No sooner had Japan’s opposition parties proffered their unity in the midst of the national emergency following last week’s powerful earthquake than the same players were resuming the finger pointing and sniping of old, nipping cheers over bipartisan cooperation in the bud and showing why Japan and other regional democracies have been at a standstill.
Initially there was reason for optimism that the political landscape could have been fundamentally altered after the magnitude of the catastrophe became more obvious to all. Amid what Tokyo has called the worst calamity to hit the nation since World War II, the Democratic Party of Japan and its main rival, the Liberal Democratic Party, decided to put differences aside and agreed to discuss an emergency tax increase to fund disaster relief.
As related bills must be passed by April 1 to ensure the swift implementation of the massive relief package that will be required for reconstruction, such unity was essential, and on Sunday Japan’s second-largest opposition party, the New Komeito, said it was also willing to cooperate.
This contrasted sharply with the situation on Friday, where hours before the magnitude 8.9 earthquake hit off the east coast of Japan, sparking a major tsunami, both opposition parties were calling for the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, seen as deeply unpopular and accused of illegally receiving campaign funds.
That came after weeks of political skirmishing that had prevented Kan — the fifth prime minister in Japan since 2006 — from crafting policies to fund the rising costs of a fast-ageing society, curb public debt twice the size of the economy and spur growth as the population shrinks.
Sunday’s unity, therefore, was reason for hope that parties would put their differences aside long enough to deal with the aftermath of the tsunami and the risks of a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station.
Sadly, even the likely 10,000-plus casualties were insufficient to make unity last, and hours later sniping resumed, this time over the Japanese government’s handling of the catastrophe and allegations that it had briefly covered up the threat emanating from the nuclear power station.
No wonder Japan has fallen behind and lost its dynamism of old, rife as it is with seeming unbridgeable divisions and endless infighting for short-term political gain. If a major catastrophe such as the one that hit on the weekend can only provide a brief hiatus in habitual sniping, then there is little reason not to believe that a few weeks hence Japan will return to its state of stupor, unable to make the contributions to the region that such a power should be making.
The quake will recede into memory, but the challenges to the region, from future natural catastrophes to the uncertainties created by China’s rise, will not disappear. Only when politicians put an end to their juvenile pitched battles, roll up their sleeves and strive toward a clearly defined goal can those challenges be met and surmounted.
Taiwan, which faces challenges of its own, has fared little better, and possibly even worse, than has Japan in terms of summoning unity in the face of natural crises. More often than not, its political forces have been divided and are canceling each other out for sheer political gain — usually the next local or national elections.