Dispatch

Can Anyone Govern Japan?

Prime Minister Naoto Kan is shaping up to be another miserable failure. What's going wrong?

In office just one month so far, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has already messed up badly. The country is holding upper-house parliamentary elections on July 11, and Kan -- who began his tenure with a relatively buoyant 60 percent approval rating -- has managed to convince voters that his policies are as hapless and ad hoc as those of his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama.

What's happening to Japan is bigger than Kan the man. After a series of short-lived, ineffectual leaders, many are wondering if the country itself has become, in essence, ungovernable. Kan is an astute politician with considerable skills, and voters seem to like his tough-love message for kick-starting the economy. Many agree with him that the old policies of vast public-works spending and deregulation have not worked and have instead left the country saddled with debt amounting to a whopping 200 percent of the country's annual GDP. But voters are still skeptical that Kan can make real change. And what it boils down to is a loss of faith in political leaders after two decades of recession and growing social malaise. In an atmosphere where leaders are expected to fail, can anyone run Japan?

Kan got off to a bad start with the electorate when he proposed raising comsumption taxes -- rarely a smart political move. Yes, polls show that the public is ready for an increase in consumption taxes, and media editorials supported the idea. But when Kan outlined his proposal, calling for a doubling of the consumption tax from 5 to 10 percent, he got nailed. As the prime minister was dragged into a debate about the details of his plan, he backtracked and zigzagged, looking far too much like his aimless predecessor. Hatoyama met his downfall for exactly this sort of flip-flopping, over a plan to relocate the Futenma U.S. military base away from Okinawa -- and just about everything else. Japanese voters are searching for a resolute leader in the mold of Junichiro Koizumi, prime minister from 2001 to 2006. So far, Kan looks like yet another waffler.

Japan's leadership crisis couldn't come at a more inopportune time. This election is going to be about bread-and-butter issues such as unstable jobs and declining household income. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has drawn attention to the swelling ranks of the precariat -- workers without secure jobs, decent wages, or benefits -- who now make up 34 percent of the workforce. Unemployment, at 5.2 percent, is quite high by Japanese standards, where 2 percent is the usual benchmark. The DPJ argues that the government can best address this issue, channeling tax revenues into expanded social programs. The next two most popular parties, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which dominated Japanese politics for more than five decades, and the upstart Your Party want the government to get out of the way -- they argue that deregulation, more flexible labor laws, and lower corporate taxes will generate growth, profits, and better jobs.

Even if they are sympathetic to Kan's agenda (and many are), voters have found it hard to ignore his party's short record in power so far -- which is abysmal. Since Hatoyama swept the LDP from power in September 2009, campaign-financing scandals have dogged leading DPJ figures, the U.S. alliance has frayed, and the party has yet to show any policy successes. There was a brief window after Hatoyama resigned in June for Kan to make a fresh start. He was the new face of the party, a social activist from a middle-class family who joked to reporters that he is a good debater thanks to constant bickering with his wife. He is known as Ira Ira Kan, a reference to his fiery temper, and unlike Hatoyama, he is a leader with a record of passion and toughness. And the initial signs were promising: He extended the olive branch to Washington over Okinawa and to the business community in Japan, trying to convince both that they can rely on the DPJ despite its previous stumbles. That's where the good news ends, however. The tax gaffe sent his approval rating plummeting, deep-sixing any hopes that he would rise above the politics of the past.

Pollsters now expect the DPJ to lose seats in the Diet's upper house on Sunday, where half of the 242 seats are up for grabs. The DPJ has 54 seats going into the vote and is aiming for 60, which would give it an outright majority. But given how things have been going of late, the party will be lucky even to hold onto its current number. That won't necessarily be fatal: The party still holds a commanding majority in the more important lower house and can remain in power until 2013, but it will need to find a coalition partner to form a working majority. And that won't be easy. The DPJ would like to form an alliance with Your Party, which shares the DPJ's affinity for budget austerity, but its leader, Yoshimi Watanabe, has repeatedly rejected suggestions to that effect. So whatever coalition does result will be fraught by awkward compromises and policy paralysis. If the DPJ does badly enough, winning less than 50 seats, the scandal-tainted Ichiro Ozawa, who was forced to relinquish his previous role as DPJ secretary-general in June, might try to unseat Kan in the party leadership contest slated for September. That would unravel Japan's ongoing political realignment, and the leadership crisis will intensify.

