AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Hiranuma T.’

Wet cement

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I wonder about these people who would take advantage of Hashimoto Toru’s popularity to win a Diet seat (by joining his party, the Japan Restoration Party).
- Maehara Seiji, head of the Democratic Party’s Policy Research Committee

We’ll act in such a way that we don’t become what the Democratic Party is now.
- Matsui Ichiro, Osaka governor and secretary-generation of Japan Restoration, in reply
————-
The key is when and to what extent Mr. Abe approaches the third forces (reform parties). I would really prefer that the electorate votes with that knowledge. But considering his position, it is probably to his advantage to keep that quiet for now.
- Yamazaki Hajime, journalist on economic matters and a fellow at the Rakuten Securities Economic Research Institute

THERE are eight million stories in the naked city, intones the narrator at the conclusion of both the film and television version of The Naked City, and this has been one of them. Shifting the dramatist’s eye to Japan’s lower house election scheduled for 16 December, there are what seems like several thousand stories, and the reform/regional parties that are fomenting revolution from the bottom up account for quite a few of them.

Telling some of those stories requires a list of the dramatis personae, however, and that’s where we’ll start.

* Hashimoto Toru, the mayor of Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, who became the nation’s most prominent regional politician to call for the devolution of government authority with stronger power given to local government. That has been an issue for more than two decades here, but he’s the man who achieved ignition and liftoff. He started a local party/movement called One Osaka that is now a national party known as the Japan Restoration Party.

* Watanabe Yoshimi, a former Liberal Democratic Party member and minister in the Abe and Fukuda cabinets with responsibility for governmental reform. A supporter of devolution and radical civil service reform to tame the Japanese bureaucracy and its political influence, he left the LDP when prime ministers Fukuda and Aso abandoned that course. He then created Your Party with independent Diet member and former MITI bureaucrat Eda Kenji.

* Kawamura Takashi, a former Democratic Party of Japan member and lower house MP. He ran in several elections for party president, which means he sees a prime minister when he looks in the mirror in the morning. He resigned from the DPJ to run for mayor of Nagoya on a platform of cutting municipal taxes and the remuneration of city council members by half. This is part of an ongoing movement for sub-national governments in Japan. He struggled to get his policy package passed by municipal legislators (natch), and stunned the political world and the country both when he resigned, ran again to make the election a referendum on his policies, and won in a walk. There’s more at this previous post.

He’s formed a local party called Tax Reduction Japan that is now a national party with six five members in the Diet. They want to reduce the number of lower house Diet members by 80 (to 400) and cut their salaries in half.

* Omura Hideaki, a former Liberal Democratic Party of Japan member and lower house MP. He forged an alliance with Kawamura Takashi during the latter’s second run for mayor of Nagoya. He was elected governor of Aichi, in which Nagoya is located, on the same day. He shares the same general political principles.

* Ishihara Shintaro, former upper house and lower house MP, and governor of the Tokyo Metro District. Everyone knows who he is.

The stupefying ineptitude of the Democratic Party government, the inability of the Liberal Democratic Party to reinvent itself as a coherent alternative during three years in opposition, the futility of seeking real reform from either of them, years of public dissatisfaction combined with a willingness to support anyone willing to take an axe to the waste and abuse in the public sector, and younger generations reaching middle age, have resulted in the national prominence of Hashimoto Toru. It soon became a question of when, not if, he would establish a national political organization. The answer was soon rather than late — less than a year after winning election as Osaka mayor, after spending three years as governor of Osaka Prefecture.

Here’s what he said at the time:

True reform for Osaka requires further amendments to (national) law. But even when we try to do something locally, we run into the wall of Nagata-cho (a metonym for the Diet) and Kasumigaseki (a metonym for the bureaucracy), who control the mechanism of Japan. We have to change Japan from the roots.

In addition to regional devolution, Mr. Hashimoto’s group also calls for the cutting the membership of the Diet’s lower house in half to 240, and cutting their salaries and publicly funded party subsidies by one-third.

