POLITICS IN JAPAN: BUREAUCRATS, IRON TRIANGLES, PUBLIC WORKS AND REFORMS BEGUN IN 2009

POLITICS IN JAPAN

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Political apathy is the norm in Japan. Few people, especially young people, have much respect for politicians or enthusiasm about politics. One poll found that only 4 percent of people between 20 and 24 expressed a strong interest in politics. Trust in political parties and politicians dropped from 5.4 percent in 1999 to 3.5 percent in 2000.

In a survey in 2009, 91 percent of voters said they were dissatisfied with politics in Japan. In a poll in 2002, 82 percent of the Japanese voters surveyed said they distrusted politicians and politics and more people said they trusted fortunetellers (20 percent) than politicians (15 percent).

Politicians in Japan are known more for being backroom operators than strong leaders. They have a reputation for shirking responsibility and lacking vision. One Prime Minister offer the following advise to politicians who wanted to get ahead: use “lucid words, meaning unclear” and be mysterious because “voters think that means there’s something meaningful deeper down.”
Maybe some of this will change with the new government led the by the Minshuto (Democratic) Party, which as has been in power since September 2009.

Websites and Resources

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campaign posters
Good Websites and Sources: Photos of Elections and Right Wing Extremists National Diet Building at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Elections in Japan afe.easia.columbia.edu/japan ; Government and Politics in Japan, Library of Congress Report from the Early 1990s countrystudies.us/japan ; Wikipedia article on Politics in Japan Wikipedia ; Japan Politics Central jpcentral.virginia.edu ; Japan Watch, Commentary on Political and Economic Issues jipr.org ;Links and Sources on Japanese Politics politicalresources.net/japan ; Inside Japanese Politics (Last updated in 2004) asahi.com/ ; Documents Related to Postwar Politics and International Relations ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp ; Why Japanese Politicians Are So Bad Newsweek ; Political Inheritance Under Single Vote System allacademic.com ; Female Politicians in Japan elpweb.com/onjapan ; Inherited Seats news.bbc.co.uk

Journals and Books Japan Echo, a Journal on Japanese Politics and Society japanecho.com ; Japan Policy Research Institute jpri.org ; Electronic Journal of Japanese Studies http://www.japanesestudies.org.uk/ ; In Depth Analysis of Japanese Politics transpacificradio.com ; Books on Politics in Japan infibeam.com

Links in this Website: GOVERNMENT AND SYMBOLS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER AND PARLIAMENT Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; POLITICS AND ELECTIONS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; POLITICIANS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BUREAUCRACY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; CORRUPTION AND GOVERNMENT SCANDALS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TAXES, WELFARE AND SOCIAL SECURITY IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;

Good Websites Government and Sources: Wikipedia article on the Government of Japan Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the Japanese Flag Wikipedia ; Government Organization Chart kantei.go.jp and kantei.go.jp/foreign/link/chart ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Government Chapter stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook ; 2010 Edition stat.go.jp/english/data/nenkan ; News stat.go.jp Governments on the WWW--- Japan Linksgksoft.com ; Japan Echo, a Journal on Japanese Politics and Society japanecho.com ; Electronic Journal of Japanese Studies japanesestudies.org

Prime Minister, Legislature and Leaders: CIA List of Current World Leaders /www.cia.gov/library ; Kantei, Office of the Prime Minister kantei.go.jp ; Cabinet Office cao.go.jp ; House of Representatives (Shugiin) shugiin.go.jp ; House of Councillors (Sangiin) sangiin.go.jp/ ; National Diet Library ndl.go.jp/en National Diet Building in Tokyo Photos of National Diet Building at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Japan Visitor Japan Visitor ; Japanese Lifestyle japaneselifestyle.com.au Constitution Constitution of Japan solon.org/Constitutions/Japan ; Birth of the Constitution of Japan ndl.go.jp/constitution ; Research Commission on the Constitution shugiin.go.jp ;

Japanese Politics

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meeting in Prime Minister's office
Japanese politicians have traditionally proceed very cautiously with change occurring very slowly. Japanese politics is characterized more by power struggles between factions than competition between individuals with their own viewpoints. Ian Buruma wrote in Time that even Japanese prime ministers have traditionally “been dull figures, more suited for backroom politicking than courting public appeal.”

