Japan from the inside out

A dime’s worth of difference?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 28, 2009

AS THE DATE for the lower house election in Japan approaches, the electorate is becoming increasingly interested in identifying policy differences between the two major parties. In some instances, they’re discovering that the differences among some candidates are negligible, and that party labels resemble nothing so much as merchant ships flying a flag of convenience.

The following article, which appeared in the Nishinippon Shimbun last week, describes an extreme example in Kagoshima. Here’s a quick English translation.

Enthusiasm was high at a hall in Kagoshima City on the evening of the 16th as a crowd of 1,600 overflowed the 800-capacity venue at a rally for Uchikoshi Akashi, a new Democratic Party of Japan candidate for a lower house seat in the Kagoshima District #2. When Uchikoshi declared that the time for a change of government had come, a man in his 70s who has known the candidate for many years was overwhelmed with emotion. “He was finally recognized as a DPJ candidate,” the man said.

L-R: Uchikoshi Akashi and his new boss

L-R: Uchikoshi Akashi and his new boss

Uchikoshi’s political career began as a delegate in the prefectural assembly. A member of the Liberal Democratic Party, he served for four terms over 15 years and rose to chair the group of LDP assembly delegates. When he chose to run for a seat in District #2 in the 2005 lower house election, circumstances in the electoral district meant that he had to run as an independent. He was defeated, left the party, and joined the DPJ in June 2007 at the invitation of then-party head Ozawa Ichiro.

When Uchikoshi began leaning toward joining the DPJ, his supporters from his days in the prefectural assembly objected and urged him to continue to run as an independent. A friend convinced him to join the DPJ, however, by telling him that the next election would be fought between the two major parties, and he would be unlikely to win unless he was affiliated with one of them.

In the 2007 upper house election held immediately after Uchikoshi joined the party, the DPJ candidate received 99.3% of the vote total of the LDP candidate in the Kagoshima district. A senior member of the local DPJ organization said that was due in large part to Uchikoshi’s efforts, who has a strong base of support among the conservative elements in the district.

Two current LDP lower house delegates met at a rally on Amami Oshima on 26 June: Yasuoka Okihiro of Kagoshima District #1, and Tokuda Takeshi of Kagoshima District #2. When Tokuda said they should overcome past history to fight the campaign together, the hall erupted in applause.

L-R: Tokuda Takeshi and his new boss

L-R: Tokuda Takeshi and his new boss

The past history to which he referred was the intense “Yasutoku War”, political battles fought in District #1 between Tokuda’s father Torio and Yasuoka in the days when the electoral system was based on multiple-representative districts instead of the current single-member districts. Today, the two men cooperate by supporting each other in their separate districts.

Tokuda was elected to the Diet for the first time in 2005 when he ran as an independent with backing from the DPJ. He joined the LDP at the end of 2006, however. One of his chief aides explains: “He was unable to accomplish anything for one year. As a member of the ruling party, he was able to exert his efforts for the area.”

The aide had a jarring experience during a campaign swing in June, however, while circulating among supporters. One supporter asked, “How do the LDP’s policies differ from the DPJ’s?” Inside the house, he spied a DPJ pamphlet placed there by Uchikoshi supporters. It called for rooting out wasteful expenditures of tax money, improving healthcare, and boosting the rate of self-sufficiency in the food supply. The language was almost identical to that on the LDP flyer the aide had brought.

This election is a clash between Tokuda and Uchikoshi, both of whom were supported by different parties four years ago. Supporting Tokuda this time are agricultural cooperatives, the Chamber of Commerce, and the construction industry—all of which campaigned for his LDP opponent 2005. In contrast, Uchikoshi is being supported by the labor unions that backed Tokuda last time. The labor unions justify their choice by saying they should close their eyes to any minor differences between the two for the sake of a change in government.

There have been pre-election skirmishes over the promises of pork made by both parties. It is difficult to distinguish a clear demarcation between the parties’ policies in some cases. The DPJ promises to make expressways free, provide income supplements to individual farm households and others, and pay a monthly child-rearing stipend of JPY 26,000 (about $US 275.00). The LDP is offering a JPY 2 trillion economic stimulus rebate (about $US 21 billion), reduced highway tolls, and a resumption of temporarily frozen highway construction projects.

According to Saga University political science Prof. Hatayama Toshio, “The voters know that the days of pork will not return. The hearts of the voters will be disengage from a party unless they can create a trustworthy platform.”

