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Opinion: Politically challenged in Japan

What's wrong with this place?

Ichiro Ozawa, the former leader of Japan's Democratic Party who stepped down after a top aide was charged with corruption, and his party members shout slogans at its convention in Tokyo January 18, 2009. The party is now led by fourth-generation politician Yukio Hatoyama (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

TOKYO — Political dynasties are generally not built on approval ratings of 32 percent.

But earlier this month in Japan, it was headline news when public support for the cabinet of Prime Minister Taro Aso and his Liberal Democratic Party climbed seven percentage points to reach those towering heights in a survey by the business publication Nikkei and TV Tokyo. That makes Aso roughly about as popular in Japan as Dick Cheney is in the United States (a Gallup poll in late March found about 30 percent of U.S. respondents gave Cheney a favorable rating).

Not that the opposition is perfectly positioned to take advantage of any glaring weakness on the part of the LDP. The Democratic Party of Japan has just elected a new leader, Yukio Hatoyama. He replaces Ichiro Ozawa, who stepped down — though not immediately — after a top aide was indicted on suspicion of accepting illegal contributions from a construction company. Japan’s largest-circulation newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, polled more than 1,700 voters immediately after the DPJ party election this past weekend and reported that 53 percent have “no expectations” for Hatoyama.

Low expectations in the world of politics are nothing new for Japanese citizens. The practice just doesn’t score as a high priority in the same way as other endeavors, such as business. Despite the current recession, Japanese companies remain near the top of their fields in many areas. Factory owners come from around the world to marvel at Japanese manufacturing processes. From high-speed trains and industrial robotics to the worlds of manga, anime and video games, the country retains a reputation for global leadership. Japanese-style consensus-building management is coming back into vogue as the command and control approach of Wall Street lies in reputational ruins. Even the move-the-runner-along “small ball” attitude on the diamond has won two consecutive World Baseball Classics — not to mention admiration from fans suffering from steroid fatigue.

And then there’s the world of politics — where leaders can’t seem to get out of their own way. The now-former finance minister who appeared to be drunk at an international gathering. The senior politician, who, as the local newspapers put it, took a woman who was not his wife to a hot spring, and abused a special train pass for politicians along the way. And now the opposition leader whose top political aide was indicted on charges of taking money from a construction company.

But it’s not just about ethics, morals and public behavior. The policy mechanism is jammed.