Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Japanese politician Katsuhito Yokokume, Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker. (Kayo Yamawaki for The Globe and Mail)
Japanese politician Katsuhito Yokokume, Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker. (Kayo Yamawaki for The Globe and Mail)

Despite hope of revolution, political paralysis continues in Japan Add to ...

With his boy-band good looks and his unusually direct style of speaking - for Japanese politics - 29-year-old Katsuhito Yokokume was one of the faces of the change a year ago when disgusted Japanese voters threw out the party that had ruled the country almost uninterrupted since the 1950s.

But 13 months after being swept to office as a member of the Democratic Party of Japan, Mr. Yokokume finds it hard to pinpoint what exactly the new government has accomplished during its time in office. Instead of the hoped-for revolution in Japanese politics, the DPJ has delivered more of everything Japanese thought they had voted against: internal squabbling; weak prime ministers; broken promises and allegations of corruption - the same dysfunctions that have paralyzed Japanese politics for the past two decades.

More related to this story

The country's long economic stagnation, meanwhile, has gone almost unattended to as neighbouring China has surged past Japan to claim the title of the world's second-largest economy.

Mr. Yokukume, who was one of four under-30 politicians who won seats last year in Japan's parliament, the Diet, says he now realizes that it's the country's political system - not just the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party - that is broken.

"Unlike political parties in other countries, in Japan we fight each other. We can't let that continue. It's not efficient. We need to try new things, to change things," Mr. Yokokume said in an interview at his office near the Diet, which still looks as though he just moved in. Two paintings lean unhung against a wall after a year Mr. Yokokume describes with a wince as "busy."

Busy is an understatement. Largely because of self-inflicted wounds, the DPJ had little time to deal with an ambitious agenda that was supposed to include civil-service reform, a minimum wage hike and new social programs.

First there was a dispute over what to do with a U.S. airbase on the island of Okinawa, an issue that led to the fall of prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, just 259 days after he led the party to its breakthrough election win.

Then came a defeat in upper house elections, which left the DPJ presiding over what Japanese call a "twisted parliament" - needing help from opposition parties to pass legislation. That was followed by an internal party vote that saw Naoto Kan, Mr. Hatoyama's successor and Japan's fifth prime minister in four years, forced to devote much of his energy to fending off a fierce challenge from the party's long-time kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa.

The new government's failure to deliver on the promise of a year ago has left many Japanese disgusted with politics, driving them into the arms of fringe groups or apathy.

"A lot of people are disappointed, and that's why the DPJ lost so badly in the upper-house elections this summer," said Koichi Takano, an associate professor of political science at Tokyo's Sophia University. "Part of the difficulty the DPJ is having is that they're trying to do more and be ambitious and to shake the system. … It's not dissimilar to the Labour Party in the U.K. when they first won."

Britain's New Labour, of course, had the charisma of Tony Blair to sell to voters. Japan has leaders so interchangeable that Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva once joked that you say good morning to one Japanese prime minister, good afternoon to another. The country has gone through 12 leaders in the past 17 years, with only the flamboyant Junichiro Koizumi lasting longer than two years in office during that span. Both Mr. Koizumi's LDP and the DPJ are highly factionalized, leading to intra-party battles and rivals ready to pounce on the first bad poll or broken promise.

"It's a big systemic problem. It's not about one prime minister or another - it's a governance crisis. Japan's gone through 15 years of trying to find a new system of governance, which has not yet been established," said Yuki Asaba, associate professor of international relations at Yamaguchi Prefectural University. In the meantime, he said, "Japan is losing on every front."

The question that now looms largest is whether Mr. Kan, 63, can last any longer in the top job than his recent predecessors. While Mr. Yokukume believes Mr. Kan might just be that rarest of Japanese leaders (provided he can find a way to pass next year's budget) others worry the instability is set to continue.

Mr. Kan has been dealt - in issues ranging from the stagnant economy, to country's rising currency, the yen, to simmering tensions with neighbouring China - an undeniably bad hand. An extra handicap is that the party is made up of career opposition politicians who until a year ago had no experience in government. There's also a deep and mutual mistrust between the party and a powerful bureaucracy that owes its size and influence to the ousted LDP.

While prime ministers come and go, Japan's real power brokers seem to linger forever. The 68-year-old Mr. Ozawa, who is known as the "shadow shogun" for his ability to manipulate matters from behind the scenes, shows no signs of leaving the scene despite his failed effort to overthrow Mr. Kan and the likelihood he'll soon face corruption charges. Both the DPJ and LDP are riddled with such characters, whose influence is often passed on through family connections. Before Mr. Kan, the son of a businessman, Japan's last five prime ministers all came from political families.

The solution, Mr. Yokukume argues, is generational change at the top. The old guard in Japanese politics has no incentive to reform, he said, since they stand to lose in any change, rather than see its eventual fruits.

"It's time for those in their 20s and 30s, who will actually be responsible for what they do, to lead, rather than those who are in their 60s and 70s who will not have responsibility because they will die off," he said, mustering some of the revolutionary talk of the 2009 election campaign. "We have to get rid of this dissatisfaction that's building among the people."

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular