After elections, Japan comes of age

After elections, Japan comes of age

The old guard was out, replaced by a breath of fresh air. So why don’t people look happier? The Japanese people are realising that no government has the power to fix their problems. But this is a good thing — Japan is finally growing up.

Our news media have been dispatching reporters to ask men and women on the street what they hope for from the new administration. Citizens lean into the microphone and answer with simple honesty: “I want them to improve the economy” or “beef up social security” or “solve the unemployment problem”. But the melancholy expressions on their faces belie their stated expectations.

In the past, the government was able to fix our problems. After World War II, Japan’s growth was largely state-directed. The people expected the government to build roads and hospitals, to protect their businesses and to guarantee their employment. Today, in part because of our aging society and our troubled pension system, the government simply doesn’t have the money to make everything better.

Many people in the Liberal Democratic Party seemed to conclude that the Democratic Party didn’t win, the LDP lost. It’s the same sort of distinction a Red Sox fan might make when his team is defeated by the Yankees. Some have yet to grasp the simple fact that the Liberal Democrats can no longer deliver happiness to all the people. Or perhaps it’s a fact that they’re just not willing to face.

The party bought the support of provincial voters by shoveling money to farmers, builders and small- and medium-sized businesses. Early in the postwar era, bringing public and private enterprises to one’s own district through connections and backroom deals seemed to be the main occupation of politicians. They functioned more as lobbyists than as politicians, and it’s hard to imagine a softer job. That’s why they love to have their sons and daughters follow in their footsteps.

The days of plenty eventually disappeared, but competing demands for the government’s largess continued. One group in a given district might want the government to subsidise highway construction while another wishes to see the local hospital rebuilt. A major problem today, amid the worsening business climate, is that hospitals are under financial stress.

But a landslide victory won’t give the Democratic Party the money to both construct all the roads and finance the hospitals. National and local government finances are on the verge of collapse. The Japanese are not naïve enough to rejoice over a change of administration at a time like this, or foolish enough to believe that their lives are about to improve.

The depressing truth is hitting home. Though one stratum of Japanese society may benefit from the change in government, others may be hurt. Major corporations may be rescued with tax cuts while workers' wages remain stagnant. If the minimum wage is raised, then corporations will shift production overseas.

The days when everything worked like a dream and everyone’s standard of living kept rising are over, and have been for a long time. Now that there is no longer enough money, the Japanese public has to make some hard choices.

Deep down, we all know this. That’s why the gloomy expressions on the faces of Japanese on the street haven’t changed. But this does not mean we are on the verge of decline or decay. We’re merely experiencing the melancholy that any child goes through as adulthood approaches.

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