The DPJ’s True Mandate

A year and several setbacks after the election that swept the Democratic Party of Japan to power in 2009, DPJ party leaders disagree over the basic meaning of that historic change of government. Were the voters drawn to the DPJ’s commitment to clean, open government or its promise to ease people’s economic hardships? According to Tetsuya Murai, both sides have it wrong.

*     *     *

As Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his challenger Ichiro Ozawa squared off prior to the election to choose the next leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, my attention was drawn above all to the candidates’ dispute over the “starting point”—the original reason—for the DPJ’s historic rise to power a year earlier.

Ozawa argued that the key was the DPJ’s commitment to a budget that “puts people’s lives first,” in keeping with the policies outlined in its 2009 election manifesto, and insisted that any modification of those policies would be a breach of the party’s commitment to its voters. Kan countered that modification of the manifesto was inevitable given the government’s fiscal constraints and argued that the DPJ’s real starting point was clean, participative government.

In fact, both assertions strike me as beside the point. The historic change of government ushered in by the August 2009 general election was driven not by voters’ faith in the DPJ but by their loss of faith in the Liberal Democratic Party’s brand of government. And since the LDP’s brand of government is really the only brand Japan has known in the decades since World War II, the DPJ’s victory was surely powered by something deeper than the details of its manifesto. But what?

To answer that question we need to take a sweeping, bird’s-eye view of the LDP government that persisted for a half-century and ask why it forfeited the confidence of the people. Once we establish that, the basic reason for the DPJ’s rise to power should be clear.

The Bulwark of Sectionalism

In his diary, Ichiro Hatoyama, a dyed-in-the-wool party man, wrote ironically of the bureaucracy’s “transfer of power” ( seiken hokan ) from the political parties to the military before World War II—an allusion to the way the architects of the Meiji Restoration had deposed the Tokugawa shogunate by nominally returning sovereignty to the emperor. When the military was dismantled after the war, the bureaucrats threw in their lot with the US Occupation authorities and looked askance at Hatoyama, whom the Occupation had purged from public life. Call it the worldly wisdom of those who know how to preserve their own power by joining forces with whoever happens to be in the ascendant.

The Japanese bureaucracy also knew the technique of enhancing its power by dividing it up among various agencies in a kind of reverse divide-and-conquer strategy. So effective was that strategy that the Occupation’s General Headquarters, which relied heavily on the cooperation of Japanese administrators, ended up with a sectionalist structure that mirrored the administrative organization of the Japanese government.

Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, on the other hand, managed to avoid dependence on the bureaucracy throughout his long tenure. Never has a Japanese prime minister been so successful in streamlining government and limiting government spending in the face of the bureaucracy’s relentless drive to expand its own organization and budget. This was a time of “tough choices,” when everything was subordinated to Japan’s postwar recovery. Through his relationship with powerful former bureaucrats like Hayato Ikeda and Eisaku Sato (both of whom later became prime minister), Yoshida was able to keep the civil servants in line and assert forceful political leadership, often skipping such steps as cabinet meetings.

Nonetheless, Yoshida encouraged bureaucratic sectionalism. His aim in doing so was to foil the efforts of party politicians like Hatoyama to exert strong, unifying leadership. And in fact, after Hatoyama ousted Yoshida and took over as prime minister in 1954 (having been allowed to return to public life in 1951), he found himself stymied by the sectionalism that Yoshida had built as a bulwark to protect the bureaucracy.

To be sure, the Hatoyama cabinet devised a variety of reforms intended to break down that bulwark. At the forefront of this effort was strongman Ichiro Kono, who served in a number of cabinet posts during his career, including that of minister of construction. Aiming for a wholesale reallocation of budget funds to benefit the rural prefectures, he tried to impose his agenda at meetings of the administrative vice-ministers. He set up conferences among the heads of related ministries and pushed for a budget office directly under the prime minister. He also tried to increase the number of political appointments in the government. It is interesting to note the similarities between his efforts and some of the measures the DPJ has implemented.

But the reforms by which Kono hoped to strengthen political leadership were ultimately modified and diluted. The reason is that rapid economic growth generated ever-increasing tax revenues, which eliminated the need for painful spending cuts or administrative downsizing. The “tough choices” of the era of reconstruction gave way to the “mutual harmony and benefit” of the rapid-growth era, and the LDP settled into the role of perennial ruling party.

