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Japan's dysfunctional politics

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Japan's triple crisis of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster was an exceptional and unprecedented event. So why didn't Japan respond in an exceptional and unprecedented way?

The Japanese government's incapacity to provide an adequate response to the triple disaster is a reflection of three underlying trends in Japanese politics, as Waseda University's Masaru Kohno explained to a recent seminar at Toronto University.

The triple disaster was unprecedented in several respects. Several regions were affected, not just one. The casualties were enormous, with more than 30,000 persons dead or missing. The disaster was also very complex, especially the nuclear crisis.

There were also difficult trade-offs between the short-term recovery and the long-term redevelopment plan. Thus, one and a half years after the crisis, people are still debating how to rebuild. People from the region would like to rebuild on the same land, despite the continuing earthquake/tsunami risks. Many are fishermen, who would like to be close to the sea, where they can make fishing decisions based on the wind and waves. It is difficult to convince them to be more "rational" and move to the hill tops. Whose interests should be respected, the locals or more objective social planners? In consensus-oriented Japan, this is an impossible call.

What could have been the elements of an exceptional and unprecedented response to the crisis?

Kohno made three suggestions. A national emergency government, a grand coalition, could have been formed, including members of both the governing party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the main opposition party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A new legislative procedure to accelerate decision-making could also have been implemented, to circumvent the cumbersome process of passing legislation through both houses of parliament sequentially. A "People's Convention" style of consultative body could have been formed to advise parliament.

Politics proceeded on a "business-as-usual" basis, even though the situation was far from usual. No major initiative like the above was launched for three main reasons.

First, the DPJ, which was elected with great hope and promise in August 2009, has since been in a state of steady disintegration. Its first prime minister, Hatoyama, failed on two important issues, a review of all government programs which produced virtually no savings, and a promise to move the US Futenma base on Okinawa, which resulted in confusion and no decision. Hatoyama resigned in June 2010.

Almost immediately after, under its new leader Naoto Kan, the DPJ lost the Upper House election, with an ill-judged campaign based on increasing the sales tax. Kan's government then got itself in a muddle when it arrested Chinese fishermen whose boat collided with a Japanese coastguard boat near the Senkaku Islands (whose sovereignty is disputed between China and Japan). Ultimately, Japan had to back down and release the captain of the Chinese fishing vessel who it held for some 17 days. This was seen as a humiliating incident for the government.

Then, Foreign Minister, Maehara, widely considered a DPJ star, was forced to resign, after confessing to accepting financial contributions from a foreigner (in fact, the person involved was a Japanese resident of Korean origin). And throughout these events, Ozawa (see photo), the "shadow shogun" and great spoiler of Japanese politics, was increasingly critical of the prime minister, even though he was being investigated for corruption himself. He would later leave the DPJ, and create a new party, taking his camp of parliamentarians with him.

In short, when the triple crisis struck, the governing DPJ was in disarray, and the opposition LDP's offensive was at its peak. And these dysfunctional politics prevented the government from launching a more effective response. There were in particular, long delays in the creation of the reconstruction agency and the new nuclear regulation commission.

The second important trend has been the rise of local political parties, who are attracting more public attention and support than national parties. The main players have been Hashimoto, the mayor and former governor of Osaka, Kawamura, the mayor of Nagoya, and Ishihara, who has just resigned as mayor of Tokyo and created a national political party.

If these local politicians could coordinate and work together, they could become major players in national politics. But this is not likely, according to Kohno.

Kohno did not discuss in any detail the many scandals surrounding these local politicians.

Hashimoto has said that there is no evidence that the Japanese military used force or threats to recruit the South Korean comfort women who served as sex workers for the military during World War II.

Kawamura told a group of Chinese Communist Party members from Nanjing that he was skeptical about whether the Imperial Japanese Army actually raped and slaughtered thousands of Nanjing residents during the war.

Ishihara is a highly vocal and nationalistic politician who came into the spotlight this year when his publicized plans for buying three of the five Senkaku islands forced the central government to purchase the islands themselves, sparking a territorial dispute with China, who is claiming the islands as theirs.

These three prominent local politicians can only be bad news for Japan and its sensitive relations with its neighbors.

The third trend is growing distrust of Japanese politics among Japanese citizens, as reflected in rising support for independent politicians. However, while support for independent politicians is higher than in Prime Minister Koizumi's years (2001-2006), it is no higher than in the 1990s.

Kohno believes that Japan is destined to keep its two-party system, but one possibility is that the DPJ could be replaced by another party. He does not see the weekly anti-nuclear power protests as developing into a coherent political force. As Egypt has demonstrated, social media can be good as mobilizing people, but not politically organizing people.

In conclusion, Kohno believes that Japanese politics is "dysfunctional". But he also believes that politics is dysfunctional everywhere, and that the situation in Japan is no worse than elsewhere.

In my view, Kohno is far too sanguine is his assessment, and let me give you a few reasons:

-- Systemic corruption is deeply entrenched in Japan. As reported by the BBC, a government audit has just found that the Japanese government has spent funds intended for reconstruction after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami on unrelated projects, like roads in Okinawa, an ad campaign for Japan's tallest building and support for whaling research. At the same time, some 325,000 people remain displaced 18 months on from the disaster.

-- This affair was barely reported by Japan's compliant and passive media. What is most surprising about this story is the lack of fuss about it in Japan. If such a damning government audit was published in the US or Britain one can imagine the howls from the media and opposition. The prime minister has brushed aside this affair with an "I'm sorry".

-- Due to its consensus-based decision-making, and general lack of leadership, Japan is completely incapable of taking decisions which are objectively in its own interest, like joining the Trans Pacific Partnership. Puny interest groups like farmers block reforms in the broader national interest. While this happens everywhere, Japan is clearly one of the worst cases.

-- In international relations, Japan has great difficulty managing and negotiating complex issues, as reflected in the latest incident with China over the Senkaku Islands. The opinions of local politicians like Hashimoto, Kawamura and Ishihara, and many other extreme right wing politicians greatly undermine Japan's capacity to get on with its neighbors.

-- Japan is a country where government policy has traditionally been managed by bureaucrats, with politicians spending much time on infighting and buying votes. But true political leadership is necessary to tackle the country's many deep problems, and regrettably it is sadly lacking.

-- It is true that there is a degree of dysfuntionality in politics everywhere. Nevertheless, the US seems to be managing its way through its financial crisis, and surely after the presidential election, it will come up with a plan to deal with its debt. And in Europe, despite the many complex problems involved, the European Union has taken many firm decisions towards solving its financial crisis.

What is most disturbing in the case of Japan is that it is very difficult to see how its politics could ever improve as the country's fundamentals -- sluggish economy, enormous debt, ageing population, and increasingly fractious relations with nationalistic neighbors -- continue to deteriorate and nibble away at the nation's self confidence and political competence.

A major economic and political crisis seems inevitable. How this would pan out is anybody's guess.

Masaru Kohno. Japanese Politics after 3.11: Trends and Challenges. Munk School of Global Affairs. University of Toronto, Friday November 02.

Masaru Kohno, Waseda University, Tokyo, Japan