Japanese politics is like politics in other advanced, media-drenched societies: a daily dose of nonsense and puffery, effrontery and speculation, tempests-in-teacups posturing and sputtering flaring-ups.
However, beneath the mounds of foamy political effluent, one can perhaps discern some solid ground:
Division Rules –
Both the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan have internal divisions as deep and raw as the divisions between the two parties. In economics each party has its cabal of liberal internationalists, its conservative pro-big business autarkists and its maudlin semi- or full socialists. In international relations, there are big nation internationalists, small nation internationalists, big power enthusiasts and semi-isolationists. In social policy there are Europhile social democrats, American-style neo-libertarians and Meiji State nativists.
The problem is not the breadth of the ideological spectrum in each party, however: a national, broad-based party must necessarily have a multiplicity of political drivers inside it. Nagata-chō's problem is that for every issue the membership of the Diet is divided into multiple ideological camps, each of which has fewer than 50% of the Diet as its members. Most commentators speak of realignment (saihen) as being inevitable, yet no one group holds a majority or even a dominant position.
Former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun'ichirō managed to cobble together a dominant position within the LDP by convincing both economic liberals and nationalist-chauvinist elements that he was their champion. Abe Shinzō and Fukuda Yasuo have not been able to perform a similar trick—to the detriment of their party's unity, electoral chances and ability to stare down the DPJ.
Since no ideological group can dominate, the basic instinct of the political classes is to postpone the inevitable. "The Study Group Rush" as the Nihon Keizai Shimbun calls it, the sudden explosion in the number of single issue groups with memberships that cross factional and party boundaries, is symptomatic of a constipated political system. Ideology has become a hobby one pursues as a private diversion with like-minded other members of the Diet outside of chambers. Inside the Diet chambers, with rare, inevitably unprincipled exceptions, Diet members are biding their time, voting the party line.
Everyone knows that if the Democratic Party of Japan manages to seize power in the next election -- a long shot possibility -- the Liberal Democratic Party will blow apart. Every LDP member also knows that if he or she jumps the gun, leaving the party now to run as an independent, he or she would be committing electoral suicide. Against a Democratic Party challenger, the escapee from the LDP will go unto his or her personal Waterloo.
So everyone in the ruling coalition is sitting, head bowed, looking at the back of his or her hands, waiting for the next election.
Structural Advantage to Dishonesty -
In a representative democracy, dishonesty and gross bigotry can prevail in the short run. In the long run, however, the parties and individual politicians will tend to fall into a default position of honesty and liberal rule - as hypocrisies are exposed and unsound policies blow up in faces of their authors, dishonesty become a high maintenance, energy-sapping stance.
However, in an unrepresentative democracy, lies and unsound policies take on lives of their own, their existences prolonged beyond all standard measures of usefulness by the support of privileged interest groups.
Japan is one such unrepresentative democracy, where the parceling out of representation in the Diet reflects the population distributions of 40 years ago--or even earlier. Diet members and their districts live in anachronistic symbiotic relationships, the Diet member delivering largesse to clients in the diminished bailiwick and these clients delivering in return their supercharged votes.
Any individual or party wishing to interrupt the cycle of elections and budget allocations must either restructure the system or supersede it. Since sitting Diet members control the rules under which their own districts are drawn and oversee the redistricting procedure, remedies to electoral inequality have, rather unsurprisingly, not been forthcoming. If this is the case, then the only path to electoral success is to tailor one's every utterance and action to surpassing your opponent in flattering the over-represented voter.
Tobias Harris has written eloquently and in admirable detail about the Democratic Party's ongoing struggle over how far it should go in pandering to the voters in rural areas. I would differ with Mr. Harris's depiction of the situation only in his assessment of Maehara Seiji's rebellion. Mr. Harris sees Maehara's denunciation of his party's making impossible-to-keep promises as a misguided attachment to principles. I would condemn it more forcefully as plain vanilla stupidity: Maehara is attacking DPJ Party Leader Ozawa Ichirō for the crime of trying to make the system work to the advantage of Democratic Party of Japan.
Maehara is taking aim at the wrong target and in the wrong sequence. The problem is the system, not Ozawa. That Ozawa is lying through his teeth, cozying up to the most irresponsible of fiscal inanities, is a function of the game board on which he must play. In order to win enough seats to topple the ruling coalition the DPJ has to beat the LDP at its own game in the rural districts. Actually keeping any of the promises made to the LDP's clients is a problem for the future, not now. The DPJ must outbid the LDP, seize power, then blow off the rural districts -- in that order.
So for the foreseeable future it may be hard to see the difference between the white hats and the black hats. All members of the political order will be lying, lying, lying and then lying some more. No surprise here -- the system rewards those able to pull off the most dishonest, two-faced, logically inconsistent performance possible.
Just who is who -- and who won -- will only be clear after the election, as the victors take to the acts of governing and crafting legislation.
So it might be good to forget what is in the manifestos for a while.