Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 18, 2011
PEOPLE interested in Japanese politics wonder when—or if–something resembling a Tea Party movement will coalesce in this country. The politicos of Nagata-cho and the bureaucrats of Kasumigaseki have behaved so badly for so long that in an earlier time in a different place, they might have found themselves tarred, feathered, and run out of town.
Those asking the question, however, could be overlooking a spontaneous and locally based ad hoc citizen pushback against what is known as kanson minpi (the treatment of people as inferior to the government), which predates the contemporary American Tea Partiers. It is not organized, nor does it have a name—yet—but the Japanese electorate is always ready to embrace those reformers who would cut government down to size. Former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, after all, left office following a term of five years and five months with an approval rating of 70%.
This pushback has intensified since the Democratic Party government shed their sheep’s clothing of populist rhetoric shortly after their 2009 lower house election victory and morphed into part of the problem rather than the solution.
Illustrations of the phenomenon abound throughout the archipelago, but the situation that perhaps distills both the positive and the negative aspects of the small government movement is that of Akune, Kagoshima, a city of 23,000 whose economy depends on agriculture and fishing. Here’s a previous post on affairs in Akune, written when the cement was still wet. Matters finally came to a head with an election last Sunday.
A quick review
Takehara Shin’ichi began his political career as a member of the Akune City Council with broad citizen backing; one supporter recalls that during his first election campaign for a council seat he was the only candidate to visit people door-to-door. He ran for mayor in a four-way race in 2008 and won with 36.67% of the vote.
The theme of Mr. Takehara’s campaign and governance was “ameliorating the gap between the government and the people”. Kitami Masao wrote a book examining public sector remuneration in Japan, and he claims that government employees here can expect to receive salaries 40% higher than those in the private sector. (Sound familiar?) The new mayor revealed in 2009 that the aggregate salaries and bonuses of Akune’s 268 municipal employees were JPY 1.73 billion a year. It doesn’t leave much for municipal affairs after that amount is subtracted from the city’s annual tax revenues of JPY two billion.
He wanted to reduce the number of City Council seats from the current 16 and pay the delegates on a per diem basis instead of an annual salary of JPY four million. He also advocated large cuts in the bonuses for all municipal employees and reducing the fixed asset tax.
Of course the City Council members and Akune’s public sector employees were not amused. Twelve of the 16 council members became Takehara enemies, and they passed a no-confidence motion in the mayor in 2009, the year after his election. In the subsequent ballot Mr. Takehara ran against a single candidate and was reelected with 51.72% of the vote, for which 82.59% of the electorate turned out. That’s a narrow margin, but the people had spoken.
Even after two election victories, the mayor was still unable to pass his reforms through City Council, and that’s when events took a turn both dramatic and weird. Mr. Takehara refused to convene the council into session and began governing by decree. Those decrees included the switch to a per diem pay system for council members, which resulted in a 90% pay cut and the elimination of bonuses, the halving of bonuses to all other municipal employees (including those seconded from the prefecture), and a reduction in the fixed asset tax.
The worm turns
Despite his success at the polls, the mayor developed what can only be described as a bunker mentality, and that led to his downfall. He picked a fight with the mass media as well as City Hall, cutting back sharply on news conferences and media appearances and communicating with the public through a blog. He hung posters of municipal salaries at city offices and arbitrarily fired an employee who ripped them down. The mayor refused to rehire the employee after he won a lawsuit for reinstatement, and the court seized some of the city’s assets.
Mr. Takehara’s biggest mistake was to alienate the very people who had supported him. Last summer, he privatized the city’s nursery school and presented the act as a fait accompli. That upset parents because he took the step without prior notice and without consulting the community. The people seem not to have been upset over the privatization itself; the Japanese public more often than not supports efforts to shift public sector services to the private sector. They just want to be consulted and included in the process.
For example, two years ago this month, Hiwatashi Keisuke was reelected as the mayor of Takeo, Saga, a city of about 50,000, in a special election held to resolve a debate over privatizing the municipal hospital, which had aggregate debts of JPY 630 million. The local doctors’ association—a powerful interest group in Japanese politics—and some city council members opposed Mayor Hiwatashi’s plan to sell the hospital to private interests in Kitakyushu and launched a recall campaign. To save time and municipal turmoil, Mr. Hiwatashi resigned before the campaign had collected the required number of signatures and ran again specifically on that issue in the special election to determine his replacement. He received 54% of the vote.
