Opinion: Politically challenged in Japan

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.

 

This week the government reported the economy’s sharpest fall in more than 50 years. And the political leadership’s biggest idea to stimulate recovery has been to issue vouchers for about $100 a taxpayer — and give price breaks on energy-efficient cars and major appliances. Neither is a bad step, but the combination is unlikely to fire the world’s second-largest economy back to life. And the legislative response to the economic crisis is not exactly thrilling the voting public.

Outsiders often compare Japanese politics to Kabuki theater. Usually this cliche relates to mysterious moves and meanings that are indecipherable to the uninitiated. But there’s one very real similarity between the two: family ties. Most Kabuki actors “grow up in the theater,” even inheriting specific roles. Many Japanese politicians join their own career world through family tradition and connections.

Both the current prime minister and his chief rival in the coming election have grandfathers who were themselves prime ministers. Political columnists write of “hereditary legislators” whose Diet seats are passed from generation to generation, as if they were a birthright.

Not all of Japan’s political problems are due to these family affairs. And some legislators from political families ably serve the public. But at the time of the U.S. presidential election, there was a wistful tone attached to many editorials in Japan. Commentators floated the idea that an Obama-style grassroots campaign could benefit Japan — the feeling that the political world here is aching for new thoughts, new ideas and above all new energy.

Elections for the lower house of Japan’s Diet are due by September. That means we’re moving into the high political season. Campaigning will likely last longer than the steamy lingering dampness of the rainy season, and threatens to be much less pleasant.

The rhetorical phrase of “yes we can” could still resonate in Japan … although for the moment it feels more like “yes we’d like to, but we’re not sure how to get there.” A good start would be to make the candidates’ policies more important than their relatives.

Bill Dorman is an Emmy-award winning journalist and communications consultant based in Tokyo. He's covered stories from more than a dozen countries while working at CNN for 21 years and Bloomberg for several more.

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