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The spectre of stasis “15-minute man”


Bowed but unbloodied? Yukio Hatoyama, in September at his first official press conference, acknowledges his responsibilities as prime minister. The authority of the DPJ leader has since been called into question


Japan: The spectre of stasis
By Mure Dickie

Published: December 21 2009 20:26 | Last updated: December 21 2009 20:26

No one can doubt the scale of Yukio Hatoyama’s ambitions. In his first policy speech in parliament after the historic election victory of his Democratic party in August, Japan’s new prime minister laid out a far-reaching agenda of change for east Asia’s leading democracy and the world’s second-largest economy.

It would be, he told the packed Diet debating chamber, a revolution on the scale of the 1868 Meiji restoration that abolished feudalism and laid the foundations of modern Japan. “Today’s reformation is an attempt to change the very shape of the nation, restore power to the people and end dependence on bureaucrats, exchange centralised power for regional and local sovereignty and turn from insular islands to open maritime state,” said the 62-year-old scion of one of Japan’s most celebrated political dynasties.

Nor were his words mere hyperbole. The DPJ’s landslide had decisively ended a half-century of near unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic party, whose much reduced parliamentary cohort sat glowering and heckling from behind their Diet desks. From their first days in office, his ministers had been challenging long-established policies and practices across Tokyo’s Nagatacho administrative district.

This DPJ drive to shake up how “Japan Inc” works has implications across the archipelago and beyond. A more responsive and dynamic government could help the nation finally shake off the lingering effects of the bursting of its huge asset bubble 20 years ago and address pressing new problems of demographic decline and fiscal frailty. At the same time, the DPJ’s desire to establish a more equal alliance with the US implies a recalibration of security ties across east Asia.

The most forgivable shortcomings of the new administration stem from its inexperience. The LDP’s long grip on power means only a handful of members of the decade-old DPJ had previously led a ministry. Since a heavy defeat in 2005 at the hands of Junichiro Koizumi, then LDP prime minister, the party had been labouring to rebuild itself as an electoral force. “We focused for four years on winning power,” says Nobuhiko Suto, a DPJ member of the Diet’s lower house. “Unfortunately, the party itself was not well prepared for the business of being the ruling party.”

Still, Gerald Curtis, professor at Columbia University and a veteran analyst of Japanese politics, gives DPJ leaders high marks for entering government with clear ideas about how they wanted to transform it. The result, he says, is change comparable if not to the Meiji restoration then at least to the 1920s Taisho reforms that widened Japanese democracy.

In an effort to seize the initiative from a bureaucracy that has long dominated decision-making, the new cabinet barred officials from independently briefing the media, restricted their direct contacts with Diet members and created politician-led bodies intended to set national strategy and budget priorities.

In one highly symbolic move, pre-cabinet agenda-setting meetings by administrative vice-ministers were quickly scrapped. These gatherings of the cream of the bureaucratic elite had been central to government administration since 1886, with meetings of the actual cabinet often derided as merely a matter of affixing final seals of approval.

Some officials seemed reluctant to see politicians set their own agendas. “We will respect the policy of the new government. But even after the meeting is abolished, we should try to take a careful approach when deciding the topics to be discussed in the cabinet,” the Mainichi Daily quoted one administrative vice-minister as saying. But with the DPJ’s huge lower house majority granting clear legitimacy, there has been little overt bureaucratic resistance. Indeed, many younger officials welcomed the chance to shake off administrative inertia.

. . .

Ministers are now under instructions to answer questions in parliament on their own, rather than reading from scripts prepared by officials, as was standard practice. The new ruling party won credit by announcing that policy would be solely the preserve of the government – unlike under the LDP, where party organs set policy agendas in competition with the cabinet.

In a public relations masterstroke, a new Government Revitalisation Unit launched unprecedented public screenings of ministerial budget requests, with feisty legislators grilling officials over suspect spending in sessions that were broadcast live over the internet. “The biggest change under the new government is that this kind of debate is being carried out openly in front of the public,” says Shiori Yamao, a first-time DPJ Diet member. “People can watch the raw struggle.”

