Turning Japanese

by John Quiggin on August 28, 2009

I’ve been in Japan for the last few days, at a conference on Logic, Game Theory and Social Choice where, among other things, we’ve had some interesting discussions on electoral mechanisms. Meanwhile, Japan appears to be on the verge of tipping out the almost-permanent LDP government.

But, as a (non-Japanese speaking) visitor, I can hardly tell there was an election on. I’ve seen no rallies or badges, only a handful of posters and one loudspeaker truck, with a decidedly non-strident woman’s voice issuing what may have been a political message. The English language media I have access to (Asahi Shimbun and so on) has been giving the election about the level of coverage I’d expect for a boring state election at home. I’ll give some very ill-informed thoughts over the fold, but can readers say anything from their own knowledge, or point to useful sources?

From what I can see, the Democratic Party of Japan, who are expected to win easily, have a moderate-left platform that basically amounts to cutting out a lot of LDP patronage and using the proceeds to finance improved social welfare. This looks like good news to me, but it will be interesting to see how they manage the massive debt they will inherit.

And alternation of governments through elections is desirable in general, as compared to the internal LDP machinations that have been the only route to changes of government in the past.

It’s hard to see a machine party like the LDP surviving a substantial spell in opposition, so if the DPJ can do well enough to last a couple of terms, we might see a complete realignment of Japanese politics. But, as I’ve noted, I know much less about this than I probably should. Any better info will be welcome.

{ 17 comments }

1

Henry 08.28.09 at 3:00 am

2

Henry 08.28.09 at 3:17 am

Also, “today’s FT piece”:http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c774c6d0-9282-11de-b63b-00144feabdc0.html seems to me (a non-expert) to be pretty solid background.

3

Jared 08.28.09 at 4:05 am

This seems good.

The two basic post-election issues will probably be first, how much effect the DPJ will have in the face of the entrenched bureaucracy (Wednesday’s Times article stresses this) and second, whether the LDP will be able to get rid of factionalism and reform itself.

4

Richard Green 08.28.09 at 7:55 am

I was in Japan for the upper house election in 2007, and there were three main indicators an election was going on.
1. Posters on neat designated political poster grids. How orderly, particularly in a country so tolerant of visual pollution. I do enjoy this candidate’s cute dog policy.
2. Identical political ads from every party. They all showed a middle aged rich man with a zoom away from the face as he said something along the lines of “I’m a middle aged rich man. Vote for me”
3. Best of all, ensashed politicians on top of trucks giving royal waves as unenthusiastic messages floated over hurrying crowds giving them not a glance.

I have no real faith in the DPJ cohesiveness on any issue of social welfare or anti cronyism or anything except not being the LDP.
All issues of left and right and social democracy vs liberalism vs conservatism are misleading when seeing the parties. In truth, you have only a machine, whose continuation is it’s sole reason for being, and a party whose sole defining factor is not being of that machine, in the case of most of the leadership, because the machine did not serve their ambitions.

In Australian terms, it’s the party of Joe Tripodi and the NSW right vs a party of Brendan Nelsons and Billy Hugheses.

5

John Quiggin 08.28.09 at 7:59 am

“In Australian terms, it’s the party of Joe Tripodi and the NSW right vs a party of Brendan Nelsons and Billy Hugheses.”

Got it. Not an appealing choice, but I’d definitely go for Brendan and Billy. At least there’s a chance of breaking the existing machine stranglehold and paving the way for something better.

6

Z 08.28.09 at 10:51 am

Funnily enough, the electoral law prevents (in certain situation) campaigning for a definite election (you are not allowed to print a poster saying “vote for me in the next general election”) but does not prohibit putting a poster with your name and your party. Consequently, at any given time in Japan, one can see many unassuming posters saying “My name is such and such. Poster of the LDP/DJP/Komeito”.

My Japanese friends and colleagues all have a level of involvement in politics far below the expected involvement level in Europe. However, the fact that their prime minister could not read å‚·è·¡ properly in the context of a speech on the Nagasaki bombing really made them cringe (the sign above means “scar” and even I can read it, though only because of Harry Potter).

7

hardindr 08.28.09 at 3:42 pm

Of interest:

http://japanfocus.org/

8

Ahistoricality 08.28.09 at 3:51 pm

Adam Richards at MutantFrog Travelogues has been doing some very nice, clear commentary on the election, both generally and locally. His co-blogger Curzon regularly does political commentary as well.

9

Wrye 08.28.09 at 6:21 pm

Gwynne Dyer has a typically good take on the prospects for change here.

10

nickhayw 08.29.09 at 3:34 am

And the Sydney Morning Herald’s correspondent has a decent overview in this morning’s paper.

The workers sleeping in internet cafes gets me. I hope things change for the better.

