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"The Last Chance for Japanese Democracy"

Sunday, July 29, 2007 Posted: 06:30 PM JST

Japanese politics are predictable. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wins, the opposition loses. Since the seventies the end of the LDP has been predicted. Yet, the Japanese people always end up putting the party back in power. For more than half a century now the party has almost continuously been in power. But today's elections for Japan's Upper House promise a political earthquake.

"This is the last chance for democracy in Japan," says Ichiro Ozawa (1942) and he means it. Ozawa is the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the largest opposition party in Japan. He is convinced of the importance of today's elections. He is so convinced, that if the DPJ does not win a majority today, he will step down as leader.

It looks like he won't need to do that. Poll after poll predicts the victory of Ozawa's DPJ and the defeat of Abe and his LDP. The only question is how big the victory is going to be. The excitement is palpable and the Japanese media eat it up. Political news is generally in the back seat, but not this time. Even variety programs have been talking about today.

On paper, today's elections don't appear important. The Japanese voter selects 121 new representatives for the 242 seats of the Japanese Upper House. Only half of the Upper House is at play.

Additionally, it is the Japanese Lower House, not the Upper House, that selects the Prime Minister and thereby the cabinet. The Lower House is still in the hands of a large majority of a coalition of the LDP and the Komeito Party. The excitement of the DPJ, the beaten faces of LDP politicians and the great attention by the Japanese media appear at first sight to be a bit overdone.

But the Upper House has the task to sign Lower House bills into law. And herein lies today's importance. If Ozawa's party wins a majority, it can bring the political system to a standstill and force dissolution of the Lower House. If the resulting general elections are also lost by the LDP, Japan for the first time would have a real democracy with competing political parties which take turns to exercise power. What happens in Japan today could in the long term be of historical importance.

"Japan," says Masaru Tamamoto, a Japanese intellectual who writes about Japanese identity and international relations, "has no decisive crossroads."

"Japan has discreet changes that are seemingly unconnected. Only later you realize that important change has happened and that the small changes were connected."

Tamamoto compares it to a desert full of little sand particles. "The wind blows this way and that way and the sand patterns change, but there is no uniform change. Only when the wind blows in one direction you get a constant pattern."

That is how Tamamoto also sees today's elections. "Will these elections be one of the incremental changes that will be part of the larger transformation that you can see when you look back in the future? Yes, there is a possibility of change in government."

Political analyst Minoru Morita, founder of Morita Research Institute, is less careful. "These elections are important," he says clearly. "The DPJ are going to win and I expect general elections before the middle of next year, possibly even this year."

Two times before the LDP lost in Upper House elections, but this time is different says Morita. "This is the first time that the LDP has lowered living standards. It is 'dark' in Japan. Many people are having a hard time. Even before the elections take place, Ozawa has already won."

If the change in power does actually take place, it will be just in time both Morita and Tamamoto believe. "Abe and his friends," says Tamamoto, "have strange ideas. They want to reacquire the military as an instrument of foreign policy. They think that that will make Japan less dependent on the US."

"If Abe looses on Sunday," adds Morita, "I am convinced that nationalism in Japan will decrease."

Keywords: national_news political_news

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4 comments so far post your own

1 | At 10:46pm on Jul 29 2007, John Dougill wrote:
Personally I think this article is nonsensical in talking of 'a political earthquake'. Minshuto is nothing but another faction of LDP. Half of them are ex-LDP and they have no discernible policy differences. And to cap it all, ex-prime minister Mori is quoted in today's Japan Times as saying that LDP and Minshuto should get together and agree on how to carve up elections so that the two parties can alternate without disturbing the harmony. Welcome to
democracy Japan-style....
2 | At 02:32am on Jul 30 2007, Kjeld Duits wrote:
Who listens to Mori?
3 | At 07:10am on Aug 01 2007, Jean Downey wrote:
I agree that there has been a "political earthquake," which is in parallel to the widespread citizen reaction to the Bush admnistration's policies, which are similarly out-of-touch with the electorate.

Both the Japanese and the American electorates are using their votes to express broad discontent regarding many issues.

Both the Bush administration and Abe seem intent on not listening, and moving ahead with policies that only benefit the agendas of the vested interests they represent. Both think they can continue manipulate the citizens of their respective countries. Meanwhile, gaffes, exposed corruption, lack of political support all indicate they have lost "mandates of heaven," which they never really had in the first place.

We're seeing some light at the end of a tunnel filled with smoke and mirrors.

Welcome to democracy at the grassroots, American and Japanese style. It's about time..
4 | At 09:10am on Aug 01 2007, Kjeld Duits wrote:
Hi Jean,

I strongly agree. It is thoroughly interesting to see how the famously risk-averse Japanese people have so clearly kicked the LDP out of the Upper House to show their discontent.

For many, however, it was a vote to show their displeasure, so we will have to see if the Japanese voters have the courage to hand real power to the DPJ.

Let's hope there really is some light.
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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.
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