Knives Out (Again) in Japan (Page 2 of 2)

The candidate being pushed forward by those who are now running the show, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda, isn’t likely to heal the rift in the party, as he’s more of a throwback to the old style politics of policy subservience to the career officials. This can clearly be seen by the way he has followed Kan in bowing to the ideologically inspired policy programme of the Ministry of Finance. Especially in the context of what ought to happen with post-disaster reconstruction, which as many have commented is simultaneously an opportunity for significant economic rejuvenation, this choice would be unfortunate. Opportunistic politicians, who weren’t a part of the original impulse for fundamental political reform, have risen through the ranks to high positions, and if their influence prevails the DPJ will become an LDP-like party incapable of providing new, politically inspired, responses to the changing circumstances that required a new kind of government to begin with.

There's been talk about a grand coalition. What do you make of this idea?

A grand coalition would make it easier for important bills relating to the reconstruction effort to pass. But whether it’s likely to come about, and whether it would in fact be a feasible arrangement for any length of time, depends on lots of circumstances that at the moment aren’t yet predictable. Ozawa has long played with the idea of a grand coalition in which the most capable politicians would team up to bring about a credible rearrangement of political forces at the top, dealing with Japan's weaknesses stemming from the absence of a centre capable of carrying out genuine initiatives.

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Polls show the government is unpopular, with large percentages of the public critical of its handling of the crisis. Can you see the DPJ recovering its popularity in time for the next election?

Not if there’s insubstantial change after Kan. We must remember that the Japanese electorate brought the DPJ to power because it believed that the policies it said it stood for were long overdue. A beginning with those policies has been made; and it’s unlikely that Japanese politics will revert to quite the same as they were under the LDP. But the number one problem for further developments in this vein is the power of embedded interests that are essentially fighting for the preservation of status quo politics.

Japan's main newspapers, which have always had an extraordinary influence on creating Japan's political reality, are at best extremely ambivalent about the fundamental rearrangements that are necessary. And because Ozawa has been the single biggest threat to Japan's political status quo for the past 18 years, the editors have, together with the public prosecutor, led a character assassination campaign with regular flare-ups, which has been quite successful.

But from what I understand about recent public sentiment, another attempt at setting out what the DPJ was meant to do, very much guided by the original reformist forces of the party and the younger members who have learned from them, could create another surge of popularity. That is, if the big newspapers allow it to happen.


Karel van Wolferen is Emeritus University Professor of Comparative Political and Economic Institutions at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of numerous books, including ‘The Enigma of Japanese Power’. His website in English is

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