Japan Echo

Vol. 37, No. 1, February 2010


I am writing this column on Christmas day, with just one week left in 2009. Every December in Japan the publisher Jiyûkokuminsha announces the results of its competition to pick the top 10 new and trendy words of the year. This year the number-one spot went to seiken kôtai, "change of government." A couple of other terms in the top 10 also related to the new administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan that took over in September: jigyô shiwake, "budget screening" (the review of appropriations undertaken by the newly established Government Revitalization Unit) and datsu kanryô, "de-bureaucratization" (a key feature of the policymaking process that the new administration is seeking to implement, in which elected politicians call the shots). In the ranking of bestselling books for the year (December 2008 through November 2009), meanwhile, Murakami Haruki’s 1Q84 came out on top, with a pair of books about the Japanese language also placing in the top 10: Yomesô de yomenai machigaiyasui kanji (Deceptively Hard to Read, Easily Mistaken Kanji) in second place, and Nihonjin no shiranai Nihongo (Japanese Language Unknown by Japanese People) in fifth place.

HATOYAMA’S FIRST 100 DAYS Exactly 100 days have passed since DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio took office as prime minister. During this period the Japanese economy has shown signs of improvement. According to the Bank of Japan’s latest quarterly tankan survey, as released on December 14, the diffusion index of business sentiment among major manufacturers was –24, up 9 points from the figure of –33 in the previous survey in September. This is a reflection of the ongoing recovery in exports and production levels powered by strong demand in the emerging economies. The improvement in sentiment is especially pronounced in export-oriented industries like automobiles, steel, and electric machinery. The government’s "eco car" program of tax breaks for purchasers of fuel-efficient new autos also continued to give the economy a boost. And there are signs of alleviation of earlier sentiments of excessive production capacity and overstaffing. Even so, companies continue to be reluctant to invest in new production plant and equipment or to take on new employees. Major manufacturers expect their current profits for fiscal 2009 (year through March 2010) to be 34.7% less than in fiscal 2008. Though the margin of the expected drop is smaller than in the September survey, this would make the second consecutive year of declining profits. And the outlook for capital investment was even worse than in the previous survey, with major manufacturers now expecting a record contraction of 28.2% from the previous year. Meanwhile, plans for hiring new graduates next fiscal year are down by a margin of 30.5% among major enterprises; this is the second-largest planned decrease on record, exceeded only by the 32.0% figure for fiscal 1994.

Meanwhile, support for the Hatoyama administration has been declining gradually. According to surveys conducted by the newspaper publisher Yomiuri Shimbun, the cabinet’s initial support level of 75% as of September 16–17, just after its launch, fell to 71% as of October 2–4 and to 63% as of November 6–8. There was a further decline to 59% in the December 4–6 survey and to 55% as of December 18–19, following Hatoyama’s announcement that the government had given up on achieving a settlement of the knotty issue of the relocation of Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, one of the many US military facilities in Okinawa, by the end of the year.

The most commonly advanced explanation for the decline in support for the cabinet is the lack of leadership by Prime Minister Hatoyama, particularly as seen in the administration’s vacillation in its handling of the Futenma issue and in the compilation of the second supplementary budget for the current fiscal year and of the budget draft for the coming year. But we need to remember that there is no clear national consensus on these matters, and while it is not wise for the government to allow itself to be buffeted by the vagaries of public opinion in dealing with matters of foreign policy and national security, such as the Futenma issue, the situation is further complicated by the uncompromising stances of the two small parties that have joined the DPJ in the ruling coalition; this is a major factor behind Hatoyama’s apparent lack of resolve.

The December 18–19 Yomiuri survey found that 51% of respondents voiced a negative assessment of the government’s decision to give up trying to settle the Futenma issue by the end of the year, and as many as 68% believed that the delay would have a negative impact on Japan-US relations. But opinion on relocating the facility was split, with 35% wanting it to be moved out of Japan, 34% supporting implementation of the existing Japan-US agreement to relocate it to a site in the city of Nago within Okinawa Prefecture, and 14% favoring relocation to a site in another prefecture within Japan. Meanwhile, 64% expressed unfavorable opinions of the present coalition framework, indicating widespread discontent with the current situation, in which the DPJ seems to be getting pushed around by its much smaller coalition partners.

