Monday, June 13, 2011

On soap, in terms of boxes and operas

Before coming to Japan in January, I envisioned that I might find myself in conflict between what I wanted to blog about, and what I felt would be appropriate, considering my job. After all, I have a code of silence at the embassy, and there are things I potentially could say that might get not just me - but also my country - in trouble. In theory. In reality, the world isn't as interesting as that. I doubt that any of the things I could potentially say would have much of an impact on Norway-Japan relations. Besides, I've found myself talking about completely different stuff than the going ons at the embassy anyway - I think most of my readers are more interested in hearing about bento lunches, karaoke singing and gaijin mishaps than political or consular gossip.

Still, there are times when I think "Oooh, I want to blog about this", and then I don't, because a small part of me worries that it will come back and bite me in the butt. I'm very diplomatically inclined that way. Last week I solved the problem by writing about everything surrounding the topic I really wanted to write about. This week I intend to just go ahead and make a disclaimer: the opinions of this blog is my own, and only mine - and does not necessarily reflect that of the Norwegian embassy/government. So there.

Unless you either live here or are more than average interested in Japan, you probably don't know a whole lot about the politics of this country. Let me give you a brief introduction.

Japan before 1945 has a long and complex history, much of which can be summed up in a few words: ninjas, samurais and emperors. Okay, maybe not, but there was a lot of back and forth there (between the samurais and emperors. I just threw the ninjas in for fun). A feudal system. Warrior lords. Emperors - some with and some without power. Matthew Perry (not the guy from "Friends" - yes - I *have* to make that point every time I talk about it) and his forced opening of Japan. Militarism. Colonialism. Forceful use of principles Western countries had applied to most of the world through centuries, but slightly too late. If I say "Manchuria", you're supposed to flinch.

The war changed a lot for Japan. They went from being a powerful, imperialist power who had enough self-confidence to take on the United States; to being forced to surrender by the worst weapon humanity had ever seen, and then de facto occupied by the very same US. Transformation started: the emperor renounced his divinity, the occupied areas in China and Korea were returned or put under international control, and till this day Japan still maintains only a defensive military (though it's budget is the second largest in the world, so I don't know how much emphasis one can put on this, apart from the strictly symbolical).

Also - post-war Japan transformed into a democracy, and a rapid economic development frequently referred to as "the Japanese miracle" started. These two are closely linked. While there can be do doubt that Japan succeeded tremendously in the latter, I am here to claim that the former is overrated...

Don't get me wrong. Japan is a democracy. But is it well-functioning? Maybe not.

The first 50 years or so, the politics of the country was dominated by one, single party - the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). I'm not saying that this is necessarily a problem - as long as there are fair elections, the population is of course welcome to vote for the same party over and over again. In fact, the LDP period had something the latter years have lacked: stability. But, it seems to me that a large reason for why the LDP continued to stay in power was that the people who continued to vote - elderly, rural, conservative people - also continued to vote for the only party they knew, while other citizens more or less stopped voting altogether.

Now, it is almost unfair to call the LDP-era a one-party system, since LDP had (still has, in fact) so many fractions that it basically was a multiparty system. Only, unless you were a member of the party, you didn't have much influence within the fractions. Eventually, however, other parties started making their presence known. Some already existed. Some were formed, others merged. A number of LDP-members left the party to form new parties. If you look at the name of most Japanese political parties, present and past, it looks an awful lot like most of them were formed at an izakaya after a long day at work. Either they have some variety of "Liberal"/"Democratic" and "Party" in them, or they have the most random names ("Your Party", "Sunshine Party", "New Clean Government Party" anyone?).

Finally, in 2009, one of these new parties - the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won the general election, and thus formed a government. Finally some change, you might think. Wrong, I tell you.

First of all, a considerable amount of politicians in DPJ are former LDP-members. Secondly, due to the power struggle within and between the political parties the last few years, Japan has had five prime ministers in as many years, and it's not looking as though it's about to change. The current prime minister, Naoto Kan, has now managed the near-impossible: he's been PM for over a year (barely). But it is expected that he will hand in his resignation any day now.

Why, you ask? Why would he do that when Japan is in the middle of the biggest crisis the country has seen since World War Two (and I just explained why that wasn't the best of times for this country, right...)? Well, I am sure Mr. Kan asks himself the same question. And so do the Japanese people. They might not like Kan very much (in general, though, they don't like any politicians), but they don't think it's a good idea to change captain mid-match. Too bad the rest of the politicians don't care.

Because a number of politicians - both DPJ and from other parties - have decided to use the current situation as an opportunity to get rid off another prime minister. Great idea. Just great.

