Saturday, September 19, 2009


(from the Bangkok Post)
Time for change the Japanese can really believe in
Published: 15/09/2009 at 12:00 AM

Japan has a new prime minister and a new ruling party. Prime ministers come and go in Tokyo on almost an annual basis, 50 of them in the post-war period alone, so the change of guard at the top of a huge, humming, well-oiled bureaucratic machine might not seem like news. But Hatoyama's ascension to power might be significant, if the long impotent opposition, now crystalised as the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), takes the helm long enough to steer Japan, Inc in a new direction.

Yukio Hatoyama, who was born on Sept 11, 1947, is nicknamed "The Alien" by his fellow party members for his quirky appearance and different way of thinking.

The DPJ's Hatoyama - like his predecessors in the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso - is a political blueblood and financially secure. He is a member of the elite, which as Japanese like to see it, puts him a cut above the average man.

Like his elite predecessors, the new prime minister has strong personal links to America, not so much in terms of old-time family links with the Bushes or through party hacks on the CIA payroll or through verbal compliance with US fundamentalisms, but rather in meritocratic terms; he earned an advanced graduate degree at Stanford. He knows America but it's not the old boy network all over again. Much has been made of Mr Hatoyama's stated position that Japan needs to adjust its relationship with the US, setting off alarm bells in the corridors of entrenched power in Washington and Tokyo.

But that's just the old guard reasserting itself. What's wrong with some adjustments in a critical bilateral relationship that has been shaped by heavy-handed demands on one side and sneaky non-compliance on the other? Isn't it time to change, time to rejuvenate and re-define the bilateral relationship rather than relying on anachronistic and ossified patron-client links?

It is not as if the US-Japan security treaty is up for grabs, though it can and should be discussed and improved where necessary. After half a century of one-party rule in Japan, a fresh approach to foreign policy and collective security is not really an option, it's a necessity.

The Liberal Democratic Party, born of the ashes of WWII, branded with the imprint of US Occupation, has always been an odd hybrid, neither particularly liberal nor democratic, but an opportunistic mish-mash that was fine-tuned into a winning political machine.

Even if the US was uniformly enlightened in its Japan policy, which is hardly the case, being forced to rely on the Godzilla-like LDP as the main conduit for the conduct of bilateral relations has led to mutations and destructive distortions over the years.

One need only look at recent headlines to see how the LDP's past has continued to haunt the present, whether it be glorifying the lost cause of the last war at Yasukuni Shrine, or the vestiges of anti-communism in foreign policy and anti-labour practices, or the not-so-subtle intimidation of progressives by organised crime and rightwing groups for hire that are themselves relics of US occupation days.

More recently, a bungling obsession with North Korea continues to invoke unfinished business of Japan's historic annexation of its neighbour and what later became America's Korean war.

Then there's the LDP's almost military mindset when it comes to promoting big business and coddling modern-day zaibatsu, all the while building bridges to nowhere and churning out endless pork-barrel spending to nourish a rural elite/big business electoral juggernaut.

It's time for a change, all right, and the DPJ has seized the mantle of electoral legitimacy. The only question is whether the much-needed change will come about or will it be stalled, co-opted and buried by attack campaigns from the right, in concert with passive-aggressive non-compliance from powerful vested interests.

Prime Minister Hatoyama would be wise to take note of how US President Obama, who started out with so much promise, and such a huge mandate for change, only to end up tacking to the right and frittering much of his mandate away, betraying his own reform-minded base in the hopes of placating Wall Street, the Pentagon and America's implacable right wing. Mr Hatoyama and the DPJ face a comparable test, and early indications suggest they too will compromise and bend and revive existing patronage patterns, perhaps until the day that they are not recognisably different from the "fat cats" and the complacent ruling party that they have ostensibly replaced.

For change to have any real meaning, it has to exit the realm of rhetoric and enter the realm of action.

If the DPJ, with Mr Hatoyama at the helm, and former LDP stalwart Ozawa Ichiro navigating at his side, keep their promise to help Japan become a more normal nation - less dependent on the whims of US foreign policy, less beholden to Japan's own elite with its malignant, murky roots in the last world war, and more responsive to ordinary citizens and taxpayers, then Japan is indeed entering a period of change that people can believe in.

If, instead, however, the new government avoids friction by continuing along the beaten-down path created by the LDP, and in doing so sustains the unholy marriage between big business and an entrenched bureaucracy and concommitantly inflates its own military reach while hiding in the shade of the US security umbrella, then the demise of the LDP has been greatly exaggerated.

Even if they stick to their professed ideals, the new ruling team may still succumb to the inertia and stagnation that characterise Japan's body politic today, failing not only to fulfil the promises they made while not in power, but putting themselves out of power again.

In which case DPJ rule will prove not only brief, but may be one day understood not so much as a change in the power structure, but as a short-lived victory for some frustrated, veteran pols of the LDP reform wing, who will give Japan the illusion of change before deftly steering things back to the status quo of big business, big-bureaucracy as usual.

(first published in the Bangkok Post)


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