Features | Politics | East Asia

If Japan had Channelled FDR…

The DPJ missed a chance to transform how Japan is governed, says Tobias Harris in the third in our series of end of year interviews.

Polls show the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s approval rating has plunged since it secured its historic, landslide election victory last year. What do you make of the party’s performance this year?

In policy terms, there are without question remarkably few accomplishments. What I would say that they’ve done well, and something they get far too little credit for, is foreign and security policy. It’s the one area where they have a vision.

Now granted, there’s a lot of continuity from the LDP. But the Futenma (Air Station dispute) and Senkaku Islands issues notwithstanding – they did mishandle those particular issues – I think they’ve been guiding Japanese foreign and security policies along certain lines. And they’ve worked on bilateral relations with countries they need to have better bilateral relations with, such as India and Australia.

The China relationship is hard because it’s difficult to say whether we’re at some sort of inflection point. China is peacefully rising no more and that has consequences for the whole region – every country in the region is scrambling to figure out what this means. So it’s really hard to say that this has been a failure. And if anything, I think as incompetently as they handled the Senkaku issue, Japan ended up not looking too bad out of it.

I also think the new national defence programme guidelines are a sign of how pragmatic the DPJ is going to be, and I think they’ve shown that they’re open to long overdue changes in security policy. They’ve shown that the Japanese government can approach security policy in a way that isn’t necessarily driven by ideology — they’re demonstrating that they’re not crazy hawks who just want to raise defence spending or revise the constitution. They are governing the country, telling people these are changes that need to be made and that they’re just doing what needs to be done. I think this has surprised many people who perhaps although they might have expected it to happen, didn’t expect it to happen as soon as it has. So I think that they haven’t received as much credit as they deserve for being pragmatic, especially since (former Prime Minister) Yukio Hatoyama has gone.

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Domestically, it’s much harder to find things to be happy about, and that’s because they’re really hurt by a lack of vision here. I think something is starting to take root and we’re seeing little changes, but it has taken them too long and, given the political situation, there’s no telling how much longer they’ll have to figure it out. It’s taken them a long time to know what to embrace, and when they’ve embraced it, they haven’t quite known how to handle it. With the consumption tax they were reacting to events and they didn’t quite know what they wanted to do. Exchange rate policy has been the same thing. They were like ‘It’s OK if the yen rises, we’re OK with that’. But then when it actually rises, they say ‘Wait a second, we need to do something about this.’ There’s a lot of flailing.

Part of the problem is that they have policy experts, but the people who are in charge aren’t policy experts. This is connected to something that I think is very important – administrative reforms. They haven’t the process for drawing on expertise for formulating policy, for deciding what to do. They’re in transition, and it’s going to take a while to figure this process out. The National Strategy Office hasn’t panned out – and probably never will pan out – into what they hoped it would be. It took them a while, but it looks like they’re finally learning how to use the expertise within ministries. But again, if bureaucracy is a computer, you need to input something – it’s not going to run by itself.

There was a lot of speculation as the DPJ took office over how much resistance to change there’d be from the bureaucrats. Has this materialized?

The more bureaucrats I talk to, the more I find that they’re actually just waiting for directions. There’s been this idea that the bureaucracy is just scheming to run things. But although there might be some corners of the bureaucracy where that’s the case, overall the sense that I get is that the bureaucrats want the government to provide direction. So the problem is the government doesn’t really have ideas and hasn’t figured out where to get ideas from. It’s really hurting them, because I think institutionally they are putting in place a system that would allow them to make the best use of the bureaucracy once they know what they want to do.

On the negative, they’ve watered down some administrative reforms. The decision to reintroduce a policy planning body within the party, for example, has I think confused things considerably. So there’s now a connection between the ruling party and the bureaucracy again, which they had wanted to undo. You’re also not at a point where the Cabinet alone is setting the agenda. Granted, having the ruling party developing policy doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. The problem is when this policy is incoherent and works at cross purposes and you don’t have a coherent agenda. If they could work out a way to come up with a clear agenda, then that would be fine. It just seems that the more actors you have involved, the harder it is to have a clear agenda. So how that evolves will depend on how things develop in the New Year.

Do you think a different leader would have allowed the DPJ to do a better job on capitalizing on the public goodwill that the DPJ had when they came to office?

Yes, I’d like to think so. Of course a lot of that would depend on who that leader was. But yes, Hatoyama’s deficiencies as a leader were pretty profound and really handicapped them from the start. To this moment, I’m utterly incapable of understanding what they did with those first few months. They won more seats than any other party had ever won, they had a massive pool of support among the population. But they did nothing. They took power and they did nothing.

I think the quintessential example of what they could have done is FDR in the United States. He took office in the midst of the depression, and if you look at his inaugural address he talked about policy experimentation, talking about how this was something they’d never encountered before and that they needed to try new things. That is exactly how the DPJ should have governed. They were inexperienced as it is, they didn’t necessarily have any great ideas coming into power. So they were in a perfect position to try some policy experimentation. But Hatoyama was incapable of doing that.

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The more I think about it, the more closely I think his government resembled Shinzo Abe’s. These were two hereditary politicians who had never really had to work for anything, with no real experience of how life is lived in Japan, but who fancied themselves as deep thinkers with lofty mile-high views of how politics should work and with slogans that are completely irrelevant to how people live.

In some ways, they are the anti-Koizumi. He had simple slogans that were obviously connected to people and to issues that people were concerned about. So Hatoyama was absolutely the wrong person to be in power.

