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

Koizumi "Magic" Brings Overwhelming Victory to LDP
KITAMURA Fumio / Journalist

October 21, 2005
On September 11, Japan's general election gave the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) 296 seats, far exceeding the majority required in the 480-seat House of Representatives. Together with the 31 seats won by coalition partner Komeito Party, the ruling LDP coalition captured seats representing two-thirds of the House. The LDP is wallowing in the euphoria of a victory that "wasn't expected to be won by such a large margin," in the words of LDP Secretary General Takebe Tsutomu. However, the election results have been dogged by a great irony, since the LDP owed its landslide victory to a Prime Minister who pledged to dismantle his own party.

That Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichiro was the decisive factor in bringing about the election results is beyond doubt. Controversial words and deeds being the Prime Minister's trademark, he succeeded in focusing the election on the single issue of privatizing the postal service, and presented it as a simple conflict between "reformist" candidates who supported the government's privatization bill and "old-guard" candidates who opposed it. LDP candidates who came out against the bill in the House of Representatives prior to the election were stripped of party endorsement. In an additional blow, the LDP gave its official endorsement to well-known personalities with high media profiles -- many of them women -- to run as party candidates in anti-Koizumi electorates. The mass media came to call these new faces Prime Minister Koizumi's "assassins."

The election campaign took on the guise of a vendetta, and tabloid TV shows amused and entertained by tirelessly pursuing the "assassin" hoopla, altogether ignoring any debate on policy issues. Never before has election coverage been transformed into so much entertainment. While ridiculing what it called the "theatrical election," it was undeniably the mass media that was taken in by the Koizumi strategy. At the moment, there is not a single political leader in either the ruling coalition or the opposition who could challenge the Prime Minister's authority. True to the maxim "people make history and history makes people," Mr. Koizumi has indeed been given the opportunity of opening a chapter to a "new history" for Japan. More importantly, though, we should note that it was Japan's past "history" -- the negative legacy of Japanese politics -- that propelled Mr. Koizumi to the seat of power.

In advanced western nations, it is change of governments that injects dynamism to politics. In contrast, Japanese politics has been dominated by a prolonged rule of the LDP to the extent of being considered an anomaly. The LDP, while allowing for the co-existence of various internal factions, had more or less managed to remain in the set of power since the party was founded in 1955. The factions were composed of LDP lawmakers lobbying on behalf of specific interest groups, and were categorized into groups concerned with postal, agriculture, construction and other issues. If a political party is defined as a group of politicians who gather under common principles, the LDP could not have been farther from such an ideal - hence, criticism of its being a "pre-modern political group."

Professor Gerald Curtis of Columbia University in the United States, an expert on Japanese politics, explains that each faction acts as a conduit for relaying the demands of the interest groups they represent to the state level, and that the LDP was expected to play a coordinating role between conflicting special interests. Professor Curtis further analyzes that the LDP remained safely in power as long as it functioned as a coordinator, and that in turn worked to stabilize Japanese politics. Thus the personal quality required of an LDP president -- Prime Minister -- was not decisive leadership based on foresight, but the ability to coordinate and keep the special interest groups equally satisfied. The Economist of London once published a scathing editorial on this Japanese system titled: "A Leader Does not Lead."

However, open discussion hinders the wheeling and dealing coordination process. Thus backroom consultations among politicians, bureaucrats and industry leaders becomes a necessity. And this in turn gives rise to corruption - to collusion among politicians, bureaucracy and industry, and to lobbying for vested interests through bribery. To the outside world, the true nature of Japanese politics remained enigmatic and esoteric. Beneath the "Revisionist" argument against Japan that grew into a formidable chorus in Europe and the United States in the 1990s, there was a deep undercurrent of discomfort with Japan's process of coordination through backroom consultations.

Pursuing the realistic picture of interest coordination leads us to the distribution of tax revenues stored in the national treasury. Such a system was made possible by Japan's phenomenal economic expansion. However, the bursting of the economic bubble sent Japan plunging into a serious state of stagnation, which dramatically reduced financial revenues that had funded pork-barrel politics. Despite the circumstances, the LDP recklessly continued to dole out large-scale financing packages under the pretense of public works aimed at economic recovery. Its opaque interest coordination process also remained intact. Corruption cases rooted in backroom collusion were brought to light one after the other. Meanwhile, corporate restructuring generated massive unemployment. The Japanese people directed their frustration and anger towards LDP government, and the party suffered a freefall in the electoral polls.

While Mr. Koizumi had attracted attention in the past by his bold words and deeds, he was nevertheless given nicknames such as "eccentric" and "oddball" by the mass media and considered nothing but minor league within the party. The fact that the LDP has relegated the responsibility of reconstructing the party to a man upholding the outrageous slogan of "dismantling the LDP"is evidence that the system of Japanese-style politics has become defunct. In the September 11 elections, Prime Minister Koizumi won a landslide victory by adopting a strategy of offering flashy comments and actions that captured the moods of the media era and providing timely news for the media to gobble up. It was an election in which the political qualities verging on genius that only an "eccentric" prime minister can boast to possess were demonstrated to the best effect.

However, the "theatrical" election is not without its hidden pitfalls. The new parliament created by the election will carry the heavy responsibility of guiding the nation over a maximum period of four years to come. Japan is currently faced with important issues that include reconstructing its social security system to meet the low birthrate and aging population, reforming its education system, establishing relationships of trust with its neighboring Asian nations, pulling back its Self Defense Forces from Iraq, and above all, revising its Constitution. There was hardly any debate on these important issues during the course of the election, which revolved around the single issue of privatizing the postal system and which was directed as a vendetta drama.

It is the response to these issues that will serve as the touchstone for whether Japan can genuinely embark on a new "history" of self-transformation. Neither can we rule out the possibility that voters who practically handed a "carte blanche" to the LDP this time may one day come to regret their voting behavior.

The writer is a former Professor of Shukutoku University and former Senior Editor and London Bureau Chief of the Yomiuri Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

北村文夫 / ジャーナリスト

2005年 10月 21日










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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Koizumi "Magic" Brings Overwhelming Victory to LDP