The Japanese people choose

It is election day in Japan. After forty days of intense campaigning, the sound trucks are silent as the LDP, the DPJ, and a handful of smaller parties submit themselves to the judgment of the voters. After nearly four years, the Japanese people will vote for a new House of Representatives.

I had many ideas for how to write this post, but the answer appear to me when I entered the title. You see, the last post I wrote that began with the words “The Japanese people” was this post, “The Japanese people lose hope.” That post, written in March when Ozawa Ichiro, then DPJ leader, was under siege due to the arrest of his aide due to alleged campaign finance violations, dissected a public opinion poll that showed just how disillusioned the Japanese people had become with their political system.

Five months later, things look a bit different.

I do not doubt that the Japanese people are still skeptical of the ability of the political system to deliver the results respondents said they wanted in the poll conducted by Asahi in March. But faced with a choice today, it seems that the voting public is prepared to choose hope not long after the public appeared to have lost hope in the possibility of improving society through politics. The crowds I saw gathered at Ikebukuro on Saturday night were not cynical or apathetic: cynics would have stayed home.

Today the Japanese voter faces a simple choice. On the one side is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the long-governing, ever familiar LDP, for better or for worse an institution of Japanese life. It is a party that has spent the past forty days making few arguments for why it deserves a new mandate and many arguments for why the opposition cannot be trusted with power, even as the LDP spent the past four years doing little with the historic mandate it received in 2005. To the very last, the LDP has used its status as Japan’s perpetual governing party to argue that only it can be trusted to defend the Japanese people, campaigning on the basis of fear of the unknown. Speaking in Yokohama Saturday, for example, Prime Minister Aso Taro said that thanks to the DPJ’s “UN-centered” foreign policy approach, the government’s bill authorizing maritime ship inspections was dropped, about which “North Korea was the most pleased.” The LDP was making the same argument before the 2007 House of Councillors election.

On the other side is the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the decade-old leading opposition party that is now poised to take power for the first time. For the past forty days the DPJ has been relentlessly positive. Its leaders and candidates have refused to respond to the LDP’s negative campaigning with a negative campaign of its own. Instead the party has campaigned on the basis of its manifesto. It has presented the DPJ as a brand with a common message from Hokkaido to Okinawa. The DPJ made sure that it put its manifesto into the hand of as many voters as possible, even as the LDP’s gathered dust in campaign offices. One can question whether the DPJ will be able to follow through on its manifesto — indeed, should the DPJ win, it will sooner or later have to choose which portions of the manifesto to drop due to not having the money to pay for them. But the point is that the party takes its own manifesto seriously.

That does not necessarily mean that the Japanese public will be voting for the DPJ on the basis of the contents of its manifesto: as I noted at the start of the campaign twelve days ago, the same portion of the public doubts that the DPJ will be able to fund its manifesto as doubts that the LDP will be able to deliver on its promises. Instead, if the public chooses the DPJ today, it will be for two simple reasons, Seiken kotai (regime change) and Seikatsu dai-ichi (livelihoods first). The first signifies, of course, a change of ruling party, but no one should think that regime change begins and ends with today’s general election. What the DPJ means by regime change is a set of changes to Japan’s system of government, starting with placing the power to formulate budgets in the hands of the public’s representatives in cabinet. At the same time, the DPJ promises to address the profound economic insecurity that has grown over the past two decades, the sense that life in Japan has gotten unmistakably worse since the end of the bubble economy — and the sense that even as life got worse, the LDP-led government did nothing to reverse the decline.

The DPJ may not be able to deliver on either part. It could fail. But failure is not preordained. And the fact that Japanese people finally appear ready to vote for a new ruling party suggests that the voters are not so cynical as to believe that meaningful political change is impossible. They may be skeptical, but, after all, skepticism is appropriate when a people to view their government.

If I have been criticized for one thing in the nearly three years that I have been writing this blog, it is for being overly partial to the DPJ. That may be the case, but if so, it is for a simple reason: when given a choice between the LDP and DPJ, there is no choice. The LDP is utterly bankrupt as a ruling party. It has indeed failed to address the most basic concerns of the Japanese people. A vote for the LDP is a vote for more fear-mongering and more cynicism, and an LDP victory would be a victory for the idea that Japan is in inevitable decline, that when given a real choice the Japanese people still could not detach themselves from the LDP.

A vote for the DPJ, meanwhile, does not necessarily signify an absolute vote of confidence in the ability of the DPJ to deliver on its plans, but it does suggest a belief in the possibility of a new direction for Japan.

It is common in Japanese politics for leaders to appeal to the Meiji Restoration, when Japanese elites decided to build a modern state. Hatoyama did just that on Saturday evening in a press conference following his rally. But this is not like the Meiji Restoration. This is the Japanese people choosing a new course, one that could result in the people being able to hold their leaders accountable more than at any time in the past.

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