Election in Japan Reveals Mood of Betrayal, Apathy

Masashiko Yamada , a university student in Tokyo who enjoys participating in its yachting club, knows what he'll be doing when Japan's election day rolls around on Oct. 20 and it doesn't involve politics. "Elections are held on Sundays, which is when I go sailing," he says. "I won't be able to vote."

Mr. Yamada, whose attitude toward the elections mixes indifference with a hint of scorn, is hardly alone. In a recent poll by Japan's biggest TV network, 48 percent of those asked said they had "little or no interest" in the upcoming election.

Japan's politicians are doing what they can to wake people from their electoral torpor, and on Oct. 8 they took to the streets in trademark fashion: in trucks and vans mounted with loudspeakers that blared their appeals to anyone within earshot.

They are addressing a blank-faced audience. Some say the Japanese are politically apathetic because this country, for the past decade or so, has lacked a sense of national purpose. This may seem to be a strange omission - it's hard to imagine what Americans or Australians or other citizens of developed countries would articulate as their nation's purpose - but people here say the country needs a mission.

"Japan no longer has an answer to the question of how it should live," says Yukio Hatoyama, who is considered one of Japan's more thoughtful leaders. "We have lost our goals."

The short-term explanation for the voters' disenchantment is that they feel betrayed. Japan experienced a political cataclysm in 1993, when the venerable Liberal Democratic Party lost its control of the lower house of parliament after 38 years of rule.

But the reformist politicians who took power - many of them LDP defectors - failed to maintain their unity, and the LDP has since 1994 been part of the ruling coalition. The party may not gain an outright majority in this election, according to polls, but it is expected to win the largest number of seats. These predictions contribute to an air of futility.

Despite the jaded electorate, just about all the politicians running - more than 1,400 candidates contesting 500 seats in the lower house - are promising reform. The main target of the rhetoric is the country's powerful bureaucracy.

The volume of promises to eliminate ministries, reorganize government, and shrink the number of civil servants suggests that some reforms might actually take place, although much of it has been said before. This time, however, bureaucrats are being roundly criticized for not protecting citizens from the Aum Shinri Kyo religious group, insolvent financial institutions, and the virus said to cause AIDS.

Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the main opposition New Frontier Party (NFP), says that this election is about the voters deciding who can be trusted to carry out reform. "Everyone advocates reform these days," he noted in a recent press conference. "This is the election in which the people will decide which of us is really for reform."

The NFP, in a move that has seemed to spur its sagging popularity ratings, has promised a massive 50 percent cut in individual tax burdens and a 40 percent reduction in corporate taxes. The party is also advocating a freeze on the country's 3 percent sales tax through this century, although Mr. Ozawa has in the past called for higher indirect taxes.

Ozawa won't say much about how the huge cut can be funded, except to say that he will reduce government spending and that an enlivened economy will lead to more tax revenues. But Minoru Morita, a respected political analyst, doubts that these policies will enliven the electorate. "The voters are not listening to them because there is a strong, general mistrust of anything the NFP says."

The LDP, whose leader is Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, is calling for administrative reform too, but not the tax cuts. He has been asking the voters to trust the LDP to make changes in the way the country is governed, even though his party has thus far only talked about reform.

Mr. Morita says the LDP, despite this message, essentially stands for stability, which may be an effective way to appeal to voters who feel burned. "The major difference between [the major parties] is that LDP looks for stability while the NFP seeks centralized reform. But public opinion now favors stability," he says.

Hatoyama's newly formed Democratic Party is trying to generate a following by articulating abstract concepts intended to help the nation find itself, such as a "spirit of fraternity."

Commentators have criticized this approach for vagueness. Indeed, the national goals that have previously given Japan a sense of cohesion - such as the post-World War II goal of rebuilding the economy - have been concrete and quantifiable.

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