One of the tragedies of DPJ rule has been that Ozawa was so unfit for election given his baggage. He’s probably the one person in any party who can make people listen to him and fear him and respect him. And when he decides he wants to do something he can make other people do it. They really needed a leader like that when they took power, so it’s really unfortunate that the one person who can do it has so much baggage and is really holding the Japanese political system hostage.

Ichiro Ozawa has spent the year mired in a fundraising scandal. How damaging is his continued presence for the DPJ?

Its been damaging because it enables the media to do what it does best, which is talk about the political game and who Ozawa is meeting with late at night in the back streets of Akasaka. They love doing that rather than talking about policy. And the more Ozawa dominates the limelight, the more the discussion is about anything except policies. And that really is a problem because the government is utterly incapable of getting the public talking about any sort of policy. It would be one thing if it was about a policy choice, but at this point he’s just fighting a vendetta.  He needs to go – he needs to get out of the way.

How damaging was Hatoyama’s handling of the relocation of the US forces at Futenma Air Station in Okinawa?

I don’t think most Japanese people really care one way or the other about the base – I don’t think there is a strong opinion about relocation. But as far as government approval goes, the public has little tolerance for incompetence, and that’s why the Futenma issue hurt this government so much. They looked incompetent, fumbled from one promise to another. They just couldn’t make a decision. I think even a decision to say no, to say ‘we’re not dealing with this now, we’re going to push back the agreement for a year, and we’re just not going to talk about this.’ Or deciding to accept it. Those would have been OK. But the way they just kept postponing and postponing – that was a disaster.

On the other hand, I think we’re learning just how resilient the alliance really is.

China did them a big favour…

China and North Korea did them a very big favour in the last part of the year.  But the other thing is that from the beginning, there was this talk about how pro-China the government was, how they were going to be more inclined toward China.

But not once have I seen anyone explain clearly what that means. People talk about Hatoyama’s East Asia Community. But given how ‘out there’ Hatoyama is, and given that his essay on this is one of the worst pieces I’ve read by a political leader in any democracy – it’s incoherent, and where it’s coherent it’s noxious – people in Washington acted as if the sky was falling in because Hatoyama was talking about this far distant dream for East Asia.

In practical terms, I don’t think anyone knew what the DPJ would actually do that was the slightest bit different. What were they going to do with China that was so different? As far as the US is concerned, better and more stable ties with Japan and China are a good thing. It’s in America’s interests for Japan and China to get along. So this idea that Japan was going to somehow form an alliance with Japan – no one was saying that.  Getting on with China is difficult and Japan and the United States still need each other. The logic for the US-Japan alliance isn’t going away, and I think by the end of the year people have realized this.

The coming years are going to be very important for figuring out where China is going, because I think a lot of our assumptions have been questioned. And given my initial optimism about our ability to get along with China, I’ve had to rethink all that. I still don’t know if we know for sure. But I think we could be heading for some sort of Cold War in Eastern Asia, and although that would be good for the alliance, it remains to be seen what that would mean for the world.

So, Hatoyama pretty bad, Kan better?

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Less bad. He’s certainly an improvement, but I’ve been disappointed in him too. After all, he has actually run a ministry, so you would think he would have some sense about how all of this works. The fact that he has been unable to articulate a vision has been very disappointing. But Kan is much more pragmatic, his government has been much more willing to find a way to utilize the strengths of the bureaucracy. And I don’t think people expected Kan to be that guy, based on his past and what he said in the campaign. But that’s part of the learning process for the DPJ.

If there’s one thing that changed from Hatoyama to Kan, it was the recognition that they need to utilize the bureaucracy and that they had to move away from some of the campaign slogans about dependence. It’s not about dependence, it’s about figuring a way to generate policy and the bureaucracy is a resource for doing that.

And they are also starting to grope their way toward some sort of agenda. They’re starting to focus on competitiveness; they are starting to focus on trade. The good side of TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) is that they were at least willing to raise the issue. Of course, they completely botched it. But there was something genuinely different in what they were trying to do. So even by just putting it out there, they might make it possible to push it forward. There’s a potential here for an issue that could transform the prospects for the DPJ government. But they just don’t get how to move it – how to rally the public, how to govern.

What kind of state is the opposition in?

One thing the Liberal Democratic Party needs to understand is that if they think the public is swinging back to them, then they’re simply delusional. Given how poorly the last year has gone for the DPJ, for the Liberal Democratic Party not to have 50 percent or more support in this kind of political environment tells you just how deep opposition to their legacy remains.

So what I expect to end up happening, unless the DPJ finds a way to develop an agenda in the New Year, is if those approval ratings fall further, then they may be forced to call a snap election. They might pull the old LDP trick of changing prime ministers just before the election, but I think you could end up with a hung parliament and then a grand coalition. All this will depend on what Ozawa does, and I think that’s the question as we speak. That’s the big wild card.

Are there any issues you expect to come to the fore this year that perhaps haven’t received much attention so far?

Now that they’ve started talking about upper house reform I think that’s a potentially interesting change that could happen – it’s an interesting introduction to the agenda that’s long overdue. And it would have some benefits for how the country is governed.

A lot will depend on what happens with the economy and how long the status quo can continue. I think there’ll be another year of dealing with issues like how to tackle deflation and how to get the economy going again. So in that way, the agenda is kind of unchanging. I think we’ll probably see another attempt to get liberalization of trade. I think they’ll keep fighting on that, and that’s worthwhile. So we’ll see.

Tobias Harris is a Japanese politics specialist who previously worked for a DPJ member of Japan’s House of Councillors. His commentaries have appeared in publications including ‘The Wall Street Journal Asia’ and the ‘Far Eastern Economic Review’. He blogs at Observing Japan.