The LDP looks to its past

By the late 1960s, just over a decade into LDP rule, the LDP was governing an increasingly wealthy but increasingly polluted Japan. This was bad enough for Japanese citizens forced to breathe polluted air, but it quickly became a political problem for the LDP.

Dismayed by the lack of progress in the central government in addressing the pollution crisis, citizens in Japan’s major cities elected independent candidates backed by left-wing parties to prefectural assemblies and governorships, who acted independent of the national government to implement stringent environmental regulations. The most prominent example of this was Tokyo governor Minobe Ryokichi, who governed from 1967 to 1979 and acted in 1969 to impose tougher air pollution regulations than the prevailing national standards.

Facing a grassroots political threat on environment policy, the LDP changed with the times. The 1970 special session of the Diet became known as the “Pollution Diet,” as the Sato government passed fourteen major anti-pollution measures. The following year the government created the environment agency.

Given that LDP governments proceeded to pave over much of the country in the name of building a new Japan — emphasis on building — one can question the sincerity of the LDP’s commitment to protecting the environment, but as far as politics was concerned, the Sato government’s response effectively neutralized the environment as a basis for political competition. As Miranda Schreurs wrote, “In taking up the environmental cause and other social welfare issues, the LDP was able to stem its electoral slide at the local level. By responding to the environmental agenda of the citizens’ movements, the LDP prevented the opposition from capitalizing on this issue more than it already had and helped limit future use of the courts as an arena for environmental law making.”

It is with this in mind that I find news of the LDP’s latest attempt to reinvent itself of interest.

According to Mainichi, Prime Minister Fukuda met with Takabe Tsutomu, director of the LDP’s headquarters on implementing party reform at the Kantei on Thursday. Mr. Fukuda reportedly said, “I want you to promote a popular movement that you might say is a ‘green [literally environment] party.’ This is my own image as party president.”

Presumably Mr. Fukuda would like to repeat the party’s 1970s metamorphosis (here’s looking at you, Devin) on a grander scale, not merely including stringent environmental regulation as part of the party’s toolbox but transforming the party into some kind of grassroots-centered Green party writ large. This would in effect reverse what the LDP did in the 1970s. If in the 1970s the LDP took the environment out of the politics, this vision would reinsert the environment into the political arena in the hope that the LDP will be able to position itself to exploit it in order to extend its political dominance.

I suspect that the LDP will not be able to execute another green shift. Based on the cabinet’s own survey of popular attitudes on environmental problems (conducted in 2005), Japanese citizens for the most part believe that environmental policy begins at home. Asked about future environmental initiatives, 64.8% replied that they wanted to take initiatives in their daily lives to protect the environment. Only 15% said that they wanted to participate in citizen movements on environmental problems. 21.5% said they wanted to do nothing in particular.

More importantly, it would be hard to find ways to use environmental policy to outmaneuver the DPJ because for the most part the public is in agreement about the importance of environmental conservation, and the DPJ is as committed as the LDP to environmental protection. No global warming skeptics movement, comparatively few advocates of economic growth at all costs: Japan seems to have learned from the 1960s. Asked about the connection between environmental protection and the environment, 31.8% said that the promotion of environmental protection is (positively?) connected with economic development, 22% said that environmental protection does not necessarily hinder economic development, and 23.2% said that environmental protection should be promoted even if it has some negative impact on development, while only 3.2% said that development should be prioritized even if it means forgoing environmental protection. 13% said they didn’t know, and 6.8% said that they saw no relation between the two.

So if the LDP paints itself green, will anyone notice?

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