September 3rd, 2012
04:46 PM ET

Japan: Get ready for a rightward shift

By Koichi Nakano, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Koichi Nakano is professor of political science and director of the Institute of Global Concern at Sophia University, Tokyo. The views expressed are his own.

Three years ago last week, having campaigned on a platform of “putting people’s lives first,” the ruling Democratic Party of Japan triumphed in the country’s historic general election, overcoming a Liberal Democratic Party that had ruled almost uninterrupted for more than five decades. Yet two (soon likely three) prime ministers later, the DPJ has lost its way.

How? For a start the DPJ has managed to make itself hugely unpopular by ditching most of its main campaign manifesto pledges and letting the country’s bureaucrats redefine the policy agenda. Having determinedly pursued and achieved the controversial policies of restarting nuclear power generation after the Fukushima disaster and setting in place a timetable for raising the consumption tax, it’s clear that Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his party have achieved little else, and the DPJ looks likely to have power wrested from it by the LDP at the next election, which many expect to be called this autumn.

With the credibility of the liberal alternative once personified by the DPJ in tatters, the form of the next government is increasingly seen as a choice between a so-called grand coalition of the LDP, its long-time ally New Komeito, and an emasculated DPJ on the one hand, and a radical conservative “Great Reset” alliance led by the populist, authoritarian mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, together with a right wing-dominated LDP dominated by the likes of former Prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Hashimoto, a lawyer and TV celebrity before becoming mayor, presents himself as a decisive outsider who delivers results, and he has vowed to eliminate all vested interests in government. The LDP, for its part, steadfastly refuses to learn any lessons from its 2009 rout. Yet despite only lukewarm public support, polls show it easily ahead of the DPJ, and the country’s first past the post system leaves Hashimoto and his like well-placed to capitalize. Grand coalition or great reset, Japanese politics looks set to resume its rightward drift.

The DPJ was ushered into office at a time when Japan faced some of the worst poverty levels among rich nations, in part as a result of the sweeping neoliberal reforms pushed through by Junichiro Koizumi. His successor, Shinzo Abe, was too distracted by nationalist talk of making Japan a beautiful country to notice Japan’s glaring social ills. In opposition, the DPJ proposed boosting the social safety net, but it found on coming to power a conservative establishment and mainstream media hostile to its plans, meaning that even on assuming office the DPJ found its efforts thwarted.

Of course, it is important not to paint too rosy a picture of the DPJ. After all, even at the best of times, this was an inept, shaky party. But the failure of the DPJ experiment matters because it represented a historic liberal challenge to the stranglehold of the conservative elites and their self-serving ways in a country where 16 percent of the population, by some estimates, live in poverty, where 35 percent of workers are in irregular employment, and where for the past 14 years more than 30,000 Japanese have taken their own lives. Meanwhile, despite all these social problems, left wing parties, which together controlled more than 30 percent of seats in the country’s parliament at the end of the Cold War, have been reduced to holding a mere 3 percent of seats.

It’s arguable that Japanese have only themselves to blame for this dire situation. Regardless, this drift rightwards will have implications for Japan’s neighbors and partners. With the rejection of the liberal approach of compensating for the inherent costs experienced in a globalizing economy, it is all but certain that the familiar “New Right” formula – strong state and a free market – will return in force.

It is no coincidence that Japan’s three foremost “reformist” prime ministers, namely Yasuhiro Nakasone, Ryutaro Hashimoto (no relation to the Osaka mayor) and Koizumi, have also made a point of visiting the controversial Yasukuni shrine while in office. Why? Because conservatives pursuing neoliberal reforms in Japan that have essentially deprived the majority of people access to entitlements by privatizing profits and socializing risks have been keen to wave the national flag to divert attention from the material losses being suffered.

In fact, the game has already started. In Osaka, Toru Hashimoto has combined cuts in public expenditure with a war on “unpatriotic” schoolteachers. And, as he seeks to gain influence on national politics with a small government agenda, he has predictably begun to suggest that there is no evidence that the Japanese state was involved in the “comfort women” issue. Prime Minister Noda, meanwhile, seems happy to contribute to the escalation of the various territorial disputes that Japan is embroiled in with its neighbors.

The exploitation of nationalism by politicians is, of course, not unique to Japan, or for that matter, to Asia. It was Samuel Johnson writing in 18th century England who famously remarked that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But whatever is the case overseas, one thing is clear here in Japan – as the end draws near for the DPJ government, nationalist chest-beating is poised to be an unfortunate substitute for any serious attempt at providing better social protection for Japanese in the coming months and years.

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Topics: Asia • Japan

soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Quigley

    This could be good news for the Far East. It's about time J apan becomes less subservient to the U.S. and become more self assertive. The Germans badly need to follow suit in Europe!

    September 3, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Well said, Quigley. Yes, J apan does need to stop taling orders from Washington D.C. and become a roll player in the Pacific while in Europe Germany needs to do the same thing. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic Christian Democrats who currently that country don't see things that way. These people are no more than a bunch of self serving, money grubbing, amoral bureaucrats who consider collaborating with Washington D.C. to be big business so they can line their pockets!

