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THE WORLD : JAPAN

A Star Is Born, but Can She Energize a Tired Politics?

March 18, 2001|Frank Gibney | Frank Gibney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute at Pomona College and professor of politics, is the author of "Japan: the Fragile Superpower" and other books

TOKYO — If the casual visitor still sees Tokyo as the very image of international prosperity--well-heeled crowds; gleaming skyscrapers; French haute cuisine and American fast-food meccas; Gucci bags; Europe's best orchestras packing concert halls; Mercedes and BMWs alongside Toyotas--forget it. It is the stored-up light of a long fading star.

Japan remains caught in the toils of a 10-year-old recession. Its voters are angry but apathetic. Consumers are on strike. Deflation stalks. Banks are choked with bad debt. Small businesses are going bust. The world's largest gray population is getting older. And Japan's one-party government of old cronies is about to dethrone another prime minister--the eighth in 10 years.

Meanwhile, there are no signs of purposeful economic or political programs. The finance minister just announced that the country is on the brink of economic "catastrophe," which spurred credit-watching agencies to downgrade leading Japanese banks and the stock market to drop to a 16-year low. A leading cabinet minister recently resigned in a corruption scandal, and one of the Liberal Democratic Party's "big five" king makers has just been arrested for bribery.

How did Japan, star of the last century's unprecedented "economic miracle," get into this fix? What can be done about the political malaise of boss rule and factionalism that lies at the root of it all? When will a younger generation take over--or will it ever?

A determined and voluble woman in Room 302 of the Lower House Office Building thinks she has some of the answers. She is worth listening to. Makiko Tanaka, a third-term Diet member, is a Liberal Democrat but she belongs to no faction. Politically speaking, she can afford not to. She is the daughter of Kakuei Tanaka, the storied "computerized bulldozer" who was probably Japan's strongest and most popular postwar prime minister but who fell victim to his own back-room money politics.

If old Shigeru Yoshida set the tone for Japan's postwar drive to affluence, "Kaku-san" energized it. He started a new diplomacy with China and sponsored an imaginative plan for "rebuilding the Japanese archipelago" before he was forced to resign after the Lockheed scandal broke in 1973. He also built the patronage machine that has resulted in today's almost total political stagnation.

Ironically, his daughter is doing her best to break it up and make some decisions. Makiko is loyal to her father: She has held his Diet seat for three terms. She also inherited his driving energy and practical sense, happily moderated by an engaging grace. Listening to her rapid-fire explanations of Japan's current political mess, enlivened with down-to-earth humor, I was taken back to the early 1970s, when I interviewed her father. There is the same disarming candor, the same spark, the same haste to get things done, the same disinclination to suffer fools gladly.

But Makiko's message is different--for a different time. After meeting and talking with her a few weeks back, I came away not at all surprised that a sizable percentage of the public would like to see her as prime minister.

After almost a half-century in power, the majority Liberal Democrats are a party without policies. It is hopelessly divided into factions dominated by leaders whose principal talent lies in brokering inside deals. "This House," Makiko says, "is honeycombed with factions, a kind of personal government totally the opposite of what you Americans call transparency. Once you belong to a faction, you have to vote its way. You can't think for yourself.

"Twenty-five years ago," continues Makiko, "the factions stood for something. The public and party members had a choice. Now it's all personal. Day after day, they sit around talking to each other, spitting out words, but making no policy whatsoever. You spend your days going from conference to conference, trying to get a bill through. Until you get people who will stand together in support of a plan or policy, the Japanese voters will never have a choice.

"A two-party system as you have in the United States would be fine. But the opposition Democrats can't supply it. From old-time left-wing socialists to conservative former Liberal Democrats, they are spread so widely they can't agree on anything. In these circumstances, it would be a tragedy if Japanese voters were deluded into voting for someone like Shintaro Ishihara [Tokyo's popular governor] who has no policy at all-- just because he makes a lot of noise."

Makiko makes common cause with members of other parties to get new laws passed, but not many politicians share her sense of urgency. Indeed, Koichi Kato, one of the Liberal Democrats' few would-be reformers, lost most of his faction--literally bought off by party bosses--for even timidly advocating a public break with the leadership.

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