On August 29, 2009, the New York Times was asking Yokohama voters what they thought about the upcoming election, where the ruling LDP would be challenged by the Democratic Party of Japan. They were not enthused. "I don't think much will change," said a salaryman. A homemaker was even more cynical. "If the Democratic party becomes too big, they will become a new dictatorship," she said.1
That the Japanese people do not trust their politicians was nothing new. In 1991, prime minister Takeshita had a public approval rating of 3.9 percent. In a 1954 poll of Tokyo, Osaka, and Yokohama, 68 percent said they had no confidence in their congressmen, and more among the educated and affluent.2
They don't expect much from their politicians, and they don't invest much energy in their campaigns. In 1967, the Japan Socialist Party, the country's permanent opposition party from 1955 to 1993, had 50,000 members. The British Labour Party had seven million.3 Activist associations are barren. In 2001, Greenpeace had 400,000 members in the United States and 500,000 in Germany. It had 5,400 members in Japan.4
During a 1958–60 field project in the Tokyo suburb of Mamachi, sociologist Ezra Vogel found the Japanese fearful of their government. "Because Mamachi residents, and especially women, feel helpless before the government, they try to avoid contact with government officials wherever possible." Their view of their government did not improve on contact: "A person in a position of authority is always right," they would say to themselves. He would always get his way.5
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Ichiro Ozawa, the greatest living political boss, did not lead the Democratic Party of Japan into the 2009 elections. He had been tarnished by another political scandal (400 million yen of mysterious origin was used to buy a plot in Tokyo6), and was forced to resign hi". Yukio Hatoyama, a dreamlike figure, whose wife believed she had been abducted by aliens, was sent for. He did not take Ozawa's place, but he did take his office.7
Indeed, Ozawa was a dreamer as well. He spoke to the New York Times one winter day in 2004. "I am not aiming to become [the prime minister]," he said. "What I am aiming at is overthrowing the Shogunate."8
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In Japan, most political activity takes place on the edge of the legal.9 Except for a limited number of state-mandated spots, advertising through television, radio, newspapers and magazines was illegal until the 1990s; door-to-door canvassing is still so; and the handbills posted in public are only permitted to advertise the party name, never the individual candidate (until 1994, Japan had multiple-member constituencies, and parties fielded multiple candidates in each district).10 Political activity is either expressly illegal – door-to-door canvassing is still very popular – or it is not explicitly political. Few are willing to risk breaking the law without a pay packet.11
In the absence of policy concerns or partisan feeling, politics is conducted as an exchange of gifts and loyalties. The most common forms of campaigning are social: a 1989 survey of 100 MPs showed that an MP could expect to attend an average of 6.6 weddings and 26.5 funerals per month, where they would be expected to grant gifts of congratulations or condolence;12 and, in a political culture where contributions are better taken as "gifts", fundraising is best done over dinner and drinks. One such dinner party, held for Noboru Takeshita in May 1987, raised 2 billion yen, or 14.7 million dollars.13 In the late 1980s, the price of winning a seat in the Diet was 500 million yen, the equivalent of 4 million dollars. Japanese MPs spent twice as much per constituent as American congressmen.14
Most of the money to grease this system comes from institutional donors – large-pocketed firms and organizations keen to exploit the legislative leverage that a politician on retainer provides. Generally, the largest pockets have been in construction; in 1979, construction firms donated more than city banks.15 The government's deep subsidies and non-competitive grants are simply too sweet to pass up. In June of this year, the trade ministry was promising a sweeping new "growth strategy", identifying a set of rising industries needing special state-led assistance. One of the choice few: "overseas construction".16
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On election day, August 31, 2009, the Japanese went to the polls for the first time in five years. Figures released in the closing days of the campaign revealed that unemployment had risen to a record 5.7 percent. Government debt was twice the country's 5.3 trillion dollar GDP. The LDP government did not survive. Of the party's 296 LDP deputies, only 119 were returned. The DPJ won a majority of 308 seats; they had only 113 seats in the previous parliament.
143 of the incoming DPJ deputies were new to parliament, while Ozawa still sat in the wings. On December 28, Finance Minister Hirohisa Fuji was checked into medical care, presenting with high blood pressure and physical exhaustion. He resigned two days later. Ozawa had developed a special resentment for Fuji. He was soft on the bureaucrats. His replacement, Naoto Kan, a former social activist, was not.
