Japan's New Ruling-Party Off To Troubled Start

With a new party in power in Japan for only the second time in a half-century, many people were expecting a sea change in how the country is run. But the birth of a true two-party system is proving difficult. Japan's political structure is written into law, and rearranging it is complicated. The Democratic Party of Japan's economic policies are aimed more at fairness than GDP growth, which makes it hard to satisfy Japanese concerns about economic doldrums. On the foreign policy side, the U.S. benefited from the one-party system it helped to construct, and the re-weighting of policies toward China and away from the U.S. is ruffling feathers in Washington.

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We go now to Japan, where a would-be political revolution seems to be running out of steam. Voters delivered a clear mandate for change last year, electing an opposition party for only the second time in half a century. But the approval ratings for the new prime minister have dropped. There are scandals and concerns about Japan's economic malaise.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo.

ANTHONY KUHN: Lawmakers jeered Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama as he criticized Japans political culture in his first speech to the current session of parliament last week.

Prime Minister YUKIO HATOYAMA (Japan): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Quoting Mahatma Gandhi, he warned of politics without principles and wealth without work. Some listeners found the reference to wealth without work ironic. Later in the speech, Hatoyama apologized for a scandal concerning his mother, who's given him nearly $14 million since 2002. Also in his speech, Hatoyama pledged to follow through with one of his biggest reforms: Stopping party members and ministry bureaucrats from larding budgets with pork barrel construction projects.

To do this, Hatoyama created a national policy unit, which reports directly to him. He's put Motohisa Furukawa, a rising star of the Democratic Party of Japan in charge of it. In his office, Furukawa describes the problems under the liberal Democratic Party.

Mr. MOTOHISA FURUKAWA (Senior vice minister; Democratic Party of Japan): (Through translator) Unelected bureaucrats were making the substantial decisions. I think this is what led to people's frustration and distrust in government. Elected officials should make the key political decisions and bureaucrats should follow them. This is a first step to recovering people's trust in government.

KUHN: As a result, this year's budget has far fewer roads, bridges and dams than previous ones. Furukawa says that this better reflects the DPJ's priorities.

Mr. FURUKAWA: (Through translator) In this year's budget we were able to cut spending on public infrastructure projects by 20 percent while increasing social welfare spending by 10 percent. This is what we mean by our slogans: Spending less on concrete and more on human beings.

KUHN: To prepare for this year's budget, DPJ politicians questioned government-funded groups about how they used taxpayer's money. At one hearing in November, DPJ lawmaker Renho - who goes by only one name - aggressively questioned the elderly director of a women's center.

Ms. RENHO (Upper House member; Democratic Party of Japan): (Speaking in foreign language)

KUHN: The director responded indignantly when it came out that her center was running at less than half of its capacity, so the government decided to cut the center's funding.

Despite some progress with its reforms, Prime Minister Hatoyama's support has dropped from around 70 percent after the election last August to well below 50 percent in recent polls.

Masatoshi Honda is an expert on politics at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. He says that Prime Minister Hatoyama's efforts to strengthen his hand, such as creating The National Policy Unit, have won him little popularity.

Professor MASATOSHI HONDA (Law, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies): He had to make those organs work in the honeymoon period, but its already over and the public is now expecting not the new process, not the new system, but the result itself.

KUHN: The DPJ's electoral victory last year appears to have put an end to one party rule in Japan. But Honda says it could take some time for a true two-party system to emerge.

Professor HONDA: Before we move to the real two-party system, we have to have a reshuffle. And before that, probably we need to have some kind of grand realignment between DPJ and LDP.

KUHN: The DPJ is an unlikely amalgam of conservatives and liberals. Honda says that the LDP and DPJ will probably need to splinter into new parties with clearer policy differences if voters are to have any meaningful choice about who governs Japan.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

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