The Rise and Fall of Porkbarrel Politics

The prime minister who best represents the LDP during this second phase is Kakuei Tanaka. Tanaka created a vast system for distributing government benefits to every corner of the nation by means of zoku giin , Diet members with close ties to specific sectors and the agencies charged with overseeing them.

But continued economic growth was needed to finance such a system. As the economy stagnated during the 1990s following the collapse of the bubble economy, the mechanism of “mutual harmony and benefit” could no longer function. Devoid of unifying leadership, the LDP quickly fell victim to the “reverse divide-and-conquer” effect of bureaucratic sectionalism. Meanwhile, since the LDP was also the source of the bureaucrats’ power, the party’s decline led to a weakening of the bureaucracy as well.

Two Leaders, Both Out of Step

With the nation’s political and administrative leadership failing, Naoto Kan and Ichiro Ozawa each began pushing for political reform.

Kan, who began his career as a grassroots activist, focused from the beginning on clean, open, participative government. As he rose to prominence in national politics, this impulse was sublimated into a call for political leadership.

Ozawa, the LDP renegade, criticized the culture of “mutual harmony and benefit” on the grounds that it was impossible to decide anything without unanimous agreement. For him, political leadership meant a unifying authority strong enough to break free from such constraints.

But neither Kan nor Ozawa could keep pace with the changes sweeping Japanese society. From around 2000 on, the budget deficit began to balloon, threatening the nation’s entire social security system. An increase in the consumption tax was essential, but the public would only tolerate such an increase if the government demonstrated the political leadership needed to streamline government and cut spending. Touch choices could no longer be avoided.

The political leadership of Kan and Ozawa, however, was rooted the conditions of the 1990s, when the government still had some residual fiscal strength. Kan’s grassroots emphasis on social security went counter to the need for fiscal discipline. Ozawa sought deregulation to undercut the power of the bureaucracy, but he showed little interest in limiting spending. Paradoxically, it was the LDP’s own Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi who finally took a knife to the budget with his “structural reforms.”

The True Meaning of Leadership

Desperate to wrest control from the LDP, Kan and Ozawa decided to merge the opposition parties they headed, the DPJ and the Liberal Party. The expanded DPJ spotlighted the side-effects of Koizumi’s structural reforms, namely, widening income disparities and the battered economies of Japan’s rural areas. This focus took shape in the DPJ’s 2009 election manifesto, which pledged to “put people’s lives first” and allocate fiscal resources to ease the hardships of ordinary citizens.

The LDP, meanwhile, lapsed backed into dysfunction as soon as Koizumi stepped down, reverting to its old “mutual harmony and benefit” mode of policy making. Fettered by all manner of political constraints, it showed itself utterly incapable of leading. In their frustration with the LDP, the people turned to the DPJ, which was free of such constraints. This is what brought about the historic change of government that put the DPJ in power for the first time.

The fundamental problem is that political leadership in the DPJ, as embodied by Kan and Ozawa, remains mired in the assumptions of the 1990s. Kan’s commitment to clean, participative government is admirable, but doubts remain as to his ability to exert a strong, unifying kind of leadership. Faced with the vast bulwark of sectionalism erected during the LDP’s long monopoly on power, Kan already displays signs of succumbing to dependence on the bureaucracy. He can talk about social security all he likes, but unless he begins to demonstrate a willingness to make the tough choices, he will never win a mandate for a consumption tax rate increase.

Ozawa seems to be capable of the strong, unifying leadership needed to break free from the bureaucracy’s “reverse divide-and-conquer” constraints, but his involvement in money politics and influence peddling remains a sticking point. The public has no confidence in his “manifesto budget” because their concerns over the means of financing it remain unanswered.

By now, the basic reason for the DPJ’s historic rise to power should be evident. The party’s mandate was to show the voters in clear and concrete terms how it intended to navigate the transition from an age of “mutual harmony and benefit” to a new era of tough choices. The DPJ should take this opportunity to return to that starting point and begin anew.

Translated from an article originally published in the Asahi Shimbun , October 6, 2010

Tetsuya Murai

  • Member, Political and Diplomatic Review

    Lecturer, Meiji University