Japan’s Political Chaos


Catherine Makino interviews Tomohiko Taniguchi

Tokyo - Oct. 1, 2010, Majirox Asian News

It has been more than a year since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power. However, the party is divided into two camps with critics wondering if Japan’s historical regime change will end up as a brief notation in history.

Tomohiko Taniguchi holds a professorship at the School of Global Japanese Studies of Meiji University and is a Professor (by special invitation) of International Political Economy at Keio University in Tokyo.

He is the former Deputy Press Secretary  of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Taniguchi started his career with Nikkei Business and worked in London (1997-2000) where he also served as president of the Foreign Press Association

in 1997.  His sabbaticals were spent at Princeton University, Shanghai Institute of International Studies and the Brookings Institution. He is author of various books on international currency regime and international affairs.

Majirox News recently caught up with Taniguchi in Tokyo.

Q: What is the current political situation in Japan?

Still in chaos and it’ll be so for a considerable time. The Lower House can override the decisions made by the upper chamber, but only about budget proposals per se. For a budget proposal to be enacted as legislation a number of other proposals also have to pass both houses.

The upper house, now in the hands of the opposition, can stop those bills from passing, culminating in next fiscal year’s budget having no effect. That will surely happen in spring next year, which may well lead the prime minister to dissolving the Diet and calling for a general election.

Q: What is going to happen with the current party alignment in the Diet?

In the interim all sorts of alignments and realignments among the parties will take shape, the consequence of which is beyond anyone’s ability to speculate. In sum Japan’s politics is still far from stable.

Q: Why did the DPJ come to power?

The Liberal Democrats held power primarily because the opposition was too much on the left. Unlike the US where political discourse has always been around domestic political questions, Japan, placed at the beachhead of the east-west conflict during the cold war era, has had no such axis.

The opposition in Japan represented pro-communism, pro-USSR/PRC and anti America orientations. The majority of the Japanese, sensing their geopolitical vulnerability, have chosen for decades the conservative party as it was the party supporting the US-Japan alliance.

Then came the burst of the bubble in 1990. To rid the nation’s economy of the excesses of borrowings, dormant assets, and production capacities with their labor force, Japan has had to spend more than fifteen years, and the nation’s stagnant economy is yet to be fully cured.

The frustrated voters finally shifted their views and chose the opposition, now the ruling party of the Democratic Party of Japan not because they were convinced that the DPJ would deliver but because the LDP would no longer.

Q: Why is the DPJ having so much trouble leading the country?

For the party outside the government for such a long period to rule the nation has proven much harder than thought. Their reformer’s mindset has deliberately alienated the practitioner’s class of bureaucrats under the banner of politics first, bureaucracy secondary, resulting in one failure after another in making good use of institutional memories that the mandarins embodied.

Q: What happened with Futemma? Japan and the U.S. have been in negotiations about the future of a Marine base on the far-away southern island of Okinawa, home to roughly half of 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan. Part of an agreement between the two nations was the construction of a new U.S. military airfield with two runways.

When handling foreign policy issues, the apparent neglect of the preceding agreements with the US, which would not have occurred had they used bureaucrats more skillfully, resulted in Prime Minister Hatoyama’s dramatic failures in handling the US Marine Corps Futemma base relocation issue, to such an incredible extent as has broken the trust between the leaders of both nations.

Q: Why was Kan able to defeat Ozawa?

A DPJ behind-the-scene mover, strong man Ichiro Ozawa, challenged the DPJ party leader Naoto Kan for the leadership last week, maintaining the anti-bureaucracy, people-first platform, only in vein, primarily because the challenger failed to gain support from the grass-root members of the party.

People in general are still puzzled, if not outraged, by the conduct of Ozawa when it comes to political fund raising. Voters over 40 years of age have memories of Ozawa creating a party, breaking it apart, and then launching another one, in the course of which his personal war chest has only grown.

They don’t have faith in Ozawa, which was the reason for Kan’s sizeable victory over him.

Yet again the votes were not so much ones of confidence in Kan as of no confidence in Ozawa, as was the case with the last year’s election results, which were votes of no confidence in the LDP.

It remains to be seen, in sum, whether Kan and his cabinet can live up to the people’s expectations.

Q: What are some of the reasons for the revolving door premiership in Japan?

One note to be added as to the revolving door premiership of Japan: something has to be done to bring the election calendars for the ruling party and for the government, so far so out of tune with one another, into tune so the prime minister does not have to face one election for the party, another for the government and the like.

The country is a mature democracy that can change only step by step in a gradual fashion. The pace is made slower than usual because of the aging population. The elderly is the class of vested interests by definition, hence wants very little change. And they are the ones who cast ballots more.

The flamboyant prime minister of Junichiro Koizumi with his charisma for once led the nation to a neo-liberal, individualistic, go-getter direction. Yet after he disappeared from the center stage (he is now retired and seldom appears before the public), a sense of change-fatigue set in, still holding the nation by and large.

Q: Japan is often thought of as an island nation. How does this affect politics?

Japan may be an island nation safely protected by the seas, but it is not an isolated one. Korean businesses have entered emerging markets in central Asian countries as their Japanese rivals have never been able to. It is now a country that can increasingly fight above its weight whereas Japan is the opposite.

The sea line of communication and commerce, a critical lifeline for the well being of the Japanese, from the Persian Gulf, Malacca Straits to the South East China and the East China Seas, is visibly becoming a crowded space because of the inroads that the Chinese military is making.

Q: How has Kan been different as Prime Minister?

The people in Japan are therefore feeling increasingly pinched both economically and strategically.

That I think helped push Prime Minister Kan to form a realist-pragmatist minded cabinet, constituting a bunch of tested and trusted ministers such as Noda as Finance Minister and Maehara as Foreign Minister. Unlike his predecessor Hatoyama and his opponent of Ozawa, he and his right hand man Sengoku, Chief Cabinet Secretary, at present appear not willing to kowtow to the Chinese, if you look at how his government handled the unlawful fishing boat of the Chinese. He is also more serious in mending fences with the US.

My sense therefore is that the Kan administration has finally taken a realistic stance, at least on the foreign policy front.

Q: What will happen with the economy and the exchange rate?

Concerning the economy, the latest attempts to intervene in the foreign exchange market will unlikely bring about a weaker yen. The competitive edge for the Japanese manufacturing industry is fast eroding. The ballooning debt will haunt the fiscal policy. The long-term interest rate, which has remained extremely low, will eventually rise, making it more difficult for the government to proactively boost the economy.

But for the third if not second largest economy and definitely the second biggest democracy in the world to have its deserved strategic breathing space, Japan must be able to punch above its weight. The only sure way for it to do so is to team up with the like-minded peers, most notably the US but also with Australia, Korea, India etc. That the new administration is signaling a more forthcoming attitude as to forging free trade agreements even with the agro-giant economy of the US is among the very limited number of encouraging developments.

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