Can Japan be roused from its stupor?

Masahiro Matsumura says it can't keep muddling through on tired ideas

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2012, 2:28am

Japan is now confronting challenges at home and abroad that are as serious as any it has had to face since the end of the second world war. Yet the Japanese public is displaying remarkable apathy. The two major political parties, the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), recently chose their leaders, yet ordinary Japanese responded with a collective shrug. But Japan's political system is unlikely to remain a matter of popular indifference for much longer.

The DPJ came to power in 2009, with an ambitious programme promising comprehensive administrative reform, no tax increases and a freer hand in Japan's alliance with the US. But the first two DPJ governments ended with those pledges in tatters. Consequently, several dozen legislators defected and formed a new rump opposition party.

The DPJ has now re-elected incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda as its president, despite his very low public-approval rating. With a thin majority in the lower house and a narrow plurality in the upper house, the DPJ on its own is unable to pass fiscal and other legislation essential to running a government. As a result, the prime minister is barely muddling through.

Yet the rival LDP, which had governed almost uninterruptedly for several decades until 2009, has proved to be an ineffective opposition party. Unable to overcome popular distrust, it has been incapable of holding the DPJ accountable in the legislature.

In an effort to enhance popular support for the party, the LDP presidential campaign took advantage of a heightened sense of crisis centred on Japan's territorial disputes with Russia, South Korea and, most recently and alarmingly, China. The party chose as its leader former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who is known as the hardest of hardliners on nationalist matters, but who is also widely perceived as having acted irresponsibly when he abruptly gave up his premiership in 2007, after only one year in office, due to health problems.

So, the Japanese public is now searching for a party that can take on the tasks of reforming the country, reviving the economy and enhancing national security. Neither the DPJ nor the LDP appears dependable in any of these areas. As a result, the public is paying increasing attention to the newly created Japan Restoration Party and its populist leader, Osaka City mayor Toru Hashimoto. It aspires to be a ruling party, or at least a kingmaker, but has an almost exclusively domestic agenda and suffers from a dearth of talent below Hashimoto.

It is almost certain that the next general election will not produce a parliamentary majority for a single party and Japan will enter a period of uncertainty, ultimately leading to a political shake-up.

Japan's hidebound post-war regime has been insulated by relatively unchanging geostrategic and economic conditions. The country remains the world's largest creditor, and has slowly but steadily eliminated enormous non-performing loans in its banking sector. Moreover, the cold war never ended in East Asia, requiring the preservation of a US-led security system centred on the US-Japan alliance. The political system's resilience in absorbing huge disruptions - the 2008 financial crisis and the 2011 earthquake - is one key reason for its survival.

Thus, Japan remains broadly credible, at least relative to the US and the European Union. The yen's appreciation reflects markets' assessment that Japan's economic position is stronger than that of the US and the EU. Indeed, with a huge capital surplus and very low interest rates in a time of creeping deflation, Japan now has a golden opportunity to invest in public infrastructure, education, defence and overseas projects.

But Japan is unable to seize these opportunities, because its political system is incapable of producing competent leaders. Given rising tensions in Asia, the question is how long this can last. China's rise and America's relative decline present not only a danger for Japan, but also an opportunity - and perhaps the needed momentum boost - for real reform.

Masahiro Matsumura is professor of international politics at St Andrew's University in Osaka. Copyright: Project Syndicate