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Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012
A critical election for Japan
Following the dissolution of the Lower House on Friday, the Dec. 4 official kickoff of the campaign for the Dec. 16 Lower House election is rapidly approaching. With more than a dozen parties competing, voters may have difficulty in deciding how to cast their ballots. But this election is particularly important because it will be held at both a politically and economically critical time and its outcome will determine the general direction of Japan. It will be vital for voters to be critical enough to discern which parties are shouting empty or dangerous slogans and which parties are presenting programs that will contribute to improving the quality of people's lives and stabilizing relations with neighboring countries.
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan will face a hard time because it, together with the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, pushed for a consumption tax increase — a policy not included in its election manifesto for the 2009 Lower House election that brought it to power. Although the bill to raise the consumption tax was enacted, whether the tax hike should be implemented at a time when the Japanese economy is in trouble should be an important election issue. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's responsibility is heavy because he chose to dissolve the Lower House at this time, making it impossible for the Diet to enact in time a supplementary budget, which is desperately needed to shore up the economy.
Mr. Noda has decided to make Japan's participation in the Transpacific Partnership free-trade zone a pillar of the DPJ's election manifesto. But the TPP-related talks are shrouded in secrecy and there is inadequate disclosure of information on TPP arrangements that may greatly affect people's lives and the management of local governments. The TPP is far more than just an agreement to eliminate tariffs, and agriculture is only part of the scope that it covers. It is a comprehensive arrangement among participating countries that will drastically change the rules of business, which in turn will force Japan to change aspects of its society and economy that people now take for granted. Voters should strive to learn about the TPP before casting their ballots for parties that support or oppose the free-trade pact.
The coming election is the first to be held after the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent catastrophe at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. In view of the disruption of a vast number of Fukushima residents' lives by the nuclear crisis and the large number of nuclear power plants scattered around the country, nuclear power policy should be an important issue. The Fukushima crisis has highlighted the inherent danger of operating nuclear power plants in this quake-prone country. Apart from economic issues related to nuclear power, a question of a different dimension must be asked. Is it right for the Japanese people, who have experienced the tragedies of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima, to continue to rely on technology that utilizes nuclear fission?
LDP leader Shinzo Abe is opposed to the elimination of nuclear power and says that nuclear power stations whose operations are judged safe should be brought back online. The DPJ calls for mobilizing all available policy resources to end nuclear power generation in the 2030s, but its policy contains a contradiction. It calls for the continuation of nuclear fuel recycling to create nuclear fuel from spent nuclear fuel. But nuclear waste storage facilities at power plants are almost full and there is little room to store newly generated radioactive waste. In addition, there is still no technology that can ensure that high-level radioactive waste can be permanently stored in a safe manner. Each party should address problem related to storage and disposal of nuclear waste.
In the midst of the diplomatic crisis between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, some parties are calling for the revision of the war-renouncing Constitution or for exercising the right to collective self-defense. The LDP, for example, calls for revision of the Constitution to protect "Japan's beautiful national land" and its people. But it must be asked whether strengthening military-oriented approaches will actually enhance the security of Japan and contribute to stabilizing relations in Northeast Asia. Such approaches will deepen suspicions among neighboring countries about Japan's intentions and thus increase regional tension. A revision of the Constitution would likely be regarded by neighboring countries as an attempt to whitewash Japan's past military aggression and would negatively impact Japan's standing in the international community. In times of crisis, some voters are attracted to parties that use strong or violent populist rhetoric. It should be remembered that the aggressive policies of such parties seldom benefit the people.
There are other issues that must be addressed in the election. They include reform of social welfare, reconstruction of the areas hit by the 3/11 disasters and the military base problems in Okinawa. Parties need to write their election manifestos in concrete terms and in a verifiable manner. It is imperative for voters to cast a critical eye on the parties' manifestos and verbal promises, and strive to discern whether parties are using empty rhetoric or lip services or are serious about implementing their election promises.