In this connection I would like to introduce the results of a recent survey of national legislators conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun and a group of researchers headed by Waseda University Professor Kume Ikuo. The survey team analyzed replies received from 282 members of the House of Representatives, using multidimensional scaling to generate a "policy preference map" (see attached figure), with legislators’ views plotted in two dimensions: along a horizontal scale from dovish to hawkish with respect to such issues as amendment of the Constitution, the exercise of collective self-defense, and education to inculcate patriotism in schoolchildren and along a vertical scale from protectionist to supportive of globalization with respect to such issues as import liberalization and protection of domestic agriculture. Looking at this, we find that the legislators of the DPJ tend to be on the dovish side on the horizontal scale and on the side of globalization on the vertical scale. But the range of views is broad along both scales, confirming that the often-heard complaint that the party is a "motley collection" continues to apply. By contrast, the Liberal Democratic Party, which ruled for many years until it was thrown out of power in the latest lower house election, shows greater coherence, with some 90% of its legislators taking the hawkish side both on amendment of the Constitution and the inculcation of patriotism. Meanwhile, the policy preferences of the members of the New Kômeitô—which was the LDP’s partner in the previous ruling coalition but has recently been attempting to put a bit of distance between itself and the LDP—map to a region between those of the DPJ and LDP members. They are actually closer to the DPJ than are the members of the Social Democratic Party, one of the small parties that have joined the DPJ in the current ruling coalition.

BUDGET SCREENING The budget screening conducted in November by the Government Revitalization Unit has won widespread approval for bringing out into the open a process that was previously conducted behind closed doors. Public interest was also very great: Over the course of the nine days of screening, some 20,000 people came to observe the sessions at the gymnasium where they were conducted, and the live streaming of the sessions on the Internet recorded 2.7 million views.

Some commentators have offered harsh assessments of the process, calling it "budget-cut theater" and likening the grilling of responsible officials to "people’s courts" or to the post–World War II Tokyo Trial that passed judgment on Japanese accused of war crimes. And the screening, which was intended to trim waste from the budget, did not succeed in coming up with the hoped-for level of cuts. The proposed reductions totaled less than ¥700 billion—not even half of the ¥1.5 trillion estimated to be needed in the fiscal 2010 budget to implement the child allowances that were a key plank in the DPJ’s electoral manifesto.

The real significance of the new budget-screening process was that it made open what previously had been concealed from public view and that it provoked debate about what sort of country Japan should seek to be in the world from now on. One of the items that attracted great attention was the project for promotion of next-generation supercomputer technology. The screeners reached the conclusion that it is unnecessary for Japan to seek to be number one in the world in this field, and they recommended slashing the appropriation for the project virtually to the point of elimination. They also pronounced a death sentence on Japan Echo, calling for an end to the funding for purchasing of this magazine by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These decisions raise important issues for debate: Is Japan going to give up its ambition to be a leading creator of new science and technology? And is there no need for us to offer foreign-language materials introducing Japanese people’s debates about their own country to international readers?

There has of course been commentary of various sorts about the new administration’s performance so far. Here I would like to quote from the assessment offered recently by Okamura Tadashi, chairman of the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Asahi Shimbun, December 10):

"Whether you look at the budget screening or at the compilation of the new budget, they’re now at the stage of changing the workings of the government. The transparency of the processes has been greatly enhanced, and they’re doing well. . . .

"The problem is that there hasn’t been much discussion about growth strategy or about the national vision—what sort of country we’re going to make Japan over the medium to long term and what sort of position it will hold in the world. This relates to the budget compilation process too: First there has to be a growth strategy, and then the budget needs to be compiled in line with this strategy. Just responding to the issues of the moment—‘we must cut waste,’ ‘the economy is in a terrible state’—isn’t enough to bring prospects for the future into view. . . .

"Up to now Japan’s sense of identity has been based on its being the world’s number-two economy. But this year or next our gross domestic product is going to be overtaken by China’s, and eventually India will pass us too. I firmly believe that from now on we must aim to become a country that creates science and technology. In order for Japan to contribute to the world, the most essential requirement is the promotion of science and technology. . . .

"If we allow ourselves to think that second place is good enough, we may end up coming in last. The only way Japan can prosper is through the development of its human resources and the sweat of its people’s brows."

I totally agree. (Shiraishi Takashi)

© 2010 Japan Echo Inc.