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Despite election win, Japan premier to face daunting tasks

With exit polls suggesting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has won a large majority in Sunday’s election for the upper house, analysts are turning their attention to the serious problems he will have to tackle.

The conservative LDP and its New Komeito junior coalition partner are expected to win a comfortable majority in the House of Councillors, giving them control of both chambers of the Diet, Japan’s parliament. However, with the opposition camp fragmented, the victory does not necessarily translate into widespread support for the LDP’s policies, Akikazu Hashimoto, professor of political science at JF Oberlin University in Tokyo, said.

While Abe has promoted aggressive monetary easing to prop up the economy, many people have not benefited from his economic policies, known as Abenomics, Hashimoto said. “The average Japanese salary has not risen in the past 20 years,” he said, adding that he expected dissatisfaction at Abe’s policies to grow.

Critics also say the premier has yet to come up with solutions to the country’s longstanding problems such as its huge public debt, low birth rate and unstable employment, especially for women and young people. Earlier this month, the government said the ratio of non-regular workers, including part-time and contract workers, rose to a new record high of 38.2 percent in 2012.

Such prolonged underemployment problems have made the birth rate fall further, critics say. It currently stands at around 1.4 children per couple, far below the replacement rate of around 2.1 needed to maintain a population size. Despite what Abe calls “political stability,” the premier is expected to face much opposition on major issues, even within his government.

A planned sales tax increase is strongly supported by some of the premier’s cabinet ministers. But key economic adviser Koichi Hamada, professor emeritus of economics at Yale University, has reiterated his opposition to the hike. The tax is set to rise from the current 5 percent to 8 percent in April 2014, and 10 percent in October 2015.

If the government decides to go ahead with the hike, “it’s going to be a real shock to the economy,” Hamada said in a speech in Tokyo earlier this month. On the issue of the relocation of a major US military base on Okinawa, there has been fierce opposition from the island’s residents, including local LDP lawmakers. Many islanders wanted Tokyo and Washington to move Marine Corps Air Station Futenma off the island immediately. Okinawans also expressed anger at the deployment of MV-22 Osprey aircraft to the base, located in the middle of a residential area. The islanders strongly opposed the dispatch because of the helicopter-plane hybrids’ history of crashes.

The US military said another 12 Ospreys left the US last week for the deployment to Okinawa. One of the most difficult issues the government will face is likely to be the ongoing problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant since the 2011 nuclear disaster. Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulation Authority said that radioactive water was “highly suspected” to have seeped into the ground and contaminated the sea.

The plant suffered meltdowns at three of its six reactors after it was struck by an earthquake and tsunami. About 160,000 residents have been forced to leave their homes near the plant because of radioactive contamination. Despite the problems at the complex, Abe vowed to restart idled reactors and even export nuclear technology. All but two of the country’s 50 nuclear reactors have been offline amid safety concerns following the disaster.

“The government and the media have failed to focus on issues of nuclear power generation in this election,” Minoru Morita, a political analyst, said. “When Abe restarts a nuclear reactor, we expect to see a great deal of opposition, especially on the local level,” he said, adding that this will be the pattern for other protests. “Japan will enter an era of long-term conflicts,” Morita said.

Takehiko Kambayashi, "Despite election win, Japan premier to face daunting tasks," Business recorder. 2013-07-28.
Keywords: Political science , Political leaders , Political system , Political relations , International relations , National issues , Economic issues , Democracy , Japan