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FINDING JAPAN’S WAY IN THE WORLD
Vol. 37, No. 2, April 2010


ERODING SUPPORT FOR HATOYAMA

Today support is wavering for the cabinet of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio. A public opinion survey carried out on February 20–21 by Asahi Shimbun found the support rate for the cabinet at just 37%, compared to 46% of respondents who did not support Hatoyama’s government. The same survey in September 2009 had found fully 71% of respondents backing the cabinet. In less than half a year, this solid support has dwindled to the point where it is outstripped by public disapproval.

The biggest cause for this decline in popularity has been the string of political scandals investigated since December by the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office. At the end of last year, the prosecutors filed charges against two of Prime Minister Hatoyama’s former secretaries in connection with the improper identification of donors to his political war chest. Soon after that, the authorities stepped up their investigation of Ozawa Ichirô, the Democratic Party of Japan’s secretary general, arresting three of his former and current secretaries for failing to declare some ¥400 million used to purchase real estate in 2004 on Ozawa’s formal political funding records.

Much attention focused on whether the secretary general would also be arrested. Investigators questioned Ozawa at length in late January, but in the end chose not to file charges against him.

Public opinion surveys indicate that as many as 64% of the public believe Ozawa should step down as the DPJ’s secretary general. He remains in that post, however, and Prime Minister Hatoyama has publicly stated that he is in favor of his continued service there. All this is contributing to the falling approval ratings for the Hatoyama cabinet.

These scandals are not the only reason for the disappointing numbers, though; the approval ratings had been falling even before these possible malfeasances came to light. One factor here has been Prime Minister Hatoyama’s failure to display convincing leadership to the people of Japan. A second factor, related to this, is the fact that Hatoyama has yet to show a clear picture of the policies he wants to advance, with the exception of some redistribution schemes like his government’s proposed child allowances.

As the Hatoyama cabinet seeks to resurrect its public support in time to go into campaigning for the House of Councillors election later this year, the key will be what sort of policies it seeks to implement. In the article we carry in this section, Keiô University Professor Takenaka Heizô—a reformist member of the cabinet of Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirô (2001–6)—criticizes the current DPJ administration as having a "split personality." This split, he explains, is manifested in divergent policies like the moves to turn back the clock on privatization of the Japan Post group, effectively renationalizing its operations, on the one hand and efforts to deregulate Japan’s airports and air transport administration on the other. In short, this cabinet appears at once to be championing both socialist and liberal policies.

The DPJ promised in its manifesto, which spelled out the party’s platform ahead of the House of Representatives election in August 2009, that it would place the Kantei, or prime minister’s office, at the head of the policy decision-making process. To this end the Hatoyama cabinet established the National Policy Unit soon after its launch. Since then, however, the Kantei and NPU have made no effort to produce a unified economic policy direction or to ensure cabinetwide consistency in economic measures.

The DPJ’s focus on policies that seek to redistribute wealth—as exemplified by the proposed child allowance benefits—is well known. Without a growing economy, however, there can be no creation of new wealth to be distributed in the first place. Despite this, the Hatoyama cabinet has not shown any particular interest in promoting economic growth for Japan. Of all the members of the cabinet, Maehara Seiji, who heads the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, is the most focused on the issue of economic growth. In the interview we also carry below, Maehara describes his consideration of measures within the remit of his ministry to stimulate the economy.

A cabinet’s policy choices are also influenced by the proposals brought forward by the political parties in the opposition. If Hatoyama fails to present ideas on how to promote economic growth, the Liberal Democratic Party has a chance to make its views reflected in government policy by proposing detailed measures to invigorate the Japanese economy. The question is whether today’s LDP will seriously tackle the task of proposing such measures: unfortunately, the chance of this happening appears low.

In his article, Takenaka has harsh words for the DPJ’s moves to turn back the Japan Post privatization and implement new child allowances. It must be said, though, that the policies of the LDP-led cabinets that preceded Hatoyama’s differed little from what the DPJ is offering today. Prime Minister Koizumi advanced liberal economic policies under the banner of reforming Japan’s administrative structures, but once he left office, his LDP successors put far less energy into these reforms. When the cabinet of Asô Tarô (2008–9) announced a major boost to public spending in the name of helping Japan to overcome the global economic crisis, it became clear that the Liberal Democrats had reverted completely to their pre-Koizumi stance.

All of the above points to a peculiar axis of confrontation that exists today between the political parties with respect to the nation’s economic policy. Basically, this confrontation turns on the content of the social-democratic-leaning measures that are to be put in place. Of all the parties represented in the Diet today, the recently formed Your Party is the only one championing liberal economic policies, and it is steadily extending its popularity as a result. Support for this party is not yet truly broad-based, though. In the end, Japan will likely see nothing more than a continuation of the narrow political debate on its social-democratic policy choices. (Takenaka Harukata, Associate Professor, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies)

© 2010 Japan Echo Inc.


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