Japanese leadership fails at post-disaster reconstruction test

Author: Gerald Curtis, Columbia University

The Japanese Earthquake and tsunami left more than 25,000 people dead or missing. It damaged or destroyed 125,000 buildings, and spread an estimated 27 million tons of debris over a wide expanse of the northeast Pacific coast.

The media and the political opposition have been unrelenting in their criticism of Prime Minister Kan. Less than 20 per cent of the public now support the prime minister. More than 70 per cent disapprove of the way he has dealt with the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake Disaster, and would like to see him resign before the end of August. But the public entertains no illusions that the political situation will improve with Kan’s resignation. With no political leader having captured the public’s imagination, support for the DPJ, LDP and other parties is in free-fall.

The Kan government’s response to the earthquake and tsunami has not been as awful as his critics argue (although the response to the crisis at the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi is another story). It was far better than the way the Bush administration dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and compares favourably to how other governments have responded to disaster situations.

But Japanese rightfully credit the people in Tohoku and not the government for being law abiding and orderly, and for doing so much to take care of themselves and each other. They have not received the assistance from the government they should have. There are stories of elderly people who managed to survive the tsunami dying in evacuation centres from hypothermia because of delays in getting blankets and dry clothing.

Prime Minister Kan has not succeeded in convincing the public that he has a vision for Tohoku reconstruction and for Japan’s future. In the aftermath of the disaster he should have appointed a reconstruction minister immediately and tasked him or her with producing a basic reconstruction plan for urgent presentation. Instead Kan created a reconstruction commission consisting of several academics with little relevant expertise. The Commission’s final report is not due until near the end of the calendar year.

Reliance on this Reconstruction Design Council will delay decisions. The report that finally emerges is certain to be a consensus document, and will not offer the hard-hitting, bold and precedent-breaking approach that is needed.

It is impossible for Kan to come up with a meaningful reconstruction plan if he waits until a committee tells him what to think about everything that might be relevant to recovering from the disaster, from nuclear energy policy to tax policy. It is the responsibility of the Prime Minister himself to come up with a basic concept for rebuilding Tohoku and to then seek expertise from within and outside the government to translate that concept into a concrete plan of action.

The opportunity to create a new Tohoku development model exists. The key is to designate Tohoku as a special economic zone and transfer power and money to the prefecture and local governments. Domestic and foreign businesses would be offered tax holidays and other incentives to invest in the Tohoku SEZ and prefectural governments would have the authority to decide whether to apply or suspend ministerial rules and regulations and whether to impose restrictions of their own, for example on rebuilding in the tsunami danger zone.

Prime Minister Kan seems to have little idea about how to structure a coherent policy making process — and he gets no help from bureaucrats who want to see him fail. He seems incapable of delegating responsibility and the crisis spawned by the catastrophe of 11 March deprived him of the luxury of time in figuring out how to develop a sensible decision making system.

There can be no short-term remedy for Japan’s political woes so long as its parliament is divided. With their control of the upper house, the opposition parties find the temptation to block DPJ legislation irresistible.

Forming a grand coalition is not the answer to Japan’s political predicament either. In Japan, social cleavages — class, region, religion, ethnicity and so on — that help structure party systems elsewhere are weak. A grand coalition would thus signify the effective end of the existence of a major opposition party and the virtual collapse of competitive party politics. That would not produce more enlightened policies; it would only threaten Japan’s political democracy.

The Japanese public faces the dismal political reality that there is not likely to be a strong and effective government anytime soon and that the opportunity that the Tohoku tragedy presents to open a new and dynamic era will probably be lost.

Gerald Curtis is Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.

This article is a digest of a larger piece that can be found here.

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  • Aurelia George Mulgan

    I agree that forming a ‘grand coalition’ of DPJ/LDP/Komeito undermines prospects for the consolidation of competitive party politics in Japan, and is certainly not the answer to Japan’s political woes in a more general sense. However, the ability of the three parties to contemplate such a coalition surely reflects the fact that policy differences between the two major parties (DPJ and LDP) are not that great (possibly a reflection of the absence of deep social cleavages in Japan, as you say); and perhaps extraordinary times call for extraordinary solutions.

