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Japan's Politics at a Turning Point?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007 Posted: 01:26 PM JST

The demise of the LDP has been predicted for almost as long as the party has ruled Japan (about half a century...). So anybody who predicts a loss for the LDP during the upcoming House of Councilors election will most certainly be faithfully ignored.

Yet, even Ichiro Ozawa, president of the Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto), the country's main opposition party, is starting to become uncharacteristically optimistic about his party winning a majority of the seats. This week he publicly stated a higher goal for the July elections. "I had stated my goal was 50 seats or more," Ozawa said at a meeting with officials of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, "but now I want to secure 55 seats or more to obtain an absolute majority."

Ozawa certainly has the wind in his sails. The past few weeks the news has been dominated by government and business scandals, exceeding even previous high levels. Companies like Nova are riding roughshod over consumers. Japanese Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Toshikatsu Matsuoka's suicide on May 28, highlighted horrific corruption among bureaucrats who seem to be willing to do anything to get high-paid jobs with private companies after their retirement. In the huge big-rigging scandal involving the Japan Green Resources Agency (J-Green), no less than 230 retirees from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry and J-Green were employed as of April in the 12 corporations that won consulting contracts for planning forestry roads.

Prime Minister Abe's worst nightmare, however, is undoubtedly the Social Insurance Agency's appalling misconduct. It somehow managed to mess up 50 million pension subscription records. Government employees basically lost records for almost half of Japan's population. Now it has also become clear that the government failed to pay 41 billion yen in special benefits to a total of 21,000 women who lost their husbands in World War II.

This comes among an increasing feeling of hopelessness over Japan's growing gap between the haves and have-nots. Statistics trumpet Japan's longest economic recovery, but people on the street don't see it. Many are hurting badly and can hardly make ends meet. "Japan," the Japan Times last month wrote, "is heading toward a hard-core class-riven society, one in which poverty is entrenched and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is too wide to bridge."

Politicians and their parties appear to have almost completely lost their connection with voters, even with society. In a survey conducted by Asahi in April and May, and released yesterday, more than 80 percent of Japanese voters say that political parties are not playing their expected roles. "A whopping 92 percent want politics to change."

People have lost trust, and are both scared and furious at the same time. To many voters, bureaucrats and politicians --especially the LDP kind-- look corrupt, incompetent and useless.

In spite of Abe's hopes of raising his standing during the recent G8 meetings, his support stubbornly remains below 40%. Younger voters who flocked to Koizumi are dropping Abe as if he is last year's model cellphone. According to an Asahi Shimbun survey conducted last month, only 16 percent of voters in their 20s and 30s support the Abe Cabinet. Some 67 percent do not support it. Their support for Ozawa's Minshuto however is growing.

The LDP is very aware of the dire straits it is in. Lawmakers in the ruling parties are now even proposing to postpone the House of Councillors election from July 22 to July 29. They also want a 12-day extension of the current Diet session to pass a set of bills to reform the public servant system. A move clearly designed to defuse the anger brewing among voters over bureaucrats' misconduct. Even if they would succeed in defusing the anger, they can't erase the fear and distrust that voters feel. They are too late.

Keywords: national_news, political_news

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
Stone Bridge Press

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