Tokyo Notes

Another Change of Direction

A change in highway tolls is delayed. Does this show Japan’s govt flip-flopping on policies again?

Transport Minister Seiji Maehara announced Tuesday that his new highway toll scheme will not be introduced in June, as the government again gave the impression it was flip-flopping on policies.

As mentioned in an earlier entry, when unveiled in April, Maehara’s plan met strong opposition both within the Cabinet and from Democratic Party of Japan heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa. As eliminating highway tolls was an election pledge, the idea of allowing an upper limit on tolls to actually double from 1,000 yen to 2,000 yen for regular cars seemed a step too far even for the backpedaling DPJ.

Nevertheless, despite a decision by senior officials in his own party to revise the plan, Maehara insisted it would go ahead as planned and that there would be no review. An apparent standoff within the party ensued. On Monday, a DPJ panel, with the onerous task of coming up with credible DPJ election pledges for this summer’s upper house election, said that highway tolls should indeed be eliminated as an election promise. DPJ Vice Secretary General Goshi Hosono tried to paper over the policy cracks by saying that scrapping of the tolls was a longer term policy that didn’t necessarily conflict with the introduction of the new toll scheme, an answer that might not have convinced disgruntled voters/drivers even if it were true.

The seemingly inevitable took place today when Maehara announced the ditching of the scheme’s June introduction, citing a lack of time to debate the relevant bill. Part of Maehara’s plan involved the experimental introduction of some toll free routes and this will take place according to the June schedule. It may therefore be the case that Maehara was actually looking for ways to phase out the tolls in the long run. But even if this eventually turns out to be an election promise the DPJ does stick to—and that’s a big if—the party has once again managed to generate a large amount of negative press over its handling of a policy pledge.