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Turning Japanese

August 28th, 2009

I’ve been in Japan for the last few days, at a conference on Logic, Game Theory and Social Choice where, among other things, we’ve had some interesting discussions on electoral mechanisms. Meanwhile, Japan appears to be on the verge of tipping out the almost-permanent LDP government.

But, as a (non-Japanese speaking) visitor, I can hardly tell there was an election on. I’ve seen no rallies or badges, only a handful of posters and one loudspeaker truck, with a decidedly non-strident woman’s voice issuing what may have been a political message. The English language media I have access to (Asahi Shimbun and so on) has been giving the election about the level of coverage I’d expect for a boring state election at home. I’ll give some very ill-informed thoughts over the fold, but can readers say anything from their own knowledge, or point to useful sources?

From what I can see, the Democratic Party of Japan, who are expected to win easily, have a moderate-left platform that basically amounts to cutting out a lot of LDP patronage and using the proceeds to finance improved social welfare. This looks like good news to me, but it will be interesting to see how they manage the massive debt they will inherit.

And alternation of governments through elections is desirable in general, as compared to the internal LDP machinations that have been the only route to changes of government in the past.

It’s hard to see a machine party like the LDP surviving a substantial spell in opposition, so if the DPJ can do well enough to last a couple of terms, we might see a complete realignment of Japanese politics. But, as I’ve noted, I know much less about this than I probably should. Any better info will be welcome.

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  1. Peterm
    August 28th, 2009 at 17:36 | #1

    I have only a passing interest in Japanese politics but ABC Radio Nation Rear Vision seemed to do good analysis a couple of days ago.

    http://www.abc.net.au/rn/rearvision/stories/2009/2660890.htm

    It seems that voters like the DPJ’s promise to make politians more accountable and to reduce the power of the bureaucracy. The parallel is made between this election and the election of the Whitlam government in Australian.

  2. Michael of Summer Hill
    August 28th, 2009 at 18:26 | #2

    Konnichiwa John, if reports are correct ‘voter anger at the LDP is more due to scandals, policy flip-flops and a perceived inability to solve the deep problems of Japan’s fast-ageing society rather than enthusiasm for the decade-old Democrats’. But my understanding of the DJP is they will review foreign relations with the USA, in particulsr the reduction of USA military presence in Okinawa, and of course support for U.S.-led military activities in Afghanistan and continue to uphold Japan’s three “non-nuclear principles” banning the making, possession or introduction into the country of nuclear arms. And whilst Japan is suffering from what some might describe as a ‘recession fatigued syndrome’ as unemployment rises and consumer prices slump there is a growing craze for the samurai warriors mentality of strong man to get them out of the quagmire. But most importantly if the Democrats obtain a two-thirds majority in the lower house that would enable them to enact bills rejected in the upper house and implement other reforms.

  3. El Poppin
    August 29th, 2009 at 10:40 | #3

    Well after living in Japan for nealry two years, you have described the electioneering perfectly. Next to Yokohama station there is an open public speaker place where every weekend public speakers (either candidates or spruikers) come along and have their vox populi. Die hard members gather around but most people walk on by – they can rarely get more than 30people to stand still and listen. The best one attended that I have seen was a popular childrens show having all their characters there but that did not have anything to do with the elections.

    The truly bizarre one for me was the actual candidate standing outside my workplace train station in the middle of a circle of supporters/workers whilst they polite spruiked his qualities – bear in mind not the policies.

    But in all, Japanese are far, far too polite to have any discourse like we get in Oz. I cannot for the life of me imagining an old codger berating the PM (Bob Hawke and the silly old bugger line).

    The feeling I get from my colleagues is that PM Aso is too foolish to be PM and he should resign as soon as possible. He is known for saying too many wrong things that offend the people’s sensibilities. As for real substantial issues some of the younger ones are beginning to question Japanese culture rather than policies.

    From my perspective, Japan has simply rusted. There is such a thing as respecting the elderly too much.

