Japan Between 2005 and 2014
According to Sunglassestracker, the Japanese political system continued to be characterized by strong instability, the result of internal party struggles and the resistance of the powerful bureaucratic elite, reluctant to undergo a downsizing of its role. From 2005 to 2009 the clashes between the different currents of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, in power almost continuously since 1955, led to the succession of four executives, all inevitably not very effective. Koizumi Jun᾽ichirō, premier until September 2006, was followed as heads of government by Abe Shinzō (September 2006-September 2007), Fukuda Yasuo (September 2007-September 2008) and Asō Tarō (September 2008-September 2007). 2009). The proposed reforms, albeit relatively homogeneous in broad lines (privatizations, cuts in public spending, loosening of the intertwining between financial and industrial groups), remained mostly unfinished, while the country was experiencing economic stagnation and new financial scandals were affecting both the public administration and the ruling party. Faced with this situation, the opposition began to coagulate and gain strength and the center-left Democratic Party registered a rapid growth in support.
Winner of the 2007 elections for the renewal of half the members of the upper house, the Democratic Party also managed to impose itself in the general political elections of 2009, in which it won 308 seats out of 480, relegating the Party for the first time in the history of the Japan Liberal Democrat in second place. Hailed by many as a historic opportunity for change, the Democrats’ victory did not actually involve significant changes and failed to give stability to the country, which thus found itself once again facing a succession of government crises. The executive led by Hatoyama Yukio, who took office in the aftermath of the elections, managed to resist a little less than a year, paying for both the worsening of the international economic crisis, and the consequent worsening of the internal situation with the rise in unemployment, both the failure to fulfill the electoral promises (first of all the strengthening of welfare and the dismantling of the US military base of Futenma in Okinawa), and finally the explosion of new financial scandals concerning leading party representatives. The government of his successor, Kan Naoto, took office in June 2010. Already Minister of Finance in the previous executive, Kan set as a priority objective the containment of the public debt (which rose to over 200% of GDP), promoting a rationalization of the welfare and heavy spending cuts. both the failure to fulfill the electoral promises (first of all the strengthening of welfare and the dismantling of the US military base of Futenma in Okinawa), and finally the explosion of new financial scandals involving prominent party leaders. The government of his successor, Kan Naoto, took office in June 2010. Already Minister of Finance in the previous executive, Kan set as a priority objective the containment of the public debt (which rose to over 200% of GDP), promoting a rationalization of the welfare and heavy spending cuts. both the failure to fulfill the electoral promises (first of all the strengthening of welfare and the dismantling of the US military base of Futenma in Okinawa), and finally the explosion of new financial scandals involving prominent party leaders. The government of his successor, Kan Naoto, took office in June 2010. Already Minister of Finance in the previous executive, Kan set as a priority objective the containment of the public debt (which rose to over 200% of GDP), promoting a rationalization of the welfare and heavy spending cuts.
During his tenure, the country experienced what Kan himself defined as “the greatest national tragedy since the end of the Second World War.” On 11 March 2011, the tsunami caused by a violent earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale struck the Fukushima power plant Daiichi and caused the meltdown of three reactors, causing the most serious nuclear accident since Chernobyl ′ in 1986. The death toll exceeded 15,000 and, according to the World Bank, material damage amounted to more than 230 billion dollars. Criticized for managing the earthquake emergency and the nuclear emergency of Fukushima, Kan was forced to take a step back and gave way to Noda Yoshihiko (Sept. 2011), called to the difficult task of facing the post-quake / tsunami reconstruction and to continue at the same time in the consolidation of public accounts.
In the wake of his predecessor and driven by the urgency to raise funds for reconstruction, Noda continued the austerity policy and in 2012 passed a measure that provided for a gradual increase in VAT, which was destined to pass – within 3 years – from 5 at 10%. This latest decision caused the party to split and a consequent weakening of the executive, which had already dropped sharply in the polls. To weigh in the disconnect between the premier and the electoral base, in addition to the increase in taxes, also contributed his uncertain position towards energy policy, oscillating between proclamations on the exit from nuclear power and the recognition of its need to avoid heavy damage to industries. Pressed by the street demonstrations in September 2012, the government finally approved a new strategy that provided for the abandonment of nuclear power over a period of about thirty years. In an attempt to regain consensus, in view of the early political elections called for December, the executive also launched an investment package to support the economy and avert a relapse into the recession. The maneuver did not, however, save the Democratic Party, which suffered a resounding defeat in the consultations that handed the country back to the Liberal Democrats. These went from 118 to 294 seats against 57 for the Democrats; the third political force in the country with 54 seats, the Restoration Party (of a nationalist nature) established itself. Abe thus returned to the leadership of the executive with an economic-financial program (called Abenomics) which involved a radical change of course from its predecessors. The Abenomics in fact, it envisaged the adoption of expansive monetary policies, fiscal policies aimed at stimulating growth through an increase in public spending and structural economic reforms that would allow an increase in private sector investments, greater competition and an increase in the rate of active population with greater involvement of women. The depreciation of the yen and the strong investments in public works made in 2014 brought the Japan back to consistent growth rates, but structural reforms were slow to take off. Obstacles also met the premier’s initiative to take part in the trans-Pacific free trade treaty due to the resistance of domestic producers fearful of competition from foreign products.
At the level of energy policy and foreign policy, Abe’s return also marked a profound change. The government in fact returned to the decision to gradually abandon nuclear energy, providing for the reopening of nuclear power plants capable of passing the safety tests, and inaugurated a more dynamic and aggressive policy on the international level, which aimed at overcoming post-war pacifism through revision of art. 9 of the Constitution, to strengthen ties with Washington and to take an intransigent position towards China, in particular with regard to territorial disputes relating to the Diaoyu Islands (also known under the Japanese name Senkaku), in the East China Sea. The rampant historical revisionism promoted by the more conservative wing of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Restoration Party also contributed to worsening relations with Beijing (which in any case remained the main commercial partner of Japan) and to cracking those with the Republic of Korea to downsize, if not deny, the atrocities committed by the Japanese army during the occupations in China and Korea.
At the end of 2014 the Japanese economy suffered a new setback: the GDP returned to negative sign and internal consumption collapsed, also following the increase in VAT. To deal with the situation, Abe postponed the planned further tightening of the consumption tax and relaunched his economic recipe by calling the voters to the polls. Held in December, the early political consultations – which recorded a very high rate of abstention (about 47%) – reassigned the majority of seats in the ruling coalition and allowed Abe to keep the leadership of the executive.