The “Japan High School Party”

April 9, 2010

If ever proof were needed that personal ties can trump policy in Japanese political alliances , a new party being set up by a band of ageing opposition MPs should do the trick.

Former Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano, 71, favours raising taxes to pay for burgeoning social welfare costs in Japan’s greying society and helped push to privatise Japan’s huge postal system back in 2005.

His partner, ex-trade minister Takei Hiranuma, 70, is an ultraconservative who touts “traditional Japanese values” and left the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 2005 because he staunchly opposed taking Japan Post private.

“Mr Yosano is not opposed to my ideas,” Hiranuma told reporters this week as the two plotted to start their new “Stand Up, Japan” party amid criticism that their policies hardly matched. “We were in the same class at Azabu High School and our seats were next to each other.”

Drafted as a fifth member needed to meet a legal requirement for setting up a new party was upper house lawmaker Yoshio Nakagawa, whose main qualification appears to be that his lawmaker brother, now deceased, was once an aide to Hiranuma.

Hiranuma himself would seem to be a better ideological fit with banking minister Shizuka Kamei, who also left the LDP in 2005 and started the People’s New Party to battle postal privatisation. But cynics say the small party couldn’t accommodate two big egos, and Kamei now belongs to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s coalition, which took power last September after Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) trounced the long-dominant Liberal Democrats.

Confused? Not surprising.

New parties are springing up like mushrooms on Japan’s political soil as support for Hatoyama and his party slide ahead of an upper house election the Democrats need to win to avoid policy paralysis, since the chamber can delay bills.

Voter doubts about the PM’s leadership and distaste for funding scandals have eroded party backing but the public is also loth to see a comeback by the LDP, which ruled almost without a break for more than 50 years until its stunning defeat last August.

Popular former Health Minister Yoichi Masuzoe is also making broad hints about setting up what he says would be a pro-reform party, but analysts say he might need financial backing from Hatoyama’s brother Kunio, and LDP defector who is not known as a reformer but has deep pockets.

The LDP’s unravelling and doubts the DPJ can win a majority in the upper house poll expected in July have spurred talk that the Democrats may need new coalition partners — or even that a broad realignment may occur that finally makes sense of the crazy quilt of Japanese politics.

While the LDP tilts to the right and the DPJ to the left, members of both parties run the gamut from proponents of market-friendly reforms to those favouring a gentler form of capitalism. Both are also home to doves who want warmer ties with Asia and pro-Washington advocates of a bigger global security role for Tokyo.

Big doubts, though, remain whether any political reshuffle big or small would clear up policy confusion.

“Japan coalitions are rarely based on policies,” said Tsuneo Watanabe of the Tokyo Foundation think tank. “Numbers (of lawmakers) and personal ties come first, and policy follows.”

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