Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Japanese people lose hope

Jun Okumura notes that while the political world waits to find out whether Ozawa Ichiro will survive the scandal in his political organization, the DPJ has revived an approach pursued in the earlier half of this decade.

The DPJ, he writes, banned contributions from the Japan Federation of Construction Contractors based on a recommendation in 2003 from Okada Katsuya when he headed a party commission on political reform. A generalized form of the party ban made it into the Okada-led DPJ's manifesto in 2005 as a ban on political contributions from contributions that have received public works contracts.

This time Ozawa wants to go further, despite having previously reversed the party ban; this week Ozawa called for a plan to ban all contributions from businesses and related political organizations, and once again tasked Okada with drawing up the proposal.

Undoubtedly a bold stroke, but undoubtedly one that has the whiff of a deathbed (or sickbed) conversion. Can a DPJ led by Ozawa make political hay with this proposal? Will the public believe it?

As LDP faction leader Yamasaki Taku said in response to Ozawa's proposal, "It is no use for a person who is virtually a symbol of politician-bureaucrat-businessman adhesion to say such things." Aso Taro, hardly in a position to say otherwise, also criticized the proposal, arguing that corporate contributions are not in and of themselves wrong.

But the ban on corporate contributions is not the only item of political reform under consideration by the DPJ. Hatoyama Yukio indicated Wednesday that the party is considering introducing a provision into its manifesto calling for restrictions on hereditary politicians (pause to appreciate the irony of the messenger, notwithstanding Yukio's not having literally inherited his seat in Hokkaido's ninth district). The restriction will likely involve a cooling-off period during which a would-be candidate cannot run in a district once represented by a relative. I have previously argued against the idea of banning or restricting hereditary politicians, and I remain dubious of the idea. It is common enough for Japanese political commentators to blame hereditary politicians for the decline in the quality of Japanese leaders, often arguing that hereditary politicians are out of touch with the voters due to pampered upbringings in Tokyo. This argument rests on two questionable assumptions: (1) that politicians today are of lower quality than politicians in previous generations and (2) that hereditary politicians are even worse than their non-hereditary peers. But what makes today's politicians so much worse than earlier politicians, and what is the basis for judging hereditary politicians are out of touch?

Not for the first time the Japanese commentariat is looking for an easy fix for a political system that has forfeited the confidence of a majority of the Japanese people, but as with earlier reform proposals — most notably the 1994 election reform — it is a mistake to look to political reform as a panacea for Japan's ills.

Meanwhile, a new Asahi survey provides a detailed account of public discontent with the political system. The picture is of a people that has basically given up on its political leaders, but uncertain of whether and how the system can be changed.

The question that has gotten the most coverage is the question asking the extent to which respondents are satisfied with the political system. 91% said they were either a little or greatly dissatisfied, with 60% saying greatly dissatisfied. (The same proportion of respondents also said that "politics" had failed to indicate a way forward for Japanese society.) Similarly, in a particularly colorful question that asked respondents to think of the Japanese political system as a ship at sea, 50% said it is like a ship with a broken rudder, adrift in the ocean, while 31% said it is like a ship that has run aground and is sinking.

Respondents had little more confidence in the politicians themselves. The ideal politician, according to this survey, would be less a specialist than a man of the people (63% preferred the latter), would be characterized more by political ability than political ethics (61%, although it is unclear what the latter term means), would be devoted to parliamentary affairs instead of activities within his electoral district (54% to 37%), would not have to hail from the district he represents (this by a smaller margin, 52% compared with 43% who thought a politician should come from the district he represents), and would be free to disagree with his party's position (75% felt that it is acceptable for a politician to dissent from his party when a bill comes to a vote). But even with a legislature full of such politicians, would Japanese politics be more effective at delivering the results desired by the public?

The survey also found that the DPJ, not surprisingly, is not seen as a vehicle for change. 59% think that a DPJ-led government would leave politics unchanged, 67% think there are no great differences between LDP and DPJ, and 68% hope for a political realignment.

There is some support for restrictions on political donations — 57% of respondents prefer a total banned compared with only 32% who support retaining the current system — but it is unclear what will take its place. 56% of respondents do not like public subsidies for political activities, but when asked whether they think it is good to contribute to politicians they support, 68% said they don't think it's good, meaning that any effort to emulate the Obama campaign's use of the Internet to gather smaller donations for more citizens would have to overcome the lack of desire on the part of Japanese to donate to political campaigns. (The reference to the Obama campaign is not of my making; it is all too common in Japanese political discourse.)

