POLITICS: Japan’s old boys bite the dust

comment in Toronto Star on Japan election 09, http://www.thestar.com/article/689014


Rout of long-ruling LDP heralds social revolution in conservative, male-dominated land

September 01, 2009

Tokyo–Greatly misunderstood outside its borders, Japan’s election is nothing short of a social revolution, and a blow to conservatism and male-domination worldwide.

Across Tokyo, thousands of posters for the victorious Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) called for upheaval in terms usually associated with Iraq: seiken kotai – regime change.

That means toppling not only the oligarchy of second- and third-generation politicians who have ruled since 1955, but also the bureaucracy, the right-wing males who suppress the ambitions of women, young males and minorities, and the construction companies who have littered Japan’s mountains, rivers and beaches with concrete.

While China looks forward to eclipsing Japan as the world’s second biggest economy, Japanese just did what Chinese cannot do – change their leaders to suit the times. While China maintains a 1950s mentality, and Thailand threatens to jail those who critique the monarchy, Japan now has more to attract foreign investors.

Many foreign analysts – mostly middle-aged white males in lofty academic or “research” positions in Japan – have not fully grasped the undercurrents of change below them.

Working class Japanese, especially younger women, have had it with oyaji – older men in government and business who resist change and duck responsibility, safe within their old boys networks in smoky backrooms and golf clubs.

Ever since Douglas MacArthur and U.S. occupation forces in 1945 allowed Japan’s feudalistic bureaucracy to remain intact in order to stabilize the country, these entrenched oyaji have often treated Japan as a private club, keeping women as tea-servers at work, hostesses at bars, and neglected wives at home. They’ve also turned young males into anxious servants in humiliating temp jobs with few benefits and little security.

Known for their political apathy, members of the younger generation have expressed their alienation during the past 20 years by refusing to vote, have children or seek higher education and training. Amid the worst economic collapse in 65 years, they’ve finally voted the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) out of power in the biggest landslide in Japanese history. Voter turnout was high, and 14 million people voted in advance polls, about 13 per cent of all eligible voters.

The victory of young over old is shocking in Japan, where a third of the population is over 60. Eriko Fukuda, a 28-year-old woman, beat former defence and finance minister Fumio Kyuma, 68. Mitsunori Okamoto, 38, beat former prime minister Toshiki Kaifu, 78 – Kaifu’s first loss since 1960. Osamu Nakagawa, 58, beat former foreign minister Taro Nakayama, 85, credited with building Osaka’s international airport.

“At long last we are able to move politics, to create a new kind of politics that will fulfill the expectations of the people,” said incoming prime minister Yukio Hatayama.

“We have no fear,” said DPJ co-founder Ichiro Ozawa. “We will steadily achieve our campaign promises one by one.”

Since many voted in order to punish the government, it’s probably sayonara for the LDP’s old guard. Unlike America, Japan is not known for giving people second chances. Having lost face, the defeated oligarchs are expected to fall on their swords like honourable samurai.

The public will likely never forgive them for losing 50 million pension records, running up the highest debt in the world, squandering funds on pork-barrel projects, and tarnishing Japan’s international image by allowing the killing of whales and dolphins.

“We could not wipe away the resentment that the LDP accumulated over the years,” said outgoing Prime Minister Taro Aso. “I feel we were destined (to lose).”

Seeking balance, foreign reporters have credited the LDP with building Japan out of the ashes of war. But Japanese workers and farmers, who did the actual work, feel damasareta – cheated, betrayed. While they endured long commutes and unpaid overtime, the LDP kept the fruit for themselves, which is a major social faux pas in this communal culture.

So the public will demand the DPJ keeps its election promises to share the national wealth, with cash payments for families with children, workers in training and farmers. They won’t roll over when retired bureaucrats are granted posts in the companies they regulated – a process known as amakudari, descent from heaven. Hatoyama has promised to create a National Strategy Bureau and an Administrative Reform Council, and to send 100 legislators into ministries to wrest power from unelected civil servants.

The public may also no longer tolerate right-wing extremists who blare martial music out of black trucks and spew vitriol against Chinese, Koreans and foreign workers. Hatoyama has promised not to anger China and Asia by visiting the Yasukuni shrine.

If it’s a bad time to be part of the elite in Japan, things could also get worse in the short-term for Japanese workers; 200,000 more people lost their jobs in July. But for the first time in 20 years, Japanese are showing hope in the future, and a belief that change is possible.

That’s good, because Japanese, who changed the world with fuel-efficient cars, healthy food and hi-tech walkmans and video players, will want to take the world fast-forward again.

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