Japan’s political kaleidoscope (5): One degree of separation
Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 16, 2010
HUNGARIAN AUTHOR Frigyes Karinthy is credited with developing the concept of “six degrees of separation”, which holds that everyone on earth is at most only six links in a human web away from everyone else.
But with Japanese politics you can stretch the definition just a bit and the separation between everyone shrinks to only one degree!
When the Hatoyama administration was burning up on reentry into the atmosphere last month, Democratic Party of Japan elder statesman Watanabe Kozo (who as a former Liberal Democratic Party member and former friend of Ozawa Ichiro in both parties is a key player in the degree of separation game) suggested that the DPJ might form a coalition government with the hard-line reformers of Your Party. A few columnists in the weekly magazines picked up the idea and gummed it over.
Your Party Secretary-General Eda Kenji was having none of it:
I firmly declare that we will not join with the DPJ after the upper house election….If we were to form a coalition with the DPJ, it would be suicide for the party. It’s not going to happen.
It’s a wise man who never says never about anything in Japanese politics, but Mr. Watanabe and the journalists really are out of touch. Your Party does not just stand for bureaucratic reform, small government, devolution of power, and lower taxes, they stomp their feet on that platform like lumberjacks at a hoedown. They are as much an agenda party in their own way as the Communists are in theirs. It should go without saying that it would be political hara-kiri for them to sell out to the DPJ by joining a coalition, but some people are still looking through the eyeglasses of the last century.
Someone else who should have known better is the Internet pundit who suggested that we’d find out what Your Party is really like after they join a larger party. Not only are they unlikely to join either the DPJ or the LDP as presently constituted, it is more likely that people will wind up joining them, particularly if they do well in the upper house election. Every day the RSS feeds coughs up another article about a new Your Party candidate announcing his candidacy in either the national or a local election.
Speaking of Watanabe Kozo, he had this to say in a TV interview on the 11th about Ren Ho, the new Minister for Government Reform:
Having a minister like that in the television age is good for our popularity with the people. She’s a made-for-TV minister.
Out of the mouths of babes and the elderly. Ren Ho is now ending her first term in the upper house after a career as a model and TV announcer.
When Mr. Watanabe tried to recover, he shoved his foot in deeper:
She’s a flower, the Cabinet’s flower, both in name and in fact.
Speaking of Ren Ho, her mother recalled this in a recent interview:
Just before he died, her father told her, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go into politics,’ and now she’s a Cabinet minister.
Ren Ho’s father was Taiwanese and her mother is Japanese. She became a naturalized citizen in 1985.
The leaders of her party, including Messrs. Kan, Hatoyama, Ozawa, and particularly Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya, are supporters of legislation allowing people with permanent resident status the right to vote in local elections (though the Japanese expression refers to political participation, which also implies candidacy).
They wanted to include this pledge in the party’s political platform for last summer’s lower house election campaign, but someone launched a petition drive to prevent that. The petition was circulated among the party’s Diet members and got roughly 50 signatures. Though her office denies it, she is thought to have been the person most involved in collecting those signatures. She is also on record as saying:
If you want the right to vote, you should become a citizen.
Here’s what else Ren Ho said on the record, this time at a news conference on the 15th about the recovery of the Hayabusa capsule in Australia after seven years and four billion miles in deep space. It was the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid and return to Earth. Scientists are anxious to see if it brought back a sample from the asteroid Itokawa, on which it landed twice in 2005.
Said the minister:
All Japanese should be proud of this magnificent achievement. We made a major statement to the world.
One of the reporters present pointed out that the DPJ policy review conducted last November—the platform that launched her into the Cabinet—cut the budget for space exploration. One of the items whose budget was slashed–from JPY 1.7 billion to JPY 30 million–was the program to create a successor for the Hayabusa.
First she bought some time:
I was not directly responsible for space exploration (in the policy review). I’m in the process of confirming what happened.
And then she answered:
We shouldn’t defend all the results of the policy review, no matter what. Of course we should incorporate the different opinions and judgments of the people when compiling the next budget.
This is the person the Japan Times called a “firebrand reformer”.
She may be a relative newcomer to politics, but she’s already grown a second face.
Speaking of two-faced politicians, Tanaka Shusei reminded people in the current issue of the weekly Shukan Gendai that when Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro concluded the agreement with the Americans in 1996 to move the Futenma marine base to another location in Okinawa, current Prime Minister Kan Naoto was a member of the New Party Sakigake, which was part of the coalition government. Mr. Kan was in the Cabinet as the Health Minister, and former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio was then the acting secretary general of the party.