At that point the narrative became one of wondering who would and would not become his political allies. Not only did they need to team with simpatico regional parties, Japan Restoration needed someone or some group with a national reputation. Eliminated right away were the establishment LDP and the labor union-backed DPJ, but everyone had discounted that because both were part of the problem and not part of this solution.

In an intriguing move, the Osaka mayor approached former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in August to ask whether he would be interested in switching from the LDP to Japan Restoration. Mr. Abe expressed a strong desire to form some sort of alliance, particularly because they share an interest in amending the Constitution. But Mr. Abe eventually chose to remain in the LDP and run for party president, a campaign that he won.

While both men would surely like to work together, the LDP is unlikely to support the long-standing Hashimoto proposal to convert the consumption tax into a funding source for local government, and end the current system in which the national government allocates public funds. The shape and nature of any alliance will probably be determined after the election. The results will determine who needs whom, and the extent of that need.

* Hashimoto and Your Party

Speculation on ties with Japan Restoration had always started with Your Party, the first real national reform party. Several of their most important positions meshed, including the creation of a new system of sub-national governments with greater authority and civil service reform. They both also came out for eliminating nuclear power (probably for populist reasons), though Mr. Hashimoto has since backed away from that one. Further, Your Party supported Mr. Hashimoto in the election for Osaka mayor, and they share some of the same advisors.

At one point not long ago, people assumed that there would be a formal alliance. Rumors circulated that they had cut a deal in which Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi would become the first prime minister if they won enough seats in the aggregate to form a government.

But that’s not how it worked out. The reason seems to have been a dispute over who was going to be the boss. Your Party held talks with the people from Osaka before Japan Restoration was formed, and they wanted them to join the existing party before they created their own. Knowing that his poll numbers are better Your Party’s (they can’t seem to hump it into double digits), Mr. Hashimoto refused and suggested that they disband and rearrange themselves.

Relations took a turn for the worse when three Your Party members, said to be unhappy with Watanabe Yoshimi’s leadership, quit and joined Japan Restoration. That caused more than a few unpleasantries to be hurled in the direction of Osaka.

But discussions resumed because an alliance remains in both their interests. They talked about cooperation to implement eight common policies, which at that time included opposition to the consumption tax increase, opposition to nuclear power, support for regional devolution and the state/province system, support for civil service reform, support for constitutional amendments, support for election system reform, economic growth policies, and foreign policy (they both favor participation in TPP).

The calls for a solid alliance seem to have come from Your Party, and Japan Restoration has turned down the offer for now. There was a meeting with Hashimoto Toru, Matsui Ichiro, and Watanabe Yoshimi at which blunt words were spoken.

Mr. Watanabe suggested they jointly offer an “east-west” slate of candidates for the lower house election, with Your Party covering the east (Tokyo and the Kanto region) and Japan Restoration covering the west (Osaka and the Kansai region). Mr. Matsui rejected it, and here was his explanation:

Their policies have not gained ground in the Diet, and they have become a group who can’t achieve them. Politics means taking responsibility for results. That requires a team that can create a decision-making approach.

Gov. Matsui also told Mr. Watanabe in so many words to come down off his high horse: “It was our idea to create a new type of political organization.” The Your Party boss responded that they’ve been calling for political reorganization from the day they formed the party (which is true). He asked again for an equal merger, and again he was rejected.

Mr. Matsui later said they will continue to talk to avoid running candidates in the same election districts, but it will be unavoidable, and they will try to minimize it.

Perhaps Japan Restoration has some foresight about Your Party’s fortunes. Mr. Watanabe campaigned several times for a Your Party candidate in a local election last weekend in his home district in Tochigi, but the candidate lost to one backed by the LDP and New Komeito.