The Japanese government has been called "politically dysfunctional, extravagantly corrupt, incapable of making decisions, leaderless." It seems like every year there is a new government and a new prime minister with the old ones brought down by scandals or incompetence. Countless coalitions and parties have formed and collapsed. In this way, Japan is a bit like Italy, the country manages to function in spite of the ineptitude of its politicians. One leading Japanese businessman described Japanese politicians as "acorns lined up in a row...debating who is tallest."

Bureaucrats and moderate conservatives of the Liberal Democratic Party have traditionally dominated Japanese politics. Procrastination and secrecy are often the way that Japanese politicians deal with problems. Deals were often made behind paper screens in exclusive ryotei, traditional inns made up of a mazelike configuration of private, screened rooms, where businessmen and politicians meet to make deals while being entertained by geisha. Some have secret stairways and passageways so VIPs who don't see each other can avoid chance encounters. Ryotei have traditionally not published their prices, which are said to be very high.

Money is important in Japanese politics. A total of $2.8 billion was collected by political parties in 2007 with $682 million collected by the LDP, $577 million collected by the Japanese Communist Party, $272 million collected by New Komeito and $257 million collected by the DPJ.

There have been a number of scandals in Japan involving the misuse of funds in political fund-management organizations (See Hatoyama and Ozawa). Taxes are not levied on political funds transferred between politician’s political fund-management organizations. Sometimes lawmakers use the rules to transfer political funds to their children tax free.

The Japanese press tends to be less aggressive than the U.S. press unless a scandal breaks out. The prime minister, the foreign ministry, the ministry of finance and other government agencies are covered in the media by "press clubs," elite groups of mainstream reporters that are much more cooperative and less threatening than their American and European counterparts.

See Political Parties, LDP, Elections, Legislature

Politics, Power and Bureaucrats in Japan

Political power is often measured by the ability to influence the bureaucracy. Politicians often focus on dividing and distributing the resources of the bureaucracy---the budget, subsidies and licensing power---with politicians using their influence to win pork barrel projects for their supporters and constituents. In other countries bureaucrats handle such matters to ensure fairness.

Politicians without good connection have traditionally gained power by weaseling their way into powerful ministries by threatening to disrupt policy making unless they were let in and then using their position to win pork-barrel projects for their constituents.

One of the masters of this was Muneo Suzuki, an LDP representative from Hokkaido, who was ultimately arrested in 2002 and convicted in 2004 of bribery and sentenced to 2 years in jail and fined $100,000 for his involvement in a bid-rigging scheme in which construction contacts were awarded to companies that supported him. The punishment was so severe partly because he showed little remorse for what he had done. He remained popular in Hokkaido and was able to pick up his political career where he left off when he got out of jail.

See Bureaucrats and Politicians, Below

See Bureaucratic Power

See Legislators, LDP

Powerful Groups and Kingmakers in Japan

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Takeshita
Traditionally ministry positions and even the prime minister’s post were rotated on the basis of seniority rather than merit. Cynics insist that political decisions in Japan are made on a consensus basis by the rich tycoons of Japan Inc., the CEOs and presidents of the largest corporations, the power brokers of the LDP, and high-level bureaucrats. Some even say that the leaders of the yakuza (the Japanese Mafia) are involved.

Zaikai has traditionally been one of the most powerful groups in Japan. It is an elite group of politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats composed of the Sanken (Industrial Problems Study Council) and the broader Keidanren (Federation of Economic Organizations). The "Prime Minister" of Zaikai is usually one of Japan's most powerful businessmen.

Kuromaku (“kingmakers”) are powerful men who operate in the shadows and manipulate other politicians like puppets and are often powerful enough to handpick prime ministers. The most famous kuromaku was Shin Kanemaura, a gravel-voiced politician who died in 1996 at the age of 81. Known as a "shadow shogun," he chose many prime ministers and cabinet members and made decisions as to how government pork barrel money was divvied up. Shortly after resigning his post in parliament for taking an illegal contribution in 1992, police raided his home and hauled away boxes full of bonds and gold bars worth $50 million.

Former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita was another well known kingmaker. He was famous for his ability to keep bureaucrats under control, to make deals and to give speeches and remarks which were "clear in words but uncertain in meaning." He died in June 2000, six weeks after announcing his retirement from politics. Since his death no other kingmaker of his or Kanemaura’s stature has come forward.

Iron Triangles in Japan

Iron Triangles is a term that describes the relationship between business (particularly the construction industries), the bureaucracy and the Liberal Democratic Party (the LDP, Japan’s ruling party). The relationship revolves around LDP politicians getting government ministries to approve huge public works programs and grant the profitable contracts to construction companies that support the LPD and later employ retired bureaucrats. Construction consumes 40 percent of the national budget.

