Japan’s Election to Test Governing Party
Published: July 9, 2010
MATSUE, Japan — For decades, political views in this small city in rural western Japan were as placidly predictable as the waters in the medieval moats that crisscross its downtown. A majority of residents steadfastly supported the Liberal Democrats, who governed Japan for most of the last half-century.
But as Japan prepares for midterm parliamentary elections on Sunday that will be its first national vote since the Liberal Democratic Party, or L.D.P., was unseated in an election last year, the political landscape suddenly seems uncertain.
“Something ended when the L.D.P. lost,” said Koji Kubota, 74, a retired post office worker who listened on a recent afternoon to a candidate’s stump speech, “but no one is sure what comes next.”
Sunday’s elections cannot directly cause a change in government because they involve seats only in the Upper House and not the more powerful Lower House, which elects the prime minister. Still, the ballot is being widely seen here as a crucial referendum on the nine-month-old government of the Democrats, who have formed only the second non-L.D.P. government since 1955.
The Democrats appeared to be briefly revitalized under a new prime minister, Naoto Kan, who replaced the indecisive Yukio Hatoyama last month. However, their approval ratings quickly collapsed after Mr. Kan proposed an increase in the national consumption tax. Mr. Kan then worsened the situation by seeming to waffle and backtrack when the increase proved unpopular.
This raised concerns that Mr. Kan may prove to be yet another weak leader at a time when Japanese voters seem hungry for someone to point the way out of the country’s now nearly two-decade decline. Add to that a growing sense of frustration with rising social inequalities and sliding living standards, and the result is a fickle electorate that has quickly turned critical of the prime minister, say political experts.
At the same time, the L.D.P., now the largest opposition party, has been largely unable to capitalize on its opponents’ missteps, offering up a platform that is almost identical to the Democrats’, including the unpopular increase in the consumption tax. The lack of a party with clear momentum has left political opinions divided and fluid in a way that Japan has not seen in recent times.
Here in Matsue, in rural Shimane Prefecture, many voters said they wanted to give the Democrats more time to fulfill their vaguely left-leaning agenda of building a European-style social welfare state. Others already talk of switching back to the more familiar, though seemingly rudderless, Liberal Democrats. Still others, disgusted with both major parties, have fled to one of several small rightist parties that have recently cropped up.
“Voters must decide, has the Democratic Party gotten more mature? Has the L.D.P. repented its loss?” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political scientist who is vice president of Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. “Many voters see this election as a negative choice, of which party is less dislikable.”
The fear is that the current election could prove inconclusive, with neither party winning a clear majority in the Upper House, making it difficult for the Democrats, who control the Lower House, to push through their agenda. Political experts said this could bring weak coalition governments and possibly a return to the political paralysis of the final years of L.D.P. rule.
That could eventually lead to a redrawing of political lines into more ideologically coherent parties, say the experts, perhaps eventually producing a more competitive and responsive political system. But in the meantime, Japan’s huge and growing problems, like its aging society and ballooning national debt, would be left to fester.
“This is a process of creative destruction, and the destructive phase is not yet over,” said Gerald Curtis, a professor of Japanese politics at Columbia University. “This is a slow process, not a quick reshuffling, and meanwhile Japan’s problems go unresolved.”
Political experts credit Mr. Kan, a plain-spoken former social activist, with giving the governing party a renewed focus on pocketbook issues of more appeal to voters, after his predecessor, Mr. Hatoyama, was fatally sidetracked by a dispute with Washington over an air base on Okinawa.
On a recent afternoon, about 1,000 people gathered in sweltering heat at the foot of Matsue’s four-century-old castle to hear Mr. Kan stump on behalf of a local Democratic candidate. Mr. Kan made his signature appeal for a new “third way” for Japan, toward a stronger social safety net and proactive government, and away from both the heavy public works spending of the Liberal Democrats and the small government policies pushed a half-decade ago by a previous prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi.
The message resonated with many of those listening, who said they felt Mr. Koizumi’s approach had hurt Japan’s less developed areas, like this one, and created a society of winners and losers, something abhorrent to many in this proudly egalitarian nation.
“Life has gotten too tough,” said Tachiko Degawa, 83, the wife of a retired teacher, who used to vote for the L.D.P.
Others said they found Mr. Kan dull and uninspiring. This souring on the new prime minister is apparent in recent public opinion polls, which show his approval ratings dropping to around 40 percent from above 60 percent after he took office in early June. The tumble began after Mr. Kan proposed a doubling of the consumption tax to 10 percent to pay for investments in medicine, energy and other new industries.
