The unrealistic DPJ?

In the Wall Street Journal, Ian Bremmer and Nouriel Roubini recently warned of the dangers of the Hatoyama government’s “unrealistic” policies and advising Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio to follow Barack Obama’s lead.

Hatoyama, they tell us, needs to face up to reality. He “needs to become ‘Hatobama,’ a pragmatist ready to disappoint ideological allies and assuage centrist fears of a policy agenda his country simply can’t afford.”

They knock Hatoyama and the DPJ for “ambitious” and “contradictory” promises, repeat unquestioningly the Washington line that the DPJ risks undermining the US-Japan alliance (more on this in a moment), and finally worry that the DPJ is too strong, too unhindered and therefore could run up Japan’s debt without triggering growth, producing an “an unnecessarily turbulent 2010.” Hatoyama needs to become less ideological and more willing to compromise, like Obama.

The central premise of this op-ed is that if Japan struggles, it is because of the unthinking ideology of the DPJ and not because of the intractable problems that years of misrule by the LDP left for the DPJ to solve. There are several critical gaps, however, in this op-ed.

First, aside from suggesting that Hatoyama become more willing to “assuage centrist fears” — whatever those are — they offer few indications as to what the Hatoyama government should be doing. What, if anything, should the government scale back? What should it be doing instead? Japan’s national debt is obviously a problem, but, on the other hand, given that the government has managed to run up the national debt to such considerable heights without facing disaster, it seems that Japan is in uncharted waters when it comes to the its debt-GDP ratio.

Second, and related to this last point, Bremmer and Roubini are vague about the consequences of the Hatoyama government’s policies. “Unnecessarily turbulent?” What does that mean in real-world terms? More importantly, how much more turbulent could it get compared to 2008-2009? Alternatively, might not turbulence simply be the natural by-product of an electoral victory that even these authors recognize as “historic.”

Third, their praise of the American system and its veto points and their recommendation that Hatoyama should act as if he faces a similar environment is strange considering that the DPJ is deliberately trying to move away from a system characterized by a surfeit of veto players, a system that prevented the LDP from introducing reforms that might have reoriented Japan away from its export-led growth model years ago. After years of governments paralyzed by a cumbersome policymaking system, a bit of turbulence may be a small price to pay for a government capable of articulating and implementing policies without having them die by a thousand cuts at the hands of lower-level bureaucrats and parliamentary backbenchers.

Bremmer and Roubini are right to call attention to the contradictions in the DPJ’s program, but again, they do not consider that these contradictions are rooted in the contradictory challenges facing the Hatoyama government. As I have discussed in this post and elsewhere, the DPJ faces a trilemma: get the national debt under control, build a more robust social safety net, and develop a new economic growth model rooted in more consumption by Japanese and more investment in sunrise industries, which has heretofore been woefully deficient (with the additional wrinkle of cutting Japan’s carbon emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020). In other words, the Hatoyama government isn’t just trying to engineer a “recovery”: it is trying to, it needs to, construct a new economic model to replace the broken model of growth finally shattered by the global economic crisis. Economic growth alone is not good enough. Had the Japanese people wanted that, they could have returned the LDP to power, which as always promised growth plain and simple.

The problem is not that the Hatoyama government is too ideological, although perhaps on certain issues this complaint has some truth (temporary laborers, for example) — the problem is that the government runs the risk of being mired in these contradictory tasks, unable to deliver satisfactorily on any of them. This is an all-too-real risk, but if the Hatoyama government fails, it will not be on account of a lack of pragmatism.

The same goes for the US-Japan alliance. For all the talk of the DPJ’s ideological inflexibility — whether out of conviction or a desire to preserve its coalition with the SDPJ and PNP — the DPJ-led government has proven to be flexible on the Futenma question. Trying to thread the needle between abandoning its promises to the Japanese people outright and saying no for the sake of saying no to the US, the Hatoyama government is trying to develop a constructive alternative to the 2006 agreement. And, meanwhile, when Americans talk of the Hatoyama government’s “undermining” the alliance, I cannot help but wonder whether that is a threat or a prediction. If the DPJ damages the alliance, it will be as much the result of the Obama administration’s reaction to the Hatoyama government as of the Hatoyama government’s actions regarding Futenma.

The point is that both at home and abroad the Hatoyama government has been remarkably open to “pragmatic” solutions to the problems facing Japan. Indeed, if the government’s public support has fallen it is because the government has been too yielding, the prime minister too reluctant to commit to a line of policy.

Hatoyama himself is certainly aware of the challenges before him, noting on his return to work Monday that 2010 is a “do-or-die” year for Japan.

10 thoughts on “The unrealistic DPJ?