Expensive public works projects lie at the heart of the iron triangle relationship, which the American writer Richard Katz wrote melded "the corruption of a Ferdinand Marcos and the interest-based politics of a Richard Daley."

Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, told Foreign Policy magazine, “Japanese politicians, whether LDP or otherwise, have become too closely associated with vested interests. They depend on the farm vote, on the construction industry and on securing privileges so their constituencies will reelect them. And that system has become entrenched in politics, and it cannot be changed.”

Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka is credited with founding the iron triangle system in the 1960s and setting up local power bases tied to the postal system and construction industries. Iron triangles kept Tanaka and his factions and their successors in power. See Kakuei Tanaka and Iron Triangles, History

Professional and business groups also have a lot of power. Organizations like the Japan Medical Association and the Japan Dental Association operate a bit like American lobby groups. Sometimes they make out and out bribes to get their issues places high on the agenda.

Democracy Without Competition in Japan by Ethan Scheiner (Cambridge University Press) helps explain why the LDP manage to remain in power.

Unnecessary Public Works Projects in Japan

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A lot of Iron Triangle money has gone to build grand dams, bridges, railways and roads, plus countless smaller projects, that Japan doesn't really need. Cities are full of vacant public buildings and government-funded museums and concert halls that no one uses. In the countryside there are expensive government-funded project that have been dubbed tunnels and bridges to nowhere. Much of money to pay for the bridges nowhere often comes from postal saving system, pension contributions, bonds and postal life insurance premiums---one of the primary reason has the highest debt to GDP ratio in the developed world.

The government has funded multi-billion dollar bullet trains, expressways and bridges that serve only a few people, gigantic overpasses that provide access to small country lanes, useless dams, and "airports for radishes.” There are airports with no planes that pay passengers to use them and deep-water ports with no ships. Over 60 percent of Japan's coastline and the riverbeds of many major river bank are fortified or covered with concrete that serves little purpose other than to create ugliness.

Bureaucrats and Politicians in Japan

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Legislators in Japan are regarded as weak and pliable. They have traditionally been easily pushed around by bureaucrats and their staffs are more preoccupy with serving tea to constituents than tackling difficult issues. Bureaucrats often speak on behalf of cabinet ministers in the Diet.

The Japanese bureaucracy has traditionally taken the lead in drafting new budget and writing legislation with legislature doing little more than rubber stamping the bureaucrats proposals. The power of bureaucrats was so so strong that politician were unable to cut spending and pass sweeping new laws. United States Ambassador to Japan Walter Mondale told the New York Times magazine, "In the Diet, when you see bureaucrats also participating in the debates, answering questions, preparing amendments, preparing the budget, you realize that this is a society in which the publicly elected side is very limited."

A high-level bureaucrat in the Ministry of Finance was overheard saying in 1990s, "Everyone in the current coalition government is a fool...The current administration moves exactly in line with the scenarios we write." When asked if was worried when a socialist became prime minister, another bureaucrat said, "No problem...We'll brief him with the 'right perspectives' on the issues.”

Through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, bureaucrats delivered the goods and their authority was not questioned. But the failure of the bureaucrats to deal with Japan's economic problems in the 1990s and 2000s has led some Japanese to look more to politicians and political parties for policy solutions to Japan's problems.

Bureaucrats purposely have created regulations that go on for pages and pages that are specifically designed to be so confusing that no lawmaker or ordinary person could understand them or would want to spend the time to wade through them.

After the August 2009 elections threw out the old the party, the new leaders vowed to take power out of the hands of the bureaucrats and put it the hands of the politicians. One of the first things Hatoyama did was set up the Government Revitalization Unit that was in charge of identifying and cutting wasteful spending in the government. Resembling a cross between a Congressional budget hearing and a Spanish Inquisition interrogation, the hearings were conducted by the units panels and were often short and harsh. Bureaucrats and supporters of projects deemed wasteful by the panel were given about 30 minutes to an hour to justify their programs and asked questions by a panel that often had little knowledge of the programs.