For most respondents, however, democracy remains a passive activity. Respondents said they have no problem with receiving fliers or attending speeches, but they were evenly divided at 47% over whether they would volunteer to help an election campaign, and, more significantly, when asked what they would do to deal with their dissatisfaction with the political system, the responses tended towards the passive. The overwhelming favorite response would be to vote for a candidate who would address the problem (62%), followed by talking with friends and family (57%). After those two, there is a precipitous decline: only 10% would complain in a letter to the editor or on the Internet, only 12% would participate in a demonstration or petition drive, 8% would do nothing, 4% would become involved in a citizens' group or political party, and 3% would run for office themselves. I suppose it is encouraging that respondents would at least vote for a candidate promising something different, but this data suggests that the Japanese people are still inclined to accept the political system as is rather than take politics into their own hands. That conclusion is only slightly softened by the favorable response to a question asking whether respondents support use of national referendums in matters unrelated to constitution revision (which still suggests that voting remains the preferred means of political participation).

This suggests that the emerging DPJ-LDP push for lifting regulations that prohibit the use of the Internet for campaign activities may not be as useful as its advocates would hope. It is possible that the tendency towards passive political activities among citizens is an effect of restrictive laws, but I am doubtful. I still support lifting the Internet usage restrictions and other campaigning regulations as being essential for invigorating Japanese democracy, but it will take more than legal changes to engender a civic renaissance in Japan.

Finally, the survey concludes with a series of questions pertaining to socioeconomic matters, which indicate that, not surprisingly, the Japanese people are overwhelmingly concerned with saving Japanese-style capitalism, while supporting the construction of a new welfare state. Asked about the areas in which they want to see more spending in the budget, the top three choices of respondents were health and welfare (85%), employment assistance and economic stimulus (67%), and agriculture and the food supply (61%). 62% feel that there is too much income inequality. 78% of respondents said that henceforth Japan should be more concerned with ensuring untroubled lives despite failing to compete than with ensuring opportunities to succeed and earn high incomes. 55% said that reforms to promote competition had gone far enough, while 62% said that labor regulations ought to be strengthened.

The Koizumi revolution is dead, if it ever even existed.

This survey does not bode well for Japan's future. The deep pessimism and desire for economic retrenchment may be symptoms of the economic crisis, but given that Japan's great adjustment will take years to unfold, these symptoms may be characteristic of Japanese politics for years to come. The argument made by John Haffner, Tomas Casas i Klett, and Jean-Pierre Lehmann — a spirited call for an open, globally minded Japan — is certainly admirable, but I fear that there is little desire for openness and optimism among the Japanese people. The public seems first and foremost concerned about ensuring that they will have some degree of comfort in the old age, along with employment, preferably secure employment, for those of working age. If that means greater protection at home and abroad, the public seems willing to accept the consequences. This is undoubtedly a recipe for declining regional and international influence, but such concerns appear to be far from the minds of Japanese citizens as they experience economic ruin.

To bring the discussion back to the DPJ's campaign finance proposal, it strikes me as just so much dithering around the margins. The political system is rotting, and I hardly think that campaign contributions from companies — even from construction companies — are anything more than a symptom of the rot. I continue to think that a DPJ victory will at least be a step in the right direction, and I don't fault the party for making this proposal (even if it is politically expedient), but it is delusional if it thinks that salvation will come from tinkering with the political system.

Much is riding on a DPJ victory. If the DPJ wins and manages to govern in accordance with public concerns, it might be a catalyst for more participatory Japanese democracy, leading the public to shed some of its doubts about the political system and participate themselves. However, if the DPJ fails, it will likely intensify public dissatisfaction with politics and ensure Japan's continuing decline.


karkemish said...

mmh, I have no data to support it right now. But it's very likely that you would find similar results in Europe, especially in my country.

Low birthrates, political apathy or worse extremism, aversion to risk, and the list goes on...

Japanese can find consolation in the idea that yes, the ship's sinking, but at least they're in good company.

Anonymous said...

Recently your activity should be classified as "intellectual prostitution".

Adam said...

I certainly admire the time you have to blog and write about Japanese politics. I'm not in that position because I'm immersed in household chores. Therefore, I tend to concentrate my political activity at the community/city level (Tsukuba, Ibaraki) although I gnash my teeth at the national level. At this "ground level" view, hereditary politicians do not make very good ones because of their cosseted backgrounds. They are little aware of the concerns that revolve around getting enough butter (or miso) on the table. As adults, they have never held jobs in the "real economy". And as politicians, they are likely concerned with "legacy" issues -- Abe invoked his grandfather far too often -- than with immediate ones. Of course, mediocrity and mendacity is not limited to politicos. And yes, there is nothing wrong with training for politics at an early age. However, if you do this, there is the chance that you are not good at anything else, along with the profession that is chosen for you. I don't know how effective a bill would be in changing the current system, but any efforts made at limiting the hereditary handover of positions could only raise people's faith in it.