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Thursday, Aug. 2, 2007


What the Japanese election really means

LOS ANGELES — The country is deadlocked. The people are divided. The stock market is grumbling. The leader is discredited — but vows to govern onward anyhow.

If this reads like a rough portrait of the U.S. political situation today, guess what? This is also a good sketch of the political situation in the world's second largest economy and top-tier American ally: Japan.

Sure, Junichiro Koizumi, the previous prime minister, was never going to be an easy act to follow. But perhaps his successor's most glaring error is that he didn't even try to follow it. The charismatic Koizumi emphasized bureaucratic shakeup, economic reinvigoration and a riverboat-gambler's risk-taking politics.

By contrast, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered the Japanese people old-style backroom politics, a Cabinet that performed like a comedy-of-errors troupe, a back-to-basics patriotism that sent chills down the spine of that half of Japan that's deeply pacifist, and a vague if not goofy vision of a "beautiful Japan" that left almost everyone scratching their heads.

The election result from the furious weekend voting for half of the seats in the Upper House was, accordingly, a disaster for Abe. For the first time since his Liberal Democratic Party was established in 1955, another party has become the No. 1 party in an election.

Abe, 53, insists he'll remain prime minister and president of the LDP, and indeed his fate is not decided by Upper House elections but by the Lower House, which the LDP still controls. But other Japanese prime ministers have had to resign over similarly catastrophic Upper House election rebuffs.

To be sure, everyone and his aunt and uncle will read what they want into the weekend's drama. Enemies in Japan of the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party will see the negative landslide against the government as conclusive proof that the single-party near-monopoly on power is coming to an end. Certainly this is the view and the hope of the resurgent rival Democratic Party of Japan, now controlling the Upper House. And this is also the view and the hope of proponents of a more vigorous two-party system in Japan.

On the economic front, observers will note that while Koizumi did help get the economy moving again, it is still not exactly on fire, and its healing warmth is not being deeply felt in Japan's widespread rural constituencies. If Abe had positioned himself more like an "Economic Koizumi the Second," he might not now be fighting for his political life.

And others will draw the conclusion that the Japanese people are not ready for a fundamental change in the country's military posture, as Abe and other ardent nationalists want. This interpretation undoubtedly merits further scrutiny. Almost mystically, Abe has been pushing for a grand rethink about the country's military doctrine when the issue did not appear to be near the top of the public's priorities. And of course his LDP party has been supporting the Iraq war and even sent a token force to Iraq, notwithstanding the apathy and even opposition of the Japanese people.

China's rise was the obvious reason for pressing the military-preparedness button. And every nation has the right to defend itself. But having lost a colossal war, Japan would have appeared to have been blessed with a profound insight: that in the current age not only is military power not everything, sometimes it is not even much of anything.

Nobody doubts that a fully rearmed and forward-leaning Japan, benefiting from the best technological engineering in the world, would be a formidable force. No one doubts that Japan could whip together a handful of nuclear bombs as readily and merrily as a perfectly made Honda or Toyota rolls down an assembly line.

The Japanese people, as a whole, would seem to have little appetite for going that route again. Wise Japanese people know that you can be the greatest military power on Earth, and be brought to your knees by a much-lesser foe due to your own miscalculation, over-extension and hubris. They see what has happened to their American allies in Iraq, and they know they don't want that; they remember what happened to them in World War II and they certainly don't want that again.

It is noteworthy that Abe's defense minister was forced to resign in the firestorm he set off for apparently suggesting that the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified. People didn't want to hear any of that.

There were many other reasons for Abe's electoral humiliation: Money corruption in his Cabinet, a huge scandal over the public-pensions accounting and so on. No one factor tells the whole story. But underneath the swirl is the sense that the Japanese people know they have achieved a lot by not being like other nations, by not going the route of military buildup, and thus by not — in this perverse sense — going the way of a "normal" nation. Maybe they felt they were on to something and weren't quite ready to give it up. If so, good for them.

Whatever lessons Abe takes away from the weekend's humiliation, there are also some good ones there for U.S. President George W. Bush — if he bothered to take note.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist. Copyright 2007 Tom Plate

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