Cliques of Japanese Bureaucrats and Corporate Officials

Ian Buruma wrote in Project Syndicate: “But it was this system that produced the problems now associated with TEPCO,” the owners of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, whose reactors melted down after the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. “Tight-knit cliques of bureaucrats and corporate officials made sure that a utility company vital for economic growth would never be hindered by strict regulation or political oversight. The cozy relationships between government officials and the corporate world and not just in the case of TEPCO was reflected in the large number of retired bureaucrats who took jobs on the boards of companies that they had supposedly regulated. [Source: Ian Buruma, Project Syndicate , April 2011]

Many Japanese are aware of these problems, which is why they voted for Kan's Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009, breaking the virtual political monopoly exercised for a half-century by the conservative Liberal Democrats. One of the DPJ government's stated goals was to increase the political system's transparency: less hidden authority for bureaucrats, more responsibility for elected politicians.

The aftermath of the earthquake is thus a potential watershed. If Japan's relatively inexperienced government is blamed for everything that goes wrong, people might wish to retreat to the old ways of murky paternalism. If, on the other hand, enough people realize that the old ways are the problem, rather than the solution, democratic reforms will still have a fighting chance. That would cast at least one ray of light on the gloom that envelops Japan today.

Amakudari

Hannah Beech wrote in Time magazine: “In a phenomenon known as amakudari , which literally means "descent from the heavens," retiring government officials often take on top jobs at companies, some of which they were once charged with regulating. The cozy ties between government and Big Business are exemplified by TEPCO [the owners of the Fukushima nuclear power plant whose reactors melted down after the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011] whose executives are beneficiaries of amakudari. The power company has been criticized not only for being less than forthcoming with information about the ongoing nuclear crisis but also for securing a license for an aging reactor earlier this year without making adequate safety checks of equipment that ended up failing during the March 11 disasters.” [Hannah Beech, Time, April 4, 2011]

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “The network of government-linked organizations at the heart of the amakudari problem is complex, including 104 large organizations supervised directly by the government and 6,625 smaller public corporations. Critics say that many of the former bureaucrats use their connections in government to win public money for dubious construction and research projects, then delegate the work while their organizations pocket much of the budget as administrative fees.” [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, April 28, 2010]

Aki Wakabayashi, an author and former worker at a government-supported labor think tank, has been one of the most fervent critics of government spending on these organizations. In 2001, she blew the whistle on her institute, describing lavish foreign “research” trips for the former bureaucrats leading the institute---complete with first-class air travel and stays in five-star hotels---and clerks who drew researcher salaries while spending their days chatting and reading magazines. “The Japanese public is angry and demoralized,” said Ms. Wakabayashi, who has been advising the Democrats on the cost-cutting panels. “And Japan’s finances are in tatters. We either fix this, or Japan goes bankrupt.” [Ibid]

In 2009, al least 11 Diet members received executive salaries from companies or organizations, while also receiving political donations from them.

Money Politics in Japan

Political heavyweights who provide campaign funds to other lawmakers and candidates usually do so by covert means, an LDP source told the Yomiuri Shimbun. But no always. In December 2010, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A government report on political funds clearly shows that Ozawa's political clout is based on his abundant financial resources and his funds management organization, Rikuzan-kai, still had the highest total revenue of any political organization in 2010. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 2, 2011]

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun: “The report highlighted the process by which Ozawa collected a huge amount of campaign funds, distributed them to candidates in the House of Representatives election and formed the largest group of supporters within the DPJ. When the lower house was dissolved on July 2010, heavyweights of both the ruling DPJ and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party scrambled to raise funds to finance the campaigns of candidates close to them. [Ibid]

On day parliament was dissolved, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported “dozens of DPJ incumbent and first-time candidates visited a hotel near JR Tokyo Station in small groups, sources said. All of them had blank receipts from their own political funds management organizations in their pockets. One of Ozawa's secretaries was waiting for them in a room at the hotel.” "If you issue a receipt to Rikuzan-kai, it will eventually become public," the secretary was quoted as saying by several of the candidates. "Is that all right with you?" [Ibid]

Having obtained their agreement, the secretary handed over envelopes containing cash, according to the candidates. After counting through the bundles of bills inside the envelope, each candidate filled out a receipt stating their political funds management organization had received 5 million yen from Rikuzan-kai. "We'll count on you in the future when it comes to a showdown," the secretary was quoted as saying. [Ibid]

On the same day, the DPJ headquarters distributed 5 million yen to each party-endorsed candidate. “I was told the amount of campaign funds the DPJ provided to a candidate on the party ticket was 10 million yen, so I was disappointed to find it was just 5 million yen," a DPJ lower house member told the Yomiuri Shimbun. "But because Mr. Ozawa gave an additional 5 million yen, I was sure I could mount a good campaign." [Ibid]

