Six months ago today, Yukio Hatoyama`s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) swept into power in a landslide election victory, bringing with them a raft of promises to sweep away the stodgy, stagnant cynicism that had come to characterize Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) rule. The government would wrest power back from the hands of unelected bureaucrats, end the tyrannical hold of the construction industry over local and national politics, make transparent the workings of government, make high school tuition free for all, dish out 26,000 yen per month to every child in the land, cut carbon dioxide emissions by a quarter, abolish expressway tolls, and generate the revenue for all this by cutting wasteful spending. And if that little lot doesn’t keep them busy, I’ve got a bit of weeding and some really stubborn floor stains they could help me with as well.
Unfortunately, their progress on these issues can be classified into four categories; non-existent, halted by scandal, halted by pettiness, or a victory for style over substance. The bureaucracy had its wings symbolically clipped with the termination of news conferences by bureaucrats and meetings between vice ministers (traditionally regarded as the real power behind the ministerial throne). However, they do know a thing or two about actually running the country, unlike the 50 years in opposition DPJ, and so have not been as expendable as Mr. Hatoyama might have hoped. In addition, the bureaucrats are unlikely to give up their power without a struggle, and it is unclear how powerful but shadowy bureaucratic organizations such as the Cabinet Legislation Bureau (CLB) might be dealt with.
The construction industry, often led by those same bureaucrats, might prove an equally tough nut to crack. Again, symbolic action has begun; witness Infrastructure Minister Seiji Maehara`s determination to halt construction on the much maligned Yanba dam in Gunma prefecture. However, even this action is being fought against tooth and nail by those who stand to profit from it, calling into doubt the government’s capability to halt the entire construction juggernaut, to say nothing of the other cosseted industries and special interests which the DPJ promised to tackle in their manifesto.
This brings us to reduction of government spending. This falls squarely into the `style over substance` category of attainment. From last September the grimly named, Soviet style Government Revitalisation Unit (GRU) began to quiz those in charge of government programs, to judge whether they deserved to continue receiving government funds. These findings were televised, and it no doubt gave pleasure to many to see previously unassailable, incurably vainglorious bureaucrats being given a thorough verbal going over by a panel of interrogators in a bare Tokyo gymnasium. Of 441 programs, only one was granted continued funding at the same level. The others were either scrapped, or asked to resubmit their proposal.
Gratifying as the resulting schadenfreude was, it didn’t actually save an awful lot of money. In total, 690 billion yen has been trimmed from the budget, when 9.1 trillion yen was promised – under thirteen percent. The resulting dearth of funds puts other policy pledges, such as making expressways free, under threat. Conversely, this may at least aid another campaign pledge, the reduction of carbon emissions.
On education, the distribution of support payments to all children looks set to go ahead from the start of the fiscal year, which is at least one tick in Mr. Hatoyama`s credit ledger. The removal of high school tuition fees, however, is being trammeled by a petty debate over whether North Korean affiliated schools should also receive this support, or whether they should remain fee paying. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that when your diplomatic efforts with regard to North Korea have proved so impotent that you are reduced to removing educational support from its citizens as some kind of vicarious punishment for the wrongs of their distant motherland, you really are scraping the bottom of the policy barrel.
Manifesto promises, then, are going largely unfilled. In addition, the DPJ`s stance that they represented a new, clean style of politics is by now untenable, given the financing scandals involving the two most senior members of the party; Mr Hatoyama himself, who received huge unregistered donations from his own mother to fund political activity, and Ichiro Ozawa, DPJ Secretary General and terminal political schemer, who has as yet failed to enlighten us as to the source of 400 million unexplained yen in his political coffers. Over 80% of voters think he should resign over the issue, and it now seems to be a case of when rather than if. The electorate may accept the argument that manifesto promises need come time to be realized, but top level corruption reminiscent of the dark days of Tanaka Kakuei (the 1970`s Prime Minister who used to keep a room full of cash-stuffed bags on hand for convenient bribing) is unlikely to be forgiven. Nor is Mr. Hatoyama`s overcautious approach; while this was no doubt useful in his former career as a scientist, in government it looks suspiciously like dithering. Opinion polls now show the government’s support rate to be a mere 36%, half of what it was immediately after the election.
The LDP rode into power on an Obama inspired bandwagon of change. They have signally failed to deliver. However, they are being helped by the LDP, who are managing the seemingly impossible feat of being more incompetent out of government than in it. Their leader (and I use the term loosely), Sadakazu Tanigaki, is less effective than a cat-flap in an elephant house, and the lethargy which hangs about the LDP’s members when they sit in parliament is reminiscent of nap time at an old people’s home after a particularly heavy lunch. The party’s more popular members, like former Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe and the Prime Minister`s younger brother Kunio Hatoyama, are deserting this sinking ship to form their own parties. LDP may as well stand for Lame Duck Party as Liberal Democratic Party.
The DPJ, with its absolute parliamentary majority, can therefore carry on pretty much as it likes, even as voters turn away from it in droves. We are still in the early days of their government, but their six month review can only be concluded unfavourably. Promises of change have been whittled away with every new allegation, every ministerial incompetence, every cosmetic change which obscures a real problem, every petty measure taken by bickering politicians seeking to feather nests or redress perceived slights. Change must come soon, before these tendencies become entrenched. Move fast, Mr. Hatoyama. For all our sakes.