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A breath of fresh air in Tokyo

22 September, 2009

I have returned to Tokyo to find a new Japan. Or have I?

In an election result that echoed trends in other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and the US, Japanese voters signaled a yearn for change that has decimated the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that has enjoyed almost continuous tenure post WWII.

Now the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has the reigns and as new PM Hatoyama arrives in New York for the UN General Council meeting, his cabinet in Tokyo are looking fresh-faced and eager to push forward with policy reforms (new foreign minister Okada – rival to Hatoyama in the runoff for party leadership is also in NY – Japanese television stations showed footage of him with Hilary Clinton this morning, and I could almost imagine Okada remarking “hey I didn’t get the top job either!)

The juvenesence of the cabinet is epitomised by Transport Minister Seiji Maehara. At 47, the one-time leader of the DPJ bows deeply to the cameras at press conferences, and Japanese television stations have broadcast footage of him nervously taking his seat at a ministerial meeting and alarmed when his chair reclined as he sat down. It indicates a cabinet that is (so far) grateful to the public for installing it, and not yet at ease with its new environment. Maehara is currently making headlines for pushing forward with party plans to stop construction of the Yanda Dam in Gunma prefecture north of Tokyo, for which plans were first drawn up back in 1949. Now towers are under construction and residents have been relocated, but with ample water supply, a promise to trim public spending, and with the DPJ surely eager to cut back on pork barrel construction, Maehara is resolved to cancel the project despite some locals claiming the party is not listening to their needs.

And, with an approval rating of over 80%, the cabinet certainly seem to have a mandate for reform.

Some of it’s reform policies include an immediate reduction in highway tolls with a view to make them completely free, and a planned slashing of the current fuel excise/tax which is currently around 50 yen (60 cents) a litre. Yet coupled with this, Hatoyama has annouced a bold carbon emission reduction target of 25 per cent – 3 times the 8 per cent proposed by former PM Taro Aso. I know what you might be thinking. Cheaper petrol, cheaper tolls, and an expectation to reduce emissions? Yes, it sounds illogical, but more on the DPJ logic of this next post.

And as for whether things really will change under the DPJ and Hatoyama, the self-proclaimed reformer, tune in for the next episode.

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