Japan’s Economically Challenged Pols

As Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori struggles through his term in office, it is tempting to say that Japan’s political leadership doesn’t matter. After all, authority over the country’s most important economic policies has traditionally rested in the hands of bureaucrats. The markets hardly registered former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s illness and the announcement of his replacement. Perhaps the world can safely ignore Japan’s upcoming lower-house elections, scheduled for June 25. But today, it does matter who takes office in Japan. Power has shifted dramatically in the past few years. In 1994, politicians wrote only 18 of the 75 bills submitted during the ordinary Diet session (24% of the bills). Last year, politicians wrote 60 of 124 bills (48%). This year, the right of politicians to call on bureaucrats for help in answering difficult policy questions on the floor of the Diet was abolished. The government also introduced regular parliamentary debates between the prime minister and opposition leaders, modeled on “Question Time” in the British parliament. Both symbolically and in fact, Japan’s politicians are gaining authority over policymaking. These changes are desirable, because they increase the democratic accountability of Japan’s policymakers. But the timing is unfortunate. The shifts in authority have hobbled the country’s macroeconomic policymaking at a time when decisive action is most needed. Now that Japan’s politicians are gaining control of economic policy, the question is: Are they up to the job? The extent of bureaucratic domination of Japan’s economic policymaking gradually diminished during the decades following World War II. Politicians from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party asserted themselves by becoming specialists in certain policy issues. In the...