Ask the expert: Countdown to Japan’s election

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Japan’s political landscape is in a state of upheaval. First, Junichiro Koizumi, the maverick prime minister, dissolved parliament after the upper house rejected his postal privatisation bill. Then he purged the venerable Liberal Democratic party of 37 rebels who had opposed privatisation, dispatched handpicked “political assassins” to destroy them in forthcoming elections and presented Japan’s voters with what he said was a straightforward choice: “Are you for or against reform?”

On September 11, Japan’s electorate will vote in lower-house parliamentary elections and Mr Koizumi will learn whether his political gamble has paid off. David Pilling, the FT’s Tokyo bureau chief, answered your questions about Japanese politics and the upcoming election in a live online Q&A session on September 7. His answers appear below.


1. Do you believe the Japanese people are ready to accept the job losses that would follow post office privatisation (not just because of PO streamlining but because of the inevitable reduction in public works programmes)? How much is this featuring in the debate?

2. This election is the first in many years to provide a semblance of choice and therefore provides the possibility of a more vibrant political democracy. Do you think this will be a flash in the pan or does it signal a genuine sea-change in the political landscape?

Ian Green
London

David Pilling: 1. It is not part of the debate and the Japanese public is not ready for outright unemployment. It has just about gotten used to 4.4 per cent, about double the post-war norm.

It has become used to (although reluctantly) a far more divided workforce than it used to have, with a clear division between those in secure, well paid jobs in the job-for-life mould and those who drift from low-paid job to low-paid job with little security. There has been a tremendous and not entirely healthy polarisation and flexibilisation of the Japanese workforce. This is talked about as a crisis, but it will not be reversed.

2. I think there is slow, grinding, inexorable change in the political system, yes. Parties now have manifestos and say they stand for things. Before, the LDP just said vote for us and we will continue to deliver you fast growth. To the extent that political parties existed at all, they were inside the LDP in the form of factions, ensuring that the democratic process was once removed from the public at large. The opposition was largely symbolic, a harmless Greek chorus in the words of Karel Van Wolferen.

Progress towards genuine choice for the electorate will not be swift, however. One possible outcome of this election is an LDP victory leading to crisis within the DPJ which could split. On the surface this could be a setback for any hope of a genuine two-party system.

However, it could lead to a realignment, with some elements of the DPJ joining a slimmed-down LDP. You could then get two blocks grouped around policies that one might define as small government/private sector/change vs bigger government/regulation/status quo.


If Koizumi emerges victorious on Sunday he will: a) be surrounded by an influx of new loyal deputies; b) have successfully decapitated his political foes within his own party who stood for some very different political and economic values; c) be heralded as a political genius for the electoral tactics that he adopted. This should give him the legitimacy and political capital to take the LDP in any direction that he wants. If this is the case what sort of Conservative Party do you envisage the LDP becoming in the short to medium term?

Dr Stephen Day
Faculty of Economics
Oita University
Oita, Japan

David Pilling: If he wins, as you say, his reputation for political genius will be enhanced, and deserved.

The idea that he will then have carte blanche to do exactly what he wants needs examining a bit.

First, he will have some loyal deputies, the “assassins”, possibly as many as 20. But many of his 200 or other LDP MPs are not necessarily so loyal. Certainly they voted for postal privatisation, but that was often because they wanted to save their political skins rather than because they had a true conviction that this was the right thing to do. The ones in wobbly seats will be thanking God that they didn’t rebel since Koizumi carried through his threat to delist them.

Second, Koizumi may only stay on for one more year. He has promised to step down as LDP president, and hence PM, next September. Should he pull off a famous victory, there will be a groundswell of LDP support for him to extend. He might just go for it. But the betting right now should probably be that he will leave on time.

This means that the forces who are now lying low may well rise up again and try to fight for the soul of the party. It is not even inconceivable that, post-Koizumi, some of the postal rebels may drift back to the bosom of the LDP.

