Japan as shaky as its coalition

July 25, 2000|By Robert O. Freedman

WHILE JAPAN'S ruling coalition squeaked through with a narrow victory in the parliamentary elections last month, it barely covers up some deep structural problems that are badly in need of fixes if the country is to keep on course as Asia's most stable democracy and America's chief ally in the Pacific.

First, Japan's decade-long recession shows no signs of ending as Japanese consumers, unlike their American counterparts who are bullish about the future, choose to save, rather than spend, their money.

The scandal-ridden Liberal Democratic Party, responsible for creating the economic bubble that brought Japan into recession, has had no answer to the country's economic problems other than a massive public works spending program that has gotten Japan deeper in debt.

While much of the spending has been in rural areas, whose disproportionate electoral weight helped bring the LDP its victory (the LDP lost badly in Tokyo and other urban areas), the combination of an increasing public debt and a seriously aging population bodes ill for Japan's future.

With no apparent end to the economic crisis, LDP Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori sought to change the tone of the election campaign by playing the nationalist card (long the staple of the conservative wing of his party), proclaiming Japan a divine nation with the emperor at its core.

This revival of the rhetoric of World War II Japan, however much Mr. Mori later tried to back off from it, backfired. It badly hurt him in public opinion polls because the vast majority of Japanese, remembering the destruction caused to their country by the leadership's nationalist policies before and during the war, rejected the prime minister's ploy. This may well have been a factor in the LDP's loss of 38 parliamentary seats, from 271 to 233.

Yet another weakness in the Japanese political system is its dynastic nature, something particularly evident in the election campaign. While in the U.S. presidential elections this year, both Gov. George Bush and Vice President Al Gore are scions of political families, in Japan no fewer than 140 of the 480 seats contested in the June parliamentary election went to relatives of former office holders.

Most prominent of them was Yokio Obuchi, daughter of Japan's late prime minister, Keizo Obuchi, and Waturu Takeshita, who won the seat of his brother, LDP faction leader and political fixer Noboru Takeshita. As one 27-year-old Internet executive, disenchanted with the dynastic system, remarked, "I don't believe in voting where many of the politicians are hereditary."

Perhaps the Japanese citizens most unhappy with Japan's electoral system are its young urban voters, the hope for Japan's future. In one poll of voters between 18 and 29 years old, merely 6 percent were satisfied with Japan's politics and only 2 percent said they could trust politicians. Since it is these young voters who will have to pay off Japan's mounting debt and help care for Japan's aging population. these attitudes pose serious problems for Japan's political elite.

In addition to having to find a solution to Japan's domestic problems before next year's election for seats in Japan's other house of parliament, Mr. Mori also must face a number of foreign challenges.

First is the continuing threat posed to Japan by North Korea, which fired a medium-range missile over Japanese territory two years ago and whose spy boats violated Japanese territorial waters last year.

While the recent summit between North and South Korea may improve relations on the Korean peninsula, North Korea remains a security threat to Japan and the loyalty of the 600,000 Koreans living in Japan (some of whom have ties to North Korea) is of potential concern to the Japanese leadership.

A second concern is the growing military power of China, which sent a spy ship between the Japanese islands of Hokkaido and Honshu in May. As China expands its military power through arms purchases from Russia, Japan may seek to meet the increased threat either through increased allocations to its self-defense forces -- still a sensitive issue among some sectors of the Japanese public -- or a tightening of its security alliance with the United States, or both.

Finally Russia, under its new leader, Vladimir Putin, may be ready to finally end the long dispute with Japan over the Russian-occupied northern islands in return for Japanese investment credits.

Dealing with these foreign challenges requires deft diplomacy and, when they are put together with the very serious domestic problems facing Japan, it is an open question whether Mr. Mori and his shaky coalition can properly handle them.

Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University and author of "Moscow and the Middle East" (Cambridge University Press, 1991). He recently returned from a research trip to Japan.

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