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One-party rule in Japan at an end?

Politics in Japan has reached a turning point—or a dead end—with the crushing defeat of the Liberal Democratic Party in the upper-house election on 29 July.

The Liberal Democratic Party, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, lost the majority it had held in the upper house (along with its coalition partner the New Komei Party), so that now it is controlled by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Many within the LDP have called for Abe to resign, which is customary after such a major defeat, but as of mid-August he is still holding on to power. Whatever Abe’s destiny, however, the election result seems to herald the beginning of the end of what has essentially been a system of one-party rule since the LDP was formed in 1955.

There is no shortage of reasons for the defeat suffered by the LDP. First and foremost, there was the scandal involving the pension system. It was revealed in May that some 50 million pension records had been lost. This means that people who regularly paid into the system are at risk of being shortchanged on their pension benefits. With a huge percentage of Japan’s population at or nearing retirement age, it is easy to understand why this scandal has alienated so many people from the LDP.

There were also the scandals involving cabinet members, including the illegal funding of political activities and the usual LDP “verbal gaffes.” Two members of Abe’s cabinet resigned and the minister of agriculture, who was under fire for a funding scandal, committed suicide. Incredibly, the new agricultural minister was implicated in a similar funding scandal and resigned immediately after the election defeat.

While these scandals seem to have been the direct cause of the LDP’s defeat, there are long-term political and social changes that have gradually eroded the party’s power and contributed to the unpopularity of Prime Minister Abe. One trend, which has been much commented on in the press, is the increasing “social divide” between the richer rich and poorer poor. Among the have-nots the impression is that the “structural reforms” implemented by the LDP, starting with Abe’s predecessor Koizumi, have only worsened their lives.

The divide between rich and poor corresponds to a growing disparity between the more affluent cities and the economically depressed rural areas. Traditionally the LDP has depended on votes in the rural districts, and repaid this support with the agricultural protectionism and large-scale public works projects that are the two pillars of the local economies. These policies have become difficult to maintain, given the ballooning government debt and need to form free-trade agreements, not to mention the public opposition to wasteful government spending on unnecessary roads and dams. The LDP has tinkered with reform, including the promotion of decentralization of government administration, and this has already eaten away at its base of support. One of the most striking aspects of the election result, for example, is that the DPJ was able to win seats in rural districts that up to now have been impregnable LDP strongholds.

Abe hoped that a revival of nationalism could help to conceal or bridge the divisions between rich and poor, and between urban and rural Japan. He raised the creepy goal of creating what he calls a “beautiful country.” Abe thought this could be achieved through such efforts as revising the Constitution to eliminate its pacifist clause, whitewashing history so students can “take pride” in their country, and advancing a more interventionist foreign policy in tandem with the US.

But even here Abe has had little luck. One problem is that his campaign to turn back the clock to the 1930s began just as the US was demonstrating to the world the limitations of hairy-chested jingoism. Many people in Japan—even capitalists—must have wondered whether it was a good idea to adopt the George W. Bush approach to winning friends and influencing people. The two-headed quagmire in the Middle East has also forced the US to take a less belligerent stance towards North Korea; a move that caught the Abe government off guard and complicated the effort to use the fear of North Korea to bolster the revival of nationalism.

There has also been hostility towards Abe because the public feels as if it has been “sold a bill of goods” by the LDP. Japanese voters provided overwhelming support to Prime Minister Koizumi when he posed as a renegade hell-bent on overturning the status quo within his own party, resulting in the LDP regaining a firm majority in both houses of parliament. But Koizumi’s hand-picked successor, Shinzo Abe, used that power to push through reactionary legislation with little public support, fill his cabinet with political cronies, and even bring back to the LDP some members that Koizumi had expelled for opposing his “structural reforms.” The general feeling among the public is that it was a very bad idea, indeed, to have handed the LDP a blank check.

Finally, there is the problem of Abe himself, who clearly lacks the essential political skill of lying in a convincing manner. The charismatic Koizumi might have been to talk his way out of at least some of the problems listed above, creating a useful distraction or two, but Abe has proved quite incapable of charming the public.

Tweedledum

Probably the least significant factor behind the LDP’s defeat was the opposition Democratic Party. The general consensus is that people were voting against the LDP, not for the DPJ. Given the numerous problems facing Abe’s party just outlined, the DPJ had to do little more than criticize the LDP’s handling of those problems and offer some vague solutions.

Under its new leader Ichiro Ozawa, the election campaign of the DPJ emphasized the growing gap between the “winners” and “losers” in society and made the claim that it could implement policies that would improve the standard of life for common people. In its election manifesto, the DPJ raises the goal of “creating a nation where people can live their lives free of anxiety” and “putting people’s lives first.”

How the DPJ intends to deliver on this promise, under an economic system of production for profit, is a complete mystery.

