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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Japan: change in power, the test after victory

Karyn Poupée

Texte intégral

1October 2009

2On 30th August, the Minshuto (Democrat Party of Japan, DPJ, considered as the Centrist Party) won 308 seats out of the 480, forming the Lower Chamber of the Japanese Parliament and establishing itself as the country’s leading party, far ahead of the conservatives, Jiyuminshuto, (Jiminto, Liberal Democrat Party, LDP), which had only salvaged 119 seats out of the 300 that they had before. It is indisputably a historical victory, but their viability in the long-run remains to be seen.

3For the first time since 1955, the all-powerful Liberal Democrat Party had (LDP) lost its place as Japan’s leading party, to its great rival, the Minshuto (Democrat Party of Japan, DPJ). Led by its founder, Yukio Hatoyama, coming from a family background of politicians and the grandson of the founder of the Bridgestone tire group (world number one in the sector, running head to head with the French Michelin firm), the DPJ based its campaign on buoyant subjects such as the disintegration of the “LDP system” and the return of the welfare state. The slogans were somewhat welcoming: “change”, “vote for real democracy”, “power to the politicians”, “let’s put an end to bureaucracy”, “let’s put a stop to waste”, “stop amakudari (the crossover from public to private sector)”, “MPs serving the people”. Running against older LDP candidates whose discourse had been discredited by the economic downturn, the loss of social benefits, the rise of unemployment to an unparalleled level (5.7% of the labour force at the end of August) and the fear of tomorrow, the DPJ presented young, smiling and dynamic men and women, symbolising a renewed vision of politics. Concealing its internal divides, this young mosaic party, considered as the Centrist Party, believed that the population suffered due to the highly liberal politics practised by LDP Prime Minister Koizumi between 2001 and 2006. In differing with this, the DPJ has promised an economy founded on social welfare, a reform of the political institutions for its citizens and greater diplomatic independence of Japan under the world’s gaze. They are henceforth bound by these promises, but are they realistic?

Donations for all

4The DPJ intends to firstly reverse the chain of command within the administration, thereby condemning the excessive power of top-rank civil servants to the detriment of elected officials. The objective was to return complete control over the budget to the political decision-makers. The foundation of promises focused on redistributing national wealth.

5The new government has guaranteed an increase and gradually making the minimum wage uniform to 1,000 yens per hour (7,5 euros/h), as well as a minimal pension of 70,000 yens (526 euro) per month. They thus meet the main concerns of the citizens. Faced with declining birth rates, partially due to economic uncertainties, the government hopes to increase child birth allowance to 550,000 yens (4,150 euros), then offer a monthly allowance of 26,000 yens (approx. 200 euros) to every child until the end of secondary school, combining many other financial support, such as free public sector secondary schools, for an total annual cost equivalent to 1% of the gross domestic product (GDP), higher than the defence budget. The Hatoyama cabinet also plans to remove unpopular regulations related to health care expenses of people over 75 years old. The government is to offer a reduced tax rate of 11% from 18% and financial support to maintaining employment and training to small and medium-sized companies that are victims of the drop in exports and decline of domestic consumption. Farmers, angry with the LDP, will benefit from new subsidies (additional income for independent farmers). Interim staff will no longer be able to work in factories anymore; motorways will gradually become free and petrol will be taxed less harshly. All these developments combined aim to strengthen the weak domestic economy, by restoring confidence to worried citizens about the future, who are cautious and shaken up by years of a fluctuating economy. The LDP conducted a recovery policy by creating new products and services, through large-scale industrial plans, research programmes, the building of public infrastructures. The DPJ considers these methods ineffective to putting an end to the vicious circle of social uneasiness. However, do they have the means to feed their altruistic ambitions?

Uncertain financing

6The new government says that it would set aside the necessary amount for this ambitious programme by controlling the actions of the civil servants more strictly, by removing unnecessary levels of administration, reducing the public wage bill, selling goods and avoiding unjustified spending (construction of dams, renting too expensive buildings, sums of money paid unduly to intermediate bodies, etc.). It was hoped that the natural increase in income would come from tax on domestic consumption thanks to the government’s support measures, without raising the rate (5%). Taxes on the households of childless professionals could also rise, a detail that the campaign had forgotten to mention.

7The virtuous circle in which the DPJ believes, however, convinces neither the economists nor the business circles that are becoming worried about public finances. Whereas the state debt is amounting to at least 180% of the gross domestic product (GDP), the cost of all the provisions considered will, by the end of the term, in 2013, be close to 16,800 billion yens (126 billion euros) per annum. If, according to a study by the Mizuho bank, Japan could benefit from a 1% growth boost in 2010 through a combination of the different aforementioned schemes, a 0.5% and 0.1% reflux rate is feared for the next two years. The cost for companies and households to ambitiously reduce 25% greenhouse gases between 1990 and 2020 (which amounts to a drop of 30% between 2005 and 2020) has not been estimated. Although claiming to be concerned about the fight against global warming, businessmen and women consider it as an obstacle in expanding their activity. All the more so since the DPJ only gave its support to the development of key technology at the last minute in its strategy to reach this target and to fill obvious gaps as well as to provide an industrial vision to its programme.

