Battle of the hollow grandsons

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2009, 12:00am

Taro Aso, Japan's beleaguered prime minister, has dug himself and his government into such a deep hole that it is unlikely even one of his manga comic superheroes could rescue him, certainly not in time for the next general election.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party's loss of three prominent mayoral elections in quick succession has no direct bearing on the general election except that it suggests the people are running away in droves. The loss of another key minister last week shows that even Mr Aso's colleagues have little faith in him.

Some prominent leaders are urging Mr Aso not to delay until the last possible date in September but to call an election to coincide with next month's Tokyo polls. He might see it as political suicide, but critics say it would be a mercy killing of a government that has totally lost its way.

Opinion polls show the government's support plunging to 19 per cent, and its 'non-support' rising to 65 per cent. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won 52 per cent support in one poll, the first time it has topped 50 per cent.

Perhaps the most sobering statistic came when voters were asked whom they preferred as prime minister. 'None of the above' won the vote, with 46 per cent, followed by Yukio Hatoyama, the colourless DPJ leader, on 32 per cent, and the hapless Mr Aso with 15 per cent.

Commentators have presented the Aso-Hatoyama struggle as a re-run of the epic battle between their grandfathers, Shigeru Yoshida, the principal architect with the Americans in rebuilding post-war Japan from the ashes and defeat of war, and Ichiro Hatoyama, from whom Yoshida snatched the leadership when Hatoyama was barred from politics by the occupying power due to his ties with the pre-war military government. Hatoyama triumphantly returned in 1954 when he was allowed back into politics.

They were giants of politics, masters of invective. Hatoyama scorned Yoshida as 'a monster that appears in Macbeth', while Yoshida said Hatoyama was 'laughable. I have no choice but to call him a fool.'

More than 50 years on, the two grandsons sparred in parliament. According to 91-year-old former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, 'the argument lacked awareness about international affairs, and the scale was much smaller' than the encounters between their grandfathers.

Mr Nakasone has derided Mr Hatoyama as a 'soft-serve ice cream', suggesting that he lacks backbone or his own imagination. The insult has relevance because Mr Hatoyama, although the leader of the opposition, is still under the shadow of the former leader, the maverick Ichiro Ozawa.

But whatever aspersions can be cast against the opposition, the disarray in the government is palpable. The LDP's back rooms are dark with rumours of a cabinet reshuffle or replacing Mr Aso with someone who has a clue how to run a government.

The LDP is running out of time, space and candidates. A reshuffle now would be an irrelevance. Getting rid of the leader might offer a fresh face, but any successor would be the fourth leader in three years without a popular mandate (Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Mr Aso all inherited the huge majority won by Junichiro Koizumi in 2005).

There is also a shortage of candidates prepared to take over from Mr Aso, who remains arrogant yet increasingly isolated. The loss last week of the internal affairs minister Kunio Hatoyama (brother of Yukio), Mr Aso's campaign manager in his leadership fights, was a blow that, the Asahi daily wrote, 'has almost fatally wounded support for Aso's leadership among party members on both sides of the debate'. If party members have lost heart, what hope can the LDP have in the electorate?

Is Mr Aso living in his manga world, spending too much time rapt in the comics that have pride of place in his official car? He claimed earlier this year that Japan's cultural superiority would tell and that its work ethic - unlike the flabby, lazy west - would allow it to surmount its difficulties.

His dream is to share manga with the world and increase exports of Japan's 'soft power', meaning manga, animation movies (anime) and J-pop, from 2 per cent to 18 per cent in the next decade, thus creating 500,000 new jobs. Alas, this week, the government's plans to spend 11.7 billion yen (HK$950 million) on a national media arts centre came under fire and were derided by Mr Hatoyama as an expensive manga cafe.

Yet Japan's politicians are increasingly remote from reality, passing laws that are gestures with little vision of how to implement them. This week, the lower house passed a bill saying that women with children under three years of age would only have to work six hours a day and would not have to do overtime. The law was not tested against the hard reality of the workplace nor did it offer any clue as to how it would encourage women to have more children in a country deficient in child care facilities.

The failure of politicians of all parties led Tobias Harris, a commentator on Japanese politics, to quote from T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men to describe them:

'Shape without form, shade without colour,

Paralysed force, gesture without motion;'

Nevertheless, Japan may be on the brink of a potentially revolutionary changing of the political guard. If the opinion polls are correct, the opposition stands a good chance of scoring a historic victory. With its majority in the upper house, it would have real power, and not be the hollow fractious coalition when the LDP lost its grip for 10 months in 1993-94.

But obvious questions remain as to whether any Japanese politicians are capable of understanding the challenges of the 21st century and tackling the brutal reality of a declining economy with falling birth rates, a rapidly ageing population and already huge government debts, soon to be 210 per cent of gross domestic product, or three times US levels - as well as how to come to terms with a rising China and a declining US.

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