Foreign relations are another stumbling block. After Sunday's election, the government will continue nurturing better relations with China, despite a variety of festering issues such as disputed gas fields, overlapping territorial claims, food safety, transborder pollution, and China's relentless military buildup, one conducted in the absence of reassuring transparency.

But the DPJ's biggest problems are with Washington, which held firm on a 2006 deal between the United States and Japan over Futenma. Hatoyama had pledged in his campaign to relocate the base, but backed down under intense U.S. pressure. Okinawans felt betrayed, and the reversal exposed the prime minister as feckless, precipitating his sudden downfall in June.

Kan has sought to defuse tension by saying that he will abide by the 2006 agreement. But anger over the DPJ's backtracking and ineffectual leadership has undermined the party's credibility. Barack Obama will visit Japan while Okinawa has gubernatorial elections in November, raising the risk that the U.S. president will get embroiled in Japan's increasingly lively domestic politics.

And lively they are indeed. Voters in Japan were once loyal and predictable, keeping the LDP in power for more than 50 years. But now that they have thrown the bums out of office, they are feeling more feisty and ready to do so again. In the last few elections, voters have swung dramatically to the party that convinced them it was the party of reform. And each time, their expectations have been crushed. As Japan enters its third decade of stagnation, the public is desperate for far more drastic reforms than any politician is offering them.

Will Kan at last be the man whom Japan is longing for? The prospect of a hung parliament and a fractious coalition certainly doesn't bode well. The DPJ won't have to hold Diet elections again until 2013, leaving a painfully long time for Japan's massive fiscal problems and economic stagnation to fester. Yes, the DPJ inherited this mess, but it now "owns" the economy, one that China is set to overtake sometime later this year -- a poignant reminder of how fast and far Japan is slipping. Here's hoping that Kan can be the one to pull the country back from the brink.

POOL/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Resistance Land

Hezbollah's new tourist park, meant to indoctrinate visitors with the ideals of the Islamic Resistance, may be the latest sign that another war is on the horizon.

On a hilltop overlooking Israel's former occupation zone in south Lebanon, Hezbollah has built what the international press has dubbed the Shiite militia's "Disneyland." Mleeta, Hezbollah's new "Tourist Landmark of the Resistance," is designed to celebrate the party's long war against Israel. As it pulls in the masses, Mleeta also provides another sign that Israeli deterrence in Lebanon is disintegrating.

A former Hezbollah command center, Mleeta is located 27 miles (44 km) southeast of Beirut. Built at a reported cost of $4 million, Mleeta attracted over 130,000 visitors in the first ten days following its opening on May 25 -- the 10th anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.

Abu Hadi, our Hezbollah guide, who employs the same nom de guerre as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, aimed to give visitors a glimpse into the high-risk life of killing Israeli soldiers. He began our tour in "The Abyss" -- a pit filled with Israeli helmets, boots, cluster bombs, and overturned military vehicles. At the center of the display is an Israeli Merkava-4 tank, with its gun turret tied in a knot. As we ascended a spiral walkway overlooking the display, I caught sight of a tombstone embossed with the Israel Defense Forces symbol, and the word "Abyss" written in big, concrete Hebrew letters.

Abu Hadi told us Mleeta was the inspiration of Imad Mughniyah, a man the United States believes was the mastermind of the 1983 U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks bombings in Beirut. The attack on the U.S. Marine Corps' barracks claimed the lives of 241 servicemen, marking the largest single-day death toll for the Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima. Mughniyah was indicted by a U.S. court for the June 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847 and the murder of passenger and Navy diver Robert Stethem, whose body was tossed out on the tarmac at Beirut Airport. He also played a key role in the kidnappings of Western journalists, diplomats, and academics (amongst others) in Lebanon between 1982 and 1990.

One of the world's most wanted men and reportedly a master of disguise, Hezbollah would barely mention Mughniyah's name until his mysterious February 2008 assassination by car bomb in Damascus. Now, the party brings him up at every turn. "That is Mughniyah's signature," Abu Hadi said, pointing to a sign embossed into a tall, yellow cement monolith placed to look as if it were stopping an Israeli tank. Looking solemn and proud, he paused for a moment of silence and said a small prayer under his breath. Abu Hadi peppered his spiel with mentions of the late resistance leader, proving his influence on Hezbollah.

