Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Japanese Voters Force Parties to be Committal
HANABUSA Masamichi  / Former Ambassador to Italy

July 29, 2003
The merging of the Liberal Party (LP) and the Democratic Party (DP) announced last week is extremely significant in opening the possibility that the next general elections may bring about a breakthrough in the longstanding logjam in Japanese politics. Together with Prime Minister Koizumi Jun-ichiro, DP leader Kan Naoto and LP leader Ozawa Ichiro have been known as political mavericks. The next general elections will be a clash between two major parties led by these unorthodox leaders. It may be safely said that at long last an important change augurs in Japan's traditional political pattern, where politicians are ranked by the factions they belong to and by the numbers of times they are re-elected, and politics are under the strong influence of triangular interactions among politicians, bureaucrats and big business.

It is still premature to pass definitive judgment on the achievements of Prime Minister Koizumi, who emerged at the end of the "lost decade." But it must be pointed out that the very critical evaluation which Japan's mass media have made of him evidently reveals that their views are biased - considerably manipulated by politicians in Nagata-cho. It is also clear that these evaluations do not necessarily reflect the subtle political realism emerging in the minds of city dwellers. The political drama that will unfold in the coming six months will surely prove this to be true.

Japanese intellectuals often contend that high literacy in Japan does not necessarily mean high quality of intelligence of the Japanese, nor lead to their having a good political conscience as voters. This writer, however, values highly the fact that Japanese voters have not infrequently displayed good political judgment under the respective given circumstances through their voting. Rather, politicians have often failed to grasp correctly the message of voters at the polls; their post-election behavior has been opportunistic and lacked political ethics. A good example was the political marriage of convenience between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Socialist Party (SP) in 1993, which gave rise to the socialist premiership of Murayama Tomiichi. Japanese voters severely punished the SP by deserting it in later elections.

Until recently, the Japanese political system was closely related to the redistribution of wealth within the nation. This system presumed the abundance of distributable budgetary and financial resources. It has also created in Japan a structure in which various vested interests patronized the political parties. This tendency was particularly salient in farming constituencies, as more funding found its way to farming regions than cities under the post-war national objective of minimizing wealth gaps in Japanese society. Although rapid urbanization raised the political significance of city voters, many of them have felt excluded from the system, as the reapportionment of constituencies has always been unbalanced and as a result, a single vote of a city dweller has continued to weigh substantially less than that of a farmer. As long as Japan's total economic pie kept growing, smoldering dissatisfaction among city voters was contained. Even when Japanese economic growth started to stagnate and dissatisfaction among city voters began to mount, still no major change happened in Japan's domestic politics, as evidenced by the LDP's decision to join forces with Komeito - an anti-communist Buddhist group, though the latter's supporters represented a radical segment of Japanese society. It is worth noting that over these years voting patterns have continued to change in the city areas.

At present, the Japanese are quite dissatisfied with the state of Japan's economy. Nevertheless, it appears that the majority of Japanese still approve of Prime Minister Koizumi, who professes to place more importance on structural reforms than on economic stimulation. It may not be an exaggeration to say that minor groups within the mass media are the only ones showing any sympathy towards contenders for Prime Minister within the LDP, who are vociferously asking for substantial budgetary spending to inflate the economy. With the majority of young wage earners refusing to pay pension premiums - strongly doubting if they can duly receive pension benefits when they are themselves pensioned off, these young voters will hardly lend their ears to the anachronistic voices of these political contenders clamouring for large public spending.

Japanese voters are increasingly deepening their doubts about spurious election promises made by political candidates. It is most probable that they will demand the political parties to come up with concrete policy programs and cast their votes on the merits of such programs. This trend can be recognized in a statement made by the Prime Minister that his political promises during the election for the LDP Presidency should be accepted by party members as the Party's political commitment in the forthcoming national elections. Likewise, there is heightened public opinion that the political parties should indicate their policies on major issues more clearly in the form of a so-called "policy manifest."

There are a few good reasons why Japanese voters who were hitherto considered politically passive and conservative by nature have changed their political stance. First, with the deepening realization that loose public spending is no longer feasible in the face of a severe budgetary crisis, the Japanese have come to attach greater importance on how public money is spent. Secondly, as the malfunctions of the post-war Japanese system has come to light, people came to realize that no bright future is in store for them as long as they continue with the present way of doing things. Prime Minister Koizumi has unwittingly made his unique contribution to the success of this Japanese version of glasnost. Thirdly, faced with the war in Iraq, the development by North Korea of nuclear weapons and missiles and the stunning economic growth China is making, the nation’s attention has been directed at issues of national security and law and order, thus awakening hitherto dormant nationalistic feelings.

The single-member constituency system is known to lead to a two-party political system and domination of the party by its hierarchical leadership. This process has not advanced in Japan as much as it has in Italy, which adopted electoral reforms very similar to Japan’s about the same time, since the self-preserving instinct of individual professional politicians is too strong, the power wielded by LDP factions too overwhelming and the struggle for survival for small parties too intense to allow the consequences of electoral reform to take place easily in Japan. However, though belatedly, it seems that the same process is slowly happening in Japan, too.

Japanese voters may be given an opportunity to prove their political sagacity in the forthcoming general elections later this year, if, as a result of the present merger of two major opposition parties, the LDP and the "new" DP move in the direction of clarifying their policy differences. On the eve of general elections, Japanese voters are anxious to see the two major parties clarify their policy stance on issues such as the promotion of local autonomy, reform of various structures fortified by vested interests, redressing of the educational system, national security and diplomatic policies reflecting the long-term national interests of Japan.

The writer is former Ambassador to Italy
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

英 正道 / 元駐イタリア大使

2003年 7月 29日









一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Japanese Voters Force Parties to be Committal