Rikuzan-kai provided a total of 449 million yen in election campaign funds to 91 candidates, including two who received only 2 million yen each. Of those 91 candidates, 88 won a seat in the lower house election, with 49 being elected for the first time. On July 20, the day before the meetings at the Tokyo hotel, Ozawa lent 370 million yen to Rikuzan-kai. It is highly likely that the campaign funds given to candidates came from this money. [Ibid]

Before the DPJ presidential election in September, The Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed the DPJ lawmakers who had received money from Ozawa. Sixty-six said they would vote for Ozawa in the party election, with six insisting on anonymity. Thirteen---three of whom spoke on condition of anonymity---said they would vote for Prime Minister Naoto Kan. [Ibid]

When the LDP was in power, the party’s factions gave out grants called koori-dai and moch-dai , which literally means “money for buying ice” in the summer and “money for buying mochi” in the winter.

Leadership School Set Up by the Founder of Panasonic

Matsushita Seikei Juku(the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management)---where Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda studied when he was young--- is a school where young people study politics and economics with the aim of envisioning what should be done to make Japan a country where people can have hope for the future. The school was established by Konosuke Matsushita, who founded and ran Panasonic. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun , September 27, 2011]

Matsushita Seikei Juku was founded in 1979. Noda was one of the first graduates of the Matsushita Institute and is the first among its alumni to become prime minister. Answer: Of the 248 people who graduated from the school as of 2011, about half are pursing political careers. Thirty-eight members of the Diet are alumni of the Matsushita Institute, including Seiji Maehara, the policy chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, and Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba. Both of them graduated several years after Noda. The Liberal Democratic Party's Diet affairs chief Ichiro Aizawa studied with Noda at the Matsushita Institute.

What course of study do the school's students engage in? Applicants who pass the entrance exams study for four years while living on the grounds of the institute in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. Currently there are 14 Matsushita Seikei Juku students or "jukusei." Instead of being taught by regular teachers, the students engage in self-directed learning through such activities as reading books, listening to views of a variety of experts and organizing their ideas into essays. Part of their studies includes engaging in fieldwork at farms and factories.

Growing Citizen Awareness in Japan

Japan’s local self-government has provisions for direct democracy not seen at the national level. For example, after collecting signatures from 2 percent of registered voters in a given local area, residents may request that heads of government establish, change, or abolish a certain ordinance. Or, with the same percentage of signatures, local residents may demand that a local audit commission perform an audit of work carried out by a local public entity or local elected leader. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“By collecting the signatures of one third or more of registered voters, petitions can be made to local election administration commissions to dissolve local assemblies or to dismiss an elected leader or local official. In addition to these types of direct petition, local residents are guaranteed by the constitution (article 95) the right to vote directly on special laws applicable only to one local public entity. As a result of changes in the political environment and local political awareness, a growing number of local governments are establishing voting ordinances allowing residents to vote yes or no on important local issues. [Ibid]

“This trend is not based on the Local Autonomy Law but on the constitutional right to establish local ordinances. At present, local ordinances have been established in this way with respect to such issues as the building of nuclear power stations, plans to fill in seaside marsh areas, the continued presence of U.S. military bases, and the building of waste disposal facilities. Reflecting the need to respond to resident complaints about local government, systems have been established for employing a local ombudsman charged with investigating aspects of local administration, with the first such system being created in 1990 in the city of Kawasaki in Kanagawa Prefecture. The ombudsman has the necessary powers of investigation to resolve complaints, and in cases where it is judged that the reasons for complaints are grounded in systemic defects or administrative shortcomings, the ombudsman will make his or her views public and advise the local administrative leader to correct the problems. [Ibid]

Grassroots Politics in Japan and Demonstrations

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Greenpeace anti-nuclear protesters
There is not much of a history of public participation in Japan other than voting and supporting certain parties. The government has created rules that make it hard for reformers and grassroots politicians. There are strict limits, for example, on the number of posters that independent candidates can put up. Partisan campaigning on the Internet is illegal.

Between 2001 and 2006, the government sponsored a series of “town meetings”---forum in which local supposedly people talked openly and frankly with government officials---as a way of demonstrated that grass-roots democracy was alive a well in Japan. The meting, the government admitted later were staged. Of the 174 meetings held under Koizumi, 71 were organized by members of the LDP with plants paid to ask questions favorable to the government. Support for an education bill in 2007 was reportedly garnered by paying people to ask leading questions and make supportive statements at town meetings held across the country.

