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Koizumi after Koizumi: Japan's changing pains

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Junichiro Koizumi – that consummate opportunist and populist – has done it again, managing to secure himself an overwhelming majority in the snap general election he called on a daredevil impulse and fought relentlessly on the single issue of reform of the country’s bloated and unwieldy Japan Post. Good news, then, for Japan’s prime minister – but is it good news for Japan?

The Liberal Democratic Party, or the Koizumi version of it, is back with a vengeance. On its own, it now has 296 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament (Diet), an increase from 249; with a very little help from its junior coalition partner, the New Komeito party, Koizumi and co. will command two-thirds of the Diet seats – more than enough to govern alone.

Takashi Inoguchi, “An ordinary power, Japanese-style” (February 2004)

Andrew Stevens, “Japan’s fifty-year political itch” (August 2005)

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The Democratic Party of Japan, Koizumi’s largest rival, put on a courageous show. Alas it was too little too late by far; Katsuya Okada’s party won only 113 seats (down from 175 at the 2003 election). His leadership was no match for the razzamatazz that Koizumi engineered, with its mobilisation of all those shikaku (“female ninja” or “assassins”) – the battalion of high-profile women media personalities and diplomats designed to dazzle voters and devour his anti-reform LDP opponents.

This has been one of the most irritating elections in memory. The trouble with Junichiro Koizumi is that he is the wrong man in the right place at the right time. His motives are totally ulterior. And yet his means are totally spot on. He attacks all the attackable people. He defends all the defendable values. Or rather he manages to make it sound that way. But his intentions invariably lie elsewhere.

It was ever thus, perhaps, in times of change. Hindsight does suggest that politicians are remembered not because of their integrity but for the instincts that allow them to make the right moves in a timely fashion. Be that as it may, it is still as frustrating as it is worrying when such a type is handed power on a plate.

All this, however, is a matter for a historian to judge. For the present and immediate future, life in Japan goes on, Koizumi or no Koizumi. And it is life hereafter that Koizumi and co. have now to contend with as a matter of policy. The prime minister’s assassins can no longer just be concerned with making the kill. That was yesterday’s battle. They now have to make policy to address today’s issues and to solve tomorrow’s problems.

Japan’s polarising problems

Two of those issues and problems are especially concerning. The first has to do with dislocation. Many things are parting company with each other in Japan these days. Among them are small and large businesses, urban and rural areas, and the rich and the poor.

It was customary in traditional Japanese business cycles that what happens to large businesses would eventually and invariably happen to small businesses also. The vertically integrated nature of corporate relationships ensured that when larger companies were on an upswing in the business cycle, they would take the small businesses up with them.

Not so any longer. Large businesses have gone global, not only in terms of markets but also for procurement and subcontracting purposes. Traditional suppliers and subcontractors are starting to be left behind.

The urban and the rural have also been very clearly parting company for some time. Thus Tokyo thrives while the regions wither. Winners and losers have never before been so clearly identifiable in the various sectors of industry.

All such divides were never this visible in Japanese society. After all, was it not supposed to be the most equal society in the world? Going around bookshops in Japan today, one notices a very startling thing. It is that books on issues of social disparity and inequality are selling remarkably well across the country. Enter any bookshop anywhere and you find books dealing with these subjects stacked high in the bestseller section. Even very scholarly tomes that would normally be hidden on the back shelves are on display complete with catchy words of recommendation.

Japanese people are suddenly wanting to find out who the rich people are, why the poor are poor, how poor they are, and what hope if any is left for the down-and-outs. A growing sense of unfairness is pervading this society in the aftermath of more than a decade of economic deflation.

The second and perhaps more worrying development that seems to be emerging is this strange tendency of competition to drive people towards uniformity. Market forces are coming to Japan. Of that there is no mistake. The convoy system wherein all ships in the fleet proceed at the pace of its slowest member is no longer workable, both within companies as well as between them. The fight for survival is on. Well and good, one would have thought. At last, all those creative abilities that were so suppressed in the age of conformity and convoy manoeuvres should now start to emerge, lending greater diversity to this erstwhile uniform society.

In actual fact, the opposite looks increasingly to be the case. For everywhere you look, performance standards and numerical achievement targets are in vogue. Be it in industry, the service sector or education, people are given standards to which they must perform and by which their achievements will be measured. In their attempt to comply with these scales of measurement, people have to forego originality. There is no creative diversity at all. The best performers are all the best in precisely the same way. Thus in true Orwellian fashion, the competitive society becomes the uniform society.

“Growing pains” or “changing pains”?

It may be argued that all these developments are inevitable stages in an evolving society: not so much growing pains as changing pains. Yet they are no less painful for being inevitable. As such, policy-makers owe it to the electorate to be aware of them and be willing to address them – especially policy-makers who have been given as large a majority as Junichiro Koizumi.

A phrase comes back to me from an episode in the classic BBC television satire about the seductions of power among the mandarin political elite, Yes Prime Minister: “Voters are little people. They don’t know what’s good for them”. As he contemplates his landslide victory, Junichiro Koizumi’s paraphrase might be: “Voters are little people. They don’t know what’s bad for them”. Such arrogance may prove to be his undoing. One lives in hope.


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