An LDP presidential election could go several ways, from the technocratic Sadakazu Tanigaki - the current finance minister - to the compromise-oriented former PM Takeo Fukuda - which would be good for relations with China - to, although a long shot, Shinzo Abe, acting LDP secretary who is very conservative on China, and not so well defined when it comes to domestic economic policy.

So there is much to play for and the heart and soul of the party has not yet been entirely won.

But, it is still worth examining the type of party that will emerge. In my opinion, both the LDP and the DPJ are moving towards a view of Japan where the government should be smaller but where (perhaps in contradiction) taxes should be higher to help close the fiscal gap. They also agree that there needs to be more of a role for the private sector.

The underlying theme to this election, partly obscured by the postal debate, is that Japan needs to confront the challenges posed by an aging society. The solutions on both sides of the political divide are more market oriented, with only the LDP rebels, the Social Democrats and the Communists clinging on to the vision of a kinder, gentler, egalitarian Japan where hardships and contradictions are resolved with huge flows of money collected in the cities and distributed to the countryside.

The real difference between the parties could emerge on foreign policy, specifically how to deal with rising China and, by extension, what adjustments (if any) to make to the US relationship.


If Koizumi does receive a mandate in the election, how would that affect, if at all, Japan's difficult relationship with China? Also, I saw recently that the Postal Service retained Goldman Sachs and a Japanese financial firm to manage some "trust funds". Was that initiative simply an attempt to ward off privatisation? Could similar steps continue even if privatisation is not undertaken?
-- Geoff Foisie

David Pilling: Badly.

A DPJ victory would provide a glimmer of hope that the relationship could be mended in the short term. DPJ leader Katsuya Okada has promised not to visit Yasukuni and to build a war memorial that would be acceptable to Japan's neighbours. However, the DPJ does contain some very pro-Taiwan elements and conflicts between them and the "China realists" would be exposed under the spotlight of government.

Koizumi has recently repeated his desire to visit Yasukuni when the election is finished, though he did show some sense in not going on August 15, the anniversary of Japan's defeat.

There is a feeling in Japan, however, that whoever is in power is not really going to be able to patch things up with China so long as that country’s Communist party is in power. That is because China’s Communist party is seen as gaining too much domestic traction from being able to play the anti-Japan card, which it holds in reserve in case the endless-economic-growth card begins to lose its lustre.

If one can rationalise Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni - which one can probably not - it is that he is trying to say enough is enough. So long as Japan continually backs down in the face of the history question, China will use it to its advantage. However, making a strong stand on issues of gas resources etc would be a better way of establishing such a stance if that is what Japan wants to do.

The best we can probably hope for under either a LDP or a DPJ government in the short term is that politics remain cool but controlled, while business and economic links ensure that the two countries become ever more mutually interdependent. True political reconciliation is probably a matter of decades not years.

As to the post office question, this is part of Japan Post's initiatives to broaden postal services. Japan Post was created a couple of years ago, with a private businessman at its head, as a sort of halfway house between a public and private service. As such it is a precursor to privatisation rather than an attempt to head it off. Improving the parcel service to compete with private operators, like the Black Cat service, is a policy in the same vein.

If the post office were not to be privatised, such steps would almost inevitably continue, yes.


1. Since it was the upper house that voted down the postal privatisation legislation, what is the logic to Koizumi’s dissolution of the lower house?
2. What is the constitutional basis for doing so?
3. What positions have the major newspapers and TV channels been taking? Does Koizumi have any effective critics in the media?
-- Susan Watkins

David Pilling: The answer to your first two questions is not much, strictly speaking. Koizumi is the first post-war prime minister to do so. The constitutional clause he invoked for dissolution is reasonably ambiguous. The opposition (and even some in the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito who had little appetite for fighting an election) griped a bit. The fact they haven’t made more of a big deal suggests Koizumi was probably just about constitutionally safe. He has a history of this after all: see his sending ground troops to Iraq in the face Japan’s pacifist constitution.

