Since the Meiji Restoration era, many democratisation attempts were taken to bring about Westernisation and Japan began to modernise itself.
The Koizumi Administration
After the “lost decade” Japan experienced, Junichirō Koizumi began his term by vowing that he would make some much needed alterations economically and politically, and numerous voters held confidence that he was genuine with his promises (Anderson, 2004). He held office for 2 tenures, from 26 April 2001 to 26 September 2006 (5 years and 5 months) (Uchiyama, 2010). However, in comparison to previous traditional governments, the “Koizumi administration was a bird of an extremely different feather” (Uchiyama, 2010). Using phrases such as “reform” and “I will change Japan” made Koizumi stood out politically with strong displays of leadership (JILPT, 2006). Moreover, the support for Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), before Koizumi took over, was deteriorating over the years till the extent whereby LDP had to form an alliance with 2 other parties to stay in power in the 90s (Anderson, 2004).
Koizumi restructured Japan’s political and economic system entirely, emphasising that “without structural reforms, there can be no economic recovery” (Anderson, 2004; Takao, 2007). Hence, expecting Japan to endure short term hardships such as high unemployment as he believed that it will rebound in the future through sustaining structural policy, requesting to the Japanese people to endure incoming hardships (Takao, 2007). Additionally, during the campaigning of LDP president, Koizumi focused greatly on dealing with bad debts and structural reform (Anderson, 2004).
The Koizumi administration emphasised greatly on a phrase he used frequently which was, “let the private sector do what it can”, implementing several policies to downsizing the centralised and bloated public sector and utilise the private sector in hopes to deal with bad loans in the banking sector which was a significantly huge problem for Japan (JILPT, 2006). This was evidence when Koizumi decided to implement privatisation for public enterprise like Japan Post Holdings in 2005 (Takao, 2007; The Japan Times, 2015) which caused some backlash from the opposition as closure of post offices and banks, which was the country’s largest employer, will lead to numerous job losses. In contrast, many supporters are positive that through privatisation, Japan’s economy will be revitalised due to more flexible and efficient use of the company’s funds, essentially remobilise assets (Porges and Leong, 2006). Concerning high unemployment issues in Japan, the Koizumi administration devoted themselves to revise the old labour laws, expecting to increase global competitiveness of Japanese businesses and to enhance working environment with respect to meet the needs and satisfy the lifestyles of the employees (JILPT, 2006).
The “lost decade” resulted in Japan obtaining high levels of bad debts, historically high levels of unemployment and to top it off, the economic growth was sluggish (Stockwin, 2007) with a national debt of almost ¥700 trillion. Therefore, Koizumi designated Haizo Takenaka who is an economist, as the Minister of State for Services, to commence the “Financial Services Revival Plan” (FSRP). As plans took time for results to show and with the economy still weak, members of public began to shift their support away from Koizumi (Kabashima & Steel, 2007). Koizumi eventually won his people over after his visitation to North Korea in 2002, with some kidnapped citizens repatriated to Japan (Stockwin, 2007; Kabashima & Steel, 2007). Leading back to FSRP, half of the bad loans were sorted out by September 2004 after stringent asset assessments in by “cleaning it up” and disposing non-performing loans (Takao, 2007; Uchiyama, 2010). This successfully tackled the crisis Japan had and the stock ultimately improved.
The Koizumi administration handled international relations differently and during his time in office, political relations between Japan and China were stained despite the fact that economic and trade-ties between the 2 countries are one of the closest (Stockwin, 2007). Many were unsure of Koizumi’s motivation of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine (Stockwin, 2007). China and Korea often consider the Yasukuni shrine as a “glorification of Japan’s militaristic past”. However, stated by Sakamoto (2014) that Koizumi was constantly clarifying that he visited the shrine “to comfort the spirits of those who lost their lives fighting for their country, to reflect on the past, and to renew the vow of the renunciation of the war”, nothing more. In October 2005, China cancelled a high level visit by Japan’s Foreign Minister, Nobutaka Machimura, a few days shy before the visitation date as Koizumi visited the shrine just days before (NY Times, 2005).
On the contrary, Japan had good relations with United States (US) at that point of time as Koizumi has a close relationship with former US President, George Washington Bush (Anderson, 2004; Stockwin, 2007). Koizumi paved the way for Japan to engage in international community efforts to support the war on terror (Operation Iraqi Freedom) after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, 2001 (Tatsumi, 2018).
