What kind of debate does Yomiuri want exactly?

The Yomiuri has published its editorial on the official start of the Upper House election campaign, and, as has been its ken for much of the past nine months, it argues on the need for a debate on the nation’s strategy in the face of new challenges.

Sounds good, right?

Except Yomiuri‘s idea of good governance in the face of national challenges is that of Prime Minister Abe.

“The Abe Cabinet has revised the Fundamental Law of Education, the ‘Constitution of Education,’ and raised the Japan Defense Agency to a ministry. This year, the sixtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the constitution, it also passed a ‘national referendum law’ determining procedures for revising the constitution.

“For more than half a century, successive cabinets have been unable to achieve these victories. They are part of the prime minister’s ‘freeing [Japan] from the postwar regime’ program. At the prime minister’s first speech in the Tokyo metropolitan area, he enumerated this and emphasized the ‘acceleration of reform’; the greatest results have probably come from this.”

The editorial goes on to list how the government’s bills have drawn support from one opposition party or another.

No mention, of course, of the unprecedented size of the government’s majority, which has enabled the Abe cabinet to pass all of these “historic bills.” No mention either of the changing balance of power within the LDP, with those who had opposed these measures in the past marginalized within the party. And Yomiuri‘s citation of opposition support for government measures serves only to show how the role of the opposition in the Lower House has become of that of mere window dressing on the government’s untrammeled power.

For all the talk about the Abe cabinet’s legislative achievements, however, Yomiuri actually says rather little about how this government is formulating a national strategy to cope with twenty-first century challenges.

See, I actually agree with Yomiuri on that; Japan faces a number of challenges that demand from the government wisdom, prudence, and steady, far-seeing governance, combined with concern for the people in a time of substantial change. But I look at the government that has been in power since last September and I see a government that possesses none of those qualities, and what’s more is beholden to interests and steeped in corruption.

I am not arguing that a DPJ-led coalition government, if and when it comes, will be necessarily better than the current government — that remains to be seen. But political competition is necessary (well, necessary but insufficient) to make better parties. What impetus is there for a party to change unless there is a real chance of losing an election?

That decision, of course, rests in the hands of the Japanese voters. While I don’t want to generalize, especially since the people quoted are in Tokyo, two articles in English-language sources have me less than convinced that the Japanese people are ready to punish the Abe cabinet.

First, the Japan Times ran an article about the first day of campaigning in Tokyo, quoting voters as to their preferences for the 29 July elections. It included this quote from a sixty-eight-year-old retiree: “I’ve always voted for the LDP and plan on sticking with them again, despite the problems with the pension premium payments. The DPJ has relied too much on blaming the LDP, when there isn’t much the DPJ has actually achieved as a party.” How many of this retiree’s compatriots share his forgiveness for the LDP? (This is more or less the Yomiuri editorial line.) And will enough of them turn out to vote in sixteen days to give the election to the government?

Second, the BBC, in an article on Japan’s restrictive campaign laws that focuses especially on restrictions on internet usage (the picture of Suzuki Kan’s shuttered Second Life campaign office is priceless), quotes some younger Japanese talking about campaigning. Once again, I caution against generalizing from these quotes, but I cannot help but wonder if the sentiment expressed is not altogether uncommon:

In Japan, 95% of people in their 20s surf the web, but only a third of them bother to vote.

Some, though, do not seem keen on politicians using the web to try to win their support.

“I believe that internet resources are not very official,” says Kentaro Shimano, a student at Temple University in Tokyo.

“YouTube is more casual; you watch music videos or funny videos on it, but if the government or any politicians are on the web it doesn’t feel right.”

Haruka Konishi agrees.

“Japanese politics is something really serious,” she says. “Young people shouldn’t be involved, I guess because they’re not serious enough or they don’t have the education.”

There cannot be many places in the world where students feel their views should not count. Perhaps it is really a reflection of the reality – that they do not.

Here in Japan, it is seen as important to treat politicians with respect.

But such is the deference paid to them, it is hard for anyone to challenge them to try new ways to make the political system better.

I think the BBC is way off to conclude that the Japanese political system is unique for the deference and respect with which voters treat politicians. While Japanese politics may be politer than other democratic countries, it is a mistake to conclude politeness for respect. I have talked to a number of people about politics — including, no joke, people who work in politics — and what I have found is widespread discontent, disgust, and loathing for how politicians have misgoverned Japan. (Perhaps the reality is respect for individual politicians as individuals, disgust for politicians collectively — if so, that’s not altogether different than the US, where voters consistently give their own representatives higher ratings than Congress as a whole.)

Nevertheless, the quotations from students suggest something important, that I’ve mentioned before: for voters, Japanese politics remains a spectator activity. Until this changes, the debate that Yomiuri says is necessary will be a stunted debate, a conversation among isolated elites that largely ignores the interests of the people and gives them no place in the discussion.

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