Meltdown of the Japanese Political Establishment, and its Future

2011年04月21日 14:52
As the plumes of smoke rose from the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station, the dark clouds gathered over the Japanese political establishment and they continue to hang there ominously.

The world was amazed by at first and then admired the reaction of the Japanese people in the face of adversity caused by the earthquake and tsunami.

Unfazed, controlled and resilient, we may appear on the outside.

However, the pressure level of discontent and vindictiveness, if not vengeance, is rising within the hearts and minds of the Japanese people for the way they have been handled (or mishandled) by those in the power.

We all want and expect the heads to roll. After all, we are the people who have raised the ritual suicide into an art form.

Chief amongst the soon-to-be rolling heads is that of Naoto Kan. The Prime Minister’s penchant for grandstanding performance and photo opportunities, in lieu of substance, political vision and leadership, has been heavily criticised and even held responsible for the delay in relation to the crucial first reaction to contain the worsening situation at the nuclear power plant.

However, the root of the Japanese people’s discontent goes much deeper than the mere head of the political party in power. We do understand that we are failed by the political establishment that has outstayed its welcome by some couple of decades, at least.

In other words, we all understand that the problem is systematic and, therefore, deep-rooted in our society as well as our long-held post-WWII value system based thereon. This will make the imminent correction painful.

Take away the current “radioactive clouds” of popular fury surrounding the nuclear plant situation, there are three components of the Japanese political establishment that demand closer scrutiny and inevitable reform if Japan is to emerge from this quagmire with something resembling a long-term prospect and hope.

First is the politicians themselves, and this include both national as well as local government levels. Their more notable maladies are as follows:-

  • At the national level, the two-chamber system under the current constitution has produced the semi-permanent stalemate in the recent past, which prevented any radical but necessary reform to be carried out.
  • The introduction of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system at the more powerful lower chamber in 1994 was coupled with the proportional representation (PP). Currently 300 seats are elected through FPTP system and 180 from PP. This has created the situation where many losing candidates in FPTP are nonetheless elected through PP. This co-habitation system lacks rationality and serves only the interests of incumbent politicians. As a result, the current electoral system is eroding the legitimacy from the politics as a whole in the eyes of constituents.
  • The politicians have been reluctant in re-drawing the constituency boundaries to redress malapportionment issues. This “gerrymandering through negligence”, again, favours the incumbent and damages the legitimacy of the political class.
  • Many local governments are heavily reliant on handouts from the central governments in terms of their finance. Consequently, they are the governments without fiscal accountability (which somewhat reflects the mindset of those in the national politics).

All in all, the lack of legitimacy and accountability led us to the successive election of opportunistic and short-lived prime ministers in the post-Koizumi era, whose popular appeal was only good for a season or two. The rationalisation of the Japanese political landscape is long overdue and must be accompanied with substantial cuts to the number of elected positions at each level.

Secondly, the Japanese bureaucracy requires a huge overhaul.

Unfortunately, the “bureaucrat bashing” has been the favorite pastime of the opportunist politicians in the recent years. Fanned by the popular demand for scapegoats, it was also a vote-winner. This has sadly deflected the public’s attention from the real issue.

The Japanese bureaucracy suffers from the rigid career path within the respective ministries and the silo-mentality of their occupants resulting therefrom. The problem manifested itself tragically in the aftermath of the recent disaster where the government’s reaction was poorly coordinated and lacked focus. Add to that, the confrontational stance previously taken by the politicians resulted in poor communication between the bureaucrats and their political masters.

The bureaucratic excess and wastes are real issues in Japan. But the politicians must realise that “buck stops with them”. What we need is the improved flow of human capital and expertise between the relevant government departments to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.

Thirdly, the Japanese people are increasingly uncomfortable with the established conventional media.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese people, in dire need for information and certainty, quickly realised the gap between the coverage of the disaster by the domestic media and those by the international ones. Whilst some of the international coverage was overtly sensationalistic, the Japanese audience could not help but notice that it provided raw data, which was not available in the domestic media, especially in relation to the nuclear plant situation.

The problem here is essentially twofold.

  • The Japanese traditional media, in particular the terrestrial TV networks, has concentrated on “info-tainment” aspect of journalism for far too long in pursuit of viewers in the adverse economic climate. Therefore, the most of them (except perhaps NHK, the publicly funded network) simply lacked experience and resources when the disaster struck.
  • Secondly, the Japanese media has enjoyed too cozy a relationship with the political establishment and it lacked objectivity at the time when it was critical. In other words, the Japanese journalists lost the spirit of journalism. It has previously manifested itself in their dogged defense of “Press Clubs” each attached to the government departments and other centres of political powers in Japan, where the briefings take place and from which foreign as well as independent journalists are still officially excluded. The Japanese media complied too easily with the government’s persuasion to be “economical with the actualite” in fear of panic. It stands witness to their collective hubris that they did not think twice about people getting information through other media in this global Internet age. As a result, they undermined their own journalistic integrity and the Japanese government was, and still continues to be, seen as “hiding something”.

The Japanese media conglomerates, often consist of a newspaper company and its TV affiliate, have long resisted restructuring of their business and reorganisation of their industry. Further loss of advertising revenue, as well as the revelation of their inadequacy, may finally force the inevitable.

The natural disasters invariably produce human reactions, both obvious and invisible. We recall from our own history that the downfall of the last Shogun and Meiji Reformation in 1867/8 were preceded by the Ansei Great Earthquake in 1855. It would probably be the least we can do in the honour and memory of those whom we have lost and those who have suffered and continue to suffer if we can push through the necessary reform and move the history forward from the current doldrums in order to achieve the brighter future for Japan.





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