(End translation)

Meanwhile, the Sankei Shimbun briefly summarized some of the areas of similarity in the LDP and the DPJ platform planks regarding child-rearing, and the DPJ’s acceleration of the period of implementation.

The centerpiece of the DPJ platform is their child-support allowance, which will eventually be JPY 26,000 per month. The party has moved up by a year, to FY 2011, the period at which the full amount will be paid, as well as the period for providing their subsidy to individual farm households. Until then, the party would pay JPY 13,000, or half that amount, as a child-rearing stipend.

That allowance will require JPY 5.5 trillion annually, while the farm household allowance will require JPY 1.0 trillion every year.

In contrast, the LDP’s platform has a plan to allow parents of 3-5 year olds to send their children to authorized preschool facilities without paying tuition. This is viewed as a measure to counter the DPJ allowances and the opposition’s plan to make high school free. It is estimated to cost JPY 790 billion per year.


* Were party discipline in Japan a bit looser—i.e., not at the Politburo level of conformity—the party switching such as that in Kagoshima might not be so significant. But votes in the Japanese Diet are usually conducted along party lines without the opportunity to create ad hoc coalitions for individual issues. Party policy, and therefore government policy, is determined higher up the food chain, and that will usually determine individual votes.

* I’m going to be on the Saga University campus tomorrow to give two final exams, and I’m tempted to drop in on Prof. Hatayama to see if he’s smoking any contraband in his office. Look again at Mr. Tokuda’s reason for joining the LDP—he was unable to accomplish anything for a year as an independent backed by the minority opposition. In other words, he wasn’t able to bring home the bacon for the people in his district.

The days of pork have never gone away.

* This morning’s newspaper contains a report on a Kyodo survey that shows 37% of the respondents hadn’t made up their mind which party to vote for in the proportional representation phase of the election. (The DPJ still leads by about 30% to 15%, but that’s a 5.5% drop for the DPJ since the last survey.)

All things considered, that demonstrates an astonishing lack of trust in the DPJ.

* The child-rearing planks in both party platforms are classic examples of legal vote-buying schemes. They’re counting on the public not taking the time to think it through, and the media not to help them by prompting. Of course the free money for school won’t be free, because the beneficiaries will pay for it through some other form of taxation. There goes the supposed benefit of lowering the financial burden on families to encourage them to have more/some children.

It’s also unlikely to improve Japan’s birthrate–certainly not to a level required to produce more revenue sources for social welfare programs, which is the point to begin with. The claim that people are not having more children because it costs too much is an excuse, not a reason. People just aren’t as interested in creating families as they used to be.

Since the program will have no requirements to spend the money for specific uses, such as children’s clothing, it will be a rerun of the pattern for Third World foreign aid, in which the cash was diverted to the discretionary spending of the ruling class rather than infrastructural development. (In the early 1990s, the World Bank said it absolutely no idea what happened to 30% of all the money it gave to Indonesia. The U.S. stopped giving financial aid to post-Soviet Russia when they discovered most of the money was being shifted from Moscow to Swiss bank accounts within 24 hours after the initial transfer.) It is just as likely to enable non-essential expenditures for the parents as it is to be spent on children.

That’s just one inevitability. Here’s another one—the scheme won’t result in a higher birth rate (they never do) and the people who originally pushed it will insist that’s because an insufficient amount of money was allocated to the families. They will therefore call for increases in the amount of the payments rather than admit the program is a failure.

It’s like the sun rising in the east every morning.

Also, no one seems to be mentioning the additional tax burden this will impose on working singles and newly married couples without children who won’t receive any of these funds at all. If the DPJ thinks thinks folks aren’t having children because of the financial burden, why—by their logic—are they making it harder for people of prime child-rearing age to start families?

If they were serious about giving families with children a break, they would increase rather than eliminate the current income tax deductions for children, which the DPJ proposal entails. Instead of taking money from people at tax time and then distributing it, let them keep their money to begin with.

But that wouldn’t serve the real purpose of the scheme. That’s to shift the political debate from more fundamental questions to the issue of the level of government services, and which party is prepared to use the most tax money to attract votes.

Meanwhile, many people have resigned themselves to voting for the DPJ because they promise to more actively pursue the devolution of authority and weaken bureaucratic control of government.

Yet the tiara in the crown of the DPJ platform will engender more dependency on the central government and create yet another bureaucracy.

There’s a Japanese phrase applicable to all this: fu ni ochinai, or, “it doesn’t fall into the bowels”. In other words, it’s not convincing at all.

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