Mainstream Australian media provided distressingly meager coverage of Japan’s exciting general election for the more powerful lower House of Representatives last Sunday, which saw a remarkable about-face. The centrist Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) went from 115 to 308 seats, with allies SDP (the small leftover of the once-powerful Social Democratic Party) and the New Party Nippon taking another 7 and 3 seats respectively. Overall, these and other former Opposition parties took 340 seats, whereas the conservative ruling coalition suffered a massive defeat. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) dropped to 119 seats, from 300 before the election (and 296 in 2005, the previous election called by Junichiro Kozumi who then retired as Prime Minister). The Komeito dropped from 31 to 21 seats, meaning that the former ruling coalition now only has 140 seats. In short, the tables have turned almost completely since 2005, in a country (in)famous for its aversion to abrupt changes in direction.
This blog posting is the first of several thinking through this result and some implications for policy and law reform in Japan.
Newspaper coverage in English tends to suggest that this is the first time the LDP has really lost power since 1955. Commentators usually do mention its loss in 1993, but add that this was only for a year. This overlooks that the fact that the SDP led a coalition incorporating the LDP from 1994-6, which saw some significant political developments (eg a major settlement of the long-running Minamata Disease litigation). More importantly, the year the LDP was completely out of power generated important legislation ranging from measures promoting transparency in administrative procedures through to strict liability for defective products. It also laid the groundwork for further substantive law reforms in similar areas, such as the Official Information Disclosure Act of 2001 and the Consumer Contracts Act 2000.
Most importantly, the LDP’s fall from power in 1993 made them and the bureaucracy reassess their close relationship. LDP politicians realised that even once back in power, they might lose again. From that perspective, a political process more open to diverse stakeholders – including “opposition” interests – became more attractive. As part of this ongoing rethink, from the late 1990s the “deliberative council” system for law reform certainly became more transparent, and alternative law-making processes developed as well (eg private Members’ Bills).
The LDP, prompted also by the Komeito, also began incorporating many centrist policies into its own program – trying to steal the DPJ’s thunder. Such developments provide a partial explanation for the counter-intuitive situation of a conservative coalition pressing ahead with major judicial reforms from 2001,. These covered not just for civil justice (which at least some business interests also wanted), but also criminal justice (including the new quasi-jury system, with its first trial recently concluded in the Tokyo District Court).
These shifts – accommodating concerns of a wider voter base, in a more porous process serving as a back-up plan in case the LDP lost power again – seemed to be working out quite well, especially as the Japanese economy finally returned to a growth path from 2002-7. But then came the GFC and economic stagnation potentially far worse than during Japan’s ‘lost decade’ of the 1990s, because it was driven by the world-wide collapse of all Japan’s major markets for both exports and investment (including even China). Those who had already suffered from major socio-economic reforms and Japan’s banking crisis in the late 1990s became increasingly concerned about the LDP’s capacity to address these even larger challenges. One such group comprised the burgeoning numbers of “involuntary non-regular workers”, young men and others who no longer had the option of one day joining the elite “lifelong employee” cadre rather than deliberately choosing not to take up that life. (This group was highlighted in the recent lecture on “flexicurity” presented at Sydney Law School by former Todai Law Dean, Emeritus Professor Kazuo Sugeno). Unsurprisingly, despite LDP-led law reform in 2007 aimed at part of this group, the DPJ was able to attract a much higher proportion of younger voters.
All this means that we may not witness now huge changes in both the style and substance of law reform in Japan. This will not (merely) be because the DPJ government is new and relatively inexperienced, or due to reactionary forces, but also because some significant changes were already afoot. It is interesting, for example, to compare the pre-election manifestos of the LDP and the DPJ (themselves one indication of broader transformations in Japanese politics over the last decade) and other policy statements. On the other hand, it is certainly worth examining the DJP’s manifesto “promises” to get a better idea of the new government’s likely legislative program for the next few years:
The DPJ’s policy summary (not necessarily identical to their manifesto distributed during the election compaign) is still currently only available in Japanese. But it states policies from areas such as:
• Cabinet (eg re the Ainu, now recognized as an indigenous people)
• Children and women (eg work-life balance, or allowing married couples to retain separate surnames)
• Consumers (eg strengthening local government Consumer Lifestyle Centres, dealing with huge volumes of complaints and requests for information)
• Administrative reform (eg limits of “amakudari [descent from heaven]”, ie retiring from government into private sector jobs, increasingly commonplace also in the US and NSW!)
• Local-central government relations (eg greater devolution and citizen involvement in governance)
• Political reform (eg reducing lower house numbers and limiting ‘political dynasties’)
• Legal affairs (rethinking the new “Law School” and legal examination system introduced from 2004, criminal justice improvements such as videotaping interrogations and possibly life sentences instead of the death penalty, a second round of administrative litigation reforms, possible multiple nationality even after minority at least for children of international marriages)
• Foreign affairs and security (especially strengthening relations with Asia)
• Finance (including a new law on publically listed companies)
• Tax (including reviews of alchohol and beer taxes, and tax litigation processes)
• Health and welfare (eg possible no-fault compensation schemes, and measures for hepatitis victims)
• Labour (eg securing better conditions for non-regular workers, preventing and resolving disputes based on the Labour Contracts Act)
• Agriculture (eg a traceability system for food products, and linked quarantine inspections)
• Construction and transport (eg a Road Traffic Basic Law)
• Environment (eg meansures to resolve some remaining Minamanta and Kanemi Rice Bran mass claims, as well as “sick houses” disputes and asbestos problems)
Later postings on this blog will provide more detail, and report on how the new government does or does not follow up in these and other areas, but many of the topics just listed have already been introduced in previous postings on this blog, the East Asian Forum blog (www.eastasiaforum.org), or my other readily available work (eg reproduced at www.ssrn.com). Meanwhile, comments are most welcome, especially from ANJeL members!