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July 19, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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Politics with Paul

Having spent the past three weeks wandering around Japan, I have been bombarded by loudspeakers spouting what is interpretable only as incessant gibberish to the uni-lingual perspectives of most of us who rely on the English language. Thus, it took a while, and the aid of the few English language newspapers, to work out that the spectacle I have had the pleasure of witnessing over the past few weeks has been the Japanese style of campaigning for their recent House of Councillors (read: upper house/Senate) elections which were held on 11 July.

While it was clear that the plethora of vans equipped with loudspeakers were vehicles of some campaign, the stark difference in how the Japanese campaign, compared to our own methods, underscores the difficulty in my processing what the campaign was about. In contrast to New Zealand, where the two key campaign mediums are billboards and television, from an outside perspective the Japanese seem to have a much more intensive approach, which sees the political parties hitting the streets in person and en masse, while placing little importance on the visual advertising methods our political parties rely so heavily upon.

The aforementioned vans number in the thousands across the country and are armed with four loudspeakers apiece, which are cranked well past 11. Each van contains a team comprised of one or two speakers who are presumably the members of each political party, who for the most part speak with a fervent energy and an applaudable capacity to utter an incredible amount of words in between breaths. On top of the speakers, and probably one of the most striking aspects of the whole ordeal, are the few per team whose job it is to simply wave, in a manner that is almost mechanical, and in some instances, comical. Case in point—while exploring the back streets of Nagoya, one such van was on the move doing sweeps of the side streets, and these wavers persisted with their designated action despite their shaking hands being met only with empty sidewalks and concrete walls.

The election itself saw the ruling party, The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), lose much of the advantage they gained in their landslide victory in the election for Japan’s House of Representatives last September. This has resulted in the DPJ-led coalition losing the majority they need within the House of Councillors to ensure legislation sees easy passage through the upper house. The House of Representatives election had been a historic one as it had seen the defeat of the centre-right Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), who have held power in Japan almost exclusively throughout the party’s 55-year existence before being defeated by the DPJ in 2009. These most recent elections were the people’s first judgment on the new DPJ-Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) coalition, and have illustrated resounding disappointment in the latest government’s efforts.

Originally elected on a promise to reduce the high levels of government spending in association with tax cuts to the working population, the latest election result can be somewhat attributed to Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s pre-election taboo of suggesting a possible hike in Japan’s 5 per cent consumption tax (GST); a move which might have been made under a naïve assumption that the Prime Minister was still working within a honeymoon period. After all, Kan only assumed power on 8 June, following the resignation of previous Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who stood down after only 8 months in power.

It is this instability within leadership which has eventuated in the abysmal result for the DPJ-led coalition, and not specifically the suggestion of a hike in consumption tax, aimed at paying off the national debt while financing growing social welfare costs exacerbated by the country’s aging population.

Former Prime Minister Hatoyama began his short reign in power with a high approval rating, but suffered a rapid fall in popularity following financial scandals, and the inability to deliver on the high expectations the DPJ had created in the September 2009 House of Representatives election. Most significantly, Hatoyama reneged on his campaign promise to relocate the Futenma US Marine Corps Air Station to a less populated location than the islands of Okinawa, where they have been based since the end of World War II. The decision to retain the base at its current location was made with US President Barack Obama in the wake of the alleged North Korean attack on the South Korean naval vessel, Cheonan, but the decision was widely unpopular within Japan.

Hatoyama’s fall from power is not an anomaly however, exemplified by the fact that the current Prime Minister Kan is the country’s fifth since 2006. So, while the Japanese people have signified their dissatisfaction as illustrated by the results of the recent election, Kan still holds power and it is crucial he ensures stability within government if the DPJ hope to win a second term in the next House of Representatives elections. Superficially, Japan is incredibly successful in creating the façade of stability within its own borders, but further changes in leadership, and another change in government could see this façade permanently compromised.

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