Japan's political road to nowhere

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 September, 2008, 12:00am

BBC World News announced the bombshell within 25 minutes of it happening: Yasuo Fukuda had resigned. But then it struggled to understand why. Its Asia-Pacific online editor, clearly scratching her head, suggested that the Japanese prime minister had been hurt because millions of pension records had gone missing. In fact, the lost pensions hit the ruling Liberal Democrat Party in the July 2007 elections, months before Mr Fukuda took over.

Never mind; switch to NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, which is sure to have an explanation and cool analysis.

Instead, NHK was an almost surreal mirror image of the BBC, declaring that the BBC had just announced the resignation and had speculated that Mr Fukuda was hurt by the missing pension records. NHK and other Japanese media were stunned and clueless.

The latest saga in the sad soap opera called Japanese politics shows just what a mess the country is in. Losing one prime minister not approved by voters in a general election may be an accident, but losing two unelected leaders in 12 months is something worse than carelessness.

The rot goes deeper and darker. Japan may still have the second-biggest economy in the world - depending on how China's output is counted - but its politics and governance is sliding from third- to fifth-rate.

It is not yet quite as bad as the knight in the Monty Python film who sees his arms and his legs sliced off and blood gushing out, yet jeers at his opponent to come and fight because he has suffered only a few scratches.

But Japan is marooned in its own cocoon of self-importance. In a small way, this was evident in the myopic- ally Japanese coverage of the Olympics. NHK devoted both its channels to interviewing all the members of Japan's relay team - who had failed to get beyond the heats - oblivious to the great things happening in the field behind them. The Japan Times led its main news website with the boast that Japan's synchronised swimmers had won silver.

As to Mr Fukuda's resignation, it would be in keeping with his colourless but honourable character that something flipped and he just said: 'Enough'. He has been suffering from low popularity ratings, but that probably does not bother him. More relevant, he has struggled with the opposition's domination of the upper house of parliament, meaning deadlock on important legislation can be overridden only after a delay.

Even inside his government, he was hardly master of his own ship, having to deal both with quarrelsome factions within the LDP and to cope with the uneasy and squabbling coalition with Komeito - the self-styled 'clean government' party dominated by the rich and powerful Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist group.

Merely a month ago, Mr Fukuda had overhauled his cabinet supposedly to strengthen it to face parliament. Only three days before his resignation, he announced a spending spree to lift the sickly economy, with many of the measures pushed by Komeito. It would be in character for Mr Fukuda to refuse to follow his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, and quit in the middle of a parliamentary session, so he had an awkward choice: to soldier on or get out quickly. The 'flipped' theory has support because he did not even consult his wife before announcing his resignation.

Taro Aso, the LDP secretary general, is the frontrunner to take over. He has the backing of many party provincial chapters, which will be the electorate, along with LDP parliamentary members.

Former defence minister Yuriko Koike, who was close to the flamboyant Junichiro Koizumi, is reportedly considering a challenge. If she got power, the Arabic-speaking Ms Koike could be Japan's Margaret Thatcher, but in more opportunistic mode.

It remains doubtful whether the grey old men who run the LDP will be prepared to take the chance, especially since they would be the first to be swept away in any reforming zeal. Her best hope is to squeeze in between the anti-Aso camps.

If Mr Aso, grandson of post-war prime minister Shigeru Yoshida, takes over, Japan will again be plunged into controversy over the Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of Class-A war criminals are supposedly enshrined with 2.5 million other war dead. Mr Aso has been a regular visitor to Yasukuni.

One of the mysteries of modern Japan is the dominance of entrenched marginal vested interests. Yasukuni is a prime example, where Japan flaunts a nationalistic and erroneous reading of history - angering other countries that need to be engaged, not enraged. The political grip of the dying breed of farmers is another. So is the ability of the whaling industry to pull strings.

The new prime minister will immediately be plunged into the short-term issue of how to resist the demands of the opposition and of its Komeito partner for a snap election. Yet it must also lay the groundwork so that the LDP will have a fighting chance in the election that must be held within a year.

That means goodies for the electorate and no increase in the consumption tax, measures that are likely to take Japan further away from its medium-term needs: to tackle growing government deficits; sort out its sickly health, pension and welfare system; compensate for the rapidly ageing population; downsize the bloated bureaucracy; reform age-old ways of doing things; and understand Japan's place in the real world.

It will be tough - but not impossible - to tackle these underlying issues, but virtually impossible from within the existing system. The tragedy is that politicians, bureaucrats and the media are wrapped together in a cosy system that is beneficial for them.

If you ask for new ideas, you get the knee-jerk response that comes from Yomiuri, Japan's biggest newspaper group: more patriotism, starting with teaching in schools.

This is a recipe for disaster unless Japan understands that those who refuse to understand the lessons of history are destined to repeat them.

Kevin Rafferty is author of 'Inside Japan's Powerhouses', a study of Japan and internationalisation