Under Koizumi administration, Japanese economy went through a slow but steady recovery economically and managed to put an end to taking discretionary fiscal measures (e.g. increasing consumption tax) by reducing government spending unlike its predecessors for revenue and expenditures which would provide only a short term solution for the economy (Takao, 2007).
The Abe Administration
Shinzo Abe succeeded Koizumi on 26 September 2006 (Kabashima & Steel, 2007). During his time in the office, there were a number of missteps by Abe and his cabinet members that led to 5 ministers resigning due to several scandals (Cronin, 2007). He had an idealistic mindset that puts priority to the country’s defence, education and constitutional reform, often stating that “the country should adopt a more robust leadership role in the global community and increase its involvement in international rule making” (Edström, 2007). However, Abe was strongly criticised during his tenure as public concerns were not addressed such as social security and job creation (Mohr, 2008).
The Abe Administration effectively passed 4 education related bills during his time in office (Mohr, 2008). Abe hugely prioritised on education reform, placing patriotism at the forefront of the education system (Stockwin, 2007). In December 2006, Abe administration re-evaluated the Fundamental Law of Education to “nurture people who value their families, their communities, and their country” (kokyo seishin) (McNeill & Lebowitz, 2007; Fujihira, 2008), rebuilding education. This includes rolling back on “relaxed education” (yutori kyōiku) (Stockwin, 2007) and reintroducing teachings on Saturday as well as increasing weekly class duration by 10 percent (McNeill & Lebowitz, 2007). In addition to the newly added bill, Abe passed 3 bills: “nurturing the public spirit”, encouraging “an attitude that loves the nation” and having “a correct understanding” of the history of Japan (McNeill & Lebowitz, 2007). This was rather controversial as stated by Professor Kobaya Setsu of Keio University “placing patriotism at the centre of the education system and the Constitution constitutes a serious encroachment on the principle of the freedom of thought” (Kobayashi, 2007; Stockwin, 2007).
To lighten the tension between Japan and China Koizumi caused, Abe visited China and made an agreement with the China authorities, leading to what was described as a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests” (Fujihira, 2008). Unlike Koizumi, Abe considered to be more concerned about sustaining good relationships with regionally and visited Korea as well. Abe too strengthened the relationship between Japan – Australia and Japan – India (Fujihira, 2008) and imposed a defence reform ensuring growth of alliances with US (The Economist, 2006), especially with North Korea’s nuclear missiles.
Despite his success with improving international relations, the Abe administration lost a huge amount of support from the Japanese from scandals and “unfortunate” ministerial opinions (Stockwin, 2007). Some examples would be when Yanagisawa Hakuo, the Home Minister, made a derogatory and sexist comment that women are just “machines for making babies” and the controversial issue on “comfort women” during World War II that Abe said that “Government authorities did not break into houses to force women into prostitution” (Stockwin, 2007) to which caused a huge steer and public outrage. For a PM and a politician who took great pride to lead Japan towards his perception of a “beautiful country”, these misconduct and scandals were a huge blow towards Abe Administration (Fujihira, 2008). Eventually, Abe left the office on 12 September 2007 due to health issues.
The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) Administration
After Koizumi’s departure in 2006, there were frequent changes of PM for 3 consecutively years. Moreover, the instability and political scandals of LDP caused the public to be outraged and eventually lost trust (Saito, 2008). Finally in August 2009 general election, the DPJ successfully sweep the LDP from power by gaining 308 seats over a total of 480. Under DPJ’s reign, there were 3 notable PMs, as well as frequent reshuffles and cabinet shuffles (Siddiqui, 2012).
First PM from DPJ Administration was Yukio Hatoyama, who began his term with high approval ratings and expectations (Kushida and Lipscy, 2013). During his time in office, Hatoyama had made an unrealistic deadline publicly for a campaign promise to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma out of Okinawa (Tanaka, 2010). Given that resolution and cooperation had to be made between Okinawans and the US government, it shortly became a high profile issue. Through this issue, many deemed Hatoyama as a weak leader as he had to go back on his promise eventually. Hatoyama and Ozawa were also faced with a finance scandal and it was revealed that Hatoyama has been receiving donations (Carlson & Reed, 2018). Ichiro Ozawa is a politician that stood out as he was always involved in political drama and he was accountable for breaking LDP’s power twice (Yoshida, 2019) leading DPJ winning by a landslide in 2009. Hatoyama stated that his mother transferred money to unbeknownst to him, receiving more than 1.2 billion yen. With the political pressure and financial scandals, Hatoyama resigned with just 9 months in office (Shinoda, 2013).
