A Referendum for Japan
Image Credit: Office of the Prime Minister: Japan

A Referendum for Japan


Japan’s politicians have been released from legislative deliberations, and are rushing to prepare for the next Lower House election, scheduled for December 16. The media is in hot pursuit as politicians change allegiances and new parties emerge and join forces against Japan’s old legislative guard. There is a palpable frenzy of criticism against Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his much maligned ruling party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). But to think this election is just a referendum against the DPJ misses the point. This election will shape Japan’s choices for years to come.

Ever since the DPJ came into power, the effort to force it back into an election has driven opposition parties, most notably the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Several rounds of no-confidence votes were put forward in the Diet, one purportedly a deal between the DPJ’s Ichiro Ozawa and then LDP president Sadakazu Tanigaki. Efforts to forge a policy consensus between the DPJ and the LDP seemed destined to fail, as electoral ambitions colored the policy deliberations more thoroughly than the pros and cons of policy options.

Today’s excitement is enjoyed only by the politicians. Personal loyalties are being tested, and individual politicians, first and foremost within Prime Minister Noda’s own party, are leaving their old parties and saddling up with new partners in preparation for this next election. The notion that members of the DPJ and the LDP, not all that far apart in their interests and sentiments, could forge another round of political realignment is again being put forward as the logical outcome of political change. The erosion of the single party dominance of the LDP in the 1990s is lamented as part of Japan’s political problem, and thus the solution is simply to build a new party that will once again bring the calm and stately management of government back in a new guise.

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But watching the currents of politics in Tokyo these days, I find this idea of a grand coalition hard to grasp. First of all, this idea seems to overlook the fact that the DPJ itself was a realignment of this type, a forging of a coalition among those who wanted to put forward a viable political party that could contest the LDP’s longstanding grip on power. The coalition that emerged as the DPJ was hard to manage, however, once the party took power. Second, the erosion in DPJ membership, most notably the decision by Ozawa and his followers to leave the party in July, may have strengthened the DPJ rather than weakened it. Those who remain—such as Noda, Katsuya Okada, Koichiro Genba, Seiji Maehara, Yukio Edano, Motohisa Furukawa, and Goshi Hosono to name just a few—are staunchly reformist in their beliefs, and they have considerable experience in government. At a time when the party seems increasingly defined by their leadership, I find it hard to believe that they will want to merge with the LDP.

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