Japan’s Coming Political Earthquake

Japan is now confronting challenges at home and abroad that are more serious than any it has had to face since the end of World War II. That means that Japan’s political system, now entering its third decade of dysfunction, is unlikely to remain a matter of popular indifference for much longer.

OSAKA – Japan is now confronting challenges at home and abroad that are as serious as any it has had to face since World War II’s end. Yet the Japanese public is displaying remarkable apathy. The country’s two major political parties, the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) recently chose their leaders, yet ordinary Japanese responded with a collective shrug. But Japan’s political system is unlikely to remain a matter of popular indifference for much longer.

The DPJ first came to power in September 2009, with an ambitious program promising comprehensive administrative reform, no tax increases, and a freer hand in Japan’s alliance with the United States. But, owing to the party’s inexperience and incompetence at every level of policymaking – shortcomings that were compounded by the unprecedented devastation of the great earthquake of March 11, 2011 – the first two DPJ governments, under Yukio Hatoyama and Naoto Kan, ended with those pledges in tatters. Consequently, several dozen legislators, led by the perpetual rebel Ichiro Ozawa, defected from the DPJ, forming a new rump opposition party.

The DPJ has now reelected incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda as its president, despite his very low public-approval rating. With a thin majority in the lower house and a narrow plurality in the upper house (which has adopted a censure resolution against Noda), the DPJ on its own is unable to pass fiscal and other legislation essential to running a government. As a result, the prime minister is barely muddling through – and only by agreeing with the major opposition parties to dissolve the lower house. Though he has not specified exactly when he will do so, the endgame for the DPJ government has begun.

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