Japan’s Shift To The Right; + Thoughts On ‘Star Wars VII’

Japan’s political scene is shifting towards the right, as the country prepares for general elections which must be held by August 2013 but are likely to come a lot sooner.

As Business Monitor Online chronicled last week, Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is arguably Japan’s leading nationalist politician, quit his post to establish a new conservative party to challenge both the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and the main opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). It was Ishihara who instigated the latest round of Sino-Japanese tensions in April 2012 by proposing that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government purchase the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from their private Japanese landlords. In September, the Japanese government bought the islands, mainly to prevent them from falling under Ishihara’s control. This triggered a wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, which also claims the islands.

For its part, the LDP in late September 2012 chose former premier Shinzo Abe – a conservative politician who favours a stronger Japanese military profile abroad and more patriotism at home – as its new leader. Given that the LDP is far ahead of the DPJ in the polls, Abe could well become Japan’s next prime minister. However, neither the LDP nor the DPJ is likely to win a majority, meaning that third parties have a chance to join – and shape – the next government.

The main third party to watch is the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), which was officially launched in September 2012 by Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto. The party champions radical political reform, including making the prime minister directly elected and reorganising Japan’s 47 prefectures into around nine quasi-autonomous super-regions. Hashimoto has also expressed support for Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, a stance which is supported by Ishihara and some in the LDP but is still controversial in Japan. As regards the next election, the JRP is somewhat ambitiously hoping to win 200 seats in the 480-member lower house.

Hashimoto shares several political views with Ishihara, including a desire to reduce the power of bureaucrats, and to see a more assertive Japan – although they disagree over the use of nuclear power generation, which Hashimoto is keen to phase out. Given that Hashimoto and Ishihara are arguably Japan’s most outspoken and populist leaders representing the country’s two main metropolitan areas, speculation about an alliance between them is rife. However, due to their similarities, they are also rivals, and this could potentially obstruct cooperation. Hashimoto, 43, could have the edge over Ishihara, 80, since he represents a fresher face.

Overall, there is a real possibility of a highly nationalistic coalition consisting of the LDP and JRP and/or Ishihara’s new party taking office after the next election. The ascent of the right could worsen relations with China and South Korea, especially on the issue of disputed islands in the East China Sea and Sea of Japan (or East Sea, as Koreans call the latter).

Why is the right in ascendance in Japan? The likeliest explanation is that these forces are capitalising on Japan’s sense of vulnerability in light of its quasi-chronic economic weakness, the fact that China has overtaken Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy and is increasing its regional and global influence, and because voters feel that a stronger leadership is needed following the perceived mishandling of the March 2011 earthquake-tsunami-nuclear triple disaster.

Nevertheless, Japan’s next leaders will have to take steps to mend relations with China and to a lesser degree South Korea, lest the current cool period becomes a long-term drag on the Japanese economy through the boycott of Japanese goods and a reduction in tourism flows.

As for the prospects for economic reform under a new rightist coalition, it is too early to say. Given that political reform is virtually a prerequisite for economic reform in Japan, and that Hashimoto’s JRP appears to favour economic liberalisation, there is a chance for change in the way Japan conducts business. But, given the size of the national debt, there is probably no escape from a painful fiscal crisis over the coming years, meaning that a major military build-up to counter China will be financially unaffordable.

Thoughts On Star Wars VII

On an entirely separate note, this writer has reacted with a heavy dose of skepticism to reports overnight that there will be at least three more Star Wars films starting in 2015 following Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm. Star Wars creator George Lucas has flip-flopped on this repeatedly. After the success of the original Star Wars in 1977, Lucas stated that there would be nine films in total consisting of three trilogies, with the original film representing Episode IV. At one stage in 1978, Lucas even spoke of twelve films. However, as he released the prequel trilogy between 1999 and 2005, he stated that he never really had plans for nine films, and that the entire saga was always meant to be a hexalogy. Now, Disney is not only saying there will be episodes VII, VIII, and IX, but even subsequent Star Wars films every few years thereafter.

The real question is, will the new films be any good? The first Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace, was, at the time of its release in 1999, arguably the most eagerly anticipated film of all time… and yet it was regarded as a colossal disappointment. The subsequent prequels were substantially better, but were criticised (rightly in my view) for weak scripts and acting. In fact, when this writer saw Braveheart in 1995 and Gladiator in 2000, he wondered why the first Star Wars prequel could not have been more like these quasi-historical epics.

The chances are, the new Star Wars films will still be successful, for the saga lacks major competitors. Also, more mature viewers who grew up with the original Star Wars films will probably be forced to take their children to see the new ones. However, as far as space-based sci-fi fantasy dramas go, Star Wars, with or without George Lucas, will probably find it hard to draw the acclaim of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica TV series which ran in the 2000s.

The bigger problem for the US film industry is the lack of fresh ideas… or ability of fresh ideas to attract financing… which partly explains why there are so many sequels, prequels, or reboots. Some reboots, such as the recently concluded Batman trilogy, score highly, but others do not. Meanwhile, some film series have evidently become so embarrassed by the number of their sequels that they no longer list them in the title, e.g. the sixth Rocky film was called Rocky Balboa, not Rocky VI. There is also the fact that TV dramas appear to have enjoyed a step up in quality and production values over the past decade and have more opportunities for character development – although naturally, many series succumb to repetition, too (e.g. 24).