Thursday, September 15, 2005
Betting on a Bolder Japan

Special to The Japan Times

WASHINGTON -- A Latin proverb says, "fortune favors the bold but abandons the timid." That, more than any other explanation captures the drama of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's gravity-defying success in catapulting his Liberal Democratic Party to its biggest electoral success ever -- in contrast to the rival Democratic Party of Japan imploding from its internal contradictions and political inarticulateness.

Many political observers are casting Koizumi's extraordinary election wizardry in terms of a referendum on postal reform -- and reform in general. This is an incorrect assessment.

What the Japanese people have voted for was boldness, vision, and a type of decisiveness that Japan has not seen for decades. In many ways, Koizumi has now decisively ended the long-running "Kaku-Fuku War" between the political heirs of the former LDP kingpin Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and his rival, the elite bureaucrat-turned politician Takeo Fukuda.

There were many dimensions to this internecine LDP political conflagration, but at its most blunt level, populist party bosses like Tanaka, Susumu Nikaido, Shin Kanemaru, Ichiro Ozawa and others used patronage and corruption to maintain power and fought Fukuda's cadre of elite civil servants turned politicians.

Koizumi's political lineage descends from Fukuda, but he has emerged as the nearest archetype to the once hugely popular Kakuei Tanaka than any other Japanese prime minister -- but without the corruption.

This week's Lower House election, in which the LDP returned the highest percentage of seats since the party's founding in 1955, quantifies the shift in Japanese attitudes toward a new nationalism and, perhaps more importantly, a greater confidence in themselves. After more than a decade of enduring stagnation and a series of gray, dull and temporary prime ministers, Japanese voters have tenaciously embraced a leader typifying "the nail that sticks out" -- an important reversal in Japan's national psyche.

It is an open question what waits on Koizumi's near-term political horizon now that the quirky prime minister's boldness has been so strongly rewarded. Koizumi will no doubt quickly resurrect and pass the major postal-reform legislation privatizing in the next 12 years Japan's government-controlled private savings near-monopoly.

But postal reform is not what inspired Japanese voters to turn out in heavy numbers. Koizumi will certainly engineer more excursions to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, continue hardball politics and "makeup sessions" with China, and work to extend the Japanese troop presence in Iraq.

Constitutional revision also will move to the forefront, now that the LDP and coalition partner Komeito together control the necessary two-thirds of seats in the Lower House to initiate the process.

It is not just Koizumi and his LDP that benefited from this robust affirmation of the "nail sticking out." Voters continued to support several other well-known political leaders who stuck to their guns despite heavy LDP pressure, including previously-ousted LDP members Makiko Tanaka and Muneo Suzuki, and recently-expelled Seiko Noda and Shizuka Kamei.

Of course, many other "rebels" were successfully "assassinated" by Koizumi's LDP machine (17 of the 30 who ran), including by a group of "lipstick ninjas" -- Kuniko Inoguchi, Satsuki Katayama, Yukiko Koike, and Takaichi Sakane.

The LDP's inclusion of numerous younger-generation and female candidates among the LDP "assassins" underscores the LDP's new boldness. It is interesting in this context that the one female sent to assassinate a female incumbent was unsuccessful; Seiko Noda was returned by her constituents despite her outspoken opposition to postal reform -- or perhaps because of it.

Thus, although the era of LDP dominance would appear to be a return to the past, this is not your father's LDP. First, the party is younger and more inclusive of difference, whether by gender, profession or region.

Second, the traditional factionalism of the LDP is finished. While this long-standing system of back-room dealing did not square well with democratic values, it did provide a number internal brakes on LDP power. Those brakes are now gone. It may now fall to Komeito, and its special Japanese brand of religious politics, to provide this brake now, but its influence will only be minor.

In one way, though, Japanese politics appears to be returning to the old ways -- the "1955 system" of a dominant LDP and a weak permanent opposition. In fact the Socialists in the 1960s and 1970s were stronger than the Democratic Party is today. As it did with the Socialists in years past, the LDP today successfully has co-opted the message of the opposition in order to gain public favor.

It will be little solace to the Democrats that their introduction years ago of younger and more female candidates and bold calls for reform of old ways were essentially heeded -- though by the LDP.

When Koizumi lost his battle in favor of pushing through postal reform legislation and then dissolved Japan's Lower House, most observers thought that Koizumi was committing political seppuku. The opposition party thought it would inherit a relatively easy victory and did little to connect to the aspirations of Japan's voting public.

While this week's story is indeed the story of a brilliant politician, it is also the story of a stunted political opposition whose pretenses to lead Japan are undermined by the incompetence and lack of clarity of its leadership. Despite the LDP's success, the absence of credible opposition belies a troubling degree of democratic immaturity in Japan.

A critical question looking forward will be whether the Democrats will continue to cede their new ideas to the LDP, or whether they too will come up with a bold new approach to becoming a viable second party.

Steven C. Clemons is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and director of the Japan Policy Research Institute. Andrew L. Oros, an assistant professor of political science at Washington College, is the author of the forthcoming book "The New Politics of Antimilitarism: Explaining Japan's Evolving Security Practices."

The Japan Times: Sept. 15, 2005
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Original found at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/geted.pl5?eo20050915a1.htm