Affairs are still in flux, however. Just yesterday Hashimoto Toru said Japan Restoration would probably be able to field only 100 candidates in time for the election. (One reason the major parties want an earlier election is to prevent the smaller parties from building a full candidate list.) He made a reference to working with Your Party if they also ran 100 candidates — in other words, supporting the east-west alliance he rejected a few weeks ago. Watanabe Yoshimi also gave a campaign speech today calling for the support of Japan Restoration.

Whatever is going on here, you won’t be able to read a reliable account of it in either the Yomiuri Shimbun or the Asahi Shimbun, the nation’s two largest newspapers. The Asahi is opposed to Mr. Hashimoto because they’re of the left, and the Yomiuri is opposed to him because he’s anti-establishment.

* Omura and Kawamura

As the story at the link above shows, Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi and Aichi Gov. Omura Hideaki formed a regional alliance for the Triple Election in February last year. Both also organized political seminars this year to train people who supported their ideas for elective office.

Mr. Kawamura was the first to create a political party: Tax Reduction Japan. Mr. Omura followed by creating the Aichi is Top of Japan Party. The trouble started when he converted that party into the Chukyo Ishin no Kai, or the Chukyo Restoration Group, in August. The name is intentionally modeled on that of the Japan Restoration Party. His group was formed specifically to align with the Hashimoto group and fulfill the conditions for becoming a national party.

That cheesed off Mr. Kawamura, who was on an overseas trip at the time. He was miffed because the Aichi governor told Mr. Hashimoto about his plans, but didn’t tell him. The Nagoya mayor flew off the handle, saying their relationship of trust was broken and they couldn’t work together any more.

Some people saw it as a deliberate snub by Mr. Omura to break off ties with Mr. Kawamura. The former (at the left in the photo) is the straight-arrow policy type, while the latter (at the right) is the unkempt populist with a desire to be a major player. For example, he wondered if the Chukyo region would be relegated to being the subcontractor for Osaka.

Hashimoto Toru encouraged both of them to patch up their differences, because working together is would benefit everyone, and the policies were more similar than different.

And that’s just what the two men seem to have done while the media spotlight was pointed in a different direction. They announced an agreement to work together for the coming election after discussions that lasted late into the night of the 19th.

* Hashimoto and Omura and Kawamura

During the Triple Election campaign in Nagoya and Aichi, volunteers from the Osaka group went to the region to help both candidates because of their general agreement on devolution. Since then, however, it’s been a long strange trip that keeps getting stranger.

When Omura Hideaki created the Chukyo Restoration Group, Hashimoto Toru said that despite the name, they were unrelated to the Osaka group. They were independent and they hadn’t thought about an alliance for the national election. He added that Aichi support for their positions would be the condition for any alliance.

But then in October, a group from Osaka went to Aichi for a conference with letter from Hashimoto Toru asking Mr. Omura to form an Aichi Restoration Party. The alliance seemed like a natural: Not only are their policies similar, but they share policy advisors in journalist Tahara Soichiro, former Finance Ministry bureaucrat Takahashi Yoichi, and Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s jack of all trades, Takenaka Heizo.

The Aichi governor said that an alliance would take time, however, because he was still working with Kawamura Takashi. A blurb of two or three sentences appeared in one newspaper earlier this week announcing that Aichi and Osaka had worked out an agreement. In fact, Mr. Omura would be given the leeway to choose the candidate for one of the Aichi Diet districts in the election.

But just this morning, Mr. Omura announced that he would resign his position as advisor to the Osaka party to focus on his ties with Kawamura Takashi.

Your guess is as good as mine about this one. The best I can come up with is that working with Mr. Kawahara is a better way to solidify his position in Aichi.

—–
Meanwhile, Kawahara Takashi’s attitude toward an agreement with Hashimoto Toru was 180° in the opposite direction. He was so anxious to create an alliance that a hand was coming out of his throat, as an old Japanese expression has it.