Diplomacy: acting differently, but how?

8In regard to diplomacy, the new government in power intends “to build a trusting relationship” with the United States, an inevitable ally, without following it blindly, for which it criticised the LDP. The security of Japan is still strongly dependent on American systems (a good example is the detection device of North Korean missile firings). Having opposed yesterday to the deployment of American troops in Afghanistan, what will the government do when their missions end in January? For the time being, the government has replied that it “will not renew the mission as such”, quite a weak phrasing of words compared to those used (“will put an end”) at the beginning of the campaign, which was disapproved by the United States at the time. In addition, what about the redeployment of the 47,000 American soldiers on Japanese territory, mainly in the Okinawa archipelago, a frequently disputed subject? Could a possible compromise be reached regarding the “northern territories” (Kuril islands) annexed by Russia and of which Japan demands it to be restored? How should North Korea be handled whose leader is trying to divide the countries that are supposed to negotiate with it? Can the mystery of the Japanese civilians kidnapped in the ‘70s and ‘80s by the Pyongyang regime be solved? Is there a secret agreement authorising US nuclear ships in Japanese waters to be allowed, in spite of the Japan principle that “Japan will not develop, will not hold in its possession and will not accommodate nuclear weapons”? The DPJ has promised to rapidly clarify this hypothetical hidden clause, but will the United States let them do so? How far will discussions on a free trade agreement between Japan and the USA go? How will the archipelago finally react to China’s increasing power to maintain a leading position in Asia? For all these outstanding issues, the DPJ is committed to respond differently than its predecessors, which is already quite daring. It is necessary that these words be put into action, although the observers are still somewhat sceptic about it.

A voluntarist government, but under close scrutiny

9Domestically as well as abroad, it is nevertheless certain that the new Hatoyama government, which, the day after it was formed, basking in the glory of winning over 75% of the population according to several polls, will strive, at least up to the senatorial elections in July 2010, to demonstrate its capability to the public. It will do so even if this involves making radical decisions within a few hours (suspending orders for public building sites, expunging laws deemed unfair) and with the risk of verbal disputes, if not with the powers that be (banks, top management, high-ranking civil servants, etc.). Still, the government will not be able to force its way to the top, as it needs everyone on its side. Although the DPJ was helped by young professionals in its election victory, there was also the management team, which consisted of experienced Members of Parliament, at the top of their field (with Naoto Kana from National Strategy, Katsuya Okada from Foreign Affairs, Hirohisa Fujii from Finances, Masayuki Naoshima from Economy, Akira Nagatsuma from Health, etc.).

10The DPJ is, however, not totally free in its movements. Lacking a majority in the upper chamber of the parliament, it had to form a coalition with two smaller parties from a more anti-liberal sphere of influence (Shakaiminshuto, the Social Democratic Party, and Kokuminshinto, the New Citizen Party). These parties, having only 10 seats between them in the lower chamber, with which the DPJ had to harshly negotiate their support, in exchange for their ambiguity on sensitive issues (the American occupation in the archipelago, further military missions abroad, the weight of the nuclear component in the energy). There is a chance that this strategic coalition may not appeal to the voters. The Hatoyama cabinet appears to be giving particular attention the balance between DPJ’s different factions, including former LDP members, union activists, socialists and newcomers, who foresee internal struggles on several major issues, in particular, those concerning foreign policy and security. As for women, who were worthy assets throughout the campaign, they are underrepresented and receive only the portfolios of the Ministries of Social Affairs and Justice.

11Another threat of resistance comes from Ichirô Ozawa, the DPJ strategist. This unpredictable character, unsettled at the beginning of the year by a politico-financial case, was forced to step down, with Yukio Hatoyama, today’s Prime Minister taking his place. Appointed Secretary-General of the DPJ, he was supposed to handle the party’s affairs, and not the country’s. Mr. Ozawa, however, still maintains a strong power of influence in parliament, all the more so since younger MPs, selected by this mentor, owe him their gratitude. Still the public mistrust this manipulator whose objectives are not clearly stated. “The DPJ’s coming to power is but the first step of my great ambition”, he said a few days after victory, casting a cloud on his overall intentions.

12As for Mr. Hatoyama, he will have to answer to journalists despite his fears and the helpfulness of his staff. The influential media do not appreciate the ban issued to top-rank civil servants, which are now under the government’s command and its “Office for National Strategy”, to give press conferences on technical matters. “Information control has begun”, wrote the right-wing (daily) newspaper, Sankei Shimbun. Another powerful newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, added: “this goes against the new government’s promise of transparency even if it is justified by its hope to return power to the elected political decision-makers, representing the people.” Still the electors, being easily confused, may change their minds quickly. The DPJ’s victory is a vote in itself, voicing strong discontent against the LDP system. In no way does it fully and completely support the programme stated.

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