2010: Q&A on Politics

2010 was a pivotal year for the Democratic Party of Japan — but not necessarily a productive or successful one. To get a sense of the Kan administration, we threw a few questions to resident Japanese political analyst Tobias Harris of Observing Japan.

1. Has the Kan administration been a failure? Would you blame the problems of his administration on unavoidable structural reasons or tactical political errors?

It would be hard not to call the Kan government a failure. As for the reasons, it’s a little bit structural and a little bit tactical — and there’s a considerable degree of interaction between the two. For example, the central challenge for the Japanese government today is overcoming deflation, or perhaps more accurately the profound economic insecurity that has produced persistent deflation. Deflation is hard for any government to overcome; as we’re seeing, it’s nearly impossible for a government that never regained its ability to use conventional monetary policy tools and that dug itself into a deep hole fiscally after its earlier bout with deflation. But as long as the economy is deflationary, any growth strategy is bound to be stillborn and efforts to fix the government’s finances through tax increases will be counterproductive.

But that being said, the Kan government — and, of course, the Hatoyama government before it — has barely hinted at new policies for fighting deflation (threatening to amend the Bank of Japan law to get the bank to act more aggressively) and beyond that, a realistic vision for the Japanese economy. How can Japan have enough growth so as to be able to provide for its aging population over the coming decades? A broader economic vision may be an essential step for curing deflation, in that the government needs to convince Japanese citizens that the government will be able to provide some modicum of economic security. Absent that, the Japanese people are wise to curtail their consumption.

Of course, to convince the public that the future is secure, the government may have to go deeper in debt, which may further produce greater insecurity.

Meanwhile, the Kan government’s handling of the Senkaku incident grievously damaged its public approval. As in other policy areas, the Kan government reacted first, and then figured out what it hoped to achieve as it tried to resolve the dispute. In the final analysis Japan may well have won the showdown in that China badly overreached, alienating its neighbors and reinforcing the impression that has formed over the past year that it is anxious to flex its muscles in Asia. But Japanese public opinion usually does not consider foreign policy matters in this manner: it hurt the government because the government looked incompetent. I would argue that Hatoyama was punished over Futenma for the same reason.

2. What has the DPJ actually accomplished policy-wise since taking over? Did they succeed in taking power from the bureaucrats?

It’s a fairly short list. Arguably it has been most successful in foreign and security policy, Futenma notwithstanding. The DPJ has focused on building better bilateral relations with the region’s other middle powers (South Korea, Australia, India, etc.). It is in the process of showing that it is possible for a Japanese government to take security policy seriously without “rearming” or revising the constitution. It has had its share of foreign policy failures, of course: Futenma, the TPP debacle (which may yet yield fruit if raising the issue began a process of building an intellectual consensus in favor of trade liberalization), the Senkaku affair.

Domestically, it is harder to identify successes. Yes, it managed to include some of its campaign promises in the budget, which only goes to show just how pedestrian those promises were. Tax reform? A new Japanese-style welfare state? Decentralization? It is hard to say that the DPJ has made forward progress on any of these issues. As far as the policymaking process is concerned, the DPJ has succeeded in shifting power to the cabinet. The problem, of course, is that it was never good enough for the DPJ to shift power to political leaders in the executive. As I’ve stressed, the DPJ’s leaders have been singularly incapable of using power. The DPJ has failed not because of opposition from the bureaucracy or the LDP or the media, although these factors may be of secondary importance, but because of its own deficiencies: its inexperience, its ideas deficit, and its weak leaders.

3. What do you expect to happen for the DPJ in 2011?

I’m reluctant to make any firm predictions, particularly because at the moment the newspapers are filled (yet again) with talk of party splits and realignment and grand coalitions, but I suspect that the next election will produce a grand coalition. I have a hard time seeing how the DPJ will rebuild its public approval. But, at the same time, the LDP has not managed to capitalize on the DPJ’s unpopularity. While it has recently passed the DPJ in the polls, one would expect that an opposition party facing a ruling party as hapless at the DPJ would hold a commanding lead. We’re not seeing that. Your Party will no doubt build on earlier successes in the next election, which only raises the likelihood of the next election’s resulting in a hung parliament. At that point, I expect that pressure will build for the two biggest parties to form a national unity government to tackle some of the particularly pressing economic problems — tax reform and social security reform, for example — and then perhaps call another election.

In other words, the DPJ’s victory last year was only the first step on the long road to a new model of Japanese governance.

December 22, 2010

Tobias Harris is a political commentator on Japanese politics, PhD candidate at MIT, and author of the blog Observing Japan.

3 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    Serious question: am I crazy for thinking that I would vote for the Communists if eligible?

  2. Kim Jong-il Hater Says:

    Is it crazy for me to think the CIA had a hand in bringing down Hatoyama? The US had to have threatened him with something for him to finally budge on Futenma.

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