Economy will still be Japan's No 1 priority

Lex Zhao says the state of the Japanese economy was the most important consideration in the DPJ's election loss, and it will remain the key in politics, even under the rule of 'right-wing' LDP

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2012, 2:22am

So the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Yoshihiko Noda, was defeated by a landslide only three years after it had won by a landslide over the Liberal Democratic Party. When presidents of other countries usually emerge as heroes in the face of disaster, you may well wonder how, in Japan, incumbent leaders often end up total losers.

Perhaps the DPJ deserved the defeat, because it is not the same party that took over power three years ago. In 2009, voters were frustrated with the LDP's long dominance, so they gave power to the DPJ in hopes that its pledges to listen to individuals rather than big companies, and to run the country through politicians, not elite bureaucrats, would come true.

However, exuberance caused the DPJ's anxious leaders to make at least four consecutive fatal errors. One, quick attempts to distance Japan from US dominance on foreign policy and to move a US military base away from Futenma eventually resulted in the ousting of the first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama.

Two, poor handling of the nuclear meltdown incident after last year's earthquake and tsunami forced then prime minister Naoto Kan to step down.

Three, Noda's move to double sales tax from 5 to 10 per cent by 2015 clearly violated campaign pledges and caused heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa and some 50 other lawmakers to break from the DPJ. By then, the core of the DPJ had changed from idealistic, pacifist lawmakers to a group consisting of former LDP dissidents and young conservatives such as Seiji Maehara.

Four, the DPJ's attempt in 2009 to befriend China fell into a trap and turned into showdowns over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands when then Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara proposed to buy three of the islands. The move devastated economic ties with China, Japan's biggest trading partner. Both sides probably ended up bleeding equally badly.

Even LDP chief Shinzo Abe admitted his victory reflected "no" votes to the DPJ's politics over the past three years.

A new phenomenon that caught some eyes in the last election is the "third force". After the LDP and DPJ alternated in power and both failed, many new parties emerged, with charismatic leaders who promised to "rescue" Japan.

Ishihara and Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto formed the Japan Restoration Party, the first national political party based outside Tokyo.

In addition, there are the anti-tax party, the anti-nuclear party, the anti-Trans-Pacific-Partnership party, and so on. With such grass-roots movements, politics in the next decade could become really interesting in Japan.

The DPJ initially pledged to represent the common voter instead of vested interests, advocating clean politics, just like grass-roots activists. To be fair, the overnight victory in 2009 gave them too much confidence. Although they were eager to make a new Japan, they didn't have enough experience to govern the world's third-largest economy.

In the face of such issues as ageing, declining population, economic stagnation and globalisation, being the prime minister in the Japanese system is a tough job, and the cabinet's term is not fixed as it is in Britain and the US. Politicians must focus on short-term results to woo voters instead of longer-term goals of national interest. As a consequence, they may announce a policy, then abruptly reverse themselves, as when Noda announced in September that his government would phase out the use of nuclear power by 2040, only to have it rolled back the next week in the face of outraged cries from business groups and communities that support nuclear plants.

The record-low voter turnout on Sunday also meant the elections were dictated by the diehard, the vested and the elderly - all of whom favoured the LDP in bringing back a previously failed prime minister.

While other East Asian countries worry that Japan is turning right with different parties dragged by young conservatives, I think the Japanese system indicates that economic issues still dominate over everything else. Politicians will have to step down if economic problems are not solved, no matter how patriotic their rhetoric is during political campaigns. Compare that with the Chinese system, in which political face must be saved at any cost. Economic conditions that plagued Noda have not changed, and Abe's toughest days lie ahead.

Since the Japanese media is almost as good at fanning patriotic flames as the Chinese media, in order to focus energy on solving domestic problems and not aggravating foreign relations, I suggest that Abe's cabinet invite 3,000 young people from China to visit Japan, say, for 10 days, to return a favour that China did in 1984, when then Communist Party general secretary Hu Yaobang invited 3,000 young Japanese to visit China. This way, young Chinese can see for themselves how Japan works and not worry about the revival of "Japanese imperial militarism".

Lex Zhao is a professor of economics at Kobe University in Japan.