Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The DPJ Won - Now what?

So, the DPJ actually made it (I'm a perennial pessimist regarding that party). They seem to be fairly well prepared for a power handover, so we should expect to see them get to work relatively quickly, assembling a government by mid September. How much actual change will we see? for this first year, expect only easy, highly visible, symbolic changes. The reason, of course, being the upcoming upper house election - yes, we're doing a repeat performance of the hit political show of the year next summer - and the DPJ will need to show some kind of visible progress to the voters by then. Anything very complex or time consuming may well be started but probably not pushed until after that election. Also, any issues where the DPJ is at odds with coalition partners SDPJ and the PNP will wait until after the election, when their support might no longer be necessary.

As for the fundamental questions faced by the Japanese society - things like the gulf between salaried and temp workers; the low birthrate; the rampant inequality and paternalistic social systems; the underutilization of women in the workplace - the truth is that the DPJ really is in no better position to address them than the LDP was. It is a broadly conservative party when it comes to social issues and a substantial part of the party is aghast at the thought of changing tradition-bound systems even in the face of a slowly unfolding disaster. A number of other high-profile problems, such as social security systems that no longer fit the way people live their lives, are tangentially connected to these issues and thus unlikely to see more than temporary band-aids.

For instance, many laws and regulations assume and actively promote the 20-century family unit (actually a fairly recent family type, even though many conservatives seem to believe it's traditional) of one married breadwinner, one stay-at-home parent and their children. This life is proving to be impossible to achieve for many young people, since temp jobs are not stable or high-paying enough to marry and support a family, while two working parents are very discouraged by lack of day care, rules permitting (even expecting) workplaces to fire women once they get children and other disincentives. But changing rules so that two working parents are encouraged, making it easier to be a single parent, and making it easier for women to continue a career while having children, is anathema to many conservatives and seen as a path to moral dissolution and the destruction of society.

You can certainly argue that in this they are simply following the overall attitude of the country as a whole - and Japan is indeed very conservative with regard to some social issues. But in times of crisis a leader is expected to actually lead and drive opinion rather than follow it. I don't see the DPJ do more than baby steps in this direction, just to mollify its SDPJ partner, and I'm not optimistic that the DPJ would even be able to do much more without creating a serious, potential fatal rift within the party in the process.

The DPJ win is good, it is necessary, and it will hopefully cause some long overdue change in the governance of the country. But don't expect any actual long-term solutions to Japan's current ills from this government. The crisis will have to become rather more acute for anything to happen, no matter which government is in power.


  1. Do you examples of countries that you think Japan should emulate? Singapore, perhaps?

    It could be argued that the DPJ is making an effort to improve the lives of those with no job security and low pay.

  2. I have no idea who, if any, DPJ should emulate. Me, I'm from Sweden and very favourable to things like an extensive social safety net, legal and economic incentives for gender equality and so on, all paid solidarily through taxes.

    But Japan isn't Sweden (neither is it Singapore (why Singapore, by the way?)), and you can't transplant ideas straight over from one society to another. Whatever form societal change will have in Japan, it will have to be shaped from within Japan itself.

    What I am pessimistic about is the ability for the DPJ to be the driver of such change, even as parts of the party clearly understand the need for it.

  3. Hej Janne

    You describe the situation in Japan as a slowly unfolding disaster and at the same time you believe that the crisis will have to become rather more acute for anything to happen.

    I'm wondering what you think will be an acute enough situation for the politicians/people of Japan to start changing society on a larger scale. And, in you opinion, what would the most important changes be?

  4. Hi Anton,

    Most issues here are very slowly unfolding by nature - demographics just don't change very quickly for instance - so there probably just isn't going to be a "moment of crisis" to catalyse large-scale change.

    It's pretty clear what the problems are, but how to solve them - not just any solution, mind you, but solutions get widely accepted by the population as a whole - I have no idea. If I did know I wouldn't be working as a junior researcher on short-term contracts; I'd be too busy with book signings and daytime TV appearances.

