Is real change coming to Japan?

October 8, 2009

Kenji Kunitomi, a member of the secretariat bureau of the Japan Revolutionary Communist League, looks at the factors behind the collapse of Japan's longtime ruling party in recent elections--and the prospects for the left.

THE 45th general election for the Japanese house of representatives was held August 30, and the election results confirmed various media forecasts based on opinion polls: the bourgeois Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won an overwhelming victory over the former government bloc of the bourgeois Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the petit-bourgeois Buddhist Komei (Clean Government) Party, with a more than 69 percent turnout of voters.

In his first election campaign speech following the dissolution of Japan's lower house, the DPJ president, Yukio Hatoyama, now the prime minister, asserted that the general election would be "revolutionary."

Of course, the election wasn't a "revolutionary" one, but its political significance should not be underestimated. The important fact is that, through their own choice, the workers and popular masses have brought about governmental change and thrown the LDP, the perennial ruling party since the mid-1950s, into an oppositional minority in the lower house.

The new Hatoyama coalition government--which includes the People's New Party and the Social Democratic Party--has certainly formed with a considerable determination for a new start.

Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, at a UN Security Council meeting
Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, at a UN Security Council meeting (Eskinder Debebe)

Cabinet ministers have issued various policy announcements, including abolition of the notorious latter-stage elderly health care system, cancellation of plans to end a welfare program for single mothers and their children, abolition of the Services and Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act (which actually reduced aid), and suspension of certain public works such as the construction of dams. The government has also committed to a 25 percent greenhouse-gas reduction from 1990 levels by 2020.

All this contrasts with the previous government led by the conservative LDP. But how long will the Hatoyama government be able to continue its "change" activities?

There should be no any illusion in this regard. The DPJ is a hybrid bourgeois formation, comprised of ultra-right nationalists, deregulationist graduates of the neoliberal Matsushita Institute of Government and Management (Matsushita was the original founder of the Panasonic), right-wing social democrats, etc. Also in the party are former leaders of the pro-management trade unions that represent workers in big businesses.

Nor is the DPJ's foreign policy radical. Although there are various nuances in the party, the DPJ firmly stands for the Japan-U.S. alliance, and it officially favors revising the Japanese constitution to permit overseas deployment of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

Accordingly, confronted with the ongoing crisis of the international capitalist economy, and growing unemployment and poverty, and faced with political pressure from the U.S. to maintain its close military alliance, the DPJ government doesn't have any room to move against the interests of big capital. It will be obliged to adopt a policy of tax increases, including a major hike of the consumption tax. This process may go hand-in-hand with a large-scale political realignment in the country, including the crisis-ridden LDP.

Yet whatever the intentions of the DPJ leaders, the Japanese electorate is clearly seeking change. Under the combined electoral system of single-seat constituencies and proportional representation, the DPJ has 308 seats--64.2 percent of the 480 total seats. This includes 221 victories in the 300 single-seat constituencies, and 29.8 million proportional-representation votes, or 42.4 percent of the total. This surpassed the 25.9 million votes obtained by the LDP under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's in the previous general election in September 2005.

The general election brought the LDP's representation in the lower house from 300 seats down to 119, as lots of former LDP heavyweights were defeated. As for Komei, the party failed in all the single-seat constituencies where it ran its candidates. Thus, Komei's pre-election party president and general secretary were ousted from the lower house, and its representation decreased from a pre-election 31 seats to 21.

Overwhelmed by the DPJ landslide victory, the reformist Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and Social Democratic Party (SDP), for which we had called for voting, barely retained their previous 9 seats and 7 seats respectively, with 4.9 million and 3 million proportional-representation votes. Their parliamentary representation, however, can be utilized as important footing for the workers and the popular mass movement.

SHIFTS IN public opinion on a number of issues underpinned the DPJ's victory. The LDP-Komei coalition government brought about a deepening income gap and worsening poverty through its neoliberal "structural reform" policies, which promoted privatization and deregulation of social services, industries and the economy. This intensified competition in the lower social layers under the banner of "personal responsibility."

Furthermore, the coalition government had sought support for a revision of the constitution to establish a new "Japanese state which can wage its war," following the U.S. "war on terror" policy of the former Bush administration. Voters, rejecting these policies, instead used the election to knock out the LDP-Komei government.

In fact, the election marks the second time in recent years that Japanese voters had sought change at the ballot box. In the September 2005 general election, the Japanese masses had found an illusionary outlet for their political frustrations and social discontents in former Prime Minister Koizumi's demagogic and neoliberal "reform" discourse--and his government was overwhelmingly reelected.

In the August 2009 election, however, those same masses again vented their frustrations and discontent by responding to another call for a "government of change"--only this time, the message was put forward by the DPJ.

