Japan held its snap general election on Sunday (the same day, apparently, as George W. shamelessly invoked the memory of 9/11 in an attempt to shore up support for his administration following the catastrophic blunders and mendacity surrounding the devastion caused by Hurricane Katrina). Anyway, the Liberal Democrat Party, which has held power more or less permanently for about fifty years, won a huge majority, the biggest since its temporary loss of power in 1993. (N.B. If you’re at all bored by politics, I suggest you skip down a couple of paragraphs to the funny picture.)
Junichiro Koizumi, Prime Minister and leader of the LDP, called the election after his bill to privatise the post office was rejected by the upper house in the Diet. Japan Post is also a savings bank, one of the biggest in the world, in fact. There’s about 3 trillion US dollars tied up in there. Koizumi presumes that if Japan Post is privatised, the money which was previously just sitting there will enter the market, give the economy a much-needed boost. Of course, privatisation has many opponents, not least in the rural areas, weighted to be more powerful than cities, where privatisation will mean ‘streamlining’ and branch closures. Because of this, several MPs in the LDP voted against the bill. In response, Koizumi kicked them out of the party, and parachuted in hand-picked candidates to stand against them. Suddenly, the usually unchanging world of Japanese politics had become a lot more exciting.
The rebel MPs, who formed two micro-parties and fought the election on a shared platform, were powerful faction bosses who came from the old school of Japanese politics. For them, what mattered was keeping their mainly rural voters happy through lucrative public works projects that would bring jobs and investment to their constituencies – pork-barrel politics, as one unkind, but not necessarily untrue term would have it. Post office privatisation wouldn’t have gone down well with their voters. Koizumi fielded some decidedly new-school candidates against them, incuding people from business, the media, and a lot of women (who were constantly referred to in the Japanese media as the “female assassins”). Some won against the rebels and some didn’t, but all got in on the proportional lists – another quirk of the system.
Simply put, Koizumi took an enormous gamble, and it paid off. His party has won an outright majority for the first time in over a decade, and no longer needs the Komeito, the Buddhist-aligned party who have been coalition partners with the LDP for some time. They’re very popular in the Kansai area, and Hirakata is covered with posters of its leader striking the cheesiest pose in history. Here he is, for your viewing pleasure.
What a stud. It’s stuff like that makes me almost tearfully grateful for the way the British constantly rip it out of our politicians. Well, I hope you enjoyed this little potted history of the election. At the very least I hope I’ve outdone the Australian guy I met last week. He was a friend of a friend I was going to lunch with, and spending time with him was about the most unbearable thing I’ve ever done in Japan (just ahead of eating natto). To save his blushes, I’ll call him Annoying Aussie Guy, or AAG. One of the first things he said to me after I’d told him my nationality was:
AAG: Ah, so y’know about how Australia was once a prison colony?
Me: [thinks] Oh yeah, and every time I talk to an American student I mention how I once used to own their country. Grow up.
AAG: Y’know where the word ‘pom’ comes from? It used to mean “Prisoner of Bloody Mother England”…
Me: [thinks] Which would be ‘POBME’. You must be so proud that your brilliant country did such a great job of teaching you how to spell.
But the coup de grace was his display of knowledge about the election:
AAG: Yeh, I been studying up on the election, and I know way too much about it.
Me: So, what do you know about the election?
AAG: Well… [brow furrows, steam comes out of his ears] I know it’s about the privatisation of the post office.
Me: [thinks] I know that. Everyone at this table knows that. Anyone who’s spent more than 24 hours in Japan knows that. Would the world judge me harshly if I pushed this guy under a bus? Ooh, there’s one now…
AAG then proceeded to reel off the professor’s entire explanation of the election from our last Making the News in Japan class, right down to reproducing his turns of phrase. I would dislike him, but I just feel sorry for Australians, who are really great people and don’t deserve this kind of bad press. To redress the balance, I will tell you about some wonderful Aussies I know here in a future post.