So, two weeks ago a vote of no confidence was raised. Last minute, Kan struck a deal with his rival (and party member!), former prime minister Hatoyama, which meant that Kan got to stay on Hatoyama's mercy provided he agreed to step down once the crisis had reached "a certain level". What this level is, and when that will be, remains unclear. To me, to the Japanese population, and as far as I can tell - to Hatoyama and Kan too. But, the thing is, now people no longer speculate if Kan will step down. Now we only wonder when. Which in effect makes him as lame a duck as ducks go. So if Kan did all this - as I suspect - to try to keep some continuity in Japanese politics and actually get some stuff done (much needed!), he has already failed. He will probably not get anything done in the current political situation, and chances are he'll go down in history as the guy who had all these ideas but never managed to see any of them through. If he can escape the label "earthquake guy", that is.

No wonder most of the Japanese I speak to have a strong dislike of politics and politicians altogether. This view is supported by surveys too: more than 50 percent of Japanese voters do not support any party, due to "political inefficiency". Instead, the Japanese rely on private initiatives, the business sector, the idea that profit will eventually benefit the lot. Japanese politicians are seen as "elitist", "they don't listen", or even - "they come from a different planet than the rest of us". I can't say I blame people here for thinking that.

At the same time, it saddens and infuriates me. The other day I couldn't help but ask: "So what do you do to make them listen?"

I couldn't get a proper answer to that. Because it doesn't seem like the Japanese way, does it, to do as the rest of us have to: force the politicians to listen. Arrange demonstrations, write open letters, vote, vote, VOTE!!! The politicians are there for you - or they are supposed to, anyway - and if they don't listen, then you're probably not screaming loudly enough. Their jobs depend on YOUR support, and only by showing or taking away support can you make them do their job. It seems to me the Japanese gave up on their politicians. They have accepted that they will not listen, when in reality this is the time to MAKE them listen.

I'm not saying that keeping Kan is the answer. Personally, I like the guy, but I'm not a voter here. I also see the point that his political life is probably long over - you can't teach a lame duck to walk. But Kan at least has the willingness to act, he has the ideas and initiative to do something, and like it or not - he can provide stability through the crisis. Instead of showing him the support he needs to survive the political assassination he is being subject to, however, people shake their heads and go on with their daily business.

Japanese politics is one big drama. But it's high time to move from the soap opera onto the soap boxes. Speak your mind, and perhaps those politicians finally will listen!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Didn't realize it was such a mess. And if the Prime Minister turnaround is that fast, then it's a wonder anything gets accomplished.

Christine Murray said...

I knew next to nothing about Japanese politics, now I feel a lot more informed. Thanks, this is a great post.

Michael Offutt said...

I think politics in the U.S.A. can be just as bad. The latest thing of course is Wiener'gate'.

My mom is from Japan. She has alzheimer's now but some of the things that I read about in her diary are interesting (I started snooping through it a few years ago and she wrote most of it in English). Her family has a shrine on it that has a chrysanthemum on it and when I researched this, I discovered that the symbol was related to the imperial throne so was wondering why it was on her family shrine. She also claims that before her eldest brother died, she got mad at him because he confessed to her that she had been adopted and gave her a bunch of black and white photos that they had with her standing next to a strange woman. She says that as a girl, she attended school with Admiral Yamamoto's own daughter in a girl's school and that she had all of these kimonos (there are pictures of them) and lots of expensive looking dolls (pictures of those too) but that she was the only one in her family to have these things. And then once a year she was taken to the imperial palace where she could celebrate her birthday with the woman in the pictures. She lost most of her possessions when the Americans fire bombed Tokyo and then her mother (who may have only been a step mother? I've no idea) was killed by a stroke while washing her hair. I've so many questions about my mother's childhood (I suspect that maybe she was some bastard love child from a person that may have been a noble and then they just kept it hush hush by giving a foster family money)...not sure.

Stephanie V said...

Really interesting much to learn. And thanks to Michael, too, for his equally interesting comment. My mind is now whirling in two directions.

Kelly said...

Perhaps there is a certain disgust for politics/politician worldwide?

Very interesting comment from Michael, too!!

welcome to my world of poetry said...

I don't understand English politics let alone the Japanese.

I found your post very interesting to read.


Sarah Allen said...

You are clearly very intelligent. I'm definitely the opposite of in to politics, but thanks for putting this in a way that I can at least somewhat comprehend.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Cold As Heaven said...

I trick to use (I sometimes try to do it myself), is to pull things a littlebit out of context. Write about stuff without giving names or details ... and I appreciate that you don't bring our country into trouble >:)

Cold As Heaven

Pat Tillett said...

To get your average Japanese citizen to speak up, is going to be one tough nut to crack. Especially the older folks. They tend to suffer in silence.

I haven't been around for a while and need to catch up here. I hope you are finding things more "normal" there, than before you left. I'm glad we have relatives there, because we are getting absolutley NOTHING Japan related in the news here now.

Related Posts with Thumbnails