Pulling Japan From its Socialist Roots

Back to Contents of Issue: September 2002

The largest opposition party's No.4 man is 38, savvy and focused on just one thing: wresting power from the "socialist" party better known as the LDP.

by Sumie Kawakami

JAPAN IS A COUNTRY of political stagnation. Despite the rapid socioeconomic changes the country has gone through in the postwar period, it has been ruled by one party -- the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) -- since 1955, except for a brief time in 1993-1994. This system is in part responsible for Japan's rapid economic expansion, but it is obvious that today's Japan is filled with problems that the system cannot deal with. With once-popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's credibility heading south, where will Japanese politics go from here? Does Japan have any viable opposition party that could challenge the LDP's dominance and really make a difference? Can the largest opposition party -- the Democratic Party of Japan, or Minshuto -- provide a real alternative? Yukio Edano, No. 4 in the Minshuto hierarchy, claims it can.

Minshuto has 124 upper house seats out of 480 and 58 lower house seats out of 247, yet the world knows little about its policies. While the country talks of what will happen in the post-Koizumi era, is Minshuto doing anything to prepare? Does it have any plans?

Minshuto's roots go back to the dramatic political victory in 1993 by Morihiro Hosokawa's coalition, which grabbed power from the LDP but could only hang on for less than a year. The period was the culmination of a boom in small political parties. But the coalition was a fragile mosaic of small parties that was doomed to fail. Minshuto was founded in 1998 by members of these small parties, plus some members of the Japan Socialist Party (JSP), now known as the Social Democratic Party. Minshuto has been buoyed by the popularity of Naoto Kan and Yukio Hatoyama, the two top officials in the party.

Edano is right behind them. He is the deputy chief cabinet secretary in the party's so-called 'Next Cabinet.' Lately Minshuto members have been saying Hatoyama and Kan are too old and a new generation of leaders needs to emerge if the party is to give the LDP a run for its money. The Japanese media has focused its spotlight on Edano, who at 38, is still a youngster in the Japanese political world.

Preparing for office
As far as Edano is concerned, Minshuto should be focused on just one thing: preparing for a political takeover. "As an opposition party, 80 or 90 percent of our job is that," he says. "The remaining 10 percent would be to tell the public what is wrong with the ruling regime. But, that would ultimately lead us to a political takeover. So, yes, our job is to take over the regime. And that's the way it should be."

Edano became famous because of his involvement in national HIV issues with Kan in the 1990s. He later got deeply involved in the so-called 'Financial Diet Sessions' in 1998. While many big name institutions were failing, he sat through endless discussions with LDP members and Ministry of Finance officials to put a new Resolution and Collection Corp. system in place.

"I can only give a bottom line passing grade of 60 percent to the new system" of disposing of bankrupt banks, he says. "I give it a passing grade in a sense that the system kept things under control without a panic, but the way the government dealt with the problem was very different from what we had thought when we enacted the law."

Giving buyers of failed banks the right to nullify loans if they become bad in the future is one thing; banks not disclosing the reality of bad loan situations is another. "The problem has always been the administration -- whether (finance-related ministries) do thorough examinations or whether they provide thorough disclosure," Edano says.

The LDP rule had worked in the past because they give control to Kasumigaseki, the Tokyo district where the ministries are. The problem is, as Edano sees it, that the LDP is hanging on to bureaucratic rule even though the system no longer functions properly. "Koizumi pledged last spring that the government is on top of the bad debt disposal issue," Edano says. "Instead, the only thing he did was just listen to what (former Financial Services Agency commissioner) Mori and other officials below him reported on. He thinks things are advancing, so he doesn't know why he is criticized so much."

Because Koizumi doesn't have a grasp of policy details, Kasumigaseki "is left unleashed," Edano says. Then, what should Japan do about its bad loans? Would an independent body immune from Kasumigaseki-control help? Edano's answer is no. "The only way is for us to take office," he says. "The first thing we would do after that is to kick out top FSA officials and replace them with political appointees."

Self-made man
Unlike many of his colleagues in the Diet who inherit their parents' seats, Edano is a self-made man. He was born the son of what he calls an ordinary salaried man, who later started a small factory after losing his job. Becoming a politician was Edano's childhood dream, but without the money and political backing, he started out as a lawyer instead. Edano explains: "Originally, my plan was to accumulate experience before running for an election. If I hadn't been given a chance, I would have accumulated 11 years of experience by now. It may have been time for me to start thinking about running in an election."

But his chance came earlier than he expected. Two years after he became a lawyer, the Nihon Shinto party, the embryo of the Hosokawa regime, recruited candidates for its historic election in 1993. He applied for a spot and got nominated. In the very first election he ran in, he won. "I was very fortunate," Edano says. What was even more fortunate was that he was a member of the leading coalition for the first three years of his political career (in the Hosokawa regime as a Nihon Shinto member and in the Tomiichi Murayama regime as a Sakigake party member). That gave him an opportunity to experience power on a national scale.

The 1993 political takeover was short lived, but "the best outcome of that period was the introduction of the small electoral district system," says Edano. In the small electoral district system, which works alongside the proportional respresentation system, candidates for the lower house compete for one seat per district. It is said that the system should make it easier for smaller parties to win a majority. Since the system was changed, Minshuto has fought two national elections and has yet to take power.