  4. August 29th, 2009 at 14:32 | #4

    Pr Q says:

    It’s hard to see a machine party like the LDP surviving a substantial spell in opposition, so if the DPJ can do well enough to last a couple of terms, we might see a complete realignment of Japanese politics.

    Dominant-party states in notional democracies are not all that uncommon. The British system of adversarial parties alternating in rule is almost the exception rather than the rule. It probably reflects Anglo preference for healthy competition in sports and everything else.

    Many of the long time Dominant-state parties are in the process of dissolution, greatly accelerated by the end of the Cold War which tended to freeze convenient alliances into place way beyond their use-by date. One thinks of the PRI in Mexico, the CD in Italy, Golkar in Indonesia. I dare say that the LDP is subject to similar dis-integrative pressure.

    The major institutional factor underpinning the LDP’s political success is its phenomenal rural gerrymandering of electorates, which would have turned Joh green with envy. Rural electorates need only 20% of the population of urban ones, which gives Japan’s rice farmers great power to make or unmake governments.

    So in return for having a medieval rice economy the Japanese got the privilege of being ruled by the same party for about 900 years. I remember being impressed by this at uni twenty years ago, when everyone was worried that Japan would wind up owning the world.

    I dont know if the LDP gerrymander is still so blatant. If it is and remains so then one would have to back the LDP’s survival prospects.

    But you would think a new party would make its first order of business the re-apportionment of fairer electoral boundaries. So my money would not be on the LDP in the long term.

  5. ken n
    August 29th, 2009 at 14:54 | #5

    Japan is a fascinating system.
    First, politicians don’t matter very much. The government is mostly run by the public service.
    That is why they can change prime ministers frequently without changing anything much in how the country is run. “Yes Minister” could have been set in Japan.
    Politicians are often corrupt but in a uniquely Japanese way. They take money, mostly from construction firms, and recycle it to the electorate. My figures are out of date, but it used to cost an MP about $2 million a year in the form of cash gifts at weddings and funerals and other local ceremonies. I don’t believe politicians get to keep much themselves.
    The public service is fairly uncorrupt. Historically, they have been very competent and run the country without letting the politicians get in the way – beyond awarding contracts to construction firms to build bridges and roads no-one needs.
    The problem over the past 20 years has been not bad politicians – that has been a constant since the war – but the fact that the public service is inflexible and has not been able to adapt to the changes necessary after the end of the economic miracle.
    Certainly Japan needs a change in government. Whether the DPJ can change things is doubtful. It is an uneasy merger of 4 fairly different parties.
    The challenges will be to stop the corruption and get control of the public service. And of course to make a new set of rules for the new Japan.

  6. August 31st, 2009 at 07:48 | #6

    My general sense is that Opposition parties in Japan are stymied by the gerrymandered electoral system and the entrenched bureaucracy, both of which favour the LDP.

    The first and last time the LDP lost office was back in 1993, and the alternative govt. lasted less than a year. From dim memory it floundered about not knowing what to do then more or less gratefully handed back the reins to the LDP.

    So the first year of the new govt will be crucial. It will somehow have to establish legitimacy without alienating the bureaucracy.

    Tricky business requiring skilled leadership. Dont know what sort of fellow the new leader is. Or whether he plans to reform the gerrymander. Does anyone?

  7. Monkey’s Uncle
    September 2nd, 2009 at 17:02 | #7

    Regarding rural vote weighting in Japan, I have read elsewhere that the 20% figure is not the average but is the most extreme example. That is, the least populous rural district contains only 20% of the voters of the most populous urban district. That doesn’t mean the average rural district contains only 20% of the average urban district. In any event, I don’t see how the LDP could lose so badly if the system was stacked that far in their favour.

    Apparently the distribution of seats originated during the early post-war period when the population was more rural, so it was more representative at the time. But since the population shifted to urban areas, there were not sufficient readjustments of the boundaries so a large discrepancy took effect.

    Interestingly, the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that rural weighting is in violation of the principle of one vote, one value and is unconstitutional. Yet they have only required marginal shifts in the boundaries to increase urban representation.

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