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JAPAN: ‘We Need Small Government That Can Restore Economic Growth’

Mutsuko Murakami interviews newly reelected member of parliament TARO KONO of the vanquished Liberal Democratic Party.

TOKYO, Sep 5 2009 (IPS) - Many of the old guards of Japan’s longtime ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) were banished from the political landscape in the aftermath of the Aug. 30 general election in Japan. Ending the LDP’s long-running grip on power is opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which won a historic landslide victory.

Taro Kono is one of the LDP members that were sent back by voters to the House of Representatives.

Now on his fifth term as representative of one district of Kanagawa Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, the 46-year-old highly regarded parliament member proved that despite the major setback suffered by his party, he continued to enjoy the overwhelming support of voters.

A graduate of Georgetown University in Washington D.C., Kono made his first political bid in 1996 and readily won a seat in the House of Representatives. He stood out as an outspoken critic of recent LDP regimes. He has represented the liberal camp of the LDP, just like his father, Yohei Kono, a 14-term member of the Japanese parliament who had served as Lower House Speaker until his retirement this year.

Kono advocated better social safety nets and the need to cut wasteful government spending while criticizing the apparent lack of a collective sense of crisis among his party’s top leaders. His positions on various issues were akin to those proposed by the DPJ.

He shares with IPS his candid thoughts on his party’s dismal performance and what he expects of the new regime under the DPJ banner. Here are excerpts from the interview.

IPS: How would you explain the dramatic defeat of your party in the last election?

Taro Kono: It was the result of the poor performance of the government (of three consecutive Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso) in the past four years. (Our) cabinet ministers — many of whom proved so incompetent — did not do their jobs well while the economy deteriorated, unemployment increased, GDP declined and suicide rates rose.

Under their reigns, Japan’s financial markets also tumbled, made worse by the Lehman Shock (the collapse of the U.S. investment bank last year that became the trigger for the ensuing financial crisis that was felt across the globe, including Japan).

If only these cabinet members had competently performed their tasks, they would not have approved the (11.7 billion yen or about 126.12 million U.S. dollars) budget for building a huge pop culture center (the National Center for Media Arts), criticised as a “state-run ‘manga kissa’ (short for ‘manga kissaten’ or Japanese-style comic café),” and Japan would not have been in such a bad shape.

IPS: Do you believe that the LDP rule was doing well until the last three administrations? Some say that public frustration had been building up for years over the LDP’s leadership.

TK: Remember, the LDP won massively in the election four years ago. I still endorse the reform initiatives of former Prime Minister Juichiro Koizumi. But once his successor (Shinzo) Abe called all the anti-reform members (who had opposed Koizumi’s policy on the postal service privatization) back to the party and appointed them to important (government) posts, (he) started taking a wrong course.

IPS: Former Prime Minister Taro Aso has pledged to resign as LDP president. On Sept. 16, the Japanese Diet (parliament) will convene a special session to appoint a new prime minister. Not a few LDP members feel it does not make sense to endorse him.

TK: You do not give your vote to the person who is responsible for the defeat and who is set to resign as a result.

IPS: What is the biggest challenge for your party now that it will assume the role of an opposition?

TK: This issue is not just about the LDP. We need to have ‘small government’ (that in his view runs counter to the DPJ’s plans to give cash handouts to people) that can lead the country back to economic growth.

If the LDP should continue existing, it needs to redefine its identity and tell the world what kind of party it aims to be, what kind of government it aims to make. Unless the party builds a consensus for making small government, there is no hope.

IPS: What do you think of DPJ’s policies, as disclosed in their manifesto?

TK: I agree with some of their specific policies such as their pension reform plans. But I do not buy their labor union-based idea of ‘big government’ and of ‘redistribution (of welfare) by such a government. I am for small government that would focus on bringing back economic development.

IPS: How do you think the DPJ will perform in its first administration?

TK: It is not going to be easy. They will fail to implement policies they have promised, because these were made without solid financial ground. The DPJ said they could squeeze financial resources by cutting wasteful spending. Sooner or later they will have to give up the promised handouts (to families with children and farmers) such as ‘child allowances’.

IPS: What is the role of younger LDP leaders like you and how do you expect to reinvent the party?

TK: I will act according to my beliefs. If the party will pursue the right course, I will stay on and support it. But I will work faithfully for the Japanese people, not for the party. I have been with the LDP because there was no other choice. But I do not need to stay for the sake of it. I may leave and form a new party, who knows?

IPS: Do you think the existing network of younger MPs from both parties will expand?

TK: Some LDP members have ideas different from those of the party’s mainstream leaders. It’s the same with some DPJ members, who think differently. These people could be a force for further realignments of political parties in the future.

Today, the policies of the LDP and DPJ are not much different, after all. If we can have two independent parties each offering visions and policies distinct from each other’s, our parliament will function as expected.

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