"We will be able to win if we do it once or twice more," Edano says. "If you ask me when, I say in the next election. We will inaugurate candidates in all 300 small electoral districts and present our policies to the electorate; we will win for sure in one election out of three."

He makes it sound easy, but in reality no other political party in an industrialized nation has held power so consistently over the past half century than the LDP.

Minshuto's chances of taking power are extremely low, says Kazuhiko Ozawa, associate professor of political science at Obirin University. He says the LDP is still a "catch-all party" serving the interests of everyone from big business to small farmers, it has strong ties with the bureaucracy, it is good at forming coalitions while opposition parties like Minshuto are often divided and, last but not least, the LDP has a final card up its sleeve: the New Ishihara Party.

The LDP may be able to persuade Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara to come back onto the national stage, form a new party with strong urban support and ally with the LDP, Ozawa says. Ishihara's term as governor expires next spring, and the LDP is unlikely to play the 'Ishihara card' if he runs again for Tokyo's top post. Minshuto would stand a better chance of winning an election after Ishihara is re-elected governor, Ozawa says, "but the chance still remains low."

Socialist Japan?
The resilience of the LDP, according to Edano, is a result of the LDP dependency on the bureaucracy, which in turn bases its philosophy on an old Confucian proverb: "Don't let people know; let them depend." The idea is that it's better for citizens not to know things because they are not capable of understanding the whole picture anyway. Edano goes even further to argue that the idea that Japan is a capitalist country is in itself an illusion. "Japan is one of the very few socialist countries that became successful," he says. "Japan succeeded in the rapid economic transformation (during the 70s) because it had a socialist system under the name of democracy. That system works for a developing nation, which Japan was then, but it doesn't function for a developed economy."

Edano draws an analogy between China and Japan: China is struggling to maintain the contradiction of a socialist nation with a capitalist economy, and Japan is doing much the same by maintaining socialist economic policies under the name of capitalism. Spending a huge amount of taxpayers' money on public projects as a way to boost the economy, for example, is based on socialist ideology, he says.

Edano says the LDP has done what the JSP would have otherwise done, but without the socialist slogans of peace and security. The Socialists didn't have an issue as far as economic policies were concerned because the LDP had done the job for them.

"In theory, a socialist party would advocate a controlled economy and an enhancement of social security, while a conservative party would protest, saying that it's not appropriate for the nation to be involved in so much (socioeconomic planning)," he says. "But since the JSP didn't have a say in domestic policies, the only way the party differentiated itself was to focus on constitutional debates concerning self defense, which weren't based in reality. That was why they couldn't be a viable alternative."

He says the LDP knew this all along and acted as if the JSP was its enemy -- but in reality LDP politicians needed the JSP. In an old five-seat district in which there were usually three LDP members and two JSP members, for example, the biggest threat for an LDP candidate wasn't the JSP, but a fourth LDP candidate. That LDP candidate could end up competing against his own colleagues. "It was the politics of compromise. They continued unrealistic debates in public, and they cooperated with each other for elections," says Edano.

That has been changed with the change of the electoral system, Edano points out. But can Minshuto really take on the LDP machine? Minshuto's plan to run one candidate in each single constituency in lower house elections is a significant move, says Futoshi Ogi, editor in chief of opinion monthly Kiroku. But it won't be enough for a Minshuto victory, he says. The opposition party's only hope is to form a coalition. "But could the party ally itself with the Communist Party, for example," Ogi asks.

Minshuto has been gaining ground in urban areas, but it has a long way to go in rural areas, which have always been the LDP's stronghold. Also, while Edano is just 38, Japan's political world is dominated by his elders. Edano himself mistrusts some of the older politicians. "One thing I really feel weird about is that they lack the sense of what is tangible," he says. "They tend to present only a big slogan and let bureaucrats handle the details. The end result is they don't understand the details."

In the economic sphere, for example, they just accept what the ministries report, he says. "In the global financial world, it is common sense that (Japanese) stock prices are manipulated, but they would simply accept what the FSA tells them." he says. "Not only do they not study objective information, they have no intention to."

The next generation
But Japan's next generation of political leaders are far from united. "It's true that Japanese citizens are growing tired of Mr. Kan and Mr. Hatoyama," Ozawa of Obirin University says. "But to answer the question of what's next is difficult because the young members are not really united on who should be next."

Could Edano take over for Kan and Hatoyama? The 38-year-old has refused to run for the party leadership later this month. "Edano is surely clever and savvy about policy," says Ozawa. "He may make a very good spin doctor, say somebody like a policy chief who smooths out differences and supports the party head. He may not have the personality to become the chief, but for sure he can become the No. 2 man" in the next few years.

Edano's legal background has given him a strong sense of fairness. Asked whether a Minshuto cabinet would welcome foreign investment and support open market policies, Edano replies, "The question is not whether we would actively welcome foreign capital. I think it is a matter of fair competition in which any capital -- foreign or domestic -- will be able to compete under the same rules. The distinction between foreign and domestic itself is obsolete as multinational corporations have become such common phenomena." @

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