A Casualty of Political Transformation? the Politics of Energy Efficiency in the Japanese Transportation Sector

Article excerpt

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power in 2009 promising significant transportation sector reform, but it has struggled to implement its proposals. I argue that the DPJ's initiatives faltered due to the legacy of "efficiency clientelism." Historically, Japanese transportation policy combined two imperatives: (1) encourage efficiency by raising the cost of energy-inefficient transportation, and (2) redistribute benefits to supporters of the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Because of the legacy of efficiency clientelism, DPJ campaign pledges--designed to appeal broadly to the general public by reducing transportation costs--ran up against the prospect of sharp declines in revenues and energy efficiency. Efficiency clientelism was well suited to political realities in Japan prior to the 1990s, but recent developments have undercut its viability. This raises profound questions about the sustainability of Japan's energy efficiency achievements. KEYWORDS: Japan, Japanese politics, energy policy, energy efficiency, transportation, gasoline, highways, elections, electoral reform, Democratic Party of Japan


SINCE THE EARLY 2000S, THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY OF JAPAN (DPJ) HAS placed heavy emphasis on transportation sector reform. In its first campaign manifesto, published in preparation for the 2003 lower house election, the DPJ proposed to eliminate highway tolls, abolish government funds earmarked for road construction, and drastically reduce taxes related to automobile ownership (Democratic Party of Japan 2003). The 169th Diet session held in 2008 became known as Gasoline Kokkai (gasoline Diet), as the DPJ maneuvered aggressively for a reduction of the gasoline tax. (1) The DPJ came to power in 2009 campaigning on a platform that heavily emphasized transportation sector reform--for example, in the 2009 DPJ manifesto, measures related to transportation constituted 23 percent of projected costs associated with policy proposals through FY 2013, second only to the child allowance, which accounted for 49 percent. (2)

In light of the DPJ's enthusiasm for transportation reform as a minority party, it is striking how little change occurred once the party came to power. The gasoline tax, the subject of a heated showdown with the LDP in 2008, has been retained in all but name, replaced with a C[O.sub.2] tax that leaves gasoline prices virtually unchanged. Plans to eliminate highway tolls were scaled back dramatically, with selective reductions occurring in 2010 on an experimental basis, followed by cancellation of the program in 2011 in order to raise revenues for reconstruction following the Tohoku earthquake. (3) Plans to eliminate various taxes associated with automobile ownership were reconsidered, with the automobile acquisition tax retained at status quo levels and the weight tax reduced modestly. (4)

What accounts for this puzzling pattern of DPJ policymaking in the transportation sector? Popular and media accounts have mostly focused on factors such as lack of leadership and the shortcomings of key individuals such as Hatoyama Yukio, Maehara Seiji, and Ozawa Ichiro. (5) Such factors undoubtedly played a role in muddling the decisionmaking process of the DPJ once in office. However, in this article, I analyze the DPJ's transportation policies from a broader perspective, focusing on political changes over the past two decades (Lipscy and Scheiner 2012) and historical patterns of Japanese transportation policymaking.

More specifically, I argue that Japanese efficiency policies in the post--oil shocks period often followed a predictable pattern, which I call efficiency clientelism. Efficiency clientelism coupled the achievement of energy efficiency goals--an important national prerogative for Japan after the 1970s oil shocks--with the political survival of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Policies were implemented consistent with two outcomes: (1) impose diffuse costs on the general population in the direction of encouraging greater energy conservation or energy efficiency, and (2) redistribute the revenues or economic rents attributable to higher costs in order to benefit narrow, organized supporters of ruling politicians. …