In this regard, the election was an amplified reproduction of the July 2007 elections for the upper house of Japan's parliament. Then, the DPJ put forward a program of giving "priority to the people's lives" and made significant inroads upon the LDP's traditional electoral base of the broad middle-class layers. The result was a massive victory over the LDP-Komei coalition as the DPJ took control of the upper house.

The LDP's traditional support base, dependent on its notorious favor-based politics, was therefore thrown into a disintegrating situation. There was a widespread LDP-to-DPJ shift among various local interest groups of farmers, fishermen, small merchants, medical practitioners and so on.

Thus, the LDP and Komei were ousted from the government in the general election by the masses of Japanese voters. As had been the case in the July 2007 vote, popular anger was rising against the terrible results of the neoliberal structural reform policies.

The key issues were the worsened and further destabilized employment situation; cuts in social welfare and medical services; sacrifices enforced on local municipalities and communities; growing poverty and widening social disparities; blatant social injustice; and the desperate social situation produced through the restrictions of basic human and democratic rights under the banner of "everybody in competition with every other person."

The voters' anger was also directed against big businesses, which has accumulated immense profits, in striking contrast to the impoverishment of workers and the popular masses--especially of women, elderly and youth.

Further, the 2008 explosion of the global financial and economic crisis triggered a contraction of general business activities, widespread dismissal of regular and temporary workers, and deterioration of living conditions. A key consequence was the deepening political distrust of the coalition government among the popular masses.

THE LDP-KOMEI coalition tried to reverse its fortunes by changing leaders. Following Koizumi's resignation in September 2006, there were short-lived administrations under Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso. Still, the public approval rating of the LDP and Komei coalition continued to decline, and the final outcome was the change of government in the August elections.

The change in consciousness of the Japanese popular masses brought about the landslide victory for the DPJ. But the DPJ's victory also reflects this principal fact: the popular resistance under the crisis of international capitalism has not been formed into an autonomous mass movement of workers and popular masses. The impact of the final disintegration of the postwar reformist movement of the Japanese working class during the 1980s has not yet been overcome.

Foreign policy was also a factor in the election outcome. The U.S. "war on terror" had been the international framework for the LDP-Komei-coalition's orientation toward the revision of Japan's anti-militarist constitution. The coalition wanted to change the constitution to allow a "war-ready" state.

However, the "war on terror" policy was shown to be a failure, and U.S. unipolar hegemony has collapsed. With the new international situation, Barack Obama's "change" discourse in his presidential campaign had a certain impact on the Japanese electorate--to the DPJ's advantage.

The DPJ claims that it will break down the excessive dominance of the administrative bureaucracy and establish a new working mechanism of "politics first" in dealing with the problems and tasks of administrative reform, local self-government, the economy and public finance. However, the DPJ's fundamental orientation is on building a "strong state" through neoliberal reformist policies, much in line with the basic interests of the ruling bourgeoisie.

As for foreign policy, the DPJ's major catchwords are "a new-era Japan-U.S. alliance," in which the DJP government is said to strive for an "independent-minded and proactive foreign-policy strategy" and a "Japan-U.S. partnership on an equal footing."

The government intends to raise the problem of revising the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement, enforced in 1960, to reexamine the U.S. plan to realign its armed forces in the country, and to assess the state of the U.S. armed forces in general in Japan. Meanwhile, the DPJ is positive towards the Japanese Self-Defense Forces' participation in UN peacekeeping operations and in counter-piracy activities.

At the moment, it isn't clear how a new alignment of political forces and tendencies will unfold under the DPJ government. However, it's quite possible that the severely defeated LDP would intensify the ultra-rightist stance that it took during the last election campaign, in order to build opposition to the new DPJ government.

The ultra-rightist forces themselves could intensify their campaigns, hand-in-hand with the oppositionist LDP. As for the petit bourgeois Komei party, it's likely to work towards reestablishing its relationship with the DPJ under a new party president and general secretary.

The workers and popular mass movements have to face up to the new situation under the DPJ government. The fundamental task is to maintain their own standpoints and demands independently of the parliamentary parties and their politics, to strive to build themselves as autonomous mass movements for their causes, and to elaborate their own political and social alternative.

Taking advantage of a certain room for mass movements brought about by the popular expectations of the DPJ's "changes"--and through a possible disturbed situation in the state bureaucracy under the DPJ government--we must work for building the mass movements around key issues.

These include the Manpower Dispatching Business Law, which makes it easier to hire and fire temporary workers; growing poverty; the alignment plan of U.S. armed forces and the question of U.S. bases at Okinawa; overseas deployment of the Japanese armed forces; constitutional revision around military issues; climate change and others.

Through struggles around these issues, we will continue our effort to build a new political current--a left-wing alternative to confront the historical crisis of international capitalism.

Originally published in Kakehashi (Bridge), a weekly newspaper of the National Council of Internationalist Workers and the Japan Revolutionary Communist League.

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