A test of Hatoyama's mettle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 September, 2009, 12:00am

It is six days since Japan's voters sent Prime Minister Taro Aso and his Liberal Democratic Party to a crushing defeat and we are still waiting for the first refreshing pictures of the new prime minister in his official residence, or indeed of Aso sneaking out the back door. I say 'refreshing' because power tends to corrupt and it is good for politicians and the electorate to understand that votes do count and rulers are accountable.

But it has not happened yet. Even after a humiliating defeat, Aso is still prime minister and will remain so until the middle of the month when parliament meets again to choose the new prime minister.

It means that if the unexpected happens - an earthquake, a typhoon, bad behaviour by US troops, disputes over offshore islands with neighbouring countries, North Korean missile launches - Aso and his ministers are in charge, though he would presumably consult Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the victorious Democratic Party of Japan.

Japan is thus going through a strange interlude of phony victory while it waits to see if this really is a revolution by the ballot box or simply a case of a fanfare and an opening of old wine in new bottles.

But Japan is a parliamentary democracy. If, unlike Britain and other European monarchies, the emperor cannot invite the victorious candidate to form a government - since in Japan the emperor is not the head of state, but only the symbol of the nation - then surely parliament should be convened on the first day after the results have been ratified?

It did not matter previously because the LDP had a solid grip on power. Even when it did lose power in 1993-94, it was not through an election but after a parliamentary revolt and defection of its members, including Hatoyama.

There is much talk about Japan's 'two-party system' now that the DPJ has won. But before going into the election, the two parties had so many similarities (not least those DPJ members whose families were stalwarts of the LDP) that they resembled Tweedledum and Tweedledee fighting for the rattle of power.

But, if the DPJ is true to its election promises, its victory could be the start of something new - a historic turning point in which Japan's elected politicians actually take responsibility for running the government.

It will not be easy. First, Hatoyama has to select his ministers and demonstrate that he - or he and party strategist Ichiro Ozawa plus perhaps secretary general Katsuya Okada - is in charge, can knock heads together and can present a coherent governing force and not let the DPJ become as the LDP was - a bunch of factional fiefdoms.

It means having competent ministers and party heavyweights, potential rivals - not ciphers - in charge of the important ministries, particularly finance and economics, health and welfare, agriculture, home, foreign affairs and environment, where Hatoyama and the DPJ's visions may conflict with reality and affordability.

Then he has to deal with the bureaucracy. Wise governments everywhere know that they have to depend on bureaucrats and that they should listen to the advice of their officials.

Equally important, the officials have to be relied upon to implement policy. Nothing can frustrate good plans and good laws from becoming good policies more thoroughly than bureaucratic foot-dragging.

For their part, wise officials also know when to draw the line and when to yield to the politicians, who have to carry the can with the general public - politicians lose their jobs for bad choices, whereas the officials have jobs for life.

Yet, that is not how it has worked in Japan, where bureaucrats have traditionally exercised more power than is good for them or the country. Typically, the most important meetings have been those between administrative vice-ministers, the top officials in each ministry, where they decide the main business, which is then ratified by the political leaders in formal but brief cabinet meetings.

The bureaucratic stranglehold on policy has been reinforced by the practice of amakudari (literally 'descent from heaven') under which top officials retire to take control of big corporations, often those they were previously responsible for. In some businesses, notoriously construction, the smooth running of the system is greased with freely flowing money.

The bureaucrats will not easily relinquish power. Straight after the DPJ victory, some officials were insisting that the budget draft prepared for the LDP could not be altered - talk about bureaucratic arrogance.

Hatoyama has talked about placing MPs in ministries to ensure officials behave. This is a risk: it disperses rather than consolidates efforts to bring the bureaucracy into line.

Instead, the prime minister should insist that he, in co-operation with his cabinet, sets the government agenda. Each vice-minister should report to his own minister and the minister should put the items on the cabinet agenda, with the prime minister as leader and co-ordinator deciding on priorities. This would have the additional advantage of giving greater power to ministers and testing their competence.

Another more contentious change would be to put greater faith in parliament, and let policies and laws be debated idea by idea, line by line, by the MPs rather than handed over intact by the bureaucrats with their flaws to be discovered later. (Unfortunately, parliamentary control of lawmaking is either a pipedream last practised in Victorian Britain or a nightmare, as practised in the US Congress today.)

Hatoyama's other challenge is to find Japan's global place, involving difficult issues of diplomacy and economics. In opposition, Hatoyama spoke of a more equal relationship with the US and of an Asian union.

In power, he must come to terms with Beijing's view that 'there cannot be two suns in the sky', and with Japan's atrophying finances as its population ages - which means weighing the costs and benefits of sheltering beneath the US nuclear umbrella.

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