Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mieko Nakabayashi: Japan Must Stop Wasting Money

(Posted Aug. 18, 2009; photos by Devin Stewart)

I just saw my old friend and former colleague Mieko Nakabayashi. She is now a bright star in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) who is running to represent Kanagawa's first district in Japan's lower house in the Aug. 30 national election. In many ways, she epitomizes Japan's opposition the DPJ: She is hard-working, innovative, and conservative on budget issues.

Mieko was doing "yuudachi" (evening campaigning at subway stations, targeting people coming home from work). This aspect of Japanese elections is the core of democracy here; the candidate and her staff burst on to the public squares near commuter railway stations to make the case for their candidacy. A DPJ politician who introduced Mieko harshly criticized former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's deceptive administration, which he said only focused on postal reform. Today is the first official day of Mieko's campaign and she is working from 6am to 9pm each day to get her message out:

True to her unique background working on budget issues at the U.S. Senate years ago, she is a blue dog (in fact, her campaign color is marine blue, a link to Yokohama's maritime culture), fiscal conservative. In line with the top pillar of the DPJ platform, her key message is, Japan must stop wasting money. It is already the most in debt rich country in the world. Like the GOP in the United States, Mieko compared Japan's budget to a household, asking passersby whether they would feel OK with running a household with such high levels of debt (to income).

Mieko said that in this election, the Japanese people will truly have a choice and that choice will allow for a thorough review of the budget. By reviewing budget priorities, Japan will be better able to afford social services like job training--a line that reminded me of the Obama campaign. While the DPJ has campaigned against graft and excess, it has been attacked by ruling party LDP for suggesting the need for new social service.

When Mieko and I worked at a Japanese think tank years ago, a common theme was the need for a competition of ideas and policies---a marketplace of ideas, in the parlance of Washington think tanks. Mieko used this kind of thinking to advocate for a real competition between political parties to bring about competitive policies for Japan. All in all, Mieko struck me as showing a lot of integrity, humility, and sincerity, resembling the colleague I knew years ago. And the people in the Yokohama suburban neighborhood seemed to embrace her as such with many people from all walks of life stopping to shake her hand and read her literature.

Given some of the alarm in Washington about the prospect of having a new party in power in Tokyo (the LDP has been in power almost consistently since 1955), I asked Mieko what her approach to the U.S. alliance would be. Not to worry (no surprise for me), for Japan, "the U.S. relationship is the most important in the world."


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the DPJ's platform is anything but fiscally conservative. The party proposes a number of new spending initiatives and cuts in revenues without saying exactly how they will pay for them. Of course this is no worse than the incumbent LDP, which has run up the highest debt in the developed world. It's just that neither party has come to grips with the fundamental problem, which is: how can it boost its growth rate enough to enabe a shrinking work force to support an aging population? While Koizumi wasn't perfect, at least he realized that growth was the central issue. I haven't heard any convincing plans for how the DPJ intends to boost growth. Rather, its focus is on increased regulaton and income redistribution towards the socially weak, neither of which will do anything to tackle the country's basic problem (nor solve their fiscal dilemma). That's not to say that the LDP would do any better, of course. That's why I hope the DPJ wins so that at least the country gets a debate on policy going.

Devin Stewart said...

Anonymous, you are correct, and the DPJ's new spending initiatives are what the LDP and the Japanese public are criticizing. Instead of fiscal conservative, maybe I should have said fiscal "hawk." In any case, Mieko's focus will be budget. But these are all loaded terms when it comes to politics. A "fiscal conservative politician" is like a "vegetarian tiger;" it kind of goes against their very nature. Bush was supposed to be a fiscal hawk and destroyed Clinton's budget surplus. Again the DPJ seems to be taking a page from Obama in that it is proposing new initiatives, using assumed resources from a budget "review."

Anonymous said...

She won!