He’s long been friendly with Ozawa Ichiro, but when he spoke at a political seminar for the People First Party, the new Ozawa Ichiro vehicle, he said his priority was working with Hashimoto Toru and former Tokyo Metro Governor Ishihara Shintaro. (That might also have been a function of his assessment of the extent of Ozawa Ichiro’s political influence in the future; i.e., not very much.)

The problem, however, is that both Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Matsui have been giving the Nagoya mayor their cold shoulders. Mr. Kawamura thought a merger with Japan Restoration was going to happen when he reached an agreement to do just that with Ishihara Shintaro and his Sun Party, but no one else thought so. Mr. Ishimura thought it might be a problem with the tax reduction name in his party, and Mr. Kawamura obligingly offered to change it.

But Hashimoto Toru said the name had nothing to do with it: it was all content. He also said, however, that “In today’s circumstances, tax reduction is the wrong message.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the Osaka mayor is a tax hiker; rather, his position has always been that there should be a public debate and a consensus formed about what public services people want to receive. After reaching that consensus, it will then be time to figure out how to pay for them.

Mr. Kawamura, on the other hand, seems to favor the Starve the Beast approach: Don’t give the public sector the money to begin with. It isn’t widely known, but he also favors establishing neighborhood citizens’ councils to determine how public funds will be spent. In other words, his approach is the reverse of Mr. Hashimoto’s.

The Nagoya mayor is also opposed to TPP participation, while the Osaka mayor favors it. They were both anti-nuclear power, but Mr. Hashimoto has since modified that stance. Also, two of the five Diet members in Mr. Kawamura’s national party, which was formed at end of October, were LDP postal privatization rebels that former Prime Minister Koizumi threw out of the party. Hashimoto Toru supports the privatization of Japan Post.

Another reason Mr. Hashimoto cited for being unwilling to work with Tax Cut Japan is that another one of their Diet members, Kumada Atsushi, a lower house MP from Osaka, switched his party affiliation from the DPJ, but not before he accepted JPY 3 million to offset his campaign expenses. That’s not the sort of person he wants to work with.

Matsui Ichiro offered a blander rationale:

It’s not possible as of now. We haven’t had any policy discussions. There’s not enough time.

But wait!

After weeks of letting his tongue hang out in the national media, insisting that it would be easy to overcome the differences with Japan Reform, Mr. Kawamura announced today that he — he! — was rejecting an alliance with them. He’ll work with Aichi Gov. Omura instead.

But wait again!

Lower House MP Kobayashi Koki, Tax Reduction Japan’s acting president, said the whole point of the party going national was to work with people like Japan Restoration. After Mr. Kawamura’s announcement, he said he wanted to leave the party and join Japan Restoration. He got approval for both of his requests.

* Hashimoto and Ishihara

That brings us to strangest story of them all — the merger of Japan Restoration with Ishihara Shintaro’s four-day-old Sun Party and the appointment of Mr. Ishihara as the head of the party.

It was strange because Hashimoto Toru insisted that it wouldn’t happen, for several reasons. The first was policy differences — Mr. Ishihara and the Sun Party support nuclear power and oppose participation in TPP. Those positions are the opposite of those of Japan Restoration. The second was outlook. Mr. Hashimoto said an alliance was out of the question if the members of the Sunrise Japan party, the group that the Tokyo governor formed two years ago, joined the Sun Party. He explained that there would be no union with “pure conservatives”. (By that he means paleo-cultural conservatives.)

Another factor is that Your Party wants no part of Ishihara Shintaro at all. An alliance would threaten any cooperation with them.

The Osaka mayor said talks would get nowhere unless they changed their policies. What happened is that he changed his, even after Sunrise Japan joined the Sun Party. Here’s the list of common policies they agreed on:

1. Convert the consumption tax to a regional tax and cap the rate at 11%.

Making the consumption tax a regional tax will make a close relationship with the LDP difficult.