A new generation of politicians that entered the scene under Koizumi relied less on networks, patronage and connections on more on direct appeals to the public using the media and tying themselves to one man---Koizumi. The candidates themselves were chosen for media appeal: one was a former beauty queen, another was an Internet mogul and another was the Japanese equivalent of Martha Stewart.

Inspired by similar tactic used by South Korean political activists, citizens groups in Japan have begun listing politicians classified as corrupt and incompetent on the Internet.

See Nuclear Power

See Environmental Groups

Large numbers of protesters took to the streets to protest the war in Iraq in 2003. The demonstrations were peaceful and the turn outs were fairly large but sometimes one questioned seriousness and intent of the protesters. Often they seemed more into performance art and fashion than politics. Many came in costumes and the latest street fashion. Others carried giant pretzel peace signs, spelled out “No War” with McDonald’s hamburgers and carried balloons and colorful signs while singing the latest pop songs. The rallies were sometimes organized using cell phone messages. By contrast protests in the 1960s and 70s could be quite violent and bloody.

Reforms Taken Up by the Democratic Party of Japan in 2009

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visiting a drug factory
To achieve his goal of setting up a government in which politicians ran things rather than the bureaucrats, Hatoyama established a national strategy bureau, whose first order of business was suspending the implementation of the fiscal budget of the LDP and freezing or canceling many LDP programs.

Martin Fackler wrote in the New York Times, Optimists in Japan ‘say the Liberal Democrats’ decline may be just the first step toward a much bigger political change: the destruction of the old structures of Japan’s stunted democracy and the rise of new, more ideologically coherent parties in a livelier and more competitive political system.”

Some analysts and politicians predict the DPJ and the LDP could become divided by ideological and policy disputes. When that happens, they say , the parties could also break apart, paving the way for the radical reshuffling of parties along ideological lines that would complete the political revolution begun in summer of 2009.

Among the DPJ’s biggest problems was dealing with costly promises made during the election such as getting rid of expressway tolls which would derive the government of desperately needed funds, encourage people to drive more and cause traffic jams on the expressways. On the issue of health care the DPJ vowed to end a new scheme for “late-stage elderly people” that required them to pay more but was put in place to trim health care debt and reduce the burden paid by future generations.

The DPJ ultimately had difficulty coming up with funding and had to renege on some of it promises. Taxes were down as a result of the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009. Some reforms were delayed. Plans to reduce the gasoline tax---a campaign pledge--- were scrapped and the gasoline tax was kept at the same rate.

Efforts to Cut Public Works Programs Such a Yamba Dam

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Cutting expensive public works projects that were deemed a waste of money was high priority of the new Democratic Party of Japan government that came to power in 2009.

The project that got the most attention form cost cutters was the $4.6 billion Yamba dam in Gunma Prefecture, an expensive project that was launched in 1952 and had few benefits other than flood control and providing water and irrigation to an area near Tokyo that didn’t really need it. The only problem was that $3.2 billion had already been spent on it, hundreds of people had already been relocated and the project was 80 percent done. Eighty-seven local dam projects were examined with the government freezing 48 out if 56 projects currently being carried out. In December 2009, 30 dam projects were singled out for close scrutiny with the aim of closing down ones deemed unnecessary.

In December 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “After more than two years of turmoil, the government has finally settled the issue of whether to cancel or resume construction of the Yamba Dam in Gunma Prefecture. Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Takeshi Maeda has at last decided to resume construction of the dam in Naganoharamachi. The government will earmark costs for building the main structure, funds for which had been frozen, in the fiscal 2012 budget. The decision was based on a reexamination of the project by the ministry, in which it judged "construction of the dam is most desirable" in terms of flood control and water utilization effects as well as project costs. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 23, 2011]

“Under the slogan "from concrete to people," the Democratic Party of Japan included cancellation of the Yamba Dam project in its manifesto for the 2009 House of Representatives election, which brought about the DPJ-led administration. Seiji Maehara, now the DPJ's Policy Research Committee chair, became infrastructure minister after the 2009 election. Based on the manifesto's promise, he forcibly terminated the dam's construction without any consultation with local governments involved. [Ibid]

“In the face of strong opposition by residents and local governments, then Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Sumio Mabuchi in autumn 2010 effectively nullified Maehara's decision on the project. Subsequently, the ministry had been reexamining the project to decide whether the dam should be constructed. [Ibid]

“Already 80 percent of the total project costs have been spent on related works, such as construction of roads to replace ones that will become unusable. If the project had been axed, the government would have had to return funds to Tokyo and five other prefectures of the Tonegawa basin, which had paid out more than half of these costs. [Ibid]

