- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

Dr. Akikazu Hashimoto at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo spoke with Washington Times reporter Takehiko Kambayashi about a growing number of independent voters in Japan and their likely impact on Sunday’s elections.

Question: In recent years, the number of independent voters has steadily increased, making up 50 percent or so of the electorate. Is there any party that can attract them?

Answer: The era of party loyalists is already over. First, with the end of the Cold War, Cold War ideology no longer exists. So there is little point in the rivalry between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Japanese Communist Party or the Social Democratic Party.

Second, in 1992, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) were deployed to noncombat areas in Cambodia for logistics — the first dispatch of the SDF overseas for United Nations peacekeeping operations. A majority of the Japanese public had opposed something like this until then, but the tide was suddenly reversed. It was a significant milestone that most Japanese agreed to the dispatch under limited circumstances.

Third, the myth of eternal economic growth came to an end. Until the early 1990s, a lot of people still believed that Japan’s economy would expand once again, even when the bubble economy burst. That’s why so many lost heavily [as the economy deteriorated]. However, by 1995 or 1996, more people had become aware of the end of steady economic growth.

The start of the deflationary spiral in 1998 made more people realize that the government had tried to manage financial affairs but had failed to halt the cancer, despite pouring enormous amounts of public money into the economy.

Q: What was their response?

A: Many voters started saying: “Well, we cannot pursue our old dreams anymore.” Then, more people came to realize the relation between benefits and burdens. They think it is unavoidable to bear some burden if they are convinced and satisfied [by politicians].

Going through these three turning points, voters’ consciousness has gradually changed. In other words, more voters don’t think it necessary to continue supporting a specific party. In short, if they find a candidate or a party they really like, they vote for that person or party. If not, they abstain from voting even though they are LDP supporters. I also need to mention there is the other kind of unaffiliated voters: apathetic ones who stay away from the polls.

Q: The merger between the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and the Liberal Party received much media attention. Will the new DPJ make inroads against the LDP?

A: The DPJ is likely to win in big cities and prefectural capitals. Still, it has a long way to go.

Despite protracted economic woes, the DPJ is not attractive enough. Neither is the LDP, of course. So, I don’t think voter turnout will be as high as expected. By contrast, the country is filled with those in despair about politics, isn’t it?

Q: Critics say there has been little progress in [Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi’s reforms despite his bold promises. But he still enjoys popularity. Why?

A: That is a very important question. Unlike American democracy, under Japanese democracy, the will of voters is still in the process of becoming mature. On the other hand, especially in the LDP’s strongholds, there are still many voters who cling to vested interests.

The elderly, who are getting pensions from the government, also support Mr. Koizumi out of self-protection. That also slows any political power shift or the progress of Japan’s democracy.

You can’t just blame politicians for the delay in reform. Bureaucrats are worse. But the bureaucracy is credited with building today’s Japan, which was a big success. So it takes an awful time to change the bureaucracy under Japan’s parliamentary system, unlike under a presidential system.

But if the Koizumi Cabinet collapses, the party would quickly split in two or three. [Former Prime Minister Ryutaro] Hashimoto’s faction, [the largest in the LDP], has been already divided.

Q: Would do you expect the DPJ to break up, too?

A: A split in the LDP could prompt the DPJ to follow suit in a week. Then members who could share similar ideas could get together to form their own party. I would expect that political realignment to happen after next year’s upper House [of Councilors] election.

Q: Speaking of Sunday’s election, many predict the LDP will lose some seats but that the LDP and two coalition partners will hold on to power.

A: Probably. But nobody knows what will happen.

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