2. Begin discussions to achieve a state/province system

3. Implement measures to support SMBEs and microenterprises.

4. Social welfare funding sources: Eliminate the portion of central government tax revenues allocated to local governments, optimize social insurance premiums, reexamine benefit levels, and supplement the funding with revenues from the income tax and asset tax.

5. Take a positive attitude toward TPP negotiations but will oppose them if they’re not in national interest.

This is a compromise for both men.

6. Create rules and other safety standards for nuclear power.

Not only has is that a reversal of the Hashimoto position, it just might end opposition to nuclear power as a political issue. An NHK poll taken this week found that only 9% of the electorate considers it to be their most important issue.

7. Urge China to take Senkakus dispute to ICJ.

8. Prohibit corporate and group donations to politics.

[[UPDATE: Yankdownunder sent in this link showing #8 is now inoperable.]]

Mr. Ishihara suggested that he and Mr. Hashimoto share the party presidency, but the younger man declined and took the de facto number two position. His thinking was that he still has a job to do in Osaka, and Osakans would be displeased if he gave up his position a year into his term for a Diet seat.

Said Mr. Ishihara after the deal was cut:

The popular will is filled with fluffy ideas, such as ‘nuclear power is frightening’. Populism is flattering those ideas….The largest, most definite segment of the popular will, however, is ‘This country is in trouble. Do something!’ We must change the structure of governance by the central bureaucracy…

…People talk about a ‘third force’, but we have to become the second force. We have to discard our minor disagreements in favor of our greater agreements and fight together. I’ll be the one to die first, so I’ll pass on the baton later to Mr. Hashimoto. There’s no other politician who acts as if his life depends on it.

Putting aside the question of whether this merger pays off in votes and Diet seats, there are advantages for both parties. Don’t forget that Ishihara Shintaro was the co-author of the Japan That Can Say No. He now is allied with a popular and adroit younger politician who can create the environment in which public figures will stand up for Japan, rather than truckle to other countries. He’s also popular enough to drive the issue of Constitutional reform — and several other previously taboo issues besides.

For example, this week Ishihara Shintaro said this week that Japan should conduct a simulation of the use of a nuclear weapon as a deterrent. He added that he was not calling for a public discussion of whether Japan should now make nuclear weapons, but that it was only his personal opinion.

It might be only his personal opinion, but it has now been broached for public discussion. He added:

Saying that you won’t have nuclear weapons means that your voice in world affairs carries absolutely no weight. Even the US gets all wobbly when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear program.

There will also be no sucking air through the teeth and saying so sorry to China:

It would be desirable if Japan-China relations were friendly, but it would not be desirable at all if Japan became a second Tibet due to Chinese hegemonism.

For his part, Mr. Hashimoto is now allied with someone who has a power base in Tokyo/Kanto, giving the party a real east-west presence. That ally also has a national presence, which Mr. Hashimoto is still developing. It should not be overlooked that the most popular politicians in the country’s two largest cities are now allies working to reduce the power of the central government. (And Nagoya is the third-largest city; even without a formal alliance, Kawamura Takashi is likely to work with them more often than not.)

The drawback is that this merger creates a political party with as much internal incompatibility as the Democratic Party of Japan. One of Hashimoto Toru’s most prominent advisors and supporters is Takenaka Heizo, the Koizumi privatization guru. Also in the party by way of Sunrise Japan is that most paleo of paleo-conservatives, Hiranuma Takeo. Here’s what Mr. Hiranuma thinks of the Koizumi/Takenaka policies.

Perhaps it is the hope of the folks in Osaka that they’ll have outlived the paleos when the time comes they are no longer of use to each other.

*****
I’m no psephologist, and I have no desire to become one, so there will be no predictions from me about this election. You can hear all sorts of wildly varying predictions now anyway. The weekly Sunday Mainichi thinks the LDP and New Komeito combined will win 280 seats, giving them a lower house majority. They project the DPJ will win only 90 seats. The weekly Shukan Gendai, however, wonders if the LDP and New Komeito can reach 200 seats, and they think 75 is a real possibility for Japan Restoration.