‘since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009, infrastructure ministers have decided to continue 14 and suspend six of the 83 dam projects reviewed by their ministry and related municipalities. The ministers' decisions on the 20 projects have matched the conclusions of the reviews. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry is still reviewing 63 dam projects. The Yamba Dam case was the only one in which the ministry and the DPJ had disagreed. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 24, 2011]

Japanese Inquisition

Hatoyama set up the Government Revitalization Unit that was in charge of identifying and cutting wasteful spending in the government. Resembling a cross between a Congressional budget hearing and a Spanish Inquisition interrogation, the hearings werw conducted by the units panels and were often short and harsh. Bureaucrats and supporters of projects deemed wasteful by the panel were given about 30 minutes to an hour to justify their programs and asked questions by a panel that often had little knowledge of the programs.

The hearings were conducted by 13-member panels and were shown on television. One of the reasons for having them was to make government more transparent. In one widely shown exchange the head of a project to build an advanced supercomputer was asked to offer some good reason why the government should fund the project. The project head said to advance science and compete with the United States. The head of the panel responded by saying, “Does it matter if the United States is No.1" and refused a request to increase funding. Scientists, including some Nobel laureates condemned the cuts, arguing the money was vital for Japan to remain competitive in technology fields.

The panels racked up about $8 billion in budget cuts, about half of what they had hoped to achieve. Among the program that were cut back were subsidies for herbal medicines, grants to science programs to make carbon nanotubes and jet-engine rockets, funding to help new businesses, requests for more military personnel, and requests by local government for help paying for higher teacher salaries and children reading programs. Among the projects that were drastically cut were “landscape creation costs” and a planed anime hall of fame.

Second Inquisition

A second more mild round government of hearing was held in April 2010. Among the main targets in addition to wasteful spending was cushy jobs for retired bureaucrats. After four days of questions and testimonies, the government panels decided to ax 34 projects and scaled down dozens of others. Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times: “Seeking to bring its spiraling debt under control, Japan has undertaken an unlikely exercise: lawmakers are forcing bureaucrats to defend their budgets at public hearings and are slashing wanton spending. The hearings, streamed live on the Internet, are part of an effort to tackle the country’s public debt, which has mushroomed to twice the size of Japan’s $5 trillion economy after years of profligate spending.”[Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, April 28, 2010]

Hatoyama and the DPJ said their intent was to wrest control of Japan’s economy from the country’s powerful bureaucracy. “We want the public to see how their tax money is really being spent,” said Yukio Edano, the state minister in charge of administrative reform, who is heading the effort. “Then we will bring about big changes.” “Budgets have always been drafted behind closed doors, with nothing to underpin how much should be spent or why,” said Hideo Fukui, a professor of law and economics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “Until now, nobody knew how unscrupulous the spending was.” [Ibid]

“Many analysts say that Japan must slash wasteful spending and start cutting its public debt to avert the interest rate and refinancing risks that have wreaked havoc in Greece,” Tabuchi wrote. “Addressing Japan’s debt crisis was among the many promises made by Mr. Hatoyama, Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party has also been keen to find extra money to pay for an ambitious social agenda, including cash payments to families with small children and free public high school education.: [Ibid]

The public interest in the budget hearings has been among the few bright spots for Mr. Hatoyama... At the central Tokyo site for the hearings, people lined up to watch the bureaucrats being pressed before panels of lawmakers and appointed experts. “The bureaucrats looked scared,” said one attendee, Kenji Nakao, a 67-year-old Tokyo retiree. “It was very satisfying to see.” [Ibid]

Second Inquisition Targets the Bureaucracy

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times: “The target of the most recent hearings...is Japan’s web of quasi-government agencies and public corporations---nonprofits that draw some 3.4 trillion yen ($36 billion) in annual public funds, but operate with little public scrutiny. Critics have long argued that these organizations, many of which offer cushy executive jobs to retired public officials, epitomize the wasteful spending that has driven Japan’s public debt to dangerous levels. The daily testimony by cowering bureaucrats, covered extensively in local media, has given the Japanese their first-ever detailed look at state spending. So far, viewers have looked on in disbelief over the apparent absurdity of some of the government spending.” [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, April 28, 2010]

