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Monday, Aug. 29, 2005

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Choice is no longer choice when showbiz 'assassins' terminate voters' rights


When is a choice not a choice?

A choice is not a choice when elections are suddenly called at the incumbent prime minister's convenience and the issues are not properly brought before the voters.

A choice is not a choice when the election becomes a show business in which women are dispatched as lethal weapons to "assassinate" the prime minister's enemies.

Nor is it a choice when not choosing the caller of the election is condemned beforehand as antireform.

Mr. Junichiro Koizumi must be having the time of his life. If he wins, he will have gained a mandate, or so he would claim, to do pretty much whatever he likes. If he loses, never mind -- he would be seen as having gone down fighting, or so he would claim, for crucial reforms that would have brought salvation and a new dawn to Japan.

Then he can go on to host his own television show. That he would get sky-high ratings is a foregone conclusion.

While all goes swimmingly for Mr. Koizumi, the poor voters are left with a conundrum for which they are in no way responsible.

If we ditch Mr. Koizumi, we would look like reactionaries. If we choose Mr. Koizumi, we would be handing power on a plate to a viciously ambitious politician with dictatorial tendencies.

If we go for the other lot, the DPJ, we would get a change of government, which is a healthy thing for Japanese democracy. But we would be choosing a group of people whose spectrum of internal divergence is so wide and multicolored that there is little hope of consistent policymaking.

The Democratic Party of Japan does deserve credit for coming up with a comprehensive manifesto with good attention to detail and concrete steps leading to reasonably well-defined goals.

The hope is that what looks good on paper will be sustainable in practice -- and here is where the totally fragmented nature of its internal structure presents some very serious problems.

Take the very issue of postal reform, which led to the upcoming snap election. The DPJ opposed the Koizumi bills, and in this it stood united. But that was as far as party unity went. They were all opposed, yes, but not for the same reasons. Some of them thought the bill went too far; many others felt it didn't go at all far enough.

Again, insofar as the manifesto goes, they seem to have gotten their act together quite nicely on this issue. The DPJ's proposal for a gradual slimming down of the postal savings and insurance programs comes close to tackling the real problems.

Privatizing those services was never going to resolve the fundamental issue of transforming an outdated scheme that distorts the flow of money in the Japanese economy. Privatization could only make sense if it were to act as a precursor to the eventual abolition of the entire system.

So the DPJ have got it right, conceptually. Yet it remains very much to be seen whether they can stay faithful to their proclamations, if and when they are in the position to uphold them.

The electorate deserves a lot of sympathy when, whichever way it votes, it won't be getting what it really wanted. The issues that Japan faces in this 60th year after the war are many, varied and important.

The politics of greater economic integration with the rest of Asia is one key issue for Japan. Its role in the security structure of the 21st century is another.

Mr. Koizumi's obsession with Yasukuni Shrine needs to be put under more rigorous scrutiny. This is no time for assassination games and showbiz politics.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University School of Management.


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