Leaders must chart new political course
Will the nation's economy pick up? Will we be able to continue to receive medical and nursing care with a sense of assurance? Will a rift appear in Japan-U.S. relations?
Many people doubtless greeted the New Year with such concerns because the nation's lack of political direction and ongoing economic stagnation inspire fear rather than expectations in people and bring a sense of resignation rather than hope.
The primary reasons stem from Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's administration not only lacking the sort of mid- and long-term national strategy needed to maintain peace, prosperity and a safe, secure society, but also its failure to clearly show the people the course that the nation should take at the moment.
Without a national strategy, Japan will be left adrift on the rough seas of global politics--a dreadful situation.
Which direction should Japan take? What sort of nation should Japan seek to be? How will the nation draw its new state image? Our political leaders must shoulder the responsibility for guiding the nation through this critical time and present a bold national strategy to do so.
The dysfunctional nature of the Hatoyama administration is the result of the disproportionate influence wielded by the smaller members of the ruling coalition, the insistence on adhering strictly to the manifesto touted by the Democratic Party of Japan during the House of Representatives election in implementing policies and the obstinate stance of excluding bureaucrats from the policymaking process.
In addition, there is the scandal over questionable political donations involving Hatoyama's political fund management organization. Hatoyama has made it clear he intends to leave the matter of whether he should resign up to the voters. Depending on how public sentiment develops, it could lead to political upheaval. It also is possible that Japan's political world could be thrown into turmoil.
We cannot overlook the present situation in which the DPJ, the predominant party in the ruling camp, is at the mercy of its junior coalition partners--the Social Democratic Party and the People's New Party--which, despite their small number of seats, hold the key to the fate of bills in the House of Councillors, distorting the fundamentals of the nation's foreign and security policies and fiscal and economic management.
The Hatoyama administration's postponing of its decision on the relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps' Futenma Air Station in Okinawa Prefecture typifies this situation.
Hatoyama's indecision and the intercession of DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa and other officials whose top priority is maintaining the ruling coalition have led to the present critical juncture in the Japan-U.S. alliance.
1955 model worked
The merger of the Liberal Party and the Japan Democratic Party to create the Liberal Democratic Party in November 1955 was born out of a sense of crisis as these conservative parties witnessed the unification of the left and right factions of the Japan Socialist Party in October of the same year. Yet it was also aimed at heading off a power struggle among small splinter parties.
Then Deputy Prime Minister Taketora Ogata pointed out that leaving the deciding vote in the Diet in the hands of small parties would shake the public's trust in political rule by the majority, and emphasized the urgent need to bring political stability with the merger.
Although there were pros and cons to the so-called 1955 regime--in which the LDP controlled both houses of the Diet, and the JSP held roughly half the number of seats held by the LDP in each house--there is no doubt that it secured the nation's peace on the basis of the Japan-U.S. alliance and built the foundations for political stability under the LDP's single-party control and for the ensuing economic growth.
The Hatoyama Cabinet is under pressure to take the deciding vote away from its junior coalition partners.
When it comes to important policies and bills that could determine the fate of the nation and have a major impact on people's lives, the administration should not hesitate to form a temporary alliance and cooperate with opposition parties or even to form a national-unity administration through a bold political reorganization.
The Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of national security. While continuing its development of nuclear arms, North Korea is demanding a security guarantee and economic assistance. Meanwhile, China is attempting to expand its economic interests, backed by its military buildup.
For Japan, which is separated by a narrow strip of water from these two countries of different political systems, maintaining amicable Japan-U.S. relations on the basis of the security alliance should be a fundamental part of the national strategy.
In spite of this, Hatoyama's words and deeds touting his vision of an East Asian community and aimed at distancing Japan from the United States could potentially endanger the alliance.
It is self-evident that, as a sovereign state, Japan has an equal relationship with the United States.
Yet, the Japan-U.S. security alliance is based on mutual benefit whereby Japan is protected by the United States in time of emergency in exchange for allowing the United States to establish military bases in Japan.
The Japan-U.S. security alliance made it possible for Japan to pursue butter instead of guns in the postwar years.
If Japan ends its previous dependence on the United States and pursues relations as an equal, it will become vital to drastically reinforce the nation's ability to defend itself and deal with external threats, including that posed by North Korea.
Doing so would require a substantial increase in defense spending, a move that would lead to cuts in budgetary resources that should otherwise be used to improve the economy and carry out social welfare programs. This would be exacerbated by greater concerns among neighboring nations about Japan's military buildup.
For this country, weakening its alliance with the United States and seeking a fifty-fifty bilateral relationship is not a realistic option.