The polls are all over the place, and as of this week, close to half the electorate is still undecided. A recent NHK poll found public interest in the election to be very high, and turnout could soar. That means anything in this election is possible, and all sorts of possibilities are flying around. There are now 14 political parties qualified to take part in the election, many of which will not exist at this time next year. One of them is a two-man party formed by a DPJ renegade and ex-People’s New Party head (and before that, ex-LDP honcho) Kamei Shizuka. Mr. Kamei formed his old party as a receptacle for the vested interests of Japan Post after he was dumped from the LDP for opposing privatization. He was a junior coalition partner of the DPJ for the specific purpose of allowing the DPJ to pass legislation in the upper house, and his reward was a Cabinet ministry. The party name for this dynamic duo is The Anti-TPP, Anti-Nuclear Power, Achieve a Freeze of the Consumption Tax Party. (Oh, yes it is!)

The cement in Japanese politics is now wet. The political realignment that people have been waiting for has arrived, or at least the first phase of it. The Big Bang election that just as many people have been waiting for has also arrived, or at least the first in a series of large bangs. If nothing else, the political class will finally learn what they can expect from the voters for betraying their trust and expectations after three years with the DPJ in charge. If they don’t now, they never will.

Afterwords:

* Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko said this week:

I will not participate in a competition to lean rightward.

This is the self-described conservative speaking.

On the other hand, he has no choice, whatever it is he really believes.

Roughly 40% of the current DPJ MPs have close labor union ties, and the party’s largest source of organizational support is labor unions.

* During a 15 November TV broadcast, DPJ lower house MP and member of the Noda faction/group, said: “Noda’s attitude changed after he made the deal with Abe. He dissolved the Diet because Abe could put him in the Cabinet — particularly because the Finance Ministry wants him to see the consumption tax through.”

Sitting next to him was former agriculture minister, former DPJ member, and for another month anyway, lower house MP Yamada Masahiko. He heard this and marveled, “Oh, of course that’s what must have happened!” The announcer changed the subject.

Some people expect an LDP-DPJ-New Komeito coalition based on the consumption tax increase passage. Perhaps this has all been a chaban geki designed to stifle the local parties while the stifling’s still possible.

* Said LDP Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru:

The LDP’s biggest foe is the LDP from three years ago, not the DPJ.

He’s right.

* Prime Minister Noda is demanding that all candidates sign a loyalty oath to the party’s policies. That was the excuse Hatoyama Yukio was looking for to retire from politics. It will save him the embarrassment of losing his Hokkaido seat outright, which was a real possibility.

* Former TV comedian and popular Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, who palled around a lot with Hashimoto Toru in 2008, is mulling a run as a PR representative for Japan Restoration in either the Tokyo or Kyushu bloc.

He considered running again for Tokyo Metro District governor — he lost to Ishihara Shintaro last year — but decided against it.

But that was earlier this week. Today he said he was still thinking about which he would do.

* Only the old-line journalists are talking much about Ozawa Ichiro in this election. I suspect he is a man whose time has come and gone, and people see him as holding a losing hand. Both Hashimoto Toru and Matsui Ichiro have said they weren’t interested in any arrangement with him. One reason is that his unpopularity would wound Mr. Hashimoto in the same way that Abe Shinzo’s decision to readmit the Japan Post rebels to the LDP wounded him.

* There are other local Restoration parties in addition to the ones discussed here. Three of them are in Ehime: One for the prefecture itself, with four prefecture council members, one for the city of Matsuyama, with 13 city council members (29% of the council), and one for the city of Seiyo, with seven council members (one-third of the total). They’re all working together.

*****
Everybody needs to go to the same karaoke box and belt this out:

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Yomiuri poll on the popular perception of politics

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 25, 2011

THE Yomiuri Shimbun conducted a nationwide poll on the 12th and 13th — by direct interview, for a change — of the popular perceptions of today’s politics.