At the same time, opinion polls show the L.D.P. has made only limited gains, at best. Political experts describe the party as stuck in its old ways, unable to find fresh faces. In Shimane, which produced some of the most powerful party insiders of previous generations, the L.D.P. was running the untested son of a former party power broker.
“We are not used to being an opposition party,” conceded Shigeru Sonoyama, a prefectural assemblyman who is a spokesman for the L.D.P. in Shimane.
Indeed, the party that has benefited the most from the Democrats’ woes has been one of the small new conservative parties, Your Party, set up by defectors from the L.D.P. It is still running a distant third in opinion polls, as its calls for small government have appealed to mainly urban, white-collar voters.
“It is easy to be pessimistic about the future with the L.D.P. and the Democrats,” said Masakazu Tanimoto, 43, an employee at a retirement home who said he had switched from the L.D.P. to Your Party. “Japanese politics needs new blood.”
Toyota’s Toyoda Seeks to Rebuild Trust After RecallsJuly 10, 2010, 1:41 AM EDT
By Alan Ohnsman
July 10 (Bloomberg) -- Toyota Motor Corp. is focused on restoring customer confidence as the world’s biggest automaker revamps quality control efforts following its worst recall crisis, President Akio Toyoda said.
“Customers will make the judgment” as to whether Toyota has solved concerns arising from recalls, Toyoda told reporters yesterday in Nagoya, Japan. “We’re doing everything possible to earn their continuing trust.”
Toyota seeks to regain a reputation as an industry leader in quality even as it prepares to fix flaws in luxury Lexus models and faces continued U.S. congressional inquiries over recalls of more than 8 million cars and trucks for defects linked to unintended acceleration. Toyoda told a House committee this year the problems arose partly because of the Toyota City, Japan-based company’s rapid expansion in the past decade.
The automaker this week said it added 1,000 engineers to an expanded quality assessment group, is extending vehicle development time by about four weeks and is opening more regional offices in the U.S. and Canada to more quickly investigate customer complaints.
The announcements came as Toyota demonstrated its engineering centers in Toyota City and Higashi-Fuji, Japan, that are looking into potential sources of sudden acceleration.
Not Stepping Down
Toyoda, 54, grandson of the company’s founder, said he hasn’t considered stepping down as president of the carmaker.
“I haven’t overcome the crisis yet,” he said. “Doing the kind of work I’ve done for the past year, it’s no longer whether I want to step aside or not. I want people to understand the real Toyota.”
The House Energy and Commerce Committee on June 29 said it needed more information from Toyota about the possible role of electronics as a cause of unintended acceleration and asked U.S. sales chief Jim Lentz to meet with the panel, a fifth congressional inquiry this year.
The company was fined a record $16.4 million by the U.S. Transportation Department for violating recall regulations.
Toyota, the world’s largest seller of hybrid autos, is pursuing a multidirectional strategy that includes autos powered by hydrogen, batteries and other fuel alternatives, Toyoda said yesterday.
The company will take delivery of two rechargeable prototypes from Tesla Motors Inc. this month. Both are Toyota models fitted with Tesla battery packs and motors, according to JB Straubel, Tesla’s chief technology officer. The Japanese automaker said in May it would invest $50 million in Palo Alto, California-based Tesla, maker of the $109,000 Roadster electric sports car.
Tesla vehicles are powered by thousands of the small lithium-ion batteries used in laptop computers. Toyota wants to study that approach to see if it offers advantages over using larger types of battery cells, Toyota Executive Vice President Shinichi Sasaki said.
Toyoda also said the carmaker will make “every effort” to improve communication and relations with workers in China to minimize unrest at factories there. Since May, at least nine strikes at plants of Japanese carmakers and suppliers have disrupted their production in the world’s biggest auto market.
Japanese-affiliated companies are “not necessarily being singled out” for strikes in China, Toyoda said. “The workers and the management of the companies have to share the same goal, to create better cars.”
While higher wages may have some effect in China, workers will also have more money to buy autos in the future, he said.
Toyota’s American depositary receipts fell 14 cents to $71.07 yesterday in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. They have declined 16 percent this year.
--Editors: Ian Rowley, John Lear
To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Ohnsman in Toyota City, Japan, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terje Langeland in Tokyo at email@example.com