Japan faces watershed election as new parties exploit fears of national decline


TOKYO LETTER:Sunday’s general election will reshape the established political landscape, writes DAVID MCNEILL

Three years ago Japanese voters ejected the conservative Liberal Democrats (LDP) from power, ending more than half a century of almost unbroken rule. Their left-leaning Democratic Party (DPJ) rivals, fresh from a landslide victory, promised major change, tugging policy out of the hands of unelected bureaucrats, decoupling Japan from its six-decade US military embrace and shifting spending toward welfare. How different things look today.

As the nation heads for a general election on Sunday, the DPJ has been reduced to a conservative rump. Most of its left has bolted, alienated by the party’s drift from its 2009 manifesto. Prime minister Yoshihiko Noda has made little progress against the bureaucracy, now strongly supports the US alliance and wants to cut welfare spending. He lost much of his support by working with the LDP to pass a controversial sales tax. Some now even predict a post-election DPJ/LDP merger of their pro-business blocs.

A record 14 political parties have announced battle stations since Mr Noda called the snap general last month. With opinion polls showing anger with the DPJ but lukewarm enthusiasm for the return of the LDP, the two main parties may win less than half the votes between them. That leaves much to fight for in an election with major implications for Japan’s increasingly tense relationship with its biggest Asian neighbours.

Coalitions of convenience

The scene is set for what political blogger Michael Cucek calls coalitions of convenience – parties held together with policy sticky-tape, outsized personalities and stodgy patriotism. Many of them disagree fundamentally on policy but are united in their determination to pull Japan out of its downward spiral, a strategy reflected in their vanguardist monikers: Sunrise, Restoration, Stand-Up, Renaissance. They also share a penchant for sabre-rattling and revising history.

Leader of the pack is Shintaro Ishihara, who recently quit as governor of Tokyo and formed the rightwing Sunrise Party, pledging to ditch Japan’s “ugly” war-renouncing constitution and take an even tougher stand toward China. Less than a week later he folded it into the Japan Restoration Party (JRP) of Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka, and became the party’s president. The two men differ on nuclear power, taxes, free trade and other issues but are both self-declared patriots.

Nuclear deterrent

Mr Ishihara quickly showed his flair for commanding headlines, suggesting that Japan build nuclear weapons to combat the growing military threat from China. His decision as Tokyo governor to buy the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands triggered a damaging spat with Beijing that has cost billions of dollars in lost business and sent relations into deep freeze but typically, he had no regrets. “It was worth it,” he said on Tuesday. “Japan cannot become a colony of China’s, like Tibet.”

This could all be just pre-election rhetoric, but Mr Ishihara and many others on the political right now jostling for power have long held anti-China views. Takashi Kawamura, head of Taxcut Japan and mayor of Nagoya, stunned a visiting Chinese delegation this year by saying he doubts the 1937 Nanjing Massacre took place. Mr Ishihara famously calls the massacre a “Chinese lie”. Mr Hashimoto, one of Japan’s most popular politicians, infuriated South Korea in August when he said there was “no evidence” that Japan had rounded up thousands of wartime sex slaves.

Ordinary Japanese voters show much less enthusiasm for whitewashing the past, or aggressive nationalism. But as polling day looms on Sunday, the question of how much power these smaller parties will wield is likely to grow more pressing. One likely outcome is merger or coalition with the LDP under its new leader Shinzo Abe. Mr Abe wants to reverse Japan’s official admission on the sex slaves issue, a pledge backed by the nation’s biggest newspaper, the Yomiuri. He says he will visit the Tokyo war memorial Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines wartime leaders.

Mr Abe, prime minister five years ago, has a history of backing down from a fight, and tellingly he, Mr Ishihara and Mr Hashimoto have dropped all references to the war as the election looms. Once the results are in, they will be under pressure from rightwing supporters to honour their pledges, with potentially explosive diplomatic results.