Japan’s general election, to be held on August 30, a month earlier than the end of the parliamentary term, will take place amid unprecedented public interest. It is widely believed that Prime Minister Taro Aso called the election to forestall a leadership challenge in his own graft-prone Liberal Democrat Party (LDP), which has ruled for all but 11 months of the last 53 years. The Japanese economy, the world’s second largest, has been badly hit by low demand for its manufactured exports; the budget deficit has risen sharply; and scandals have surfaced over the pension system. What is more, Mr. Aso is regarded as indecisive. In late June, the Tokyo Prefecture elections brought the LDP a huge defeat; it lost the prefecture for the first time in 40 years. All the indicators point to a landslide win for the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), led by Yukio Hatoyama. In the opinion polls, the DPJ leads 41 to 24 per cent and, despite its own funding scandals, is expected to win 300 out of 480 seats in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Diet. The Japanese Communist Party could also gain significantly.
Sweeping changes are certainly portended. The DPJ says that it will abolish the practice of seshu, whereby political candidatures are handed down within families. It has promised to substantially devolve the highly centralised Constitution, elements of which date back to the Meiji restoration in 1868. Interestingly, Mr. Hatoyama has drawn upon the writings of the Austrian aristocrat and European integrationist, Count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, who had a Japanese ancestor himself, to propose a single East Asian currency and greater regional integration among East Asian states. The internal devolution could enable citizens to participate much more meaningfully at local levels. The East Asian project, for its part, is founded on the idea of yuai or fraternity. But it could face problems as Japan and China are far from the kind of post-war Franco-German rapprochement that led to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. As to the DPJ’s economic policy, it is not clear how spending pledges, such as enhanced child-care for a declining younger fraction of the population, will be funded. Mr. Hatoyama’s political skills will be in for a stern test during recessionary times. But the public desire for significant change is undeniable, and one of the most encouraging things about this election is a surge of interest among younger voters. Japan seems to be on the point of creating a very different future for itself.