TOKYO — When Japan’s Democratic Party promised to halt construction of Yamba Dam in its 2009 election manifesto, the pledge was intended to demonstrate how the party would transform Japanese politics.
The DPJ hoped that scrapping the $5.6 billion dam project — controversial since it was proposed 60 years ago — would demonstrate its resolve to exercise political leadership over a bureaucrat-dominated government while trimming budget waste and shifting state spending “from concrete to people.”
But three years after the DPJ ousted the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the dam, northwest of Tokyo, has become a symbol of the less positive features of Japanese politics: indecision and paralysis.
The dam debacle offers a window into the failures by the DPJ in office, which have put it on course for election defeat Sunday.
A combination of inexperience, over-optimistic budget forecasts and party disunity accentuated by the DPJ’s indecisive first prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, left the party struggling to follow through on election pledges.
An early push to make foreign policy more balanced between the United States and China quickly floundered as Hatoyama upset Washington by trying to alter plans to relocate a U.S. Marine base while also making little progress in charming Beijing.
At home, a high-profile promise to scrap highway tolls was dropped, and other core policies, such as the introduction of hefty child allowances, were only partially implemented.
Shortly after coming to power, Seiji Maehara, the DPJ’s first infrastructure minister, followed through on the manifesto promise by suspending the Yamba Dam project.
But the move prompted strong objections from locals — some of whom had been relocated as part of the project and many of whom rely on construction-related spending — and resistance from bureaucrats and regional leaders.
Maehara was unable to kill the project, and after just a year, he was moved to the higher profile position of foreign minister.
Since then, four more DPJ politicians have filed through the infrastructure minister’s office, each struggling to decide how to handle the project. In late 2011, one nine-month occupant decided to build the dam after all.
But according to Kinya Takayama, mayor of the town of Naganohara, where the dam project is located, DPJ divisions mean allocated funds have yet to be spent, leaving the project in limbo.
The result is uncertainty for residents and an accelerating decline of Naganohara’s already small population. Most locals whose homes were to be flooded have moved to higher ground carved out of the surrounding hills at vast expense, but some live and work in their original homes on the still-dry valley floor.
“The delay has been the cause of huge bother for local people,” says Takayama, who like many residents once opposed the dam but says preparations have advanced so far that there is no real alternative to going ahead.
The DPJ’s woes are not all of its own making. Obstructionist opposition parties that have dominated the upper house of Japan’s parliament since 2010 have managed to block much of its legislative agenda.
The party has also been hampered by the economy’s slow recovery from a brutal 2008-09 downturn and the effects of last year’s tsunami.
But Takeo Toyoda, a local resident, speaks for many when he says DPJ politicians were ill-prepared for power after a half-century of near-continuous rule by the LDP.
“They were beginners in government, and you can’t expect too much from beginners,” he says.
Other dam opponents see the dam U-turn as a victory for Japan’s bureaucrats, who have long played a central role in policymaking.
To realize its promise to establish “political leadership,” the DPJ at first sought to give ministers full control of policy, even banning bureaucrats from important meetings.
Yet the policy was in effect reversed as floundering ministers came to rely on their official staff. Many bureaucrats say their ministers focus more on mastering their briefs than pushing for change.
Yoko Watanabe, a campaigner against the Yamba Dam, says the state-ordered review set up to advise on the project’s future was a classic case of bureaucratic influence.
“Just as we worried, it was packed with scholars who support dams,” Watanabe says. “Now things are the same as they were under the LDP. The bureaucracy decides everything.”
Short-lived ministerial careers have enhanced bureaucrats’ influence, as the three DPJ prime ministers have frequently resorted to reshuffles to shore up party unity.
Takayama, the mayor, says ministerial rotation is one reason why the project has stalled again — and that most residents are “relieved” by the likely return to power of the LDP, which backs the dam and has plans for a huge campaign of public works.
But Watanabe says the LDP is likely to funnel vast sums with little debate to Japan’s influential construction sector at huge social and environmental cost.
“Compared with that, the DJP is better,” she says. “At least they still try to resist.”
— Financial Times