      September 3, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Reply
      • Marine5484

        Sorry for the missprint above. I meant "taking", not "tailing".

        September 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
    • Patrick

      Good post, Quigley. How true that rings!

      September 5, 2012 at 2:46 am | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Personally, I think all muslims should be kicked out of polite, civilized society.

        September 5, 2012 at 3:43 am |
      • Quigley

        You are so right Joseph, they should be tarred and feathered.

        September 5, 2012 at 3:45 am |
      • LyndsieGraham

        You know, now that I use my brains properly, I think all muzzies are genetically altered beings who have no right on this earth. A phenom that has perpetuated too long.

        September 5, 2012 at 3:46 am |
      • krm1007©™

        I have to admit that you are all so correct. Well said!

        September 5, 2012 at 3:47 am |
      • Joe Collins

        I should have listened to you guys and not wasted any time on those excuses for human beings.

        September 5, 2012 at 3:49 am |
      • Marine 5484

        Wow, reading your comments makes me realize how true it is.

        September 5, 2012 at 3:50 am |
      • J. Foster Dulles

        Yup, I have always said that they thrive in creating problems.

        September 5, 2012 at 3:51 am |
      • Willie 12345

        They are the pests of the world.

        September 5, 2012 at 3:52 am |
      • Old Man Clark

        Lies, cheat, thieves – that is their true nature.

        September 5, 2012 at 3:53 am |
      • Patrick

        Gee whiz Phunnie boy, can't you post anything intelligent here instead of trying to discredit those of us who can? I'm afraid not and that's a shame! Then again, do any of you Tea Partiers ever think?

        September 5, 2012 at 11:22 am |
      • Patrick

        Anytime you see my name associated with "Phunie", you know that the PMS (Pakistani Muslim Sc um) has stolen my name.
        You will also notice that his level of intellect is lower than my pig's shyatt.

        September 7, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  2. g2-9ed7a72c22e6b4dc1d4d7d72c1179bfc

    Wow, the author is not even trying to be neutral about the LDP's totally legitimate and meaningful differences with the DPJ. You'd make a great World Socialist Web Site commentator.

    September 3, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    J apan's rapid post-war expansion ran out of steam by the 1990s under a mounting debt burden. The ruling elites embody a traditional society with strong social and employment hierarchies. Yet traditions are under pressure as a young generation more inclined towards Western culture and ideas grows up, in a society facing the challenge of meeting the huge social security costs engendered by an ageing society.

    September 4, 2012 at 6:50 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      It's relations with neighbours are still heavily influenced by the legacy of J apanese actions before and during World War II. Tokyo has found it difficult to accept and atone for its treatment of the citizens of countries it occupied.

      September 4, 2012 at 6:51 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        J apan has the highest debt to GDP ratio in the industrialised world – and to pay for nuclear disaster relief by raising taxes rather than borrowing is not an enviable task. Tokyo's governor Shintaro Ishihara (LDP) has been beating the drums of nationalism and started the row with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

        September 4, 2012 at 7:08 am |
  4. Richard

    It is 30,000 people every year, not 30,000 over a 14 year period.

    September 5, 2012 at 3:17 am | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Are you stupid!
      Can't you read?
      It states specifically 30,000 over 14 years.
      What are you trying to do?

      September 5, 2012 at 11:16 am | Reply
      • Marine5484

        Sorry Richard, I didn't post the above. Some Tea Partier is trying to make me look dumb. Like I said before, J apan needs to become more self-assertive.

        September 5, 2012 at 11:25 am |
      • Marine5484

        Sorry Richard, I post stupid, ignorant things all the time. Simply, I have nothing better to do with my time except harass people who are better than me. I am so incompetent that I have to say "Tea Partier" in every single statement I make and that is how you can tell I have stolen someone's moniker.

        September 5, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
      • Patrick

        Gee whiz Phunnie boy, where is you shame? I guess that you Tea Partiers have very little if any! Trying to discredit a marine for voicing his opinion here is truly in bad taste!

        September 6, 2012 at 5:33 am |
      • Quigley

        Gee whiz, look how powerful muslims can be when they steal other people's names.
        Power is in the mind, if you don't mind it does not matter.

        September 6, 2012 at 9:31 am |
      • Marine5484

        If I used my real name, Abdul, noone would read any of the crap I post.

        September 6, 2012 at 9:33 am |
      • Patrick

        |Anytime you read "Tea Partier" under my moniker, you know that some Pakistani sc um is using my good name.

        September 6, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  5. LyndsieGraham

    Stupid is as stupid does.
    Muslim is as muslim does.

    September 6, 2012 at 9:34 am | Reply
  6. J. Foster Dulles

    My mother, a local mionkey houri, taught me to lie and steal and cheat and all kinds of meaningful things.

    September 6, 2012 at 9:36 am | Reply

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