  1. PaxAmericana

    A good article. At some point, though, you may want to deal with the problem that many of these players are partisans, whether of the current military-industrial complex or the Wall Street one. Thus, many of their complaints are not exactly consistent or fair, and may have more to do with them being afraid of losing some benefit under the current arrangement.Also, I'm sure many of us would like to hear your take on the matter of Okinawa/Guam. It is difficult to figure out what is going on.


  2. Anonymous

    The interesting thing is, the readers of Washington Post do not seem to value Obama's approach so highly.Is that because the readership of the newspaper skews to the libertarian side? The obvious thing is that they care much less about foreign policies and have no knowledge or interest in analyzing Japanese policy. There seems to be a huge gap between those who tried to fan the \”Hatoyama is Chavez\” and the ignorant or cynic readers.


  3. Anonymous

    This is pretty much propeganda. The WSJ would prefer that not to have a government with progressive tendencies at all, but second best is a government with progressive tendencies that is too cautious to actually carry out its agenda.


  4. Anonymous

    \”Hatoyama himself is certainly aware of the challenges before him, noting on his return to work Monday that 2010 is a \”do-or-die\” year for Japan.\”Well, Japan's politicians have always been aware of the problems that their country is facing. The point is that they didn't act or were not able to act. So we come back to the institutional design that you correctly mentioned as one of the factors that needs to be adjusted to allow things to change.


  5. Bryce

    Personally I don't think anybody should be writing an article criticising the DPJ's foreign policy without disclosing that he has worked for Shinzo Abe. But that's just me.As for the article itself, other than the flaws you mentioned, there are a few other problems.First, if these two believe that checks and balances are what's needed in Japan, somebody might point out that the primary institutional check on the ruling party (the upper house) is currently responsible for the leftward drag on the government. I doubt the authors would see this as a positive development, their enthusiasm for \”checks\” notwithstanding.Second, instituting a few more checks is part of the DPJ program, with its emphasis on \”regional sovereignty\”, that is, devolving decisionmaking to the localities.Third, if the DPJ has no links to business, and businesses don't \”lobby\” each party, why is it that Ozawa is currently trying to reform the way his party receives funds from businesses? And why is it that Ozawa's biggest scandal du jour is about donations from a construction company? Fourth, there was never any such thing as an \”LDP dominated bureaucracy\”. The whole point of the iron triangle was that the party, industry and bureaucracy were in a mutually beneficial arrangement. One didn't \”dominate\” the other. And given that there was no ideological basis for the LDP save often contradictory forms of something called conservatism, I'm not sure what that dominance would have entailed anyway.Oh well. We can't expect much from people who write about Japan but only bother to quote Americans. And effectively stating that \”Hatoyama's problems stem from the fact that he was not born in a nation that has an identical constitution to the United States\” is not analysis. It is comparative politics 101. I hope Shinzo didn't pay too much for such \”advice.\”


  6. Ginginho

    Bremmer seems to be pushing a similar line in the Eurasia group's '10 Top Risks for 2010' report (with Japan at number 5): report argues that Japan's problem of 'weak government' is only likely to get worse as a result of reduced policy-making influence for big business and the bureaucracy. It also contains a few other typical canards, such as Ozawa being the 'power behind the throne'.Anyway – keep up the good work Tobias.Cheers


  7. Anonymous

    I have a lot of respect for Nouriel Roubini, one of the few economists to have predicted the subprime crisis and predicted that it would lead to a wider financial crisis in the US. I met Ian Bremmer years ago during the breakup of the Soviet Union when he gave a talk about his book on the problems faced by the different republics as they became independent. Bremmer appears regularly on national TV as a specialist and head of his own consultancy on the Middle East and Central Asia. But he is not as far as I know an expert on Japan and is not known for his economic forecasting as well as Roubini. I agree with some of the thoughts that you make in this article regarding the changes in the way policy making is being done by the DPJ compared to the LDP. This will take time but it could significantly improve the political system in Japan. The problems Obama faces are different and much bigger than that faced by the DPJ so a direct comparison between the two seems rather flaky and foolish in my view.


  8. Anonymous

    I question the value of these constant \”anonymous\” postings criticizing the integrity, analytical depth, and relevance of the Washington Post and Drs. Bremmer and Roubini. \”Flaky\”. \”Foolish\”. \”Canards.\” \”Propaganda.\” It seems quite unnecessary, actually.Also…\”Personally I don't think anybody should be writing an article criticising the DPJ's foreign policy without disclosing that he has worked for Shinzo Abe. But that's just me.\”Bryce, excuse me, but following your logic Tobias should make it very clear in every post that he worked for a DPJ member, so people can take his pro-DPJ musings with a grain of salt. Come to think of it, that's probably not a bad idea….you're right.


  9. Anonymous,I certainly appreciate the irony of your criticism of the other anonymous commentators.As for my background, I make no secret of my connection with the DPJ, which, I should note, is worlds apart from Bremmer's advising Abe.


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