Ben Hills

The democratic world’s longest-ruling government has finally been overthrown. Now comes the hard part – working out the policies of the new one. Early next month, a nonconservative coalition will be sworn in, the first since 1948. But just what pent-up forces of change will be unleashed, what the Hosokawa administration stands for, and how the world should react are still a mystery, not least to the players themselves.

The amazing high-wire balancing act of the eight opposition parties which will take over government has been made possible by their agreement on one thing only – the voters had decided it was time to throw out the corrupt gerontocrats of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Having achieved that, the 250-odd MPs are still rubbing their eyes in disbelief. They knew what they were AGAINST – now they have to work out just what they are for.

So far, with the exception of electoral reform, they have been able to agree on nothing bar the broad outlines of a steady-as-you-go manifesto of platitudes, which even the unreconstructed hardliners of the old LDP would have no trouble endorsing.

This is hardly surprising when you look at just who this “grand coalition”represents. It is a motley crew of socialist idealists, old conservative powerbrokers and innocents abroad that would bring a shrug to the shoulders of even coalition-hardened Italians. The majority have no experience in government at all, and are too young even to remember a time when anyone other than the LDP was in power.

One third are Social Democrats, Japan’s perennial main opposition party. Although they have been purged of their more antediluvian Left, a strong element is still against Japan’s armed forces, wants to halt nuclear power generation, and favours the Stalinist dictatorship of North Korea.

Another third are renegade LDP MPs who brought the party down through a mixture of greed for power and genuine desire for change. Although some do have experience of Cabinet-level government, many – like “puppet-master”Ichiro Ozawa – are so deeply stained by their own involvement in corruption, that they will never be trusted as genuine reformers.

The remaining third of the party is a menagerie of showbusiness and sporting types with no experience in politics at all (Japan New Party), cultists who worship a raving “living Buddha” named Daisaku Ikeda (Clean Government Party), the political arm of Rengo, Japan’s trade union movement(Democratic Reform Party) and various fringe socialists with obscure ideological differences to the mainstream.

Fasten your seat belts and extinguish all cigarettes – Japan is in for a turbulent time.

Yohei Kono, who is likely to become the first LDP leader not to be Prime Minister in the party’s history, is not the only one to express serious misgivings about the ability of this collection to formulate coherent policy on any of the urgent issues facing Japan. Japan Inc is increasingly concerned, and the markets and exchange rates are fibrillating.

The broad-brushstroke policies released so far are less a plausible program of government, and more a manifesto for the election that will be held under new ground rules within the next 12 months. Many people regard the July 18 vote as no more than the primary election for this.

Before the new parliament has even been convened, electioneering for the next one has begun. Shinseito and Sakigake – the two conservative breakaway parties – have asked Japan Inc (the Keidanren industry organisation) for $A60 million just to tide them over.

The new election will be held under a German-style system in which the current multi-party electorates are scrapped, and the House reduced to 500 seats – 250 to be elected in single electorates, and 250 on a proportional party list system.

Corporate political donations will be banned – but not just yet.

Psephologists are uprooting their hair trying to work out who will benefit. Smaller parties surely will proliferate – the Communists, for instance, would more than double their numbers. But the mighty LDP, still far and away the biggest party, with its huge hordes of cash and its superb grassroots organisation, may also stage a dramatic recovery after a spell of misogi(ritual cleansing) in the wilderness.

In the meantime, the mandarins of Kasumigaseki, Tokyo’s public service precinct, have been quick to assert their influence in key policy areas. While the politicians brawl over the spoils, they have continued framing the Budget and conducting trade talks as though the elected Government was irrelevant.

None of the members of the coalition needs reminding that without the co-operation of Japan’s almighty bureaucracy, even those reforms they can agree on will get nowhere.

The specific policies which have been announced so far are largely matters of social style rather than economic substance. Japan will get freedom-ofinformation laws; it will acknowledge its wartime aggression and atrocities; censorship of schoolbooks will be relaxed; health care and pensions for Japan’s aging population will be a priority; and there will be a greater emphasis on the environment, on women and on consumer issues.

The coalition will catapult many new faces into critical positions, with conservatives, socialists and Buddhists scrambling for influence in the provisional Government. Some, notably the new Justice Minister, who will spearhead an anticorruption task-force, will not even be politicians. The Socialists, although the biggest party in the coalition, will be squeezed into low-profile sinecures.

Who these new ministers are, and what they stand for, will largely be made up as they go along:

* FINANCE – The new Finance Minister, nominal head of the world’s second largest economy, will be either former Finance Minister Tsutomu Hata (if he doesn’t get Foreign Affairs) or Masayoshi Takemura, 58, head of the conservative Sakigake (Harbinger) Party and a former prefectural governor.

The key issue for Japanese voters, as well as countries trying to export their way out of recession, will be tax cuts. All parties promised cuts in personal income tax in the $20 billion $30 billion range during the campaign. This would provide a major boost to consumption, and the stock market is already moving up in anticipation.

* TRADE – Front runner for the critical job as Minister for International Trade and Industry (MITI) is Koshiro Ishida, 62, the secretary-general of Komeito (Clean Government Party). His most critical challenge will be opening Japan’s markets, to help redress its $126 billion-a-year trade surplus with the rest of the world, and clear obstacles from the path of a successful conclusion to the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade(GATT). The outlook is not promising.

* FOREIGN AFFAIRS – If Mr Hata doesn’t get the job, it may go to Kazuo Aichi, a 55-year-old Shinseito frontbencher and former LDP vice political minister for Foreign Affairs and Environment Minister. On this front, there is a more positive outlook for the rest of the world from the “new” Japan.

Coalition policy is to maintain Japan’s commitment to sending troops to UN peacekeeping operations overseas.

Japan is also likely to maintain its overseas aid to developing countries -currently the largest in the world – and build new bridges with Asia by finally acknowledging its wartime history. Its defence alliance with the US will not change, nor will its row with Russia over the Kurile Islands.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 31 July 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 26
Word count: 1424
Keywords: Candidates Election Japan
1. Japan’s next Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, with rivals for the Finance portfolio, Renewal Party leader Tsutomu Hata, and Japan Harbinger Party head Masayoshi Takemura.
2. Hopefuls … Kazuo Aichi, a possible Foreign Affairs Minister, and Koshiro Ishida, secretary-general of Komeito (Clean Government Party), keen on Trade.