But while the screenings set the stage for more systemic reform to budget-setting expected to be introduced next year, some of the public goodwill they won has been dispelled by a series of policy disputes and delays. These suggest that while the DPJ may know how it wants to govern, it is not entirely sure what it wants to do.

“You can have the most perfect system in the world, but if you don’t have good policies, it doesn’t amount to anything. And on the policy side they have real problems,” says Professor Curtis, citing in particular a dispute with Washington over a deal to relocate a US marine base on the southern island of Okinawa.

The DPJ’s lack of enthusiasm for the planned move of Futenma air base has become a lightning rod for worries in Washington over Mr Hato­yama’s calls for a more equal relationship and for closer ties with regional neighbours such as China. Yet instead of offering an alternative plan, members of the new cabinet have publicly explored divergent options while the prime minister procrastinated even on the issue of when a decision should be made. “This is amateur hour in Tokyo,” says one analyst.

Plunging tax income is adding to the pressure on the DPJ, which won power on promises of generous welfare spending that always looked difficult to fund. While the party has called the manifesto a “contract” with voters, ministers suggest some parts can be jettisoned or at least delayed. “Opinion polls show people think it would be better not to fully implement [the manifesto] than to add much more to the public debt,” says Yoshito Sengoku, minister of state for government revitalisation.

But cabinet members are divided on which pledges to keep. The manifesto, for example, promised a Y26,000 ($290, €200, £180) monthly allowance for every child until graduation from junior high school. Some ministers now think the allowance should be means-tested in order to save money. Hirohisa Fujii, finance minister, says only the super-rich should be excluded and other colleagues stand by universality.

The debate has thrown into doubt the promised division of party and government roles. Ichiro Ozawa, a political heavyweight who stayed out of the cabinet to manage the DPJ, this month included a demand for means-testing of the child allowance as one of 18 spending budget policy “requests” publicly delivered to Mr Hatoyama. Indeed, the prime minister’s reluctance to set a clear direction on such issues has fuelled suggestions that he is overly influenced by Mr Ozawa, who was his predecessor as DPJ president but stepped down in May after prosecutors accused an aide of falsely reporting donations from a construction company. (The aide denies the charges.)

A poll by Jiji news agency last week found 71 per cent of respondents considered Mr Ozawa the person ”in effective control” of the government. Only 11 per cent thought Mr Hatoyama was in charge.

. . .

Many analysts sense Mr Ozawa’s hand in the prime minister’s reluctance to rein in his financial services minister, Shizuka Kamei, a pugnacious former policeman who heads the People’s New party, a tiny DPJ coalition partner.

Keeping Mr Kamei happy should ensure his co-operation in an election next summer that the DPJ hopes will give it a majority in the Diet’s upper house to match its lower house domination. But Mr Kamei’s idiosyncratic policy initiatives and defiance of fellow ministers has opened Mr Hatoyama to accusations that he cannot control his cabinet.

The impression of weakness – a critical DPJ Diet member dubs the prime minister the “15-minute man”, saying that is how long he can hold a policy position – is not Mr Hatoyama’s only problem.

In June, he was forced to apologise after his political fundraising organisation was found to have falsely reported millions of yen in donations, some of which were listed as from people who were in fact dead. In recent weeks, he has been hit by allegations that his fund failed to report or pay tax on hundreds of millions of yen transferred from his mother, the hugely wealthy daughter of the founder of Bridgestone Tire, owner of Firestone.

Mr Hatoyama has said he was unaware of any such transfers but expected prosecutors to get to the bottom of the matter, adding that he stood ready to pay any tax due – a sum that Kyodo news agency has said could amount to Y500m.

While voters appear relaxed about the allegations, the affair has added spice to speculation that party colleagues’ patience with Mr Hatoyama’s reserved and collegiate style of leadership might be running out. Politics is about more than setting ambitious goals and Mr Hatoyama has yet to silence doubts about his ability to deliver the DPJ’s revolution.

“Mr Hatoyama swings like a pendulum,” says the sharp-tongued DPJ Diet member. “Critics say that the DPJ government will last a long time – but that the Hatoyama administration might not.”


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