Thursday, August 18, 2005

Issues of interest to the foreign press in regards to this election:

1) Democratic Party pledge to withdraw Japanese troops from Samawa in December

American and Australian publications note that the DPJ party manifesto promises to withdraw the JSDF from Iraq in December. Australian publications take a special interest in this issue due to the de facto security guarantee provided by Australian forces in Al-Muthanna Province. Most publications note that a December withdrawal will lead to a chill in the relations between Japan and the Bush Administration. Publications have for the most part ignored the possibility that the troops may return home in December even if the LDP-Komeito coalition wins.

2) Postal reform as crucial to reform of the Japanese state

Only one publication (the Gulf publication Khaleej Times) criticized Koizumi for dissolving the House of Representatives over the failure of postal legislation in the House of Councilors. Many foreign publications accept the Koizumi argument that Japan had little chance of reforming itself until the postal savings accounts and kampo insurance plans are out of the reach of bureaucrats and politicians. Business publications argue about the timing or the details of the postal reform package; some reasonably argue that Japan has other more pressing reforms to enact. None say, however, that the postal reform has been just pointless grandstanding or a Koizumi hobby horse.

3) Changes in economic policies

For the most part, major English-language business publications have been of two minds about the Prime Minister. They for the most part agree that Japan's economic recovery has not been the direct result of policies instigated by the Koizumi Cabinet. Instead, cyclical factors and exports to China are seen as having had greater impacts on growth of Japanese GDP. Publications are also in broad agreement that even though the actual economic reform achievements may be few, the Koizumi Cabinet has at least followed the Hippocratic Oath--i.e., "First, do no harm" --and has ignored advice that, had it been followed, would have resulted in the killing of the recovery. However, there is disagreement on whether or not the Koizumi Cabinet has promoted an atmosphere within which economic reform takes place organically.

Business publications are intrigued about possible changes in economic policy should the LDP-Komeito alliance fail to win an outright majority. The economic policies of the Democratic Party, especially their pledges to drastically cut public works spending and quickly reducing the number of civil servants are generally applauded by commentators who are worried about Japan's debt burden (the most influential of whom is probably Robert Alan Feldman of Morgan Stanley).

A larger number of economic writers believe that the DPJ’s budget balancing policies will include raising taxes and too-rapid reductions of fiscal stimulus, actions that might tip Japan back into recession (The Economist, The Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal seem to share this view). No one has focused on the Democratic Party's peculiar crusade against the Bank of Japan's policy of quantitative easing.

4) Militarism and the historical problem

English-language editions of Chinese and Korean publications have been unwilling to proclaim favorites in the upcoming election, even though Okada has pledged to not visit Yasukuni and has promised to improve relations with the two countries.

First, Chinese and Korean writers have probably come to understand that trying to influence the politics of another state leads often to outcomes opposite to those desired (see Beijing frequent failures as regards Taiwanese elections).

Second, even in the less desirable case of an LDP-Komeito victory, the Junichiro Koizumi who leads Japan until the fall of 2006 could be a very different person from the Koizumi who has led Japan for the last three years. Since he will never have to put his policies before the voters again, he may be liberated from the need to appear unbending before the Chinese and the Koreans. Koizumi will continue to undermine relations with annual visits to Yasukuni but he may work hard to confront other pressing problems in Sino-Japanese and Korean-Japanese relations.

5) Koizumi Kool

Non-Japan-based readers and even journalists know little about Japanese politics, other than the negatives:
- it has been dominated by factional infighting and pork-barrel spending on bridges and tunnels to nowhere;
- there are very, very few women in positions of power;
- a large percentage of the political class hold their positions due to inheritance not merit;
- the LDP has been ruling over what has been effectively a one-party state;
- politicians are simply mouthpieces of vested interests
et cetera...

By contrast, Prime Minister Koizumi, with his hair, his musical tastes, his close embrace of George W. Bush, his sense of fun and his stubbornness has become a globally recognized character. He is the highest-ranking politician (#12) on Esquire magazine’s 2005 list of the world’s Top 20 Best Dressed Men (Kofi Annan is #13, Bill Clinton is #18). Journalists and editors around the world find his eccentric personality refreshing and so give him great leeway in regards to his pet causes and pet peeves.

The loser in this process has been the Democratic Party. For many years, the Democrats were the darlings of the media precisely because they were the opponents of the stodgy old LDP. Now that the LDP under Koizumi is throwing out its most notoriously obstructionist members, the Democrats are struggling to win recognition and attention. Having the sober, somewhat stiff Okada as their representative has somewhat diminished international interest in Democratic policies, even though those policies are often more in line with the demands of foreign governments.

No comments: