Japan votes for continued drift

Doldrums: Last week's election is likely to keep the nation on the same muddling course it has taken for the past decade.

November 16, 2003|By Richard Halloran | Richard Halloran,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Japanese voters sent the world a dreary message with their parliamentary election Nov. 9, saying their nation would continue the same muddling drift that has hampered Japan for the past 10 years.

The election's outcome has dashed the hopes of those Japanese people and foreign allies who had looked forward to an era in which Japan resolved its economic difficulties, nurtured a new political order and exerted diplomatic influence throughout Asia and in the global arena.

Before the election, the retirement of two prominent members of the "old guard," former Prime Ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone and Kiichi Miyazawa, the elevation of a rising star Shinzo Abe to secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the crimping of the party's divisive factions and the publication of a political manifesto had pointed to an invigorating change.

A clear win would have given Prime Minister Jun'ichiro Koizumi and his allies a mandate for innovation. But Koizumi couldn't translate his personal popularity into political influence as he and his coalition barely managed to hold onto a majority in the Diet, Japan's national legislature. Also, a drop in voter turnout indicated less than enthusiasm for the LDP in the electorate.

At the same time, the opposition led by Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan has strengthened its position in the Diet and, perhaps more important, in the public eye. In the West, where majority rule obtains, Koizumi would be in reasonably good shape. In Japan, which is governed by consensus and compromise, Kan will be able to obstruct or to force Koizumi to compromise on critical issues.

For President Bush, Koizumi's feeble showing in the election and his fragile hold on power would appear to have deprived Bush of a robust Asian ally. Bush went out of his way to praise Koizumi during his trip to Asia last month.

Tokyo's support for U.S. operations in Iraq, which has never been popular in Japan, has thus come into question. In particular, the dispatch of troops from Japan's Self Defense Forces to Iraq, considered an almost sure thing several weeks ago, was put on hold after the deadly attack on the Italian police garrison.

On a wider front, Koizumi had been carefully moving Japan toward an independent security posture even as it retained the alliance with the United States. Revision of Article IX of the Constitution, which forbids the use of military power to settle disputes, was a matter for debate. A gradual expansion of the Self Defense Forces' capabilities was in the offing. All of that has been set back.

Economically, Koizumi's capacity to institute reforms has been diluted. Also, and perhaps ironically, recent improvements in the economy will make change more difficult as opponents will be able to argue that reforms are not needed because the economy is doing better.

Richard Katz of the Oriental Economist says Japan will not undertake reform until the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing something. He argues Japan will need 10 years to get out of the doldrums because of resistance to change. These election results reinforce his contention.

One exception in this untidy scene is that Japan's firm policy toward North Korea will not change, because anger over the abduction of Japanese citizens and fear generated by North Korea's ambitious program to acquire nuclear arms seem pervasive and govern the stance of most politicians.

A bit of perspective: The postwar period that began in 1945 appeared to end when Emperor Hirohito passed away in 1989, the bubble economy burst in the early 1990s and the Cabinet of Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa fell in 1993.

Miyazawa was the last of the proteges of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, the towering figure of the postwar period, to become prime minister.

Many Japanese and foreign observers, including this one, thought that those events marked the start of change in Japan. That turned out to be an illusion as a parade of uninspired politicians, seven in 10 years, has spun through the prime minister's office.

Last spring, as speculation mounted that an election was coming, two conflicting views of Koizumi appeared. One held that he was little more than another of the bland politicians who had held the office since 1993. The other asserted that Koizumi should be seen as the first of the new order in Japanese politics.

This election seems to have settled the question: Koizumi is cut from the same cloth as his six immediate predecessors, one of whom held office for only two months. Koizumi's only distinction might be that he will stay in office longer than the rest.

Richard Halloran is an author who specializes in East Asia and the U.S. military. He lives in Honolulu.

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