Koizumi campaign stamping out major issues
As a foreign observer working in Japan, I find it interesting to see how postal privatization dominates the election campaign when politicians should also debate other issues.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has made postal privatization his trademark. Though this focus may seem strange to outsiders, it is true that postal reform has important consequences.
Koizumi may only be concerned with the tactical goals of crushing the "old Liberal Democratic Party" by depriving it of its postal system support base. But if this reform does undermine the traditional conservative factions of the ruling party, it will help advance the cause of economic liberalization that the country needs.
A resounding victory by Koizumi against the LDP "rebels" will not automatically guarantee an economic transformation, but it might make it more likely. Similarly, if Koizumi's gamble fails and the opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) wins, it could also lead to positive economic changes. But much would depend on Minshuto's actual goals and its ability to exercise power.
On the other hand, if the enemies of the postal privatization initiative emerge victorious, it will be a setback at attempts to reform the political economy of the country.
As a result of the attention paid to postal reform, journalists are also devoting a lot of coverage to the drama of the fight between the LDP rebels and the "assassins" sent in by Koizumi to dislodge them from their Diet seats. But while postal privatization is important, there are other challenges facing Japan that should concern the Japanese electorate.
The first one is demography. This year may be the first one since 1945 that more Japanese die than are born. In contrast, there will be around 1.77 million more births than deaths in the United States in 2005.
Ways to mitigate the demographic collapse should be a key element of the election debate.
Compared to other developed economies, Japan underemploys women. If Japan were a corporation, its human-resources chief would long ago have been fired. Despite recent advances, a low percent of managers are females, and too many educated women do not work. As the labor force shrinks, voters should demand that politicians tell them what they will do to prevent Japan from wasting the talent of half of its citizens.
Immigration is another part of the answer to demographic decline. It is understandable that Japan is wary of letting immigrants and their families settle in the archipelago. Unlike Australia, Canada or the United States, Japan is not a New World society where newcomers can assimilate rapidly and successfully. There are, however, other options, such as bringing in foreign workers, but without their families, as is done in some countries.
So far, the government allows female "entertainers" to move to Japan to "entertain" Japanese men but, except for highly skilled professionals, the Japanese labor market is nearly closed to foreigners. What the government intends to do to deal with immigration should be a major election issue.
This question also affects the role of women. As Japan ages, Japanese, especially women, will find it difficult to work while taking care of their children, elderly parents (and sometimes grandparents as well) unless foreigners can staff nursing homes, work in day-care centers and provide other services.
Another challenge that Japan faces is its Asian diplomacy. Disputes over Yasukuni Shrine and revisionist history books have highlighted Japan's stormy ties with China and Korea. Improving ties with them, while defending Japanese interests, is a complex question that should be a priority of Japan's next government. Minshuto has mentioned these issues, but they have not been at the core of the campaign.
There is also little discussion of the Samawah deployment, though Minshuto has pledged to end it. This deployment cements ties with the United States and provides the armed services with experience overseas. But there are also good reasons to oppose it, namely that the conflict in Iraq is a reckless and hopeless war from which no good can come for Japan (and America). Moreover, if Japanese soldiers are killed, there could be a backlash in Japan against overseas operations. This is another issue that should concern voters.
Elections are unpredictable. We do not know for sure what the results of this one will be. But whichever party or faction wins, it will have to address the questions that have not been dealt with during this brief campaign.
The author is a visiting research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
Published in: IHT/Asahi Shimbun