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.