership contest — a PR disaster that exposed deep divisions and offered no vision for how a party that has fallen so far so quickly can manage a comeback. Things looked bleak during the campaign when Katsuya Okada, the winning candidate, sported an eye-patch, reminding me of the old saying of how a one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind.
Following disastrous setbacks in the 2010 and 2012 Diet elections, and a mediocre performance in last month’s snap poll, the DPJ has been left staring into the abyss. It’s a party looking for an identity, with its members at odds over policy and representing a wide swath of the ideological spectrum from left to right. Thus hammering out a unified position on any issue has been difficult, making the party look about as dynamic as a stick in the mud. Okada is an experienced leader and policy wonk, but it stretches the imagination to think he can rejuvenate the party.
Okada represents the party’s centrist elements and faces sharp internal divisions over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s pending legislation on collective self-defense and merger with the Japan Innovation Party, a more right-wing party. Rumors abound on whether the DPJ will splinter, as many members on the right favor joining a realignment of opposition parties while those on the left who have close union ties seek to reaffirm the DPJ as the social-democratic alternative. The realignment scenario is akin to establishing the LDP’s “B Team” and means dealing with the toxic presence of the erratic Toru Hashimoto, governor of Osaka.
However, there is no future for the DPJ as the LDP’s understudy. The party needs to carve out positions that exploit the LDP’s vulnerabilities and address widespread anxieties among voters about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s signature policies. Mr. “steady hands” Okada talks about regaining a majority, but unless he shakes things up it will never happen. He has ruled out any mergers, so for now the DPJ is on its own and needs to give members a reason not to jump ship.
The DPJ’s magic number is 11. A recent NHK poll indicates that only 11 percent of the public thinks it is benefitting from “Abenomics,” and a slew of other polls indicate that more than 75 percent think Abenomics is a flop.
What is the DPJ waiting for? Surely a lot of voters feel shafted by the headwinds of Abenomics, and many more must oppose Abe’s plans to lift constitutional constraints on Japan’s armed forces, boost arms exports, restart nuclear reactors, rewrite history textbooks, roll back the public’s right to know through secrecy legislation and his tolerance of intolerance, which emboldens right-wing extremists and hate-speech groups. And what about the 10 million farmers who signed the petition against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)? Perhaps they smell a rat and suspect Abe will sell them out?
The recent gubernatorial elections in Saga Prefecture are a barometer of farmers’ discontent as a the agricultural cooperative-backed candidate handily defeated the LDP one. Nationally, the Japanese Communist Party nearly tripled its Diet seats, a spectacular showing that owes more to anti-Abe voters looking for a home than the magic of Marxism.
The DPJ needs to get fired up to become that home by presenting clear policy alternatives during the upcoming unified local elections, and shift momentum before the 2016 Upper House Diet elections.
Motivating people to vote is also crucial. Low turnout plays to the LDP’s advantage as it can count on a loyal base of about one-quarter of the vote, and it benefits from a biased electoral system that has prompted some serious handwringing by the Supreme Court, but no action.
So what went wrong for the DPJ? In 2009, former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama promised Okinawans the government would relocate the Futenma air station outside the prefecture and, taking his cue from party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, suggested that Japan should embrace a more equidistant posture toward China and the United States. This, along with efforts to trim bureaucratic powers, proved their undoing as is detailed in R. Taggart Murphy’s excellent new book “Japan and the Shackles of the Past.”
Murphy follows author Karel van Wolferen in presenting an extremely glowing assessment of Ozawa, the mastermind behind the DPJ’s campaign victories in 2007 and 2009. In their view, he was a visionary who crossed the Establishment and was the proverbial nail that got hammered down for his efforts. There is no denying that Ozawa was way ahead of everyone else in launching the “Japan as a normal nation” debate following the Gulf War (1990-91) and advocating the overseas dispatch of Japanese troops for peacekeeping operations under U.N. command. Additionally, in 1993 he cobbled together an unlikely coalition of small parties from across the ideological spectrum, ending an LDP reign that had been uninterrupted since the party was established with CIA assistance in 1955. He also pushed through significant electoral reform and stricter campaign financing rules.
But Ozawa never shrugged off his image as Kakuei Tanaka’s protege: a ruthless behind-the-scenes deal maker who learned about the dark arts of fundraising, influence peddling and rainmaking at the feet of the master. Aurelia George Mulgan’s recent book, “Ozawa Ichiro and Japanese Politics,” agrees that Ozawa is the most intriguing politician of his generation, but presents a more nuanced, damning and convincing assessment. She exposes a deeply flawed man who flip-flopped on policy and ran roughshod over colleagues, carefully scrutinizing the visionary and finding an opportunist ever ready to place expediency before principle.
Murphy is correct that the Establishment had it in for him, but George Mulgan’s book shows that it doesn’t mean he deserves beatification. Ozawa is nicknamed “the Destroyer” for good reason, sabotaging Prime Minister Naoto Kan after losing a leadership contest in 2010 and bolting from the DPJ in July 2012, taking 49 lawmakers with him. This was a significant blow to a party that was already in disarray, and it contributed to its demise, scuttling the two-party system he nearly created. And Ozawa? He now heads the peculiarly named People’s Life Party with Taro Yamamoto and Company, a tiny group that holds 10 Diet seats, is anti-nuclear, anti-TPP and, according to its website, supports pragmatism, environmentalism and localism.
Murphy will give a talk about his book at Temple University Japan on Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m. For details, contact: email@example.com or visit www.tuj.ac.jp/icas/event/japan-and-the-shackles-of-the-past-2.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.