Japan’s Prime Minister, Yukio Hatoyama, is having a tough time. The popularity of his cabinet has fallen to the high 30s/low 40s from previously unsustainable, stratospheric heights — but structural change has costs, and I remain optimistic that Democracy 2.0 is taking over in Japan.
I think that we are seeing serious rewiring of Japan’s political system which is essential if Japan’s bureaucrat-dominated state is going to become more sensitive not only to voter preferences but also to new realities in the international system.
One rarely sees positive stuff in the American press about Hatoyama — particularly as he has been tearing off the left hand, middle fingernail of the American Leviathan with an effort to stop an expensive and controversial US Marine air station from moving from one part of Okinawa island to another. Overall, Hatoyama’s resistance about the Futenma Base shouldn’t be more than a small blip in the overall US-Japan strategic and economic relationship, but it’s that middle finger nail — and Japan’s boldness has been ticking off a number of US policymakers.
Another group that is ticked off as their fingernails are pulled back, one by one, are Japan’s bureaucrats.
Today, in a terrific piece by the New York Times‘ Martin Fackler, Hatoyama is portrayed as a potentially historically successful and significant leader.
Since ending the Liberal Democrats’ nearly unbroken 54-year grip on power in last summer’s election, Mr. Hatoyama’s Democratic Party has proclaimed its top mission to be changing the way the country is governed by a process that is commonly called “escaping the bureaucracy.” The aim is to make Japan’s political system more responsive by ending more than a century of de facto rule by elite career bureaucrats at Tokyo’s central ministries, and empowering democratically elected politicians instead.
It has already made considerable progress, say political experts, who caution that the battle is far from won. The Hatoyama administration has put teams of lawmakers in charge of daily operations at the ministries, which long ran Japan with backroom decision-making. It has centralized the appointment and promotion of top officials in the prime minister’s office, and forced out recalcitrant top officials.
To put its imprint on spending decisions, the government will hold a second high-profile search for hidden waste in ministry budgets next month. The first one, last autumn, which cut some $7 billion in spending, offered an unprecedented public spectacle of Parliament members grilling squirming bureaucrats, turning the tables on the powerful pooh-bahs who had long called the shots.
“The bureaucrats created a very centralized system that has become out of date, and unable to react to the world’s changes,” Kazuhiro Haraguchi, the minister of internal affairs, said in an interview. “We need a system that serves the people, not the bureaucracy and entrenched interest groups.”
I agree that the jury is still out — but those doubting Hatoyama need to tread carefully because this seems to be a leader and party that clearly recognizes that inertia and incrementalism as policy drivers would be a disaster for Japan. They see this as a time of historical discontinuity — and Japan really needs to change — rather than just faking it as it did in the past.
Particularly powerful in this article was Japan expert Karel van Wolferen‘s assessment:
“What is happening is nothing short of revolutionary,” said Karel van Wolferen, a professor of comparative politics at the University of Amsterdam who wrote a 1995 best-selling critique of the Japanese system, “The System That Makes Japanese Unhappy,” which zeroed in on the unresponsive elite as a core national problem. A half year of Hatoyama has produced more change than an entire year of Obama.”
To be fair to President Obama who also has had an up and down year, securing comprehensive health care reform — even if not satisfactory to a big slug of Americans — is a huge accomplishment, putting him in the top tier of all presidents who have tried the same over the last century.
But I understand van Wolferen’s essential point: Hatoyama — with his own shadow shogun Ichiro Ozawa — is reconfiguring the architecture of the Japanese political order.
— Steve Clemons
Ed. Note: Hat tip to TWN’s favorite newshound Daniel Lippman.