Hatoyama was ultimately undone by an inability to move an American air base off Okinawa. Neither Ozawa nor the coalition left could not stomach this. After Hokosawa approved the Okinawa deal, the Social Democratic Party left the DPJ coalition. Ozawa met Hatoyama at his residence on the night of June 1: "You'll be unable to manage the government," he said. Hatoyama was unable to conciliate Ozawa and the left; he resigned.17 Kan became prime minister on June 4.18
Naoto Kan rose to replace him, and became prime minister on June 4. He sounded reformist notes: fiscal discipline, increased gasoline taxes. "We could end up like Greece", he told the press.19 But he could not contain the fallout from Hatoyama's mistakes. On July 11, in upper house elections, 51 LDP Dietmen were returned, against 44 DPJ. Kan's party was 16 seats short of a majority.20
Ozawa was no longer satisfied with Kan. On September 1, he announced that he would be contesting Kan's leadership in an intra-party election on September 14. Unlike Kan, Ozawa made no noise about fiscal discipline. Instead, he promised that the DPJ's campaign promises—child services, no tax increases (Kan had proposed a five percent consumption tax), bureaucratic reform—would be faithfully implemented.21 On news of his announcement, long-term interest rates on Japanese government bonds rose.22
When Kan took the microphone at his first party rally on September 1, he found himself momentarily unable to speak. The audience was larger than he had expected. He stood in silence, tears welling in his eyes. "Hang in there," someone in the audience called out. Kan finally spoke: "Nothing can be done without the public's trust".23
Two polls clarify the shape of the race. On 7 September, the Yomiuri Shimbun asked the general public. 66 percent supported Kan, and 18 percent supported Ozawa.24 On 8 September, the Mainichi Shimbun asked DPJ legislators. 186 backed Ozawa, and 175 backed Kan.25 Only the second group can vote on 14 September.
In the background, the indicators worsen. Japan's deficits rise while the central bank restrains the money supply further.26 On August 9, 2010, China passed Japan and became the world's second largest economy. Japanese growth had been an unexpectedly low 0.4 percent.27 As it slows and weakens, the Japanese nation may once again be going to sleep.
On August 29, professor of Japanese literature Norihiro Kato wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times. Kato had seen a television special on the new youth of Japan, the nonconsumers. "Japan and its youths," he wrote, "old beyond their years, may well reveal what it is like to outgrow growth." Against this bleak background, the Japanese may be returning once again to their ancient silence, their ancient isolation. To this, your correspondent can only wish them safety, and, as the nightmares advance around them, sweet dreams. I can only hope that we do not fall asleep as well.
by Stafford Cripps
1 Martin Fackler, "Japan Prepares for Change as Voting Begins", New York Times, 29 August 2009.
2Ezra Vogel, Japan's New Middle Class: The Salary Man and His Family in a Tokyo Suburb (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 2nd edn., 90 n. 6.
3 Gerald L. Curtis, The Japanese Way of Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 159.
4 Alex Kerr, Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan (London: Penguin, 2001), 70.
5 Vogel, New Middle Class, 96.
6 "Japan's Ichiro Ozawa 'won't quit' over funding row", BBC News, 16 January 2010.
7 Jun Hongo, "Ozawa's sway over DPJ remains absolute", Japan Times, 28 January 2010.
8 Norimitsu Onishi, "For Japan's Insider-Turned-Rebel, Decade-Old Revolution Is Still a Work in Progress", New York Times, 18 January 2010.
9 Curtis, Japanese Way of Politics, 173.
10 Curtis, Japanese Way of Politics, 167, 170.
11 Jacob M. Schlesinger, Shadow Shoguns: The Rise and Fall of Japan's Postwar Political Machine (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), 108-9; Curtis, Japanese Way of Politics, 175.
12 Schlesinger, Shadow Shoguns, 225.
13 Schlesinger, Shadow Shoguns, 224.
14 Schlesinger, Shadow Shoguns, 224.
15 Curtis, Japanese Way of Politics, 184.
16 "Watching China whizz by", The Economist, 19 August 2010.
17 "Behind the scenes of Hatoyama's fall", Yomiuri Shimbun, 4 June 2010.
18 Martin Fackler, "A Political Survivor Inherits Japan's List of Troubles", New York Times, 5 June 2010.
19 "Enter the prudent Mr Kan", The Economist, 24 June 2010.
20 "Let's twist again", The Economist, 15 July 2010.
21 "Kan, Ozawa Clarify Main Points of Contention Ahead of DPJ Leadership Election", Mainichi Shimbun, 2 September 2010.
22 Hirobumi Ohinata, "'Ozawa shock' seen as factor in rise of long-term interest rates", Asahi Shimbun, 8 September 2010.
23 "PM Kan moved to tears by outpouring of support at first leadership rally", Mainichi Shimbun, 2 September 2010.
24 "Poll: Kan Still Public's Pick in DPJ Race", Yomiuri Shimbun, 7 September 2010.
25 "Kan Leading Ozawa in DPJ Presidential Race", Mainichi Shimbun, 8 September 2010. Mainichi notes that Kan appears to have broader support in prefectural associations and among general party members, however.
26 Cf. Jonathan Allum, "There are lessons to be learnt from Japanese bonds", Financial Times, 31 August 2010.
27 "China Passes Japan to Become No. 2 Economy", New York Times, 15 August 2010.
28 Norihiro Kato, "Japan and the Ancient Art of Shrugging", New York Times, 21 August 2010.