Japanese Opposition Employs Rice Strategy
Sunday, July 29, 2007 Posted: 07:44 PM JST
Tokyo is the face of Japan. A city full of skyscrapers, large crowds and streets full of cars. Enormous neon signs shout the names of famous Japanese brands that compete all over the world. But for the Upper House elections that are taking place in Japan today, the opposition pays more attention to the empty countryside. It hopes to win a massive victory with a rice strategy.
In commercial after commercial, Japanese opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa repeats the same words: "Daily life is number 1" (Kokumin no seikatsu ga ichiban). It sounds a lot better in Japanese than in English. It also touches a sensitive string. Many Japanese can hardly make a living, and a depressing number have even too little to keep themselves alive.
The Japanese economy has been growing strongly for several years. The media publicize enormous profits of large companies like Toyota, which in the first half of this year overtook General Motors as the world's largest car producer.
But the man on the street hardly benefits. Since 2001, average real wages have decreased by 2.7 percent. This year alone they decreased 0.7 percent. The gap between rich and poor has increased immensely in a country where since the end of WWII this difference was actually quite small.
The pain is especially felt in the countryside, far away from Tokyo with its bright lights, huge company headquarters and expensive fashion. The reforms of former Prime Minister Koizumi virtually turned off the flow of funds to the countryside and amplified the problems there.
In deserted places, huge amounts of money were wasted on roads, airports and other mega-projects that only ended up bleeding red ink. It was right that Koizumi stopped this. But he only promoted cuts, without creating alternative sources of income.
In Japan, most of the power and money is concentrated in Tokyo. The countryside attracts very little capital. The farther away from Tokyo, the harder daily life is. This became worse during Koizumi.
Koizumi's heir Abe has done nothing to change this since he became prime minister half a year ago.
By asking, "Do you want economic reform," Koizumi created a landslide for his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the 2005 general elections. His words were louder than his actions, but it gave voters hope.
Abe however, talks about a "Beautiful Japan." Post-war Japan, according to the prime minister, has become a mirror image of the United States and lost its traditional values. It has a constitution written by Americans, an army without claws and an educational system that doesn't seem to work anymore. Abe wants to reform education, and to send out the Japanese army together with the Americans.
"Abe," says Takehiko Yamamoto, professor at the faculty of political science and economics at Waseda University in Tokyo, "wants hard power, cooperate with American troops, rockets to shoot down Chinese and North-Korean rockets. He wants to return to the values of pre-war Japan." This would break up the post-war regime of pacifism and soft power through export according to Yamamoto.
Abe's "Beautiful Japan" however, doesn't attract voters, says political analyst Minoru Morita. "Why does Japan have to go abroad with the American army, they ask. Why does the constitution have to be changed?"
"Koizumi's free market has resulted in the weak being eaten by the strong. Japan needs a safety net for the weak. Abe ignores these problems. He was born with a golden spoon in his mouth. He doesn't understand that people are having a very difficult time."
In contrast, Ozawa, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), understands this very well. In the past few weeks, he visited one country village after the other, traditionally the heartland of the conservative LDP.
In between rice paddies Ozawa talks about sufficient income, assistance for farmers and a good pension system. Especially the latter is a sensitive matter since earlier this year it was announced that 50 million pension records were lost. Japanese who had for many years carefully paid their premiums now worry if they will actually have enough money in their 'golden years'. The anger about the pension fiasco has been further fanned by countless corruption scandals among LDP politicians and bureaucrats.
Ozawa promises to face these problems and to put enough rice on the table. His rice strategy is expected to cause a political earthquake. This is the end of the LDP, many say.
Professor Yamamoto however doesn't believe this. "The Japanese system has for many decades been based on a power triad of the LDP, large business and Japanese bureaucrats. It will be very difficult for an opposition party to destroy this."
Keywords: national_news political_news
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