As we circled the walkway and proceeded down into the abyss, I lagged behind Abu Hadi to take a few photos. Mothers and fathers filled the walkways, pulling their children this way and that. By their dress and accents, many appeared to be from south Lebanon's majority Shia community. However, a significant minority also appeared to be Christian, a testament to the fact that Hezbollah's history of guerrilla warfare against Israel has earned the party support that transcends Lebanon's fractious sectarian divide. Children gathered around the Mughniyah memorial, their hands outstretched to the tank as if they were trying to polish the turret. "See, only resistance will liberate Palestine from the Jews," one mother said to her infant son as she pushed his stroller down the walkway.

"The Path," a series of trenches and warrens reminiscent of World War I battlefields in France or Belgium, was the next stop on our tour. Abu Hadi pushed a crowd of visitors out of the way to show us the prayer nook of Abbas Moussawi, the Hezbollah co-founder and secretary general who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 1992. Beside his prayer rug and Koran were two AK-47 assault rifles and what appeared to be a World War II-era helmet like those worn by the Marines in 1983. Among Hezbollah's older generation, Moussawi is regarded as the "father of resistance" because of the long hours he spent with fighters on the front lines.

Throughout Mleeta, exhibits aimed to instill visitors with Hezbollah's spartan military ethic. Emerging from the trench, we entered a stone path shaded by oaks, with mannequins dressed in green camouflage fatigues lining both sides of the trail. One exhibit portrayed a fighter cutting barbed wire while his compatriot provided covering fire; another display showed two fighters preparing to fire a 120mm rocket. Every so often a teenage boy would dart out for a snapshot en scene. While the poses were always different, each wore a vacant and fearsome stare like that of country boy on the first day of hunting season.

Mleeta aims to place a halo around Hezbollah's foreign patrons. We descended into a maze of tunnels Hezbollah had carved into Mleeta's rocky hilltop, where displays showed command centers, field kitchens, and weapons caches. Photographs of Hezbollah leaders standing side by side with Iran's former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adorned the battleship gray walls. "Our blood is the most powerful, and the demise of Israel," read one of the signs dotting the tunnel.

The park also encourages visitors to celebrate Hezbollah's arsenal in its "rocket garden." On display are Hezbollah's standard 107mm and 120mm Katyusha rockets, which rained down on northern Israel by the thousands during the 2006 war. But there are also a number of more advanced weapons on display, including U.S.-made TOW missiles -- reportedly acquired by Hezbollah through the arms-for-hostages swaps that were later exposed in the Iran-Contra affair -- RPG 29s, and a Kornet-E anti-tank guided missile, which Hezbollah used to decimate Israeli tank columns in 2006. Colorful signs outline each weapon's specifications in Arabic and English. And unlike in most museums in the Arab world, the spelling and grammar are almost perfect.

However, there was one exhibit missing from Mleeta: any description of the true horrors of war. The goriest exhibition is a Hezbollah doctor caring for a wounded fighter. This largely disaster-free version of "resistance" dovetailed nicely with Abu Hadi's repertoire of war stories, which emphasized the fighters' valor. In one story, a fighter was so brave he literally dug his own grave prior to battle. In another, two Hezbollah fighters were so well disciplined not to fire until ordered that they endured an Israeli colonel unknowingly urinating off a rock onto their heads. And because it was clear that the Hezbollah fighters fought hard, this narrative papered over the stories of when missions didn't go according to plan. Hezbollah lost an estimated 400 to 600 fighters during the 2006 war with Israel, so there must be plenty of material.

Since the end of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, Hezbollah's decision to hang back and replenish its weapons caches, aided by the presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in the south, has resulted in the calmest period along the Lebanese-Israeli border in decades.

But Mleeta, and the enthusiastic Lebanese reaction to it, is only the latest sign that Israel's power of deterrence in Lebanon is rapidly deteriorating. Escalating clashes this year between UNIFIL soldiers and pro-Hezbollah villagers in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah's effective veto power over the Lebanese government, combined with widespread reports Syria is sending long-range and sophisticated weapons to the Party of God, has raised tensions to all-time highs and produced a war of words between Hezbollah and Israel that could eventually lead to an actual war.

As our tour came to an end, Abu Hadi handed us over to Sheikh Ali Daher, the park's supervisor. Daher described Hezbollah's plans to construct hotels and conference centers to attract visitors from across the Arab world. Hezbollah's ambitious expansion plans, and the care with which the party looks after the ideological foundations of its power, prove that it is digging in for the long haul. When I asked Daher whether he worried that another war could lay waste to Hezbollah's construction plans, he simply shrugged. "If they bomb us, we will simply build it all again," he said. "Resistance takes patience."