Who Will the People of Japan Vote For?

As the dust settles and people are taking stock of the physical, financial, political and emotional damage here in Japan they will have another hard question: Who to vote for?

In this circumstance I almost feel relief to be a foreigner with no political rights here. There will be no choice for me, but unfortunately there will be a very hard choice for Japanese voters. It is not a choice many people who live in other developed democratic countries are unfamiliar with. In my own Canada it is an issue at this moment, and has often been a problem on both provincial and national levels. Do you vote for the party whose long-term mismanagement developed the root issue, or do you vote for the party that failed to reform institutions in a timely fashion? In Japan, more so than in a lot of other countries, there has been a very obvious disaster that has made the issue very concrete and even more public, throwing it on the international stage.

First, a bit of background that might muddy the waters. The previous political party in power was the Liberal Democratic Party (自由民主党) or the LDP as they are commonly referred to. They were in power for almost 54 years from 1955 to 2009, and it can easily be argued that they have had a strong effect on the direction Japan has developed and faded away. During their tenure Japan rose from a very damaged state to lead the world financially, and then fell into a recession lasting more than 20 years. Although there was great prosperity here for many years, in the background it seems that there were a lot of issues that went relatively unseen. One of the most relevant of these now is the mismanagement of the national pension, but it also appears that there were a lot of issues with oversight of privately run public utilities as well, such as the now infamous TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). Looking back through the history between the government and TEPCO it can be seen that there was a strong tendency to look the other way when it came to safety, and to trust in TEPCO to maintain their nuclear assets as well as prepare for disasters. There is documentation going back to at least 2002 showing that TEPCO had not been living up to this trust, and little by little more issues have come to light, but there has been little government intervention or regulation of the companies nuclear power plants.

Now move to 2009, and the Democratic Party of Japan (民主党), also called the DPJ, takes over and seems to have issues with weak leadership (not that the string of LDP PM’s since the turn of this century had showed much different). Not only are they saddled with all of the previous issues from the long recession, they are looking at a global recession as well. Things remain pretty much the status quo, and seemingly the time they have been in has been too short and turbulent to do much more than damage control. Recovering a country that has been in recession for 20 years, has a rapidly aging population compounded with a tendency against immigration and a failing pension system would take time for the strongest of governments. That the DPJ do not appear to be the strongest of governments is relevant but as the recovery will have to be long-term and no parties are currently showing such strength it might be a relative problem. That they did not get around to cleaning up the energy industry is not really surprising but for the party it might have been a very misfortunate oversight. During the DPJ’s tenure it seems to have been business as usual at TEPCO, a pattern established well before the DPJ took power, but with one very new consequence.

On March 11th, 2011 at approximately 2:46pm one of the worst earthquakes in a century hits off the coast of Tohoku, causing sizable seismic damage but is then followed by a very large tsunami that comes ashore several places along the coast. One of the places it hits hard is Fukushima Dai-Ichi, a TEPCO run generation 2 power plant that was established in the 1970’s. Not having prepared for a tsunami of that magnitude the coastal reactor is swamped with seawater, damaging the building as well as flooding the backup safety generators which were set close to the ground, relying on a seawall to divert tsunamis. The failure of main power, as well as backups, throws Japan into the middle of the second worse nuclear disaster in world history. While TEPCO appears to be very reluctant to give information on the crisis, the government is forced to relate only the details provided by a reticent TEPCO to the public, giving them the appearance of weakness and causing public ire. They blame the DPJ, and in particular Naoto Kan (the current prime minister), for the lack of control of the situation and for a lack of ability to prod TEPCO and Japan’s various emergency forces into action.

But can this really all be set in the laps of the DPJ, or would the LDP, who managed Japan for the 54 years preceding the DPJ and who set most of the policy contributing to the current nuclear crisis, also be at least partially responsible? That is the question voters will be faced with when they vote in the next election, and it is a very hard one to face. The political alternatives to the DPJ and the LDP are even smaller parties, many of which have strong right-wing leanings that might not be appropriate in the current financial and social climate.

I do not envy the Japanese voters.

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Sir Winston Churchill

British politician (1874 – 1965)

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