The tsuyu rainy season is ending and high summer beginning in Japan, and Atsushi as always has sent me a few pictures of seasonal flowers to keep me attuned to the changes. We used to go see them together when I was in Tokyo. This is a lotus from Sankeien Park in Yokohama (which is near the setting of the opening scene of Ringu, for those who know it.)
Now that we’ve established an image of tranquility, we can move on to the restiveness at hand.
For those who haven’t noticed, electoral politics in Japan are in the middle of a shake-up. The LDP got spanked hard in the Tokyo Metro Assembly election a weekend ago, and Prime Minister Taro Aso is finally calling the snap election people have been trying to press on him.
They decided the election will be officially announced on Aug. 18.
The prime minister, who wanted to dissolve the lower house this week, held discussions with senior officials of the ruling bloc to that end.
However, the prime minister apparently was not able to push back strong demands from many ruling bloc members opposing an early dissolution.
At a government-ruling bloc meeting held at the Prime Minister’s Office later, Aso apologized for the poor coalition result in Sunday’s Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election and expressed his wish to have important bills passed through the Diet.
“I’m very sorry [about the result of the metropolitan election],” he said. “I want important bills, such as the bill to revise the Organ Transplant Law and the bill for implementing North Korea-related cargo inspections [to be passed by the Diet].”
The prime minister said he would dissolve the lower house once he saw how the deliberations over these bills would go after the Democratic Party of Japan presented a no-confidence motion against the Cabinet.
Naoto Kan, who’s been back as acting leader of the DPJ, is trying to play Sunday’s results up as not only disaffection with the LDP/Shin-Komeito but also newfound confidence in the DPJ:
In the election Sunday, Minshuto added 20 seats to bring its total to 54 in the 127-seat assembly.
The LDP lost 10 seats and ended up with 38, the lowest since the party was formed and only tied in the 1965 election. New Komeito took 23 for the coalition’s combined total that fell short of the majority.
Minshuto’s victory also snapped the LDP’s 40-year streak of being the largest party in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly.
“It’s a result of higher trust in Minshuto, beyond the Tokyo administration,” Naoto Kan, Minshuto’s acting president, said on an NHK TV program Sunday night.
Maybe. The Japanese are certainly unhappy with much of the status quo, and they may see the DPJ (called in these articles by a transliteration of its Japanese name, 民主党 [minshutou]: “democratic party”) as genuinely having a better policy platform. I’m not really sure it goes quite that deep, though. That’s not because Japanese are especially ignorant about “the issues”; rather it’s because they accurately understand their system as one that requires equilibrium. The LDP just hasn’t had enough pushback, and with the post-Koizumi parade of milquetoast administrations, it itself no longer represents a force in the Diet that effectively pushes back against the bureaucrats. And the ever-accruing list of scandals—related to political contributions, bid-rigging, and consumer products—gives citizens much less reason to believe that tolerating wheeling and dealing as usual is worth it in exchange for stability.
That said, it’s disingenuous to talk about Diet elections as if they were United States congressional elections. The LDP and DPJ have differences in their declared policy platforms, sure, but the legislature and cabinet are limited in their ability to put them into practice. That’s not because the bureaucrats “actually run everything,” as is sometimes reductively claimed (I’ve possibly said so myself). It’s because the Diet is just one competing power center among several, which do include the unelected officials in the federal ministries. It’s helpful to keep that in mind when reading things like the last sentence below, from a Mainichi editorial:
Through the uncommon practice of making a pre-announcement of the House of Representatives’ dissolution, Aso probably wanted to claim his authority to dissolve the Lower House, with the aim of silencing calls within the LDP for him to step down. Surprisingly, however, such calls have not been tempered. Within the party, some are pressuring the prime minister to step down prior to the dissolution of the Lower House, while others who are not going as far as calling for the prime minister to be replaced are proposing a “separation of LDP president and prime minister.” Under this plan, the LDP president would be replaced so that the party can embark on the next general election with a new frontman, who can then be nominated for prime minister after the election if the ruling bloc wins.
It feels inappropriate for the prime minister — the very person who initiated the dissolution of the Lower House in order to directly ask the public if they support him — to be replaced right after the election. The public has become distrustful of the irresponsibility of a party that has repeatedly replaced its leaders, as if changing its facade could somehow fool the public. Party members convinced that the election cannot be won with Aso at the top of the party would more easily earn the understanding and acceptance of the public if they withdrew from the LDP and formed a new party.
The opposition bloc including the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) submitted a non-confidence motion against the Cabinet to the Lower House and a censure motion against the prime minister to the Upper House on Monday. For all practical purposes, the long election race has already begun. A benefit of having the general election in late August is the fact that voters will have the time to scrutinize the policies proposed by different parties.
The various political parties should hasten to compose and announce their manifestos. Prime Minister Aso and the ruling bloc, who have continued to evade voters’ choices, must avoid any tricks and fight this election fair and square with their policies. Hopefully, opposition parties will come up with concrete manifestos that detail what kind of changes we can hope to see in Japan with a change in government.
There’s certainly more up for grabs than there would have been twenty years ago, and I have no doubt that DPJ legislators would (will) come into power expecting to be able to make substantive changes. But as with the Obama administration here in the U.S., it’s easier to embrace the idea of change than to put it into practice when the constraints of reality have to be factored in. Even Koizumi, who had the ideal balance of insider networks within the LDP and maverick cachet among fed-up voters, had to compromise again and again on reforms. The snap election promises the most entertaining campaign season since 2005, but it remains to be seen how the throw-the-bums-out energy might translate into long-term systemic shifts.