Japan’s 2017 election: Plus ça change?

Posted By on Oct 24, 2017 in Events | 0 comments

This is the second of two events looking at Japan’s General Election. This one looks at politics. On Oct 20 we looked at economics.

Japan’s 2017 election: Plus ça change?

Two days after the election, leading Japan analyst Tobias Harris gives his thoughts to the Delphi Network.

Speaker: Tobias Harris, Teneo Intelligence
When: October 24 12-1.45am
Where: Danish Embassy Daikanyama
Cost: 7,000yen

Foreign observers enjoy Japanese elections. We are fascinated by the question of how well Japan, almost the biggest and probably the most successful non-Western economy has assimilated the lessons of democracy. After all, when a single party has been in party for 65 of the last 70 years, legitimate doubts may set in….

The fact that mainstream political parties are crumbling from Washington DC to London via Berlin and Paris, makes the Japan general election all the more interesting. Is triumphant populism (Ie the hatred of elites) coming to Japan, as it has in Europe and the US?

In fact, Japan is “business as usual”. Contempt of the elites is focussed on the bureaucracy, which Prime Minister Abe has brought under control. Strong political leadership is welcome, especially when it is accompanied by economic growth.

On some level always hostile to globalization, Japan has maintained the myth of a homogenous culture. Immigrants are few – too few, many argue – and do not act as lightening rod for discontent. Outsourcing, cost-cutting, lower wages – all are conveniently explained by Japan Inc as the outcome of global competition. The electorate seems to accept this explanation, unable to articulate a vision of change (as Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, France’s Marine LePen and Germany’s AfD have done, with more or less success).

Japan’s domestic politics is overshadowed by the importance of the US alliance – the country which destroyed and then rebuilt the archipelago. There is no Japanese equivalent of the expression “special relationship” which marks UK obeisance to its overlord -but Japan’s dependence is greater. With military action circumscribed by its constitution, Japan follows the US world order and in return, exploits America’s open markets.

Can the coming election change the country? Compared to events in the UK or France, probably not. No Japanese leader is going to sever ties with the US (the equivalent of Brexi). And unlike France, we don’t see the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party collapsing, as the French socialist party did.

Japan’s “opposition” is just as typical as LDP dominance. it is a mess. The Democratic Party of Japan, which threatened to revolutionize Japan a few years back, has imploded. Cleverness and aggression are exhibited purely by Ms Koike, governor of Tokyo. But she is not running for PM, despite her new party being the only competitive entity. Her party’s manifesto differs only in detail (some admittedly important like her desire to postpone the consumption tax) from Abe’s. This is not surprising, as her natural habitat is the LDP – assuming they could ever accommodate such an aggressive personality.

With the economy emerging from a 10 year slump; a lack of pressure to “liberalize” from newly protectionist Europe and America; the battle against the bureaucracy seemingly won…this election lacks faultlines – apart from for Abe to keep himself in power until 2021.

Ironically, the real but hidden faultline in Japan is quite open in other countries: identity politics. Is Japan a pacifist, passive US appendage or a self-determining entity with an engaged electorate debating foreign and domestic policy?

But this debate is barely allowed to surface beyond the black trucks and blaring loudspeakers roaming the streets at the weekend. In that sense, the establishment is keeping things well “under wraps” – and arguably showing far greater political skill than her Western allies.

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