Neither man objected to the agreement at the time.
Speaking of Tanaka Shusei and the lack of a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties, Mr. Tanaka had this to say about the DPJ’s comeback in the polls in the Weekly Diamond online:
This closely resembles the events of last year, in which disillusionment with the LDP government resulted in a DPJ government. We cannot ignore that the disillusionment with and unpopularity of the Hatoyama Yukio government (the Ozawa – Hatoyama structure) is linked to the public’s expectations for the new Cabinet. At any rate, it is likely that most people wanted to end the Hatoyama administration in the same way they wanted to end the LDP administration.
Speaking of Ozawa Ichiro, he was in the Kumano area of Wakayama on the 12th. It was his first trip outside of Tokyo since Hatoyama Yukio maneuvered him out of the post of DPJ secretary general. Mr. Ozawa has a habit of saying things that raise people’s eyebrows. He did it again:
People with an illness have come to this area since ancient times for rebirth or resuscitation. This land has long held a belief in revival.
Just like the Terminator, eh? “I’ll be back!”
Speaking of reminding people of the old LDP, the new Cabinet’s national strategy minister, Arai Satoshi (of the Kan faction) was found to have purchased some curious items that he charged to office expenses. And speaking of Mr. Arai’s office, it was found to have been located smack dab in the residence of what the media called “an acquaintance”. The DPJ released receipts for the years 2007 to 2009, and a total of JPY 42.44 million (about $US 462,000) of his expenses turned out to be of dubious value for political activity.
Count on the Akahata, the house organ of Japan’s Communist Party, to have the most detailed list. Here’s what they said he charged:
Under the category of equipment and consumables:
JPY 4,485 for five volumes of Yazawa Ai’s Paradise Kiss comics (37 comic magazines were charged in all)
JPY 2,210 for a hamburger set at the McDonald’s at Nagata-cho
JPY 2,500 for a CD of background music for pachinko parlors
JPY 26,500 for books on improving pachinko technique
JPY 22,670 for 18 articles of clothing, including underwear, briefs, and camisoles
JPY 7,350 for toys purchased at a department stores
Under office expenses:
JPY 2,300 for a massage at a Sapporo massage parlor
JPY 150,000 for a man’s suit
JPY 2,547 for onions, milk, and cooking oil bought at a supermarket
Mr. Arai said the comic book receipt got mixed in with the real expenses, but he had no explanation for the others.
The response of the DPJ was also reminiscent of the LDP. Acting Secretary General Hosono Goshi said on TBS:
It’s not against the law to buy comics, but it is inappropriate. I hope he adjusts his accounts quickly.
Looking after his own, Prime Minister Kan said he doesn’t think Mr. Arai should resign, but everyone knows what he would have said had the man been in a different party. They know because they remember what he usually said about politicians in other parties when the DPJ was in the opposition.
Speaking of Mr. Kan, and “that was then, this is now”-type answers, the prime minister was asked in the Diet about his reasons for submitting an amendment to the 1999 bill that would have removed the clause making Kimi ga Yo the official national anthem. At the time, then-DPJ party head Hatoyama Yukio argued in favor of his colleague’s measure because of what he termed the song’s unpleasant wartime associations.
Eleven years later, however, Mr. Kan told a different story. He explained there was a difference in opinion in the DPJ at the time, and added:
Some (in the party) thought a livelier national anthem would be better.
Speaking of Mr. Kan making stuff up, he did it again on the 14th in the Diet. Mr. Kan has often cited political scientist Nagai Yonosuke as a political and personal influence. Prof. Nagai taught at the Tokyo Institute of Technology when Mr. Kan was a student there, and the two stayed in contact after he graduated. The prime minister has said:
We had a close relationship for a long time.
It turns out that another admirer of Prof. Nagai was Watanabe Yoshimi, now the head of Your Party. Mr. Watanabe said that when he was a student at Waseda, he snuck over to the other campus to sit in on his classes. He said he was struck with the depth of his thought and the beauty of his prose.
Mr. Watanabe asked the prime minister:
Prof. Nagai said that Article 9 of the Constitution (the Peace Clause) should be amended. What do you think?
Replied Mr. Kan, on the most-frequently debated subject in Japanese politics over the past 65 years:
The topic of Article 9 itself never came up in discussion between us.
See, it’s not necessary to think fast to be a politician. You just have to say something fast.