Politically, of course, there was a logic. Postal privatisation is Koizumi’s pet project, years if not decades in the making. Koizumi sees it as symbolic; breaking the Kakuei-Tanaka way of conducting politics through pork barrel projects (scattering grain as the Japanese would say, I believe). Koizumi’s threat to reform the LDP or smash it seems to have been made in all honesty. Of course, how much it will have really changed remains in doubt. And far from smashing it, if Koizumi pulls off a victory this time, he will, of course, have saved it. Go figure.

To answer your third question, most media chastised Koizumi for abusing his authority, but then got swept up in the drama of the campaign. Also, almost all the papers, including the left-leaning Asahi, have decided that privatising the post office is the right thing to do. So their criticism of Koizumi’s heavy-handed tactics has only gone so far.

No, there really isn’t any effective and coherent criticism. There are complaints, of course, on the lines of Japan needs to think about other issues such as its relationship with China or the problems associated with an aging society. Or, even that it is unhealthy to have one party in power for 50 years. But in terms of a cogent, ideologically coherent body of criticism I would say no.

One of the reasons is the kisha club system, which keeps the media fairly tame at least outside the salacious, entertaining, and sometimes revealing weekly magazines, that is. This system ensures that journalists, who practically live with their sources, are doled out information on the same day. Breaking rules, like revealing things ahead of time (or just plain revealing things) can carry heavy penalties. The omnipresent LDP has naturally used this system to its own advantage.

Another, possibly related reason, is that the DPJ has not yet shown itself to be a serious power in waiting. In many ways it is just as fraught with contradictions as the LDP. So going to bat for it in the media has its limitations.


Where do the Japanese trade unions and trade union centres stand on the respective parties, particularly the public service unions given the public sector cuts proposed by the Democratic Party opposition?

Kevan Nelson
London

David Pilling: It’s a good question. The answer is the DPJ, and to a lesser extent the Communist party and Social Democrats. That is because the LDP is still seen as the party of big business. Witness the campaign rally where Toyota’s chairman joined LDP candidates on the platform. To the extent that any party with a credible chance of gaining power (ie discounting the Communists) support labour then the DPJ is it.

As you say, this sits uneasily with the DPJ’s pledge to slash public service wage bills by one-fifth. There are a few points that could help resolve the contradiction, though not entirely.

One is that the pledge was a bit of a stunt designed to “prove” that the DPJ was not in the pocket of the labour unions. This is a repeated charge that Koizumi and his economy minister Heizo Takenaka make, though given the weakness of labour unions in Japan there is an element of farce to their accusation.

Second, much of the savings proposed will be made by attrition, ie by not hiring new recruits rather than by attacking the wages of incumbents. This is incidentally how most Japanese restructuring has worked, meaning that the burden falls unequally on the younger generations.

Third, the unions, especially in the public sector, know that whoever is in power is likely to bear down on wage costs. Some may even support such a policy, even though it might affect them, as there is a growing consensus that such measures are needed for the greater good of Japan.

There is one caveat to the above argument. Unions probably only have so much influence over their members. The days of the block vote, if ever they existed, are gone. Some union members will vote for whomever they want, regardless.


I am frustrated at Japan’s election system. More than 95 per cent of LDP candidates of single seat constituencies are also listed on the proportional representative list. In this system, many who are defeated in the single seat district will be rescued. Those who are elected from the proportional representative list are voted by the name of the party.

I insist that those who are lost in the single seat constituency should not be coming back in the same election. What is your view?

Yoshifumi Fukuzawa
Tokyo, Japan

David Pilling: I understand your frustration. Win or lose, many of Koizumi’s assassins are ensured a parliamentary seat even though they have been parachuted into distant constituencies of which they often know very little.