They were asked whether they thought politics in Japan had gotten worse in recent years.

Yes: 76%

The DPJ diehards will be tempted to shift the blame to the opposition for that — until they see the answers to some of the other questions. For example: Is the vote you cast in elections reflected in actual politics?

No: 81%

The last time this question was asked was in February 2008, under a LDP government. The percentage of noes then was 67%. The current percentage is a record high for the Yomiuri surveys.

One result the people hoped for with the change of government in 2009 was a move toward politican-led government (as opposed to bureaucrat-led government). Effecting this change was one of the major DPJ promises. Has the DPJ delivered on that promise?

No: 88%

The public was also asked to cite the most important problems with politics today, and was given the option of multiple answers. Here are the top three responses:

1. Politics is not conducted from the people’s perspective: 45%

2. Decisions on policy take too long: 42%

3. There is no vision for Japan’s future: 33%

“Margin of error” cannot be used to fudge these results. Has there been a more epic failure in postwar Japanese politics than the past two years of Democratic Party governments?

If you give me a week, maybe I can think of one.

Afterwords:

During the past week, former DPJ President and Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro, former DPJ President (and Foreign Minister) Maehara Seiji, and LPD Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru raised the possibility of an early election next year. Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Maehara warned their supporters in the Diet that many of them could lose their seats unless they get on the stick. Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Ishihara suggested that the election would be held on the issue of the tax increase. The former, who opposes higher taxes, suggested that the DPJ might split as a result. The latter suggested that both parties might split as a result, and that two new parties could be created: an anti-tax-increase party, and a pro-tax-increase party.

If an election were to be held on that basis and an anti-tax party won, it might still be too late to stop the initial tax hike. In that scenario, the polling figures for some of the questions above would likely rise even higher.

Meanwhile, People’s New Party head Kamei Shizuka is dissatisfied with the DPJ’s progress on blocking Japan Post privatization, and that’s the only reason his splinter group joined the coalition. He’s also opposed to a tax increase. It’s been widely reported that he’s now approached Tokyo Metro District Gov. Ishihara Shintaro about leading a new, anti-tax “conservative” party. He’s also trying to get younger members of the DPJ and the LDP interested in the idea, as well as Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru, who recently resigned to run for mayor of the city of Osaka (that’s a long story).

The elder Ishihara was one of the not-so-silent partners in the formation of the paleo-convervative (in Japanese terms) Sunrise Party with Hiranuma Takeo and Yosano Kaoru. The little viability that party had was in helping media outlets fill space, and that was lost when Mr. Yosano joined the Kan Cabinet as part of the effort to raise taxes.

Always quick with a quip, Your Party President Watanabe Yoshimi observed that such a party would be radically backward-looking, and be indistinguishable from a faction in the old LDP. He added:

If they’re going to apply the term “conservative” to the course of purified socialism, that might create one grouping.

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Absurd

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 31, 2011

“There is no time to wait for the wobbly and unsteady Democratic Party to acquire the ability to be responsible for government through on-the-job training and for a two-party system to mature…At this rate, there will never be any reason whatsoever for entrusting the government to the Democratic Party.”
- Yosano Kaoru
, Minshuto ga Nihon Keizai wo Hakai Suru (The Democratic Party Will Destroy the Japanese Economy), published in 2010

The treasury says the national debt
Is climbing to the sky
And government expenditures
Have never been so high
It makes a fellow get a
Gleam of pride within his eye
To see how our economy expands
The country’s in the very best of hands
- Johnny Mercer, “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands”

THE WORD politicians themselves are using to describe the government of Prime Minister Kan Naoto is “absurd”. Nishioka Takeo, the president of the Diet’s upper house, called on Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito to resign earlier this month. After taking one look at the lineup of the new Cabinet in which Mr. Sengoku was replaced, Mr. Nishioka called it “absurd”.