Speaking of Mr. Kan, let’s take a closer look at Kan the Man. We’ve already quoted Tanaka Shusei once today, so let’s take a second dip from the weekly Shukan Gendai:
I’ve seen both Miyazawa Kiichi and Hosokawa Morihiro serve as prime minister at close range. From that experience, I can say that a person’s abilities and character are completely exposed once they become prime minister. Deception and disguise are absolutely impossible. That is the decisive difference between being a party leader and being a prime minister. Mr. Hatoyama became prime minister without understanding that. Eventually, after eight months, every aspect of his personality was laid bare before the people.
Since the Kan breech has long been exposed in Japan, let’s transfer some of it to English.
It’s nearly impossible to read a feature article about Mr. Kan that doesn’t include a mention of his hair-trigger temper. He’s been trying to keep a lid on it for past month or two, after it became apparent that the Hatoyama administration was evaporating and he was the likely choice to succeed him.
But most Japanese journalists expect it to erupt eventually, and it won’t be attractive when it does.
For example, one report from earlier this year had him throwing an ashtray at a bureaucrat who told him it was not possible to do what Mr. Kan asked him to do.
The steam might already be rising. Mr. Kan revealed at a news conference that he was unlikely to ask for an extension of the Diet session just to pass the Japan Post legislation. Reporters told him that the opposition had charged him with “running away from” the issue.
Cue the unpleasant face and the sharp voice: “What criticism was this? Why are they criticizing?” He asked four times in all.
The Asahi ran an editorial titled Realism without the Specifics about his first speech as prime minister in the Diet. Snapped the prime minister:
Did they listen to all of it? I wanted to say things that were even more serious.
Mr. Kan is a fan of go. One of the reporters assigned to the Kantei said the prime minister had became hooked on the online Pandanet go game, and was frequently seen playing it on the PC in his Deputy Prime Minister’s office. The reporter added: “But when he went to the Diet he just sat there with his eyes closed.”
The Japanese tend to be indulgent of men who are serious drinkers, and most Japanese men who consume prodigious amounts of alcohol are blasé about it. During his university days, Mr. Kan’s favorite pastime was drinking and arguing politics, and he seems to have turned his avocation into his life’s work. One report this week described him with the expression, sakekuse ga warui, or a problem drinker.
Maybe there’s a reason he nods off so frequently in the Diet.
In the current edition of the weekly Shukan Bunshun, freelance journalist and open DPJ sympathizer Uesugi Takashi describes the background of the founding of the modern DPJ. He was an aide to Hatoyama Kunio at the time (who was also present at the creation). Mr. Uesugi reports that Mr. Kan, Hatoyama Yukio, and their wives met secretly at the latter’s villa in Karuizawa. He thought there was nothing amiss about reporting that Mr. and Mrs. Kan knocked back more than a few jars during the meeting, as the Irish say.
Speaking of Mrs. Kan, by the way, she and her husband are first cousins. Her mother and his father were siblings. Those marriages aren’t encouraged in Japan, but they do happen.
The current edition of the weekly Shukan Shincho ran some informal photos taken at the couple’s home one morning in 1998, shortly after that meeting in Karuizawa. There were open beer cans (tall boys of Kirin Ichiban Shibori) on the kitchen counter and kitchen table, probably left there from the night before.
They also recounted several of his escapades, one of which occurred at his favorite drinking establishment, identified as S.
In 2006 he was a candidate in the race to replace Maehara Seiji as DPJ party president, to whom he had lost by two votes in the same election the previous year. Friends tried to talk him out of it, but he ran anyway and was trounced by Ozawa Ichiro. That night, he got ripped on white wine at S, shouted to no one in particular, “I’m the one who built this party! Why shouldn’t I run (for party head)?” and passed out on the floor. (I’m assuming tatami mats in an alcove, but then I’ve never been to S.) He woke up when another customer’s dog mounted him. He started petting the dog and exclaimed, “Wan-chan, thank you!” (Wan-chan is a generic term for addressing a dog. I don’t know how else to translate noru for what the dog did, which is the word the magazine used.)
Mr. Kan also has a vision, and it isn’t one of pink elephants. According to the Shukan Shincho:
The reason I left the Socialist Democratic Federation was that in my 30s, I thought a small party was the best way to stay on as a Diet member, but in my 40s, I wanted to go to a larger party and take leadership positions within the party. From the latter part of my 40s to my 50s, I wanted to be the leader of a large organization. Then, in my 60s, I would be prime minister. That is my vision.