Soon after, Naoto Kan became the PM of Japan on 8 June 2010 to 2 September 2011. It was said that he was unlucky during his term as mainly major events happened. His approval ratings dropped after his proposition of tax increase from 5 percent to 10 percent (Hongo, 2010; Shinoda, 2013). A diplomatic incident near the Senkaku Islands on 7 September 2010 caused the relationship between Japan – China to sour. Japan made the arrest on the Chinese vessel and the crew who were on Japan’s territorial waters (Shinoda, 2013). China protested strongly against Japan’s arrest, claimed that the Sekaku Islands are part of China and ordered the release of the crew. After China suspended ministerial level exchanges and arresting 4 Japanese employees for entering into a military zone in China without work authorisation, Japan gave into China’s request and released the crew (Shinoda, 2013). In Spring 2011, Japan suffered seriously from an earthquake and then a tsunami at Tohoku coastline which caused damages on the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. While responding to the natural and nuclear disaster, Kan started shifting away from nuclear power, curb plans to build new reactors and strongly promoted renewable energy (Tabuchi, 2011). The crisis above influenced Kan’s approval ratings to drop and in due time, Kan resigned once the bills to promote renewable energy and fund post-disaster restoration were passed (Tabuchi, 2011).
Yoshihiko Noda was chosen to be the new PM and had to take over the restoration from Tohoku’s natural disaster and Fukushima disaster. His key goal was to increasing the consumption tax even though DPJ made a promise to the public that they will try not to increase the tax (Ito, 2012). In addition, Noda made a controversial decision by restarting Japan’s nuclear reactors despite stating that “he (would) like to phase out nuclear power” and protest from hundreds of people (Japan Today, 2012). Noda participated and negotiated in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which again was a controversial topic (Yamashita. 2012). Opposing to TPP pact are mostly farmers who are afraid that cheaper food imports will affect their frangible agricultural market hence, it was widely talked about. The scandals of Tanaka Keishu (yakuza matchmaker), justice minister, affected Noda’s approval ratings as well (BBC, 2012). To top it off, there were territorial despites with China in regards to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Due to all these controversial policies laid out by Noda, DPJ was divided into two. Noda ended his tenure on 16 December 2012, letting Abe and LDP to take over his place.
With the DPJ promising to remove bureaucracy altogether, they failed (Ito, 2012). The DPJ met with numerous difficulties, leading to a dramatic decrease of seat numbers and losing power. Carlson & Reed (2018) mentioned that DPJ ministers “lacked governing experience and had never received intense public scrutiny”, resulting with poor leadership, inability to meet promises and lack of policy consistency (Kushida and Lipscy, 2013).
Differences between each government
Each administration has strikingly different agendas during their time in office.
Firstly, Koizumi did devise a great policy that resulted Japan’s economy to get out of a long-term recession (Shumpei, 2006). He had strong display of leadership, had consistently high approval ratings due to his populist style. Koizumi placed the banking and economic crisis on the top of his agenda, privatising public companies whereas Abe’s priorities in office was education and international relations. Abe was thought to have as strong leadership as Koizumi and was more visionary as compared to Koizumi.
During Koizumi’s tenures, the relationship with China was worsen as he visited the Yasukuni shrine days before Japan’s foreign minister was due to visit China and China decided to cancel the visitation as a whole. However, once Abe took office, one of the first things he did and the first visit he made as a PM was to visit China and improved the Japan – China international relationship to a certain extent. When DPJ Administration took office, the international relations took a turn for the worst between Japan – China and Japan – US due to the Senkaku Islands and US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma respectively. Since the resignation of Hatoyama, it was apparent that DPJ had lack of national security policy and solid foreign policy. There was a uproar against Kan for “bowing” to Chinese demands and against Noda for restarting the nuclear reactors. The public lost trust and faith on DPJ as they were unable to uphold their promises and went back on it several times.
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