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Home > Special Topics > Undercurrent Last Updated: 15:19 03/09/2007
Undercurrent #1: October 6, 2003

Japan to have a two party system: Can Mr. Can make it?

Tomohiko Taniguchi (Editor-at-Large, Nikkei Business Publications, Inc.)


With the general election upcoming due in late November, both parties, The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) and The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), are flexing their muscle. Little told so far is the fact that the DPJ is beneath the surface undergoing its own turnaround, the significance of which is three-fold.

Firstly, as the first ever attempt by a Japanese political party, it hired a US PR firm Fleishman-Hillard where Honda Motor's former top communications officer heads its Japan operations. US-born election terms such as "focus group" and "pollster" are hence entering quickly into DPJ lexicon.

Secondly, the DPJ has pursued to make the election the one that would be fought between the two major parties. The merger of the DPJ and Ichiro Ozawa's Liberal Party of late has made it possible for the DPJ to have as many candidates as would be deemed necessary to run against the LDP incumbents in every possible election district. Most of the candidates are newcomers, less recognised than their rivals. If the party succeeds to convince the voters that what matters is not so much who as which party they should vote for, the party hopes there will be a better chance for each DPJ candidate to carry the district.

For this to happen, and herein lies the third element, the DPJ thinks it has to have manifestoes that are hugely saleable. Fleishman-Hillard and the DPJ have collaborated for months exactly for this purpose, eventually come up with a package of "The First 30-Day Plan" and "100-Day Plan". Though its full details still undisclosed at this writing, it indeed includes surprises: the DPJ-run Cabinet will be collecting letters of resignation from all the top-tier bureaucrats of central ministries, test those mandarins if they would loyally follow the manifestoes, and reappoint only those answering yes. Though it being a roundabout way, it is still a creative way, la Japanese, to have political appointees, who the DPJ thinks are needed to avoid politicians-bureaucrats stalemate and effectively run the government machine to do the will of the party.

Whether all this will work is too early to tell, and indeed has become murkier with the LDP's newly appointed Secretary General, Shinzo Abe, attracting attentions nation-wide, especially from women. One can say however the direction in which Japan's electoral system heads has been made clearer by the DPJ, for the party is eager to take advantage of the Anglo-American "first-past-the-post" majoritarian system that has been in place in Japan for many years but has meant little in reality as the opposition party was split into more than two.

George W. Bush is scheduled to be in Tokyo to dine with Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's Prime Minister and President of the LDP, later this month. It remains likely that with the possible resumption of the hexa-national talk involving North Koreans, the abductees' sons and daughters still kept in North Korea will be released to join their parents in Japan. All this could give a powerful boost to Koizumi's popularity, and put a brake on the DPJ.

It nevertheless stands true that the next election will be an epoch-making one. Thenceforth Japan could have a two party system not unlike the ones in the UK and the US. Indeed Fleishman-Hillard advised that Naoto Kan, President of the DPJ, change the way in which he spells his sir name to make it "Can". The implication is obvious except that he definitely has to speak British accent.

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