Tokyo Notes

Can DPJ Get Clear Majority?

With just a week before the upper house election, how are things shaping up for the DPJ?

A year ago yesterday, then opposition leader Yukio Hatoyama delivered a speech on the first day of official campaigning for the Tokyo Metropolitan election. The speech captured a sense of the hope the Democratic Party of Japan had that Japanese had had enough of more than five decades of virtually uninterrupted (and increasingly inept) rule under the Liberal Democratic Party.

Speaking in Tokyo’s Tsukiji district, Hatoyama told the gathered crowd:

‘This country is a place where every day more than 100 people take their own lives. The government’s lack of policies is the reason. Let’s focus on building politics that does not neglect people’s lives rather than building concrete blocks and public works projects. Today is the first day [toward realizing this goal]. The dawn of a world where politics values people above concrete has come.’ He added: ‘Let’s claim back Tokyo!’

And the DPJ did, before going on to rout the LDP in the lower house poll at the end of August. But fast forward a year and, as has been well covered in this blog, these dreams are looking more than a little tattered. The DPJ must have hoped that Hatoyama's stepping down as prime minister last month and Naoto Kan taking over would have brought it a bit more of a reprieve from the party’s opinion poll slump.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Indeed, initially, the change in leadership looked to have turned things around, and the party’s goal of an outright upper house majority looked to be back on track. But a poll in the Mainichi newspaper last week showed the Kan Cabinet’s approval rating had tumbled from a high of 66 percent just after it was launched on June 8, to 52 percent last weekend.

So, does the DPJ have any chance of securing an outright majority on July 11? Fortunately for the ruling party, the LDP isn't in much better shape, with the same Mainichi poll showing that 40 percent preferred the DPJ for the upper house poll, compared with 17 percent for the LDP.

One of the big problems for the DPJ has been its failure to take control of the agenda–it has gotten bogged down in a protracted row over the Futenma Air Station and the controversy surrounding the fundraising of party kingpin Ichiro Ozawa, meaning some of the genuinely positive changes it has introduced–following through on a pledge to distribute allowances for child-rearing families for example–have been lost in the mix.

This isn't solely the DPJ's fault–veteran analyst Karel van Wolferen was right when he spoke with The Diplomat last month to call the Japanese media on its obsession with personalities and intrigue.  But former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, despite his faults, demonstrated that it's not impossible to appeal directly to the public (though it looks like Kan will have his work cut out persuading Japanese of the need for a consumption tax hike, with the Mainichi poll also showing a noticeable turn in opinion against the tax hike).

We’ll be hearing from a number of guest commentators with their take on the key issues over the next week as we head into the polls, while regular Tokyo Notes blogger Paul Jackson will offer his thoughts before and after polling day (as well as taking a look at the prospects for Japan’s troubled economy in a special feature coming this week).