He did not use the word for dream or ambition. It was bijon, taken from English.
Mr. Kan also thinks highly of himself. In 1998 he met Lawrence Summers when the latter was in Japan and a deputy treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. After the meeting, he told an aide:
He’s not such a big deal.
The lightweight Mr. Summers later became the last treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, served as Harvard president for five years, and is now the director of the National Economic Council in the Obama administration.
When the economist Milton Friedman died, Summers wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times called The Great Liberator. He said that “any honest Democrat will admit that we are now all Friedmanites.” He added that even more important than Friedman’s contribution to monetary policy was his work “in convincing people of the importance of allowing free markets to operate.”
It would surely be enlightening to hear the heavyweight Mr. Kan—a former finance minister himself for a few months—discuss anything to do with Milton Friedman’s theories, either pro or con.
Speaking of Mr. Kan and economic policy, Takahashi Yoichi wrote a column in the Gendai Business on 14 June about Mr. Kan’s maiden Diet speech. It’s long and in Japanese, so here’s a summary.
Mr. Takahashi said the speech consisted of a rehash of his political experience and a summarization of the policies for each ministry, which consisted of several lines each. The journalist was startled to see that Prime Minister Kan had gone back to the old LDP custom of reading aloud from what the bureaucracy calls tanzaku, or strips of paper. Each ministry presents a sheet of paper with a few sentences for the prime minister to say, and they’re stapled together to use as a text. Recent prime ministers had abandoned the practice, but Mr. Kan brought that back. The bureaucrats, said Mr. Takahashi, must have been delighted to see him reading from their script again.
He also addressed Mr. Kan’s claim that his policies would be a “third way”, with the public works pork of the LDP being the first way and the extreme market fundamentalism of the ten-year period centered on the Koizumi administration (2001-2006) being the second way. The prime minister blasted the excessive deregulation of the second way.
Mr. Takahashi—a former Finance Ministry bureaucrat/turncoat—pointed out that in the 1998 OECD ranking of G7 nations by stringency of regulatory systems, with the top position being the least regulated, Japan was #5. Ten years later, in 2008, they were fourth, overtaking Germany.
The prime minister charged that the Koizumi restructuring had caused widespread unemployment. Mr. Takahashi noted that the total number of employed persons rose by one million during the five years of the Koizumi administration, and has fallen by 30,000 since the DPJ formed a government last September.
Further, Mr. Takahashi referred to DPJ claims that income gaps widened during the Koizumi era. The OECD uses the Gini Coefficient to monitor that gap. In their rankings of the G7 countries, Japan was 4th in the Gini Coefficient in 1998, and stayed there through the mid-2000s. In fact, with this used as a metric, the income gap actually shrank in Japan under Mr. Koizumi (and in Great Britian) while it expanded in some other G7 countries during that period.
Mr. Takahashi warns the DPJ will use these fables as the justification to fashion policies that will limit deregulation and redistribute income to reduce the so-called income gap. He used the Japanese expression, e ni kaita mochi, or a rice cake drawn into a picture, to describe the DPJ approach.
In English, we’d say “pie in the sky”.
Speaking of Mr. Kan, drinking, and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious economic policies, the Shukan Gendai quotes a Finance Ministry official describing an impromptu news conference with the reporters assigned to cover the prime minister at the Kan residence last week. Mr. Kan was sailing along righteously–whether from white wine or Kirin tall boys, he didn’t say.
The new prime minister claimed the people would swallow a rise in the consumption tax to 15% if the funds were diverted to long term care, social welfare, and pensions. He then said that when the economy improved, they could cut the rate back to 8%.
Speaking of rice cakes drawn into pictures…
The Finance Ministry official said he heard the story second hand, but liked what he heard. They could work with a prime minister like that.
And speaking of people in the government whose economic ideas have about as much substance as an empty Kirin tall boy can, Ikeda Motohisa is one of the new deputy finance ministers. He was also one of roughly 130 DPJ MPs that proposed in April the passage of a law requiring the Bank of Japan to set an annual inflation rate of more than 2% as a target.
I have a feeling this is not going to end very well either, whenever it ends.
And that means there won’t be any degrees of separation at all from this administration and its recent predecessors.
Mr. Hatoyama had all the political substance of a piece of wet flannel. That might not turn out to be so bad, in retrospect. Mr. Kan, on the other hand, could cause some real damage.