A yellow card for Japan's government
By Christopher Johnson
TOKYO - For the second time in a year, Japanese voters, who are long known for
their political apathy, have voted against their rulers.
On Sunday night, voters expressed their dissatisfaction with the Democratic
Party of Japan (DPJ), which lost momentum in the poll for the Upper House of
the Diet, after being mired in funding scandals, the resignations of leaders
and the inability of the party to carry out its manifesto for reform.
Last September, voters threw out the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the
conservative warhorses who cemented their rule of Japan over five decades while
messing up millions of pensions
and running up the highest debt per capita in the industrialized world.
Though it still holds a majority in the more powerful Lower House, the DPJ won
only 44 seats in the Upper House, down from 54, as voters showed displeasure
over the Okinawa military base issue, and talk about potential tax raises.
Justice Minister Keiko Chiba was among the DPJ lawmakers to lose their seats.
Japanese media projections showed the ruling party would hold only 110 out of
242 seats in the Upper House, meaning it will require the support of other
parties to pass bills that enact its bold vision for change. Half of the seats
in the Upper House were up for grabs in Sunday's vote.
Only a month after becoming prime minister, Naoto Kan, 63, is already facing
the type of criticism that has sunk five prime ministers in the past four
"The results were far from what we sought," Kan said. "One major reason was
that my remarks on the consumption tax left an abrupt impression to the public
and my explanation was insufficient."
Chief cabinet secretary Yoshito Sengoku said on Monday Kan was unlikely to
reshuffle his cabinet until September, when a party leadership convention is
scheduled. While Kan said he wouldn't step down, his honeymoon phase with the
electorate appears to be over. Since taking over from Yukio Hatoyama in June,
Kan's popularity ratings have been dropping fast.
The election also marked the return of conservative politicians from the former
government that was ousted in a landslide victory in September. The LDP, which
ruled Japan for most of the past five decades, did better than most
expectations, winning 51 seats. Your Party, formed by politicians who recently
split from the LDP, won 10 seats.
Gerald Curtis, a professor at Columbia University in New York and a longtime
expert on Japanese politics, said it was a defeat for the DPJ more than a win
for the LDP. "The public don't have confidence in how the DPJ are governing.
Kan had a chance to get the voters' minds off the disastrous performance of
[former DPJ leaders] Hatoyama and [Ichiro] Ozawa. But he blew it on his
statements about consumption taxes. The public is not stupid. They listened to
this and said 'What is he talking about'?"
An editorial in the conservative Yomiuri newspaper said, "The biggest reason
for the defeat of the Democratic Party was Prime Minister Kan's handling of the
consumer tax issue."
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo on Monday afternoon,
Curtis also cautioned that the election was not a victory for the LDP. "The
danger is the LDP will think they won. You'll see less pressure to modernize
the party and bring in new leadership, because leaders will be able to claim
Trying to put a good face on the results, Kan said he viewed the election as a
"starting point" for his push for a more responsible government sensitive to
the needs of the public. He said he would also pursue more ''policy-based''
alliances with other parties.
Many analysts, however, are questioning whether other parties will want to join
Kan's administration. The leader of one partner, the People's New Party, has
already quit the coalition over postal service reform, and the party also lost
all three seats up for re-election, cutting its strength in the chamber by
Rei Shiratori, president of the Institute for Political Studies in Japan,
raised the possibility that the DPJ and LDP could join hands. "Kan has rejected
all his coalition partners. The only possible partner now is the LDP. There is
no fundamental ideological difference in the two main parties."
Curtis, however, predicted there would be no grand coalition this time. "Why
join a party that's in decline? With 44 seats, no one's going to jump on a
sinking ship." He said Your Party would act like Republicans in the US who
oppose President Barack Obama on everything to make life tough for the
Curtis said the election had returned Japan to the paralysis and gridlock of
the past few years. "You cannot pass a budget now in this political
environment. You'll have weak and unstable government. While the world changes
fast, the Japanese government will change very slowly."
Japan has seen prices decline for the past 12 years, and the Nikkei stock
average has also dropped 8.9% this year. Kan last month released plans to boost
the world's second-largest economy by lowering the corporate tax rate from as
high as 40% while balancing the budget in 10 years.
Japan's biggest business lobby, Keidanren, asked all parties to work together
to boost the economy and the nation's finances. "Policy implementation
shouldn't be stagnated because of the divided parliament," Hiromasa Yonekura,
head of the Japan Business Federation, said in a statement.
After promising to shift spending from public works to households, the DPJ has
passed legislation to eliminate public high school fees and give families a
monthly stipend of 13,000 yen ($147) per child. Despite their losses, the DPJ
did celebrate the election of two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Ryoko Tani,
34, who still plans to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.
The government, however, does appear to be losing favor with the public.
Earlier this year, Kan floated the idea of raising the current 5% consumption
tax to 10% or more to avoid a financial collapse, and then said he wouldn't
decide on the issue until three years later, when Lower House elections are
A few weeks after taking office, Kan called the Upper House elections for July
11, the same day as the World Cup final of football, which has become Japan's
favorite sport, prompting about 10 million voters to cast ballots in advance.
Kan didn't go on TV to comment on the election until well after midnight.
"Japan's political culture has changed," said Curtis. "Voters want strong
leaders, but the leaders are not strong." Junichiro Koizumi was a strong leader
and stayed in office for five years, but too many politicians since are still
using out-dated canvassing methods of going around streets in trucks with
loudspeakers, Curtis said. Leaders should go out and talk to citizens more
often, because the "political machine doesn't get votes like it used to".
Shiratori said Kan made the mistake of not appearing humble before the Japanese
public. He cited a Japanese proverb: when the rice plant has a good crop, we
harvest. "When the head is heavy [on a rice plant or politician], it will bow
lower and lower," he said.
Kan mistakenly thought the tax issue could unify the split within his party, he
said. "He thought this topic would be a good agenda to smash out the [issues]
of money in politics and the Okinawa Futenma base issue. To a certain degree,
he was successful. But Japanese people do not love leaders who fail to show
Tokyo-based freelance journalist Christopher Johnson (www.globalite.posterous.com)
is author of Siamese Dreams and an upcoming novel set in Japan.