“In one example scrutinized on Tuesday, the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization, which is government financed, spent 130 million yen ($1.4 million) last year on a 3-D movie theater used to show footage of scenery from the countryside. The movie dome, which also plays recordings of chirping insects and babbling streams, is closed to the public and is used to study how the human brain reacts to different types of scenery, said Takami Komae, head of the organization’s rural engineering department. The findings will be used to help rural areas think of ways to attract more tourists, he testified.” [Ibid]

Politicians ridiculed the project. “The dome is located in the countryside anyway, isn’t it?” said Manabu Terada, a Democratic Party lawmaker, at a public hearing in Tokyo. “Can’t we just step outside and see the real thing?” At the end of the hourlong hearing, all financing for the dome’s upkeep was canceled and the organization was urged to sell the facility off to salvage some of the construction cost. [Ibid]

Amakudari Scrutinized

Under particular scrutiny at the hearings have been the retired ministry officials who take comfortable positions at the government-linked organizations in a practice known as “amakudari,” or “descent from heaven.” The network of government-linked organizations is complex, including 104 large organizations supervised directly by the government and 6,625 smaller public corporations. Critics say that many of the former bureaucrats use their connections in government to win public money for dubious construction and research projects, then delegate the work while their organizations pocket much of the budget as administrative fees. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, April 28, 2010]

Aki Wakabayashi, an author and former worker at a government-supported labor think tank, has been one of the most fervent critics of government spending on these organizations. In 2001, she blew the whistle on her institute, describing lavish foreign “research” trips for the former bureaucrats leading the institute---complete with first-class air travel and stays in five-star hotels---and clerks who drew researcher salaries while spending their days chatting and reading magazines. “The Japanese public is angry and demoralized,” said Ms. Wakabayashi, who has been advising the Democrats on the cost-cutting panels. “And Japan’s finances are in tatters. We either fix this, or Japan goes bankrupt.” [Ibid]

Criticism of the Hearings

The hearings have drawn criticism from some circles. During the recent ones, members of Japan’s scientific community warned that steep cuts in research financing would damage Japan’s global competitiveness. Their fears were exacerbated when a Democratic lawmaker, known only as Renho, called for reduced spending for a government-financed project to build the world’s fastest computer, asking, “What’s wrong with No. 2?”

Meanwhile, the scale of the cuts---which will amount to a few trillion yen at best against Japan’s budget of 207 trillion yen this year---is too small to make much of a difference, some experts say. Even supporters like Ms. Wakabayashi doubt that the Democrats, with strong links to labor unions, will cut too deeply into the estimated tens of thousands of workers at the government-associated entities. [Source: by Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, April 28, 2010]

Some organizations, meanwhile, are making last-ditch efforts to drive home their relevancy. In a hastily called press conference this month, the government-financed Fisheries Research Agency announced that it had succeeded for the first time in fully cultivating Japanese eels, a fish whose breeding habits had long baffled scientists. Kiyoshi Inoue, executive director at the agency, stressed the importance of the achievement. “These findings are at the cutting edge of global research,” he told reporters. [Ibid]

76 Percent of Japanese Think Politics Has Deteriorated

According to a November 2011 Yomiuri Shimbun poll, 76 percent of respondents believe the nation's politics have deteriorated recently. A record 81 percent also said their votes were not reflected in actual politics, a large increase from the 67 percent who gave this response in a survey held in February 2008, when the government was led by the Liberal Democratic Party. The results indicate the public is dissatisfied with the Democratic Party of Japan, which was the object of high expectations when it became the ruling party in 2009. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 26, 2011]

The nationwide survey was conducted via face-to-face interviews with 3,000 eligible voters in 250 locations nationwide. Of them, 1,724 people, or 57 percent, gave valid answers. Asked what the problem is with current politics, 45 percent said it is conducted without concern for the feelings of the general public, while 42 percent said it took too much time to make decisions. Thirty-three percent said politicians had failed to present a vision for the future of the country. Multiple answers were allowed. Also, 88 percent said decision-making conducted at the initiative of DPJ politicians was not working.

Asked what incumbent Diet members lacked, 50 percent cited decision-making ability. This was followed by "leadership capability" at 41 percent, a "sense of mission" at 30 percent and "common sense" at 28 percent. Sixty-two percent said their life or living conditions will not change no matter which political party is in power, suggesting many people feel resigned or helpless when it comes to politics.

Image Sources: 1) 5) June at Goods from Japan 2) 3) 4) 6) 7) 8) Kantei, office of Prime Minister 9) Ray Kinnane 10) Greenpeace, campaign pictures, Japan-Photo.de

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2012

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