Will that ‘Groundbreaking’ Japanese Election Actually Change Much?

183px-Democratic_Party_of_Japan_svg I have not said anything about the most important event in Asia in the last month, because I am still stumped as to just what meaningful changes the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) intends to initiate. It has been a month now since the election, and I am pretty disappointed at how little ‘change we can believe in’ is forthcoming given Japan’s truly catastrophic fiscal condition.

All the talk about how this election is making Japan more democratic is correct. It is clearly healthy for Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to be out of power – and for awhile. Korea’s democracy jumped forward when opposition leader Kim Dae Jung got elected president (1998), and Mexico’s democracy improved when the Party of Institutional Revolution (PRI) lost the presidency for the first time (2000). Japan’s party system is now fuller and more serious. But this is an institutional, long-term improvement.

I am more curious about what policy changes the DJP will pursue, and my Japanese colleagues out here can’t quite tell me. I keep asking at the conferences I go to, and I keep hearing macro-level stuff – Japan will be more democratic, more accountable, etc. That is correct, of course, but I don’t actually see that much room for policy change, because what change Japan does need is pretty painful and not what the electorate wants.

So, the DJP says they will pursue a foreign policy more independent of the US. Lame. Grumpy American allies always talk like this, and it is possible, but unlikely. France and Germany speak this way every few years, but never really do much. SK President Roh (2003-2008) campaigned on anti-Americanism and flirted with China for a little bit. But ultimately, the US guarantee of SK sovereignty against China’s looming hugeness pushed SK back to the US. Japan is stronger than SK, but what kind of independent Japanese foreign policy is conceivable? Japan, for all its money and strength, is conspicuously lacking in friends. It has a long-standing territorial dispute with Russia that has blocked serious relations since WWII. The two Koreas and China are convinced that militarism is lurking in the Japanese psyche and want post-Holocaust German-style apologies for Japan’s wartime behavior. But the Japanese just can’t see to fully apologize and really mean it. So if they want to leave the US orbit, fine. But where will they go? Do they really want to stand against China (plus the unhappy Koreas and loose-cannon Russia) alone in the future? I doubt it. Just like France felt compelled to rejoin NATO’s military integration despite all of Jacques Chirac’s Iraq War anti-Americanism, Japan will come back after some populist-nationalist noises for a year or so.

Domestically the DJP says they want help for farmers and the poor and provide more money for childcare, worker protection, etc. All these are nice social democratic goals (sorta like Obama). Everyone likes to help the poor, and if childcare assistance will get Japan’s birthrate up, that would be excellent. But there is no money for this. Japan’s debt is absolutely out-of-control. It is at 175% of GDP now – that is roughly a $8.75 trillion debt on a $5 trillion economy. (US debt is $9T on a $15T economy.) Here is a 2001 description that captures just how bad it is in some detail. Money quotes: “Japan’s Runaway Debt Train” and “Japan’s Public Spending Orgy.”

Most foreign IPE (international political economy) observers say what really needs to happen is an assault on the bureaucracy that really runs Japan under the hood of its parlor-game politics. Yet the LDP under Koizumi could not do this, and the DJP has scarcely talked about it.

So while the election is good for long-term democratic institutionalization, I still see the same wishful thinking as under the LDP – more public money (except for families now instead of construction companies), more subsidization of wildly expensive and inefficient Japanese famers, no moves to tame the bureaucracy and open the economy, and most importantly, no serious plan to get the staggering deficit and debt down. Instead its just more red ink – just this time from leftist-populists instead of business-conservatives. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Bleh…

UPDATE (Oct. 1, 2009): I feel vindicated in my assessment.

6 thoughts on “Will that ‘Groundbreaking’ Japanese Election Actually Change Much?

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