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Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Would Hatoyama abolish kisha clubs? Why would I think this? Japan votes, en-bloc, for a radical – indeed, millenarian – power shift. Maybe it’s about time for truly radical changes to take place.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in power almost uninterruptedly since 1955, loses massively (from 300 seats to just 119 in the lower house). The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) that Yukio Hatoyama leads takes the reins of government, going from 112 to 308 seats. The DPJ was established just 11 years ago.

The LDP lost power briefly in the early 1990s. But at that time they maintained their hold on the upper house. This time, the DPJ “is the predominant force in the upper house” according to a Yomiuri Shumbun story, although it is still looking for a majority.

Kisha clubs have been around a lot longer than 11 years, of course. They’re one of the ‘typically Japanese’ ways that information is controlled and embarrassment is avoided by bureaucrats, who continue to wield extensive power over policy. But what is a kisha club? Wikipedia says it is

a ... news-gathering association of reporters from specific news organizations, whose reporting centers on a press room set up by sources such as the Prime Minister's official residence, government ministries, local authorities, the police, or corporate bodies.

Institutions with a kisha club limit their press conferences to the journalists of that club, and membership rules for kisha clubs are restrictive. This limits access by domestic magazines and the foreign media, as well as freelance reporters, to the press conferences.

A kisha club radically reduces the likelihood of embarrassment by holding the threat of membership cancellation. Step out of line and you could loose membership, thus access to sources. This ensures that questions aimed at bureaucrats are usually Dorothy Dixers.

Reducing the importance of kisha clubs, or eliminating them altogether, seems a good way to help achieve DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama’s mandate of separating the bureaucracy from government. The bureaucracies have buttressed the country’s "welfare capitalism" for decades, if not centuries (indeed!).

The clean-up job was started by erstwhile LDP leader Junichiro Koizumi. We
know that the Japanese want change. Koizumi’s massive win in 2005 was seen to be the herald of a new era of reform. But he left in 2006 and party mandarins reverted to business-as-usual.

The implicit deal was that agriculture and major domestic industry would be coddled by the state. The farm sector and the Japanese services sector remain, to this day, hugely supported by subsidy and regulatory protection. They are hopelessly uncompetitive by world standards, the competitive rump of the Japanese economy.
These protected industries, in turn, would operate benign policies towards their workforces and communities. The essence of the deal was protectionist, redistributive, and welfarist.

The thriving export success stories, the Toyotas and Sonys, long ago graduated from needing the support of Japanese state banks. But their taxes supply the income by which the government supports the rump sectors of the economy.

But that’s not going to work anymore, says Gerald Curtis, Burgess Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. But how is Hatoyama going to develop effective strategies to reduce the power of the bureaucracies?

To push through reforms, Mr Hatoyama plans to set up a powerful national strategy council attached to his office.

And why not conscript the media, too? Why not open up the debate within the public sphere so the larger population can help to resolve the country’s problems? Curtis says that there are few policy-making sources outside the bureaucracies.

''There isn't a think-tank worth its name in this country if you compare them to what we have in the United States. You don't have a tradition of people going into government and out again to the private sector,'' he said.

Punditry and politics is staple fare in the developed West. Ideas are aired. This is not the way things are done in Japan, says Ian Buruma.

Japanese politics has a dull image in the world's press.

The main reason for this is, of course, that Japanese politics was dull, at least since the mid-1950s, when the LDP consolidated its monopoly on power. Only real aficionados of arcane moves inside the ruling party could be bothered to follow the ups and downs of factional bosses, many of whom were from established political families, and most of whom relied on shady financing. Corruption scandals erupted from time to time, but these, too, were usually part of intra-party manoeuvres to rein-in politicians who got too big for their boots, or who tried to grab power before their time.

Why are kisha clubs bad for the business of government? It’s because the press gallery is muzzled, questions out of the blue are discouraged, and journalists who don’t follow the script are blackballed and ostracized.

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