Meanwhile, Japan has every reason to step up its strategic reciprocal relationship with China, a nation with which this country has close economic ties. Cooperation with China is also indispensable to keep North Korea in check.
More importantly, Japan must look at the whole issue from the standpoint of basing peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region on efforts to step up relations with the United States, with which this nation shares such values as democracy, a respect for human rights, freedom of thought and creed.
A price war is raging among corporations selling their products at prices lower than their production and other necessary costs in the consumer electronic, apparel, food and some other industries. However, consumers cannot afford to be complacent about a heavy discount on goods. No one should forget that the excessive price war is a precarious phenomenon that could produce negative effects, including the advent of a dog-eat-dog society, growth in corporate bankruptcies, rising unemployment, declining wages and worsening deflation.
Overcoming deflation requires strong political leadership. The government must show the market its strong determination to bail the nation out of a deflationary crisis at any cost--even by adopting strong-arm tactics. The significance of doing so is evident if one stops to remember historical events. In the early 1930s, Finance Minister Korekiyo Takahashi demonstrated strong leadership in fighting the Showa Depression, as did U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in combating the Great Depression of 1929.
Regrettably, it seems that Hatoyama is unable to demonstrate any determination to overcome the ongoing recession. The prime minister's adherence to the ruling party's manifesto is so obsessive that he has been unable to set policy priorities, thus wavering between conflicting options in settling disputes over each issue.
This was also true with the process of putting together a new fiscal budget. The Hatoyama administration experienced continued confusion in deciding how to treat several DPJ manifesto pledges in compiling the budget, including plans to scrap the provisionally higher gasoline tax and set up a child-raising allowance program. The turmoil was eventually put to rest when party Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa submitted a solution, in effect, to each pending problem that must be addressed under the next budget.
This means the DPJ's promise to ensure the Cabinet is the sole organ responsible for devising government policies has been reduced to an empty and deceptive slogan. It is very disturbing to see that the ruling party has the upper hand over the government.
The Hatoyama Cabinet has been unable to smoothly communicate with bureaucrats, leaving itself with a lack of information that could otherwise be provided by them. Any prime minister--or cabinet member, for that matter--would find it impossible to make proper policy decisions if they were denied essential information that could be provided by bureaucrats. Using the skills and expertise of bureaucrats for meaningful purposes--not shunning them outright--is what it takes for political leaders to better fulfill their duties.
The DPJ pledge to use taxpayers' money not for concrete, but for people has taken on a life of its own. This should be perceived as a hazardous turn of events.
The slogan seems to suggest that promoting public works projects is a harmful policy peculiar to a country dominated by the construction industry. True, each public works project needs to be examined for its propriety, but it is important to conduct economy-boosting public works projects at a time when most regional economies are impoverished.
Sales tax hike needed
An essential task to be undertaken in building a society in which people can live without anxiety is to provide well-organized medical, nursing care and welfare services. Improving the quality of social welfare programs will not only establish a better social safety net, but such efforts also produce economic pump-priming effects.
Social security-related businesses and services in this country--a sector in which about 6 million people now work--are certain to expand their scope in the future due to the nation's declining birthrate combined with the graying of its population. It is said that this sector can compare with other industries in creating jobs, encouraging production and cash flow.
The government cannot get by with avoiding an increase in the consumption tax rate if it hopes to raise financial resources for future social welfare programs. The Hatoyama administration must lift the continued freeze on a rise in the tax rate and seek popular support for the tax hike after an improvement in the economy.
Issuing a massive number of new government bonds under the next fiscal budget has become unavoidable. Of the total debt-servicing costs to be incurred under the new budget, about 10 trillion yen will be used to pay interest on the government bonds purchased. It is worth considering the issuance of zero-interest, tax-exempt government bonds to ease the burden shouldered by the government in paying interest, an idea advanced by such key figures as Shizuka Kamei, state minister in charge of financial services.
The government should also be advised to encourage people to use part of their nest eggs--a pool of money worth about 30 trillion yen--to buy government bonds, although such a policy measure could be criticized as a form of preferential treatment for wealthy people. We believe doing so will help boost the economy.
In a time of crisis, it is necessary to think and act in a manner that fits the situation. This nation must quickly leave behind the current political tendency to please the public with lavish handouts and eye-catching actions. It must be remembered that "bread and circuses"--that is, handouts and petty amusements used by politicians to attract popular support--was a factor believed to have quickened the fall of the Roman Empire.
Failure to leave the current political climate behind means political leaders in this nation will not be able to end the ongoing crisis, or fulfill their obligations to set a course for the future of their nation.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 1, 2010)