This is the sixth New Year since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became state leader in December 2012 for a second time. Abe has remained in power for an unusually long time under the recent standards of Japanese politics.
The question, however, is whether he has spent his long time in power wisely and efficiently to build up meaningful political achievements.
It is difficult to argue, for instance, that he has tackled head-on the policy challenge of integrated reforms of social security and taxation systems during his five years in office. Such reforms are bound to be painful, more or less, for the public.
As for his long-cherished ambition to revise the Constitution, Abe appears to have been waffling, often changing the target provisions for amendments.
One of the factors behind his unimpressive policy performance has been his frequent calling of national elections.
There have been five national elections since 2012, including the Lower House election in December that year, which led to his return to power.
That translates into about one election per year. There have been two scheduled Upper House elections (held once in three years) during the period. In 2014 and 2017, Abe dissolved the Lower House for a snap election in a high-handed move to bolster his political standing.
Abe has altered the top policy priorities of his administration almost every time an election was called.
It has been five years of so many changes in key policy themes.
Ironically, the Abe administration has been acting with a very short-term policy agenda despite its longevity. Or is it because he has sought to long remain in power?
This is also a long-festering problem with Japanese politics. But excessive shortsightedness in politics inevitably harms the health of democracy.
In December last year, Japan Akademeia, an opinion group of people from the academic, business and labor communities, and other organizations held a symposium titled, “Where is advanced democracy going?”
Participants mainly discussed notable political trends in the United States and Europe, such as the spread of populism and the decline of mainstream political parties. As a main problem with Japanese politics, they pointed out, unsurprisingly, the haphazard and ad-hoc approach to policymaking.
“Staying in power itself has become the purpose, resulting in a lack of long-term perspectives and consistent programs for the entire period of governing by an administration,” said Jun Iio, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
What are the consequences of this tendency?
Symposium participants argued that it hampers efforts to tackle such long-term policy challenges as fiscal rehabilitation and global warming.
These policy themes need to be dealt with within long-term time frames. A policymaking approach focused solely on short-term goals would only pass the problems to future generations who have yet to be born.
A word that describes one aspect of nearsighted politics in this nation is “silver democracy.”
In Japan, elderly people account for a large portion of the voting public, and they are more likely to go to the polls than young people.
That means Japanese politicians must pay close attention to the voices of aged voters, who have massive collective influence on election results.
If, as a result, social security policy is designed in favor of elderly voters, disparities between generations in welfare benefits will widen.
Such an unbalanced social security policy would put a long-term strain on state finances, creating serious problems for the future.
There are, however, intriguing data concerning this issue.
Last summer, Tastuya Kameda, a professor in experimental social science at the University of Tokyo, and Yoshimatsu Saito, a student at the university’s graduate school, conducted a political survey of 2,000 voters in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward.
Elderly respondents showed a stronger interest than their younger counterparts in policy issues concerning “sustainability,” such as Japan’s budget deficit and global warming.
Much the same was true regarding a willingness to play an active role for the interests of future generations.
Kameda said elderly people seem to have a role to play in realizing equality between the current and future generations, citing past research showing that old people tend to be less likely to make shortsighted decisions than children or university students.
If so, the “silver democracy” may be only a result of politicians’ misguided attempts to curry favor with old voters, rather than a consequence of selfish voting behavior of the elderly population.
This may be another evil of nearsighted politics preoccupied with short-term political gains.
For our own offspring
Bureaucrats once placed primary importance on the continuity and consistency of policies if politicians were constantly seeking the support of the public by responding sensitively to changes in their demands.
But this traditional division of roles has been obscured by the stronger policymaking leadership of the prime minister’s office.
We need to come up with new ideas to secure a long-term perspective for the democratic process of policymaking.
Various ideas have already been proposed.
Regarding fiscal reform, it has been suggested that an independent and neutral agency of nonpartisan experts be created to rigorously monitor and assess the government’s fiscal discipline.
It has also been proposed that the electoral system be revamped to choose representatives of each generation so that young people’s voices are more reflected in policy decisions.
In debate on the Constitution in recent years, the argument for measures to restrict the Cabinet’s power to dissolve the Lower House as a way to prevent frequent national elections has been gaining traction.
Germany’s Basic Law, the nation’s effective constitution, refers to the state’s “responsibility toward future generations.” In a revision made in 1994, the protection of “the natural bases of life” was stipulated as a national policy goal.
Although Japan’s Constitution doesn’t contain such provisions, it is not inattentive to the interests of future generations.
In its preamble, the Constitution says, “we (the Japanese people) shall secure for ourselves and our posterity the fruits of peaceful cooperation with all nations and the blessings of liberty throughout this land.”
Article 11 says, “These fundamental human rights guaranteed to the people by this Constitution shall be conferred upon the people of this and future generations as eternal and inviolate rights.”
It seems that the Constitution calls upon us to look ahead to the future.