11

JT 08.29.09 at 2:57 pm

I’m Japanese, but I don’t claim to have any special insight into the issue. But if the outcome of the current general election is anything like it’s predicted to be, I think it’s less of DPJ winning it than LDP losing it. Remember that a lot of DPJers are ex-LDPers, most notably Mr. Ichiro Ozawa who used to be machine politics incarnate while he was still with LDP. And while there is a slight left-wing and reformist slant to DPJ policies, my view is that it’s more of an ornametal flourish to appease its left-leaning wing which is what’s left of what used to be Socialist Party. In my view, the reason the predicted outcome is so lopsided in favor of DPJ is that LDP has given us three prime ministers in as many years who were selected by LDP and not the electorate and who all turned out to be a disappointment. The first of the three, Mr. Abe, embarked upon his pet whitewashing projects attempting to absolve Japan of its aggression against its
Asian neighbors in the 1930’s and 1940’s, achieved almost nothing except the wrath of our neighbors, and about a year into office decided the pressure of the job was too much for him and quit. The second, Mr. Fukuda, was regarded as a safe pair of hands, but he also quit suddenly after about a year in office, apparently without any personal scandal to his discredit. He is remembered for his cryptic retort to a reporter who questioned his resignation move: “Unlike you, I can see myself objectively, I know what I am doing.” The third and current one, Mr. Aso, proved to be a gaffe machine extrodinaire, and he also proved unable to pronounce correctly some of the everyday words written in Chinese characters. (Chinese characters are not phonetic, so one needs some education, say 9th grade level, to be able to pronounce them correctly.) All these taken separately and in themselves may appear to be a frivolous quibble, but a string of three unelected prime ministers, all misfits and losers, is enough to upset an electorate so far noted for its change-averseness and acquiescence to the status quo. Ever the pessimist, I am not sure if DPJ would be any improvement.

12

Dene Grigar 08.30.09 at 2:10 am

A non-strident woman’s voice? Do women making political commentary seem that way to you normally here in the US? I do not follow your meaning.

13

Kazushi 08.30.09 at 3:46 am

DPJ is consisted of former LDP MPs and former Socialists. Most of the leaders of DPJ is originally from DPJ (including Hatoyama). This means that while DPJ seems to be a liberal moderate-left party, many of its members favour small government and is politically conservative.

14

garymar 08.30.09 at 5:37 am

My wife just voted this morning. We went across the street to the Tax Center around 9 AM. She was the only one there, but I imagine it’ll get busier later.

Random nonsystematic observations: Japan really is in a ‘throw the bums out’ mode, though of course it’s very softly spoken. My wife said, “It’s about time for a change. The Minshuto isn’t much better, but still it’s not the Jiminto”.

There’s also a bizarre religious sect called “The Science of Happiness” trying to break into the Diet. Their political arm is called The Happiness Realization Party. They have some truly unique stances, like eliminating all consumer taxes which they say will eliminate the budget deficit (or maybe I’m just reading the blurbs wrong). In our neighborhood however, they do seem to have a lot of women running for office.

15

garymar 08.31.09 at 6:59 am

I see that the MutantFrog has already mentioned the Science of Happiness, or Happy Science as he calls it. Pretty bizarre it is: Ryuho Okawa is the reincarnation of the Buddha, Hermes, La Mu (civilization of Mu!), and Thoth (of Atlantis).

“El Cantare is from the 9th dimensional heavenly realm”.

Methinks I smell a Japanese L. Ron Hubbard.

http://irh-intl.sakura.ne.jp/india/?page_id=637

“Ryuho Okawa: the core consciousness of El Cantare is incarnated for the first time in 150 million years.”

This reminds me of the Blackadder episode, “Election”: ‘Prince George, whose election pamphlet describes him as a great spiritual and moral leader of the nation, but who is described, by almost everyone else, as a fat, flatulent git…”

16

John Quiggin 08.31.09 at 9:54 am

“A non-strident woman’s voice? Do women making political commentary seem that way to you normally here in the US? I do not follow your meaning.”

Maybe unclear. My image of loudspeaker trucks in Japanese politics is one of loudly blaring, male voices with a message (as translated in the images I’ve seen) of (mostly rightwing) extremism. In this case, the voice was neither strident nor male.

17

Tobias 09.03.09 at 11:20 pm

For the record, the idea that the DPJ is composed simply of former LDP and former S0cialist Party is simply wrong, although thanks to lazy reporting it’s one of the few “facts” included in every article about the DPJ.

Before the election, I looked at the party’s members of both houses of the Japanese Diet by party origin: Socialist Party, 14; Social Democratic Party 2 (i.e., they stayed in the SP long enough for its name change to the SDPJ); assorted “right wing” socialist 10; Komeito 1; Japan Renewal Party 3; Japan New Party/Sakigake 11; New Frontier Party 12; Liberal Party 4; LDP 20; and Independents 4. The remaining 134 members have spent their entire careers in the DPJ, a number that has of course swollen now that the party won 308 seats in the lower house.

Additionally, it is worth asking whether it matters where some of the other members began their careers. Take Hatoyama, for instance. First elected to the Diet in 1983 as an LDP member, he spent ten years in the party and sixteen years out of it. Why should the former be what defines him as a politician, especially considering that a number of politicians who left the LDP in 1993 eventually drifted back? Does the fact that he stayed away and built a new opposition party from scratch in 1996 count for nothing? The same goes for former party leader Ozawa Ichiro. While he spent a far longer period in the LDP and was at the heart of its most powerful faction, he has made no secret of his desire to destroy LDP politics and usher in “normal” politics. Does that count for nothing? Finally, many of the former Socialists were present at the creation of the “former” DPJ in 1996 (the party dissolved and reformed in a merger in 1998). Does that not count for something?

It seems to be much easier for journalists to repeat the canard than to look inside the party and actually discover its internal dynamics.

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