A recall petition began circulating at the end of last summer in Akune, and the backers finally gathered the signatures of the required one-third of registered voters. That referendum was held on 5 December, and the recall motion passed by a mere 398 votes in an election with a 75.63% turnout.
Is the third time the charm?
The mayor chose to run again, and he was opposed by Nishihira Yoshimasa, a 37-year-old chicken rancher with no political experience who decided to become a candidate while participating in the petition drive. His initial motivation was anger after reading a mayoral blog entry in December 2009 in which the mayor seemed to favor culling the disabled from society. Mr. Nishihira’s eldest son has a disability.
The Nishihira campaign demonstrated that the mayor had restaked the yardsticks of popular perception, however. The challenger admitted that reform was required and promised to reduce municipal salaries by 15% (in the next four years, thus showing that he is a quick study when it comes to political promises). He also pledged to consider eliminating the number of City Council seats and suggested a range of from two to six. Rather than ruling by decree, however, Mr. Nishihira said he would “conduct reform legally” and govern through dialogue rather than through confrontation. He accused the mayor of self-righteousness.
Akune’s third mayoralty election in two years was held last Sunday, and Mr. Nishihira won, picking up 8,509 votes to the mayor’s 7,645. The winner received 51.4% of the votes, just a whisker under the percentage won by Mr. Takehara in 2009. The turnout was 82.39%, also slightly less than the 82.59% for the previous election.
Events in Akune became national news, overshadowing discussion of Prime Minister Kan’s Cabinet reshuffle. (The new Cabinet was announced on Friday, but the lead story on Monday morning in both the national print and broadcast media was this municipal election in a small town in the Deep South.)
Here’s the critical information: Despite attacks by national and sub-national politicians–Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Katayama Yoshihiro said that rule by decree was illegal and invalid, though there was no legal way to overturn them—harsh coverage from the media, and behavior that veered uncomfortably close to that of Lieutenant Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, Mr. Takehara still commands the loyalty of nearly half of the electorate. The margin of victory for his opponent was razor-thin considering all that had transpired over the past two years.
It’s not that the Japanese are pining for a strong man on a horse—far from it. That a man so clearly over the top came so close to winning yet again indicates that many in Akune still support his small government position and just wanted the controversy to end. Their backing of a flawed advocate is yet more evidence that voters throughout the country are desperate for politicians who understand that the state is the servant of the people, and not the other way around.
No one realizes that more keenly than the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s newspaper of the left. I read two of the articles on the election they published on their Japanese-language website Sunday night, one of which ran to two screens. They were exultant that Mr. Takehara had been turned out of office and proclaimed it a victory for democracy. That it was, but the Asahi neglected to include in either of the articles information essential for reporting the results of any election—the number of votes the candidates received.
That cannot have been an oversight. Regardless of how often the Big Four national newspapers may criticize the government, they know that a large segment of the public considers them to be part of the same Ruling Class as the government and Kasumigaseki bureaucracy and just as much to blame. The Asahi did not want its readers to know the level of support Mr. Takehara received.
The next chapter
The story in Akune does not end here. On his first day in office, Mayor Nishihira said he would revisit the municipal salary cuts and the per diem salary structure because they were implemented illegally. He also removed the deputy mayor appointed by his predecessor. With so many people in his city demanding a downsizing of municipal government, Mr. Nishihira will have to find some real solutions or find himself on the business end of a popular revolt four years down the road.
Apart from the question of the legality of the decrees, surely another factor informing the new mayor’s position was the realization that he’ll have to work with the same City Council members, at least for the time being. How long that will last is an open question, however. Former Mayor Takehara and his backers had already set in motion a campaign to dissolve City Council through a recall, turnabout being fair play. That referendum will be held on 20 February.
We can expect to see a lot more of this behavior throughout the country in the future, regardless of what people call it. Indeed, it’s already happening in the Osaka Metro District and Nagoya, the country’s second- and third-largest cities. The weekly Sunday Mainichi suggested earlier this month that Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru and Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi could be the spearhead of a Japanese Tea Party operating from the regional level rather than the national legislative level. Mr. Kawamura wants to cut taxes and City Council salaries by half. (Sound familiar?)
As long as the mountebanks of the political class continue to be the venal, incompetent, and unresponsive time-servers that they are—and one need look no further than the current prime minister—this movement won’t be evaporating. Imagine what might happen if it can find an advocate without the liabilities of Takehara Shin’ichi.
It’s not a good idea to fight the law of the people. The law wins.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 18, 2011 at 11:07 pm and is filed under Politics, Social trends. Tagged: Japan, Kagoshima. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.