Obviously though the system has moved in the right direction since the early 1990s, when the single seat constituencies were introduced. In fact the electoral setup is now skewed in favour of these single seat districts, which provide 300 of the 480 lower house seats.

There has also been an improvement in respect of the historical bias towards rural constituencies, which ensured that farmers outvoted salarymen by as much as three to one. This has changed. That is one of the reasons Koizumi is now abandoning traditional support groups and courting the urban vote.

I am no expert on electoral systems, but I do know that Japan is not alone in combining first-past-the-post with proportional representation. PR is supposed to ensure that smaller parties gain at least some parliamentary representation and that a party with 50.1 per cent of the vote does not have carte blanche to do what it wants.

Even in a single constituency system like the UK’s, parties can ensure the election of their favoured sons or daughters by putting them up in safe constituencies where social or historical factors ensure strong support whoever the candidate. So even in this respect, Japan is not alone.


By the day of the next general election in Japan, I will have lived in Japan for 15 years. Like most of the Japanese population, I have become disinterested in and disillusioned with politics. I wonder why the real issues worrying people - pensions, falling population and the slow but steady decline of the economy - are not tackled head-on. Every change here seems to take forever while other nations in Asia can adapt to a changing world economy. In 20 years time will Japan have lost its leading position in Asia?

Colum Duffy
Shinjuku-ku
Tokyo, Japan

David Pilling: Japan, as you know, is a society that has tended to resist change until a consensus has built up that it must alter course in order to survive. Then it can move rapidly as has been written many times about the Meiji Restoration and the transformation to a modern economy (with many democratic trappings) after the war.

One crucial difference with the challenge this time is that the crisis was brewed at home and did not present itself in the form of invading black ships or an occupying force. Instead, it showed itself as a burst bubble, economic stagnation and atrophied politics. There were no external forces to react against, so many of the interlocking vested interests that characterised the Japanese post-war system tried to cling on to the status quo.

Before we become too critical of Japan’s ability to change, though, I think a few defences are in order. There is no real consensus – even among technocrats – as to quite what Japan ought to have done after the collapse of its asset bubble in 1990. As things were, it had a Wall Street crash without the inconvenience of the Great Depression, no mean feat.

Even today economists haggle over whether Japan, still in deflation, should spend more (even by getting the BoJ to print “free” money), or cut spending drastically to deal with its huge budget deficit.

The forces for change and so-called reform in Japan – and by that I mean Koizumi’s supporters and most of the Democratic Party of Japan – have reached a consensus that the way forward is raising taxes and slashing expenditure. They could even be right. But many economists would argue that such policies are hardly likely to generate the consumer confidence and domestic demand that Japan needs to break its unhealthy dependence on the export sector.

You suggest that people are sick and tired of politics. Such disinterest is hardly surprising in a country where it has been all-but impossible to change governing party for half a century.

What seems remarkable about this election is that there is huge interest, though some admittedly is generated as much by showmanship as serious policy debate. But nevertheless, some 90 per cent of voters according to some polls, are very interested or reasonably interested in this election – a figure that any functioning democracy would be more than happy with. Most will vote for the DPJ and the new-look LDP (both parties which at least give lip service to radical reform) rather than the LDP rebels and the Communist and Social Democratic Party (parties that favour clinging on to the status quo). Japan’s population seems to want change: whatever that turns out to be.

As to the final part of your question, futurology is a dangerous business. That said, unless something goes seriously wrong, China ought by 2025 to be well on the way to establishing itself as Asia’s biggest and most influential power. But that should be good for Japan, not bad, offering its mature economy a ready-made market and a source of labour. If Japan plays its cards right, its future need not be bleak.


To read our complete coverage of Japan’s postal privatisation crisis, the ensuing political upheaval, the forces and factors driving Mr Koizumi’s gambit, and the upcoming parliamentary election click on the image or follow this link.


To view our interactive photo gallery featuring the political profiles of Mr Koizumi’s “assassins”, click on the image or follow this link.

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