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Is Japan poised for change?

Yoshiaki Fukuzaki glanced across a dozen rice terraces clinging to a steep slope, a serious expression on his face.

world Updated: Aug 30, 2009 15:11 IST

Yoshiaki Fukuzaki glanced across a dozen rice terraces clinging to a steep slope, a serious expression on his face.

"It is getting increasingly difficult to maintain these terraces," said the village official in Tookamachi, a community of about 62,000 in the central Japanese province of Niigata.

Rice farming is the residents' lifeblood, but there are too few to take up where their forebears have left off. The few children who are born tend to move to the cities once they have finished their basic education.

"In many villages more than half of the inhabitants are older than 65. The future of our community looks gloomy," said Fukuzaki.

Villages like Tookamachi are increasingly common across Japan, a country affected by dropping birth rates and increasing life expectancy, and no one knows whether the ageing of the population can be halted.

People increasingly wonder whether the high standard of living, which the current generation of retirees has worked hard to achieve, can be maintained or if the progressing division of society into winners or losers is inevitable.

Japan's pension system is over-stretched, the times of huge economic growth have ended, every third worker holds only a temporary contract and unemployment figures have reached unprecedented heights.

More than 30,000 people commit suicide each year.

Ever fewer Japanese believe the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has ruled almost uninterrupted for more than 50 years, can solve those problems.

For decades, the party based its power on patronage, supplying its clientele in farming and the construction business with generous handouts, while the powerful bureaucracy planned and executed day-to-day and economic policies.

But this system, in which the LDP elites enjoyed the public's trust as proverbial "power professionals", is rapidly becoming unworkable as overall government debt has doubled over the past few years.

"It is already five minutes past 12," an analyst said, and Japan's voters have apparently realised that as well.

For the very first time one single party -- the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) -- has the opportunity to break the LDP's power monopoly.

Opinion polls conducted just a few days before Sunday's lower house elections show the DPJ clearly ahead, indicating a possible new era in Japanese politics. However, the DPJ has no practical experience of leading a government, a fact the LDP never tires of pointing out.

"But it is likely that the DPJ does not need much (success) but just govern better than the LDP did in past years," said analyst Axel Klein of the Tokyo-based German Institute for Japanese Studies.

While the LDP always had the prosperity of big business conglomerates at heart, the DPJ has demonstratively sided with the Japanese people.

This stance may not make much of a difference in the end, but it is a novelty for Japan. DPJ leader Yukio Hatoyama has consciously played the idea of change in quasi-emulation of US President Barack Obama.

The foreign policy ideas of the DPJ, which consists of LDP-defectors, social democrats and former trade unionists, remain vague, but aim for more independence from the US in security matters.

But the election will not be decided on foreign policy, but domestic issues.

The DPJ promised its voters to substantially increase child support money to 26,000 yen ($280) per month and to abolish higher education fees and highway tolls.

It vowed to introduce a guaranteed minimum income for farmers, minimum pensions and tax breaks for small- and medium-sized enterprises.

It remains unclear whether the DPJ will be able to implement all these promises, especially since the party remains vague about the financing.

Some economists already fear even higher government debt while others insist that even a DPJ administration would not have much room for manoeuvre due to already crumbling finances. Most, however, agree that a power change after more than 50 years of LDP rule would benefit Japan's democracy, as people would realise for the first time that they actually can unseat a government with their vote.