Japan Spins Its Wheels

OSAKA – To lose one prime minister may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two in one year looks like carelessness. That paraphrase of Oscar Wilde aptly sums up the current state of Japanese politics, given the serial resignations of Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda. Japan is once again saddled with a caretaker government as the ruling Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) scrambles for a new leader with an election to the lower house of the Diet looming. The question is: who or what has been careless? The LDP? The constitution? The voters?

For the last three years, the ruling LDP-Komei Party coalition has dominated the powerful Lower House with a two-thirds majority. And, for a year, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and other mini-parties control Upper House, which can veto legislation. Political instability and gridlock have been the inevitable result. The problem is that another election won’t fix this political mess, but will likely only ensure continuing paralysis. Japan’s political system requires the same sort of structural reform that its economy has long needed. And, as with the economy, its politicians don’t appear ready to deliver anything that daring.

The LDP and the DPJ are now debating how to manage rising inflation at a time of falling living standards and deepening economic polarization within society – the latter a legacy of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s market-oriented reforms of 2001-2006. The debate is centered on whether to increase the consumption tax in order to sustain the country’s severely strained social security system. Only occasionally does the issue of administrative and governmental reform sneak into the center of the debates.

The LDP has tried to placate public wrath about a series of political scandals and policy mistakes over the last two years, while the DPJ has attempted to capitalize on these. The LDP is now staging a party leadership election in the hope of gaining a temporary boost in popular support before the Lower House election. The five contenders, all of whom served in Koizumi’s cabinet, are actively debating major policy issues, but appear to be offering only more of the similar, because they are not equipped with Koizumi’s charisma and boldness.