    Something might also be said for the positive benefits of ‘temporary coalitions of convenience’ which we have just witnessed i.e. the legislative cooperation amongst the major parties that resulted in the passage of the budget-related bills etc in the Diet. First, these ‘temporary coalitions of convenience’ may at least get the DPJ over humps in the road ­ the legislative obstacles caused by the nejire kokkai. Secondly, they provide a strategy for the government to outflank opposition within the DPJ led by the pro-Ozawa forces, enabling it to pass legislation without the benefit of the votes of Ozawa supporters if necessary (not forgetting that some of these
    supporters resigned from the DPJ’s parliamentary caucus in February, putting the two-thirds override vote in the Lower House out of reach of the Kan administration). Yet another hidden benefit is the opportunity such coalitions provide for the LDP (which all indicators suggest will remain the major opposition party) to learn to behave like a ‘loyal opposition’ – a novel experience for the LDP ­ helping to build new and constructive conventions of parliamentary behaviour. Finally, given that Japan has been a political democracy without competitive party politics for most of its postwar history, the threat of a grand coalition to Japanese democracy is
    perhaps exaggerated. Although desirable, competitive party politics is neither necessary nor sufficient for Japanese political democracy. It’s how the parties are elected in the first place that matters.

    • Professor Gerald Curtis has published a disorganized but affecting journal entry on his visits to the Tohoku region since the triple disasters of March 11. It is worthwhile to read in full, as it is much more nuanced than the redacted version that appeared in the East Asia Forum.

      However, it was worthwhile to scroll down through the East Asia Forum version to read Dr. Aurelia George Mulgan ‘s comment to the redaction version of Dr. Curtis’ semi-analytical, semi-journalistic composition.

      Here is the section of Dr. Curtis’s journal entry on the current political predicament the new prime minister will face, whoever he may be:

      There is no short-term remedy for Japan’s political woes. Japan, like the United States, has divided government. With their control of a majority of seats in the upper house, the opposition parties find the temptation to block the DPJ from passing legislation all but irresistible. The only way for the government to force the opposition to cooperate is to rally public opinion strongly to its side. That is how Prime Minister Koizumi was able to overcome intense opposition to his program from within his own party. But unfortunately for Japan Kan is no Koizumi.

      Forming a grand coalition is not the answer to Japan’s political predicament either. In Germany or in Britain parties are able to enter into coalition without forsaking their separate identities and core bases of support. But in Japan where social cleavages – class, region, religion, ethnicity, and so on — that help structure the party system elsewhere are weak, a grand coalition would signify the effective end of the existence of a major opposition party and the virtual collapse of competitive party politics. That would not produce more enlightened policies; it would only threaten Japan’s political democracy.

      A grand coalition that is not based on a policy accord would move the power struggle out of public view into the backrooms of the coalition government. For the LDP the attraction of a grand coalition is the opportunity to get its hands on power once again. For the DPJ it is the hope that the LDP would in reality become hostage to the DPJ government.

      There is considerable resistance to forging a coalition in both the LDP and the DPJ. Many in the LDP believe that the best course of action for their party is to hammer home the argument that the DPJ is incompetent and press for an early election. Many in the DPJ as well oppose forming a coalition because of the fear that they would become hostage to the LDP’s policies rather than the other way around. So a grand coalition is not likely to materialize and if it were it would not be a palliative for a deeply troubled political system.

      Here is Dr. Mulgan’s response:

      I agree that forming a ‘grand coalition’ of DPJ/LDP/Komeito undermines prospects for the consolidation of competitive party politics in Japan, and is certainly not the answer to Japan’s political woes in a more general sense. However, the ability of the three parties to contemplate such a coalition surely reflects the fact that policy differences between the two major parties (DPJ and LDP) are not that great (possibly a reflection of the absence of deep social cleavages in Japan, as you say); and perhaps extraordinary times call for extraordinary solutions.

