TOPICS : Japan on the verge of paradigm shift?

After Yasuo Fukuda abruptly resigned as prime minister on Sept 1, there has been talk of a political vacuum building up in Japan. But a leading analyst points to the hot race for the ruling party’s presidency as proving the contrary. “I would not agree that Japan is in

turmoil,” says Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian Studies, Temple University in Japan and author of the well-acclaimed book “Japan’s Quiet Transformation.”

Kingston said that Japan, at the moment, is “a democracy searching a way out of political gridlock in the Diet (parliament) and witnessing intra-party competition for leadership, that is already decided”. He interprets the seeming turmoil in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as a way of projecting the image of the LDP as “more democratic and vibrant than the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)”.

The LDP has ruled Japan ever since the end of World War II, barring a ten-month period in 1993.

It is credited with overseeing Japan’s rise from the military defeat and foreign occupation to becoming the second-largest economy in the world.

But, as the party looks for a third PM in less than two years and one whose main job will be to lead it through elections for the lower house in less than a year, the once powerful LDP seems in disarray. Fukuda and his predecessor Shinzo Abe were both seen as ineffective in the face of an opposition which has repeatedly used its majority in the upper house of parliament to stall legislation by the conservative ruling party.

Japan, Kingston said, is a nation in transition. “It’s cobbling together a new paradigm in a messy and prolonged process. It’s gone through the Meji Restoration and then US occupation. It’s now in its third transformation, and it is being negotiated and debated, so this process will involve incremental reforms of an evolutionary nature.”

Kingston is laying his bets on Taro Aso for the party presidency. “It’s Aso’s fourth bid for the party presidency, while the other candidates are running for the first time,” he said. Aso’s conservative credentials are formidable. His father was chairman of the Aso Cement Company and was close to former PM Kakuei Tanaka, while his mother was prime minister Shigeru Yoshida’s daughter. Aso’s wife is the third daughter of another former PM Zenko Suzuki. And his younger sister, Nobuko, is the wife of Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, a first cousin of the Emperor Akihito.

But voters are increasingly looking at the centrist Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) as a possible alternative and many remember how it briefly but dramatically ousted the LDP from power in 1993. “The public wants leaders who can relate to them,” says Kyouhei Imanaka, president of a printing company. “We’re tired of their [LDP] speeches, we want to see action,” Imanaka said. “We are bored with them. We want candidates who say something we can believe in. They can’t understand how ordinary people think because most of them are born into rich, political families.” — IPS