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Japan Diary

September 19, 2020

Anatomy of apathetic cynicism regarding the choice of Abe's successor

(This article appeared in the September 15 edition of Newsweek Japan. English translation on the courtesy of the English-Speaking Union of Japanhttp://www.esuj.gr.jp/jitow/)

Yoshihide Suga was elected as the new Prime Minister in the National Diet on September 16th. Amid all the news, something doesn't quite feel right. It looks as if the media were going out of their way to make a fuss, knowing that there is some fundamental problem behind it all.

Isn't the fundamental problem that the Japanese system of governance is all but dead? The Japanese public got fed up with the politics and actors of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and gave birth to the government of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2012. Disillusioned by the DPJ government when it raised the consumption tax, they kicked it out of power in 2012. In other words, the Japanese system of governance was perceived to be all but dead as both the LDP and DPJ had proved themselves unfit to govern. The Abe administration, back in power in 2012, did its best to keep the LDP out of the limelight and execute what became known as "Kantei" (Prime Minister's Office) -led politics.

As the Abe administration stayed in power year after year, the LDP gradually worked its way to the fore, with many of its members and Abe's supporters eager to get their share of the "dividend of governing" and seen to be acting with excessive zeal, often to the government's detriment. Despite that, the LDP continued to win election after election. This was probably because most of the voters felt that they were voting not so much for the LDP but, subconsciously, for "Abe and his company". Perhaps they were entertaining a vain hope that Abe and his men would deliver the things the voters wished without any additional burden.

With all of this, once Prime Minister Abe expressed his intention to step down, the LDP leaders started exercising what they see as their prerogative to decide things as they like, and presuming to name Abe's successor through the maneuvers of the now defunct, Zombie-like "habatsu" (factions). Rather than electing the successor to the prime minister, this sounds like subjecting the whole of Japan to the succession ritual of the headship of some "family". 
No wonder this is viewed with apathetic cynicism.

The public wants to elect the prime minister directly. But that cannot be done unless the Constitution is amended. Besides, direct election has the risk that some outlandish populist may be elected by those people who adamantly believe that one outstanding leader would solve all the problems facing the nation. That must be avoided. We need to ensure that people with sufficient experience and performance record will emerge as candidates as a result of the "scrutiny" by the public and the media. If primary elections are conducted in each political party to elect the party leader, and the general election takes place as a contest among these elected party leaders, it should be possible to elect as prime minister some appropriate personality in a manner reflecting the popular will within the framework of the present Constitution. Was it not just the internal convenience of the LDP that prevented the choice of such a path?

A larger problem lurks behind the apathetic cynicism generated by this choice of successor. Not just in Japan, but also all around the world, the existing framework of political parties has become obsolete and immobile. To be specific, the scheme whereby the LDP and the former DJP forces are pitted against each other reflects the conflict between capitalism and socialism in the postwar Cold War years and is a relic of the past in this age when the Soviet Union has long since collapsed. Both forces should dissolve themselves and reformulate parties along a different axis of opposition.

In the United States, the Republican and Democratic Parties should be dissolved and reformulated into two major parties along the axis of low income versus high income. At present, the political structure is distorted. The Republican Party counts on the votes from the impoverished white, but adopts policies that benefit big business, such as substantial reduction of corporate tax. The Democratic Party depends largely on the support of the impoverished youth and minorities, but seeks generous political donations from big business. In Britain, Germany and France, the existing political structures are collapsing with squeaking noises.

There is a more fundamental problem in this day and age where every adult has the right to vote, and it is no longer possible to pull the votes together through organizations such as labor unions and agricultural cooperatives, and every single voter has his or her own views on a host of issues. It has become extremely difficult to manage or pull together the society in any given direction. Democracy reared in modern Europe has achieved great success in elevating the right of each individual citizen, but, precisely because of that, it has given rise to a variety of hitches that stand in the way of the smooth functioning of democracy. This huge paradox should be the subject of elevated debates worldwide in search of resolution.

It is also surprising that, in this recent process of choosing Japan's new leader, foreign policy hardly figures as a subject of debate. Details aside, whether the prospective leader would have the capacity to present Japan's position and interests clearly to his or her foreign counterparts and persuade or make deals with them should have been an important criterion for judgment. Let us hope that this is not asking for the moon!