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“Politics as Theatre” and Public Distrust of Politics

Ogoura Kazuo [Profile]


In the double election for governor of Osaka Prefecture and mayor of Osaka (city) held on 27 November, candidates campaigning for a merger of the prefectural and city governments won both posts.

Ostensibly, what was at issue was the idea of eliminating the duplication in Japan’s system of local government that results from the coexistence of prefectures and “ordinance-designated cities” (major cities with a high degree of autonomy). In the case of Osaka, the idea is to combine prefecture and city into a single unit of local government under a single governor. In that sense, the election was a popular vote on the shape of local government in Japan.

Public Support for “Reformation”

An examination of the election on a deeper level, however, reveals several of the distinguishing features of the Japanese political scene today.

One of these is a widespread lack of trust in the established political parties and the political system in general. By overwhelming margins, voters rejected candidates backed by both the main political parties in favour of independent candidates calling for a modern “reformation” (ishin), using a term that harks back to the radical modernising reforms of the Meiji Restoration in the nineteenth century. The results show clearly how estranged the electorate has become from the established parties and the political system.

This loss of trust in the political system is not limited to Japan. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the United States, where candidates calling for “change” have been winning elections and the Tea Party movement is going strong. And in Japan, there can be little doubt that the changing of the guard that took place a couple of years ago when the Democratic Party of Japan took over from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party was due less to popular support for the DPJ’s policies than to a widespread desire for “change.”

Another aspect lurking below the surface of the Osaka double election is the overwhelming success enjoyed by a campaign based on reducing issues to simple sound bites, such as the “Away with duplication” slogan trumpeted by the victorious candidates.

These two trends—a distrust of existing institutions and the simplification of political issues—are features of what can be described as “politics as theatre.” There can be no reform or revolution without drama. But we would do well to remember that it was disenchantment with politics and simplification of the issues that led to the rise of dictatorships in the past. (29 November, 2011)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

  • [2011.12.20]

Invited professor, Aoyama Gakuin University; secretary general, Tokyo 2020 Bid Committee. Born in 1938. Graduated from the Law Faculty at the University of Tokyo and the Faculty of Economics at the University of Cambridge. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1962, serving as director general of the Cultural Affairs Department and of the Economic Affairs Bureau, deputy minister for foreign affairs, and ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea, and France. President of the Japan Foundation from October 2003 to September 2011. His works include Gurōbarizumu e no hangyaku (Rebellion Against Globalism; 2004).

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