For the second year in a row, Gerald Curtis’ annual lecture on Japanese politics followed on the heels of the ascension of a new Japanese Prime Minister. With the lecture delivered the day after Taro Aso succeeded Yasuo Fukuda, Curtis provided a capacity crowd of scholars and journalists at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs with a picture of what appears to be an exciting time in Japanese domestic politics. Combining criticism, commentary, and predictions, the lecture hinted that Japan is currently in a process of creative destruction, out of which a stronger and healthier polity will emerge.
Among his targets of criticism were legacy politicians (more than 30% of all Diet members are legacies. The current and former two Prime Ministers are sons or grandsons of Prime Ministers); pork-barrel spending (especially given the new electoral system, in which narrow constituencies have become significantly less important); an inability of Japanese politicians, after more than 50 years of what has been nearly uninterrupted one-party dominance, in dealing with legislative gridlock; and bureaucrat-bashing (bureaucrats in Japan fill roles that in the United States would be the purview of Congressional staff or think-tanks).
As for predictions, Curtis began with the assertion that Prime Minister Aso may very well become the shortest-serving Prime Minister in post-war Japanese history and that there will most likely be at least two more Prime Ministers between now and this time next year. In regards to upcoming Lower House elections, the timing of which is still uncertain, Curtis laid out all possible eventualities, from the least likely (a decisive LDP victory) to the most likely (a slim DPJ victory). Curtis also hinted that this election could very well spell the demise of one of the two major political parties. In the case of a strong LDP win, the DPJ’s survival prospects are slim, as DPJ members could very well abandon the party for the LDP or to form a new party. In the eventuality of a DPJ win, many members of the LDP who find themselves increasingly at odds with the conservative power center of the party, but who stay with the LDP because they hold the national reins, may be inclined to leave the party once it loses power. There is a very real possibility that an LDP in opposition could see an exodus of its more moderate and liberal members.
Whatever the outcome, Curtis is pessimistic about the short-term policy-making power of the Japanese government. With a slim victory by either the LDP or the DPJ the most likely outcome, the Japanese government must come to terms with political deadlock and begin developing strategies for dealing with it. In the long term however, Curtis is optimistic that the current tumult heralds a sea change in the Japanese political system that will leave the country much better off once the storm has passed.
-Daniel De Simone
The lecture was sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the Center for Japanese Economy and Business (CJEB). Hugh Patrick, Professor Emeritus of International Business and director of CJEB, moderated.