- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

Akikazu Hashimoto, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, has extensively researched Japan’s unaffiliated voters. He spoke with Washington Times reporter Takehiko Kambayashi about the House of Councilors elections this July.

Question: Public surveys seem to show the recent pension scandal, in which it became known that more than 100 lawmakers in the Japanese Diet had not been paying compulsory national pension premiums, discourage many voters in the upcoming elections.

Answer: It is true that each party has lost public trust because of the scandal. But more important, newspaper polls suggest the public has become more interested in Diet proceedings concerning pension bills. [According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, 71 percent of readers surveyed said they want to see the national pension system drastically reformed.] So, the answer to your question is that the voter turnout might get close to the 44.52 percent of 1995 — which is the lowest voter participation in postwar Japan — or even lower.

Q: Did the scandals deal a blow to a two-party system?

A: If so, tell me which party could benefit.

While the number of voters who cast ballots is expected to decrease, certainly New Komeito [backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization] is the only party that can expect a high voter turnout. So New Komeito could relatively stand out.

This would heighten its value as a third force — a Western-style pivotal party. I don’t believe a two-party system will take hold in Japan. That is not suited to the country’s democratic politics and national character.

Q: Could you elaborate on that?

A: I would say the Japanese people find it difficult to get politics settled once for all. People tend to say: “I’d rather take this side.”

There are analysts, politicians and journalists who argue that a two-party system is what a parliamentary democracy ought to be, but that’s wrong. Such a system won’t take root in Japan.

Q: The Democratic Party of Japan has presented itself as a troubled party after its leader, Naoto Kan, resigned over his failure to pay pension premiums. So the Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition appears set to retain its majority without any difficulty. Some say the DPJ may break up if it does poorly.

A: No. No. Not at all. They will last long.

The media are tied to the image of what a person used to be — like, “Ichiro Ozawa is a guy who could destroy the party.” [Mr. Ozawa is a former DPJ acting leader who declined to succeed Mr. Kan as leader because he didn’t pay his pension premiums, either.]

He is not that kind of person at all. I don’t expect the DPJ to suffer a crushing defeat. If Mr. Ozawa became its leader, they might even do well.

Some say the LDP will win a single-party majority, but I don’t think that will happen. Analysts and the mainstream media have been misled by a false image of [Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi’s “high approval ratings.”

Public opinion has been vulnerable to what is reported in the media, especially TV. Those who approve of the way Mr. Koizumi is doing his job usually say things like, “Jun-chan (Mr. Koizumi) dared to go to North Korea and stood up against Kim Jong-il. Jun-chan did a great job, so five family members were finally able to come home. Let’s give him a big hand.”

These people, however, never go to the polls. That is my theory.

I know some lawmakers who are bound by the spell that they could never beat Mr. Koizumi due to his high approval ratings. I understand they are very sensitive to such things as approval ratings and popularity.

Q: Can we expect to see another political reorganization?

A: When the “Koizumi LDP” ends, the party will break up. It is highly likely that that could spark a political reorganization.

I would say that could take place in 2006 at the latest, when Mr. Koizumi completes his term of office.

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