      Something might also be said for the positive benefits of ‘temporary coalitions of convenience’ which we have just witnessed i.e. the legislative cooperation amongst the major parties that resulted in the passage of the budget-related bills etc in the Diet. First, these ‘temporary coalitions of convenience’ may at least get the DPJ over humps in the road ­ the legislative obstacles caused by the nejire kokkai. Secondly, they provide a strategy for the government to outflank opposition within the DPJ led by the pro-Ozawa forces, enabling it to pass legislation without the benefit of the votes of Ozawa supporters if necessary (not forgetting that some of these supporters resigned from the DPJ’s parliamentary caucus in February, putting the two-thirds override vote in the Lower House out of reach of the Kan administration). Yet another hidden benefit is the opportunity such coalitions provide for the LDP (which all indicators suggest will remain the major opposition party) to learn to behave like a ‘loyal opposition’ – a novel experience for the LDP ­ helping to build new and constructive conventions of parliamentary behaviour. Finally, given that Japan has been a political democracy without competitive party politics for most of its postwar history, the threat of a grand coalition to Japanese democracy is perhaps exaggerated. Although desirable, competitive party politics is neither necessary nor sufficient for Japanese political democracy. It’s how the parties are elected in the first place that matters.

      It is hard to decide which part of the ledger to come down upon in this. debate. I think Dr. Mulgan is spot on in her critique of Dr. Curtis’ assertion that a grand coalition would threaten Japan’s political democracy, seeing as how in the era of the “1955 system” — where an opposition party had no hope of taking power — Japan still had the trappings of a democracy.

      I take issue with Dr. Mulgan’s assertion, however, that a spell in a grand coalition government could educate the LDP as to the proper behavior of a loyal opposition. The problem is and has been, though Dr. Curtis would be too circumspect to ever say this out loud, that the LDP cannot be a loyal anything. As a concatenation of clients of special interests, it has never been capable, save under extraordinary leaders such as Nakasone Yasuhiro and Koizumi Jun’ichiro, to be a loyal majority party. As an “ice cream for everyone” creation of the periods of rapid growth and catch up with the United States, it was able to provide for the general welfare, but only by accident. In times of limited resources and a fundamental need to make brutal choices, it floundered, allowing, for example, the bad loan problem to fester for a decade rather than a few years (as was demonstrated in the case in Sweden) and driving the country into a singular gross debt position through repeated attempts to apply fiscal solutions to what were structural problems. It was the public’s appreciation of the failure of the party to provide necessary national leadership in the absence of the guidance of a lone wolf like Koizumi that compelled the electorate to toss the whole kit and kaboodle out of power only two years ago.

      So why support the idea of a grand coalition, when the LDP has a craving for power as its sole guiding principle? Because the LDP has a craving for power as its sole guiding principle. Once in power, the LDP will be sated, willing to take a junior role in carrying out a reformist vision that its wonkish current leadership share with the the DPJ’s current wonkish leadership. The combined forces of the DPJ’s and the LDP’s wonks could team up,as Dr. Mulgan suggests, against the real threat to Japanese democracy: Tanakaism, or, as it is currently formulated, Ozawaism — the idea that the goal of a party is not just to win elections, but to try to fulfill the myriad promises the party made in order to win elections. Ozawa Ichiro, fully cognizant that a team of policy specialists would determine there was no way to pay for all the promises the DPJ made in its party manifesto, consolidated all policy decision making power in his own hands through the first few months of the Hatoyama Cabinet. This he called “crafting a budget without the interference of bureaucrats” but what the LDP and other opposition parties and the news media quickly labeled an “Ozawa dictatorship” — deeply wounding the DPJ’s reformist credentials.

      That a competitive, two party system may dissolve in the wake of a grand coalition seems a risk the country should willing to take — for almost anything would be better than the current situation, where the minority party has veto power over anything the majority party proposes, and where the desire to oppose what the majority party proposes is, as Dr. Curtis notes, “irresistible.”

      That a host of technical details stand in the way of a grand coalition is the problem of putting the bell on the cat.