Japan 'out of control' as political rivals lock horns

JAPAN'S cabinet yesterday passed a tax reform bill which has dogged politics for months, and was instrumental in bringing down the government of Morihiro Hosokawa earlier this year. But, if anything, it was a victory for the bureaucrats, particularly in the Ministry of Finance.

Up to three months ago, the Prime Minister who signed the bill into law, Tomiichi Murayama, staked his career on opposing an increase in sales taxes. As the Socialist leader in opposition, he argued that they were unfair to lower income families. Yesterday, all smiles for the cameras, he agreed the increases.

Politically, Japan is out of control. In the past 15 months, it has had four Prime Ministers, and debate has swung wildly from the most conservative to the most progressive camps. Should Japan aspire to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council? Is it necessary to apologise for the war? Is radical political reform necessary? How fast should the economy be deregulated and markets opened to imports? Each of these is central to the future of the country, and yet none has found any clear solution.

Holding up the debate is a fight to the death between two powerful men. In the conservative, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' corner is Noboru Takeshita, the 70-year-old former prime minister and veteran of every significant political scandal in the last two decades in Japan. In the aggressive, pro-reform corner is Ichiro Ozawa, the 51- year-old former lieutenant of Mr Takeshita who shook up the political system last June - and forever alienated Mr Takeshita - by splitting the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and ending its 38-year run in office. Mr Ozawa argues that Japan must become a 'normal country' by improving its citizens' quality of life, curbing corporate and bureaucratic power, and playing a more responsible international role.

After last year's July elections, Mr Ozawa patched together a coalition dedicated to these aims. But internal squabbling paralysed the government, which finally fell in June. In its place a cynical coalition of the LDP and their former enemies, the Socialists, was inaugurated, headed by Mr Murayama. A faithful Socialist during the Cold War, Mr Murayama was nonetheless quick to adapt to the demands of government: within days of his appointment he gave up his opposition to the existence of the country's armed forces, to the security treaty with the US, to nuclear power plants and to Tokyo's recognition of South rather than North Korea.

Behind Mr Murayama stands Mr Takeshita. He has been accused in the Diet (parliament) of using gangsters to help him win the prime ministership in 1987, of taking money from the scandal- ridden Sagawa delivery company, and of misappropriating funds while finance minister. He was forced to resign as prime minister in 1989 because of his involvement in the Recruit shares-for-favours scandal: his private secretary committed suicide over the affair. His record is so notorious that even the LDP felt they could not keep him on their books, so he ran as an independent in the last elections.

Power is never transparent in Japan: Mr Takeshita is the kingmaker behind the current government. After 36 years in the Diet, his influence is considerable. His links with Mr Murayama go way back, to when the LDP and the Socialists held private meetings to ensure their public disagreements never actually paralysed government.

Mr Takeshita's master plan for the current coalition is to hold off any serious reform or deregulation measures while the LDP rebuilds its strength to return to single- party power. The Socialists are merely a means to that end. 'We have swallowed the Socialists and we have them in our stomach,' a magazine quoted him as saying. 'All that remains is for the gastric juices to digest them.'

Meanwhile Mr Ozawa is working furiously to build a coalition out of the 10 opposition parties in the Diet. But this is proving difficult: the initial plan to have the single new party up and running by this month has been delayed. But in the end Mr Ozawa, as a politician from a younger generation than Mr Takeshita, is in the stronger position. The biggest challenge to the old order is the ordinary Japanese consumer. The old racist arguments from the Agriculture Ministry that Japanese will not eat foreign apples, beef or oranges are now demonstrably untrue. One of the biggest hits during this summer with its record heat wave was a beer from Belgium, selling at nearly half the price of Japanese brews.

This consumer revolt will be magnified by the next elections, when a new voting system will at least partially redress the bias in the old electoral system towards the farming vote. The urban vote will not be so easy to buy, and will have a far more varied and cosmopolitan range of sectoral interests to satisfy than simply maintaining a high price for rice producers.

Mr Takeshita and his colleagues have no answer to these problems, which will not be addressed until Mr Ozawa or someone else from the pro-reform camp gets into the driving seat.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Developer - HTML, CSS, PHP, JavaScript, VBA, SQL

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are working with one o...

Male Behaviour Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

BA/PM,EMIR/Dodd-Frank,London,£450-650P/D

£450 - £650 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

SEN Learning Support Assistant vacancy in Penarth

£55 - £65 per day + Travel Scheme and Free Training: Randstad Education Cardif...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz