Sunday, December 9, 2007

The post-Koizumi LDP and the search for a new Japanese model

Yamaguchi Jiro, a specialist in Japanese and British politics at Hokkaido University, had an article in the November Ronza that has been published in translation at Japan Focus.

Yamaguchi competently explains the reasons for Mr. Abe's demise, and in the final portions of the essay, places Mr. Abe's decline and fall squarely in the larger narrative of the LDP's struggle to find its way in the aftermath of the Koizumi mini-revolution.
Koizumi’s structural reforms smashed the ‘vested rights’ of politicians and bureaucrats and promoted policy efficiency; but they also had a serious impact on people and regions that had enjoyed protection under the policies in place until then. Resistance to this continues to threaten the LDP. The opposition is gathering popular support by persistently questioning the harmful effects of the structural reforms. Faced with the contradictory vectors of inheriting the Koizumi government’s success or correcting its evils, the LDP is irresolute. There is no clear-cut course for post-Koizumi politics.
While Mr. Fukuda has stabilized the LDP's situation, he has made no progress whatsoever on tackling the fundamental dilemma at the heart of the LDP's troubles.

The LDP is still no closer to committing firmly to a future as an urban party. It has still not figured out how to split the difference between defending the interests of its traditional rural supporters and advancing a vision of globalized, liberalized Japan. Professor Yamaguchi suggests that the solution is policy shift: "If any sanity remains in the LDP, the natural thing to do is to change policy. In that event, the competition between the two major parties will be not just a clash of slogans but will have to evolve into concrete policy competition...It is no matter if policy differences are to some extent reducible to differences of degree. Concrete debate over differences in degree should be able to clarify alternatives."

The field of debate will be over the terms of Japan's new economic model (and will probably feature considerably less striking than the debates over the creation of new economic models in France and Germany). As the Economist's recent survey on business in Japan suggested, Japan is moving in the direction of a new Japanese model that borrows features from "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism. But the Japanese model will end up including more social provisions (once the government figures out how to pay for them, of course) and probably a great deal more government investment in encouraging development in blighted regions, even as Japan opens to more FDI and liberalizes its labor market.

The question is which party will devise the superior formula and the best way to sell it, together with the best messenger. On this point, Professor Yamaguchi also calls for a new way of Japanese politics that rejects the "telecharisma" of the Koizumi years. He calls for new thinking about selecting leaders — "What is called for is to evaluate leadership in terms of the ability to reflect seriously on issues and the existence of an ability to explain issues to the public" — and a new way of considering issues — "What is called for is concrete debate over problems faced by the people such as inequality, poverty, worries over social security and job insecurity, their recognition as policy issues, and the search for ways to resolve them." In this, he echoes Masuzoe Yoichi's argument in Naikaku soridaijin about the "wideshowization" of Japanese politics. But for all the laments of the policy intellectuals, it's unclear to me how Japan will escape the trivialization of its politics. The electorate still seems to move more according to whims and half-baked impressions than reasoned ideas about how Japan is and should be governed.

And as for a debate rooted in concrete discussions of policy, this seems unlikely for the time being. At present, the leaders of both the LDP and the DPJ are more tacticians than strategists. Neither has moved beyond reacting to the moment to formulate an agenda upon which to contest a general election, let alone an agenda upon which to legislate (and both parties remain mired in the war of attrition on the refueling mission, which has forestalled any effort to refocus on domestic policy).


Janne Morén said...

I'd want to argue that the voting public - in Japan as elsewhere - have never been as interested and knowledgeable about deep policy issues as the political class/punditry/otaku believes it has.

Dig into details of long-past elections and you'll find people swayed by shallow, contradictory and sometimes utterly irrelevant events and arguments, bolstered more by the demagougery of leaflets and open lying of partisan tabloid press. The long, thoughtful essays and political discourse mostly pass the voters by and have always done so.

Not that there isn't value in that discourse; it lies in formulating policy alternatives for those tasked to govern, rather than influence the choice of government, however.

tornados28 said...

I am sure that the reasons for Abe's demise are more complicated then this but it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Mr. Abe really could not handle the pressure and was not at all a strong leader.

Makurein said...

I agree with what Janne Moren wrote. I work in state level politics in the States, and I continue to be amazed at what pushes the public's buttons. We've had massive fires, infrastructure issues, an education system that's failing so many of our children, and what was big on people's minds a couple of months ago? Legislation restricting lighted billboard signs. We got more calls about that than anything else.

Soapboxing aside, I would say that the biggest issue for any country in increasing the level of public awareness and debate of policy is ensuring that their education system imparts critical thinking skills and an understanding of the role of government and policy in the people's lives. Having worked in both Junior and High school in Japan, I saw first hand how much that was not happening. (My teaching experience in the US wasn't too encouraging either)


P.S. I love your blog, Tobias. Keep up the excellent commentary!

Japan Observer said...

I certainly wouldn't claim that the Japanese voting public is unique in its reasons for voting — indeed, it's more or less unexceptional.

Just like intellectuals bemoaning the shallowness of public debate.

(Many thanks to Makurein for bringing American politics into the discussion.)

But the persistence of uneducated publics doesn't mean that intellectuals shouldn't complain (although complaining should at some point get around to suggesting solutions).

I agree with Makurein that the education system is a major problem, especially in the Japanese case. The Japanese education system doesn't educate children to be citizens, in the sense that the duty of citizens in a democracy is to question the government and the powers that be. (Then again, with the acquiescence of the American public over the past seven years, perhaps we should take another look at the US.)

But you're right, Janne, to point out that the parties can do a better job discussing policy amongst themselves.