    There's two "easy" solutions for the increasing imbalance between the working population and pensioners, for instance: large-scale immigration, and raising the retirement age. Neither looks like an election winner in this country if I put it that way. Notably, raising the retirement age is something we'd need to think hard about in Sweden too, but Swedish politicians are naturally no more enthusistic about raising the issue with the public than Japanese ones are.

  5. The reason for positing Singapore was that they seem to have encouraged female participation in the work force as well as encouraging a higher birth rate, and, as an added bonus, they seem a lot closer socially than, say, Sweden.

    I do think it's relevant for Japan to look for foreign examples. They've done this since the Meiji reformation. The problem is that the US, which is their most important model, has been going downhill for the last 30 years.

    You can add a third "easy" option to your list: Remove the processes and licenses that require businesses to go to Tokyo all the time. That might raise productivity more than the two you mentioned. But that's like saying the US just needs to cut military spending 50%.

  6. Well, I honestly don't think Singapore would work as a viable role model. It's a city state, with three major ethnic groups and four languages. But the same point can be made with just about any other society: you can - and should - take inspiration from other societies that have overcome or avoided your problems, but the way you actually implement any solution has to be specific to your own particular situation.

    As for your third option: I really don't see how that has any bearing at all to the ratio of working-age to retired inhabitants?

  7. Well, the third point was that a lot of what is called work is not productive. Improving productivity would lessen the need for retirees working. And, speaking from personal knowledge, there are make-work programs for senior citizens to work, but I'm not sure how useful they are. Based on what I know, these are jobs where very little is expected.

  8. My mother in law will be ready for retirement next year. However her work place is so kind to offer her to continue working. The catch is that her salary will be lowered. For some reason it is supposed to encourage her to continue working a few more years by getting LOWER salary than the year before.

    I wonder if the same is true for other working places as well.

  9. Just to be clear, what I'm talking about is not post-retirement work (which, as you say, is fairly common in Japan), but an actual raise of the retirement age. As in, if people retired at 65 before (as in Sweden), now the age would become 67, say. No lowering of salaries or anything - it's work as usual. And it's notable that the needed raise would not have to be very large to have a major effect on the work-retirement ratio; 2 years is a pretty typical figure.

  10. Interesting post, indeed.

    Are you overall pessimistic about Japan and the Japanese, then?

  11. About Japan and the Japanese? No, not pessimistic at all. The society won't collapse or anything. People will muddle through. At some point needed changes will happen, and the society and the people in it will adjust. Population levels will stabilize (at a lower leverl than today), as will the economy and the GDP. We might be looking at a pretty unsettled ten or twenty years, and a smaller population at the end of it but it is a pretty good place to live in and will continue to be.

    If, however, your idea of "Japan and the Japanese" is all about The Greatness of The Nation, then be prepared to be disappointed. It's about to lose its place as the second largest economy for instance; it's not likely to ever regain that spot. GDP will shrink along with the population. This is perfectly fine as long as GDP per person stays level - that's what determines the resources available to the citizens after all; total GDP is just political bragging rights. Losing status on the world stage may be painful for nationalists, but it's probably overall not a bad thing for the people.

    If your idea of "Japan and Japanese" is all about conserving the culture, then, again, you might not like the future very much. Societal changes means cultural changes. Of course, what we mean with "traditional culture" is normally a lot less old or deep-seated than we may think. Anything older than the memory of our oldest living people tends to be "traditional", and much of curent traditional Japanese culture (or European, or wherever) isn't all that old; it replaced still older, now defunct, traditions and customs in turn. Expect that "traditional culture" to get yet another wholesale overhaul as society changes.

    A good illustration or parallel to that is the silly defence of "traditional marriage" in some countries with people upset over the idea of same-sex marriages. Problem is, their "traditional marriage" is a recent invention that emerged along with the first viable middle class in Europe in the late 18th and 19th century. For most of history, marriage has been a very stretchy, malleable concept. Most actual traditional marriages would leave its present-day defenders aghast.


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