Tokyo Notes

Holidays to Reflect Upon

The ruling DPJ has had a lot think about during the long national holiday.

The top brass of the Democratic Party of Japan again had plenty to think about during the Golden Week holidays here.

A year ago, Ichiro Ozawa resigned his post as leader of the DPJ after contemplating his future over the national holidays at the beginning of May. Surprisingly enough, he has probably been doing the same thing this year, too.

The fact that Ozawa is around at all is testimony to his guile as a political survivor. Some observers might even argue that in resigning last year and becoming the party’s secretary general he was able to move into his preferred ‘shadow shogun’ role. But once again a money scandal is linked to his political funding organization and once again an election looms in which the DPJ might benefit from his stepping down.

Surely, though, he couldn’t continue to hold a key DPJ position after resigning a second time? He therefore looks set to battle it out this time at least until public prosecutors announce the result of their reinvestigation into whether he should be indicted or not over the scandal.

Monday was Constitution Day, a day on which the majority of the population enjoy a day off work, while a minority demonstrate over whether or not Japan’s pacifist constitution should be revised.

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With a national referendum law setting out procedures for amending the constitution due to come into effect in a couple of weeks, you might have expected the issue to be more hotly contested this year than usual. Even more so when considering that some of the small splinter parties from the Liberal Democratic Party have raised the issue of constitutional reform.

But according to recent polls in the Mainichi, Asahi, and Yomiuri dailies, about the same number of people are now opposed to revising the constitution as are in favour of amending it. This is quite a change from 2007 when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to make constitutional reform a central plank of his LDP administration. According to the Asahi, 58 percent favoured revision at that time compared with 27 percent who opposed the idea. The Asahi now puts the respective figures at 47 percent and 39 percent, with the Yomiuri and Mainichi suggesting the gap is even smaller.

Still, that didn’t stop the conservative broadsheets putting forward their arguments for constitutional change and blaming the DPJ for blocking progress. The Yomiuri insisted that debate over constitutional change ‘could help overcome the political and economic crises confronting the country today.’ After lambasting the DPJ’s plan (now on ice) to offer foreign permanent residents local voting rights as unconstitutional, it suggested that exercising the right to collective defence, maintenance of fiscal discipline and adjusting the power of the upper house were items that should be covered by constitutional reform.

Tuesday was Greenery Day, a day for enjoying the bright green of spring and perhaps having a thought or two about the environment. When Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced plans to cut greenhouse gases by 25 percent from 1990 levels back in September he was riding a wave of popularity. This ambitious target was probably the first comment by a Japanese premier in living memory that grabbed attention across the world for being a bold and progressive step forward.

But on Tuesday, the heights of his 72 percent popularity rating back in September seemed a distant memory. Hatoyama, now with his approval rating languishing at 21 percent, spent the day apologizing to people in Okinawa Prefecture for effectively reneging on his promise to move the US Futenma air base out of the prefecture. He may also have contemplated his future over Golden Week as his end of May deadline for solving the base relocation issue speeds towards him.

Wednesday was Children’s Day. It was announced this week that the percentage of children under 15 in Japan fell for the 36th straight year. Kids comprise only 13.3 percent of the population, the lowest proportion in the world, according to Kyodo News, a sign of the demographic difficulties facing Japan, its social security system and its hopes of someday balancing its budget.

One of the DPJ’s popular election promises was to provide generous monthly child allowances worth 26,000 yen per child. A party that wanted to spend money on kids rather than concrete? This pledge had a fresh appeal for the electorate.

But only half the amount will be offered in fiscal 2010 with doubts cast by cabinet members as to whether the full amount can be paid with tax revenues in their current sorry state following the global economic crisis.

This is one of the main headaches for the DPJ. Tax revenues have plummeted while the party’s attempts to cut waste have yet to claw back the trillions of yen that were supposed to help finance the DPJ’s election promises.

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Talking of election promises the DPJ has failed to carry out, voters stuck in long tailbacks on the expressways as they headed back to their homes at the end of the holidays will have had plenty of time to think about the DPJ’s flip-flopping on making expressways free to use. Far from the nation’s highways becoming free to use, according to the latest plan by Transport Minister Seiji Maehara, the current 1,000 yen cap on tolls will actually be increased to 2,000 yen, effectively increasing the tolls. This led to something of a showdown with Ozawa, who for reasons of his own, was intent on not letting this election promise be so obviously reneged upon. As many observers have pointed out, Ozawa’s attempts to shape policy in this and other areas, makes a mockery of the DPJ’s aim of moving away from the dual policymaking structure of cabinet and party seen under the LDP.

As the nation got back to work, the DPJ certainly has had plenty to think about as it considers how to turn the tide of public opinion back in its favour in time for the upper house election in the summer.