For the second straight year, the incumbent LDP president and prime minister told the party faithful that the “responsible governing party” (how the LDP now refers to itself) faces the worst crisis it has ever faced — at the same time that Japan confronts (to use what has now become a mantra from Aso Taro and his cabinet ministers) “the worst economic crisis in one hundred years, which has emanated from America.” Mr. Aso told the convention that “only the LDP” can overcome the economic crisis, which would presumably be enough to save the party from what looks like certain electoral defeat later this year. (Interestingly, Hosoda Hiroyuki, LDP secretary-general, has criticized Mr. Aso’s frequent use of this exculpatory expression because it is too negative, arguing that it dampens consumer confidence and undermines the government’s own policies. And here I thought the problem was that by using this expression Mr. Aso was more or less ignoring discussing the crisis and therefore ignoring a serious effort to diagnose its cause and offer an appropriate and effective response…)
On that note, Mr. Aso used his address to repeat his pledge that Japan will be the first to escape the crisis and once again express his belief in the ability of the Japanese people to overcome any challenge. He also made sure to note that the nejire kokkai (read: DPJ obstructionism) is to blame for any lack of progress in moving the government’s agenda in recent years.
None of this was particularly new or particularly inspiring; the 2009 LDP convention may be about as exciting a party as the 2009 World Economic Forum, another gathering that Mr. Aso may address.
The mood at the DPJ convention, held at a former postal meeting hall in Tokyo’s Minato ward (as opposed to the luxury hotel that hosted the LDP gathering), was different, and not only because of the relatively spare meeting hall, a reflection of the party’s need to conserve funds for the general election campaign. If Mr. Aso’s speech had a pugnaciousness reflecting his party’s and government’s dire circumstances, Mr. Ozawa’s was characterized by what looks like an attempt to strike an Obamanian note, full of talk of building a new Japan. In fact, Mr. Ozawa’s leitmotif appears to have been borrowed from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: he declared that the DPJ’s fundamental purpose is a “politics of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and then offered policies to create an economy “of human beings, by human beings, and for human beings” (contrasted with “a market economy of capital, by capital, and for capital”) and finally a society “of citizens, by citizens, and for citizens.” Rhetorically, this construction is clumsy and actually cheapens the phrase.
Meanwhile, does Mr. Ozawa have to copy Shii Kazuo and the JCP? I am sympathetic to his point about building a safety net and counteracting the “dehumanization” caused by capitalism — score one for Karl Polanyi — but Mr. Ozawa would do well not to get too carried away in the anti-capitalist rhetoric sweeping the Japanese political system.
This election year is turning into a fight over who can be the most energetic in criticizing “market fundamentalism;” even the LDP’s reformists, the vanguard of the Koizumi revolution, have shifted their emphasis from pushing for economic deregulation to attacking the bureaucracy and fighting the consumption tax. But sooner or later, one party or another will have to govern, at which point it will discover that the market is still there — and that the Japan will have to find a way to be more competitive while providing an appropriate and politically desired level of social assistance. I recognize that in criticizing “market fundamentalism” Japanese politicians are specifically criticizing neo-liberalism and the ideology that fueled the US financial crisis, but at times their rhetoric strays into more radical terrain. There needs to be less focus on pointing fingers and assigning labels and more focus on providing answers to the questions of how Japan can provide greater opportunity for its citizens and greater protection for the aged and infirm — in particular, how it can pay for it. My hunch is that the Japanese people are more interested in these answers than in learning who among their leaders are card-carrying members of the neo-liberal party.
In the latter half of the speech, Mr. Ozawa does turn his attention to these matters. He calls for two New Deals, an “environmental” New Deal and a “safety” New Deal. The former basically appends to the party’s standing promise of subsidies for farmers a pledge to promote the “greenification” of rural Japan through the widespread use of solar panels and the “greening” of roofs and walls of homes and offices. The latter calls for making schools and hospitals earthquake-resistant, basically an overt pledge of support to small- and medium-sized enterprises that would benefit from these contracts. As Mr. Ozawa said himself, the goal is to promote job creation in rural Japan.
All in all, Mr. Ozawa’s proposals are less ambitious than his rhetoric would suggest. And there’s still no indication of how a DPJ government will pay for the two new deals. Once again, Mr. Ozawa has borrowed a phrase from American political history only to drain it off its evocative power. The New Deal was an ambitious experiment in American governance; it is still unclear how a DPJ government will be a dramatic departure from the past, other than the fact of its existence.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for a DPJ government to break decisively with the status quo, but for now the DPJ has a lot of work to do to determine precisely how it intends not just to jump start the Japanese economy, but to put it on a more viable footing. As an article by Waseda’s Noguchi Yukio in Shukan Diamond argues, the decimation of the past several months may mark nothing short of the end of Japan as “skilled manufacturing, exporting nation.”
While time will tell whether this is hyperbolic, the DPJ ought to have a better answer to this transformation than two feeble “new deals.”