And even the more concrete “pledges” and “proposals” listed in the DPJ manifesto are unlikely to ever see the full light of day. The party offers three pledges: to resolve the pension problem, increase subsidies for childrearing (to deal with the low birth rate), and providing greater support for farmers. All three require lots and lots of yen, which the government does not have or would prefer to use in more capital-friendly ways.

The DPJ election manifesto includes seven proposals as well: (1) protect jobs and rectify social disparities, (2) solve the shortage of doctors and improve healthcare, (3) eliminate administrative waste, (4) advance the decentralization of government, (5) support small and medium size businesses, (6) take a leading role in environmental protection, (7) adopt a new approach to foreign policy.

The first two require increased spending, while any savings from the third and fourth proposals will mean job losses for government workers and economic hardships for the provinces. The next proposal, to help out the “little guy” (=small capital), would also require increased expenditures and run directly counter to the interests of the big-time capitalists who run the show. The sixth proposal is an empty promise, as long as capitalism, with its anarchical money-chasing, remains firmly in place.

Even the final proposal on foreign policy, which is one of Ozawa’s primary obsessions, will be difficult to achieve because Japan is so closely intertwined militaristically with the US, to which it has outsourced its foreign policy for the past sixty years. Ozawa has stated that the DPJ would use its new power to oppose the extension of the Antiterrorism Law, under which Japan has supported the US wars of aggression in the Middle East. It will be interesting to see if he follows through on this promise, given the heavy pressure already being exerted on the DPJ by the US since the election. The DPJ itself is split over this issue, as reflected in its manifesto, which states that, “a strong and equal Japan-US relationship based on mutual trust” is the “foundation of Japan’s foreign relations,” while in the very next sentence calling for the “immediate end of the dispatch of Self-Defence Forces (=Japanese army) to Iraq.” If the DPJ can stand up to the pressure from the US, they are certain to gain tremendous public support, but unless there is a real alternative to the current foreign policy, Japanese capitalists may decide to stay aboard the USS Hubris.

The promises, pledges, and proposals of the DPJ are not only difficult (and at times impossible) to achieve, they present a false image of that political party. In the election campaign, the DPJ emphasized a liberal, people-friendly image, but a brief look at the history of the party and its members reveals how similar its outlook is to that of the LDP. Many of the big players in the party, including Ozawa, got their start in the LDP prior to the formation of the DPJ in 1998.

Ozawa rose as high as the Secretary General of the LDP, in 1989. But he found himself on the losing end of a factional struggle, and in 1993 decided to strike out on his own, forming the Japan Renewal Party. The next decade saw Ozawa in a number of other small parties. Far from steadfastly opposing the LDP, however, Ozawa’s Liberal Party formed a coalition with the LDP and was even negotiating with Prime Minister Obuchi to return to the fold. When opposition in the LDP blocked this political merger, Ozawa tried his luck with the DPJ, dissolving the Liberal Party within it in 2003. Ozawa is clearly is an opportunistic politician who does not offer a fundamental break with LDP politics, not to mention that he is wholly faithful to the capitalist system.

If the DPJ represents a step forward for politics in Japan, it is only in the sense of contributing to an understanding that capitalist political parties are fundamentally the same, quite unable to deliver on their sweet-sounding campaign promises. Some may still be holding out the hope that the DPJ will set Japan on the right path, but they are sure to be disappointed. It is the role of socialists to prevent their disappointment from resulting in impotent despair, by showing where the real problems lie and offering a solution.

What’s left?

But the “left” in Japan is not offering a critique of capitalism or pointing the way beyond it.

During elections, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) makes its presence felt. Even in the smallest towns JCP posters and politicians can be seen. This might give a tourist the impression that there is great interest in socialism in Japan today. In fact, however, the election campaign of the JCP makes no mention of socialism. The primary issues for the JCP are the defence of the current “pacifist” Constitution and the quixotic goal of achieving something called “capitalism with rules” through Keynesian economic policies. And the same approach characterizes the politics of the Social Democratic Party (Japan), which includes remnants of the now defunct Socialist Party.

To borrow the old comparison, the reformist politics of the JCP and SDP are like treating a patient’s symptoms, without paying much attention to the disease. For example, JCP leader Kazuo Shii, in comments made to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club on 3 July, raised the party’s slogan of ending poverty, proposing the following three measures: (1) Oppose regressive taxes (residential tax, consumption tax); (2) enhance social services; (3) enforce work regulations. Not a word about how poverty is endemic to capitalism itself, as a society where production is for profit and profit arises from the exploitation of labour.

No matter how well intentioned, the politics of the JCP and SDP generate the illusion that capitalism can change its stripes. Perhaps in the short-term this will win them some votes, but neither party is offering a solution to problems people in Japan and throughout the world face. And until a genuine socialist party does emerge, Japanese politics — and society — will be stuck in an impasse.

MICHAEL SCHAUERTE