The presidents of both houses of the Diet traditionally resign their party memberships before assuming office. Mr. Nishioka was a member of the Democratic Party of Japan—Mr. Kan’s ruling party.

Another reshuffled Cabinet card was Kaieda Banri, who moved from the Ministry of Economic and Fiscal Policy to the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. His former slot in the deck is now occupied by Yosano Kaoru, who resigned from the opposition Sunrise Party to take the position. Quitting parties is getting to be a habit for Mr. Yosano. Before last year’s upper house election, he resigned from the Liberal-Democratic Party to form the Sunrise Party. Mr. Yosano owes his Diet seat to the LDP because they placed him on their proportional representation list. He lost his bid for reelection to the seat in Tokyo’s District #1 in 2009. The winner was Kaieda Banri.

That’s the same Yosano Kaoru quoted at the top of this post.

When reporters asked Mr. Kaieda about this thoughts on the new Cabinet lineup, he answered, “Life is absurd.”

There was little enthusiasm for the changes even in the ruling party. Said a DPJ member of the Saitama prefectural assembly after the new ministers were announced: “Even today I was asked at the train station, ‘Just what is the DPJ doing?’”

Kamei Shizuka of the People’s New Party—yes, they’re still in the ruling coalition—addressed a DPJ party conference on the day before the Cabinet changes were announced, and put it in their faces:

“The DPJ is now a disgrace. I am sincerely anxious for you to rouse yourselves.”

One of Mr. Kan’s three themes for his administration is “ending the absurdities”, which tells you all you need to know about his political tin ear. He’s given no sign of either stepping down or calling an election any time soon, however.

*****
Mr. Kan’s Cabinet reshuffle may be absurd, but it was that or vacate the premises. One of the several reasons the upper house censured Mr. Sengoku was his attitude and intemperate language during Question Time in the Diet. (That’s why Mr. Nishioka wanted to see him gone.) Watanabe Yoshimi of Your Party described it as “impertinence, intimidation, and evasion,” to which he later added “bluster and prevarication”.

How can the nation be in the very best of hands when they've got them on their hips? (Sankei Shimbun photo)

The upper house also censured the generally well-liked Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Minister Mabuchi Sumio because his ministry is responsible for the Coast Guard, and he had to take the fall for the YouTube release of the Coast Guard video of the Chinese banditry in the Senkaku islets. While the censures are not legally binding, the opposition refused to discuss legislation with the ruling party with those two men still in the Cabinet, and the opposition has more seats in the upper house.

Another reason for the realignment was that the prime minister is desperate to juice his flagging popularity among the electorate. (He is said to be particularly unpopular among women.) An indication of his standing with the public was the ratings for his live appearance on the television program Hodo Station (News Station) on 5 January. The program usually pulls in an audience of 13% to 14%, and averaged 14.7% for the four weeks prior to his appearance. Those ratings often rise slightly when a sitting prime minister shows up. Then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo picked up a 16.7% share.

Mr. Kan could manage only 6.9%.

But it’s not his fault! Said the PM at the DPJ party conference earlier this month:

“What we have done so far was not wrong. We have carrried out our job with resolution, but the problem is that we’ve failed to fully convey what we’ve done.”

If you think that sounds as if he’s channeling Barack Obama, here’s more: To remedy the situation, he’s considering a televised address to the nation, after the style of American presidents.

It had better be a good speech. The latest Shinhodo 2001 poll has his rate of support at 28.8%, with 67.0%–a cool two-thirds—opposed. Just a skoche under half of the respondents want a lower house election now, at 49.6%, while 41.8% were content to let it ride.

Here’s why the DPJ falls into the second camp. The 16 January edition of the weekly Sunday Mainichi features a simulation by two university professors of a lower house election. The magazine admits it’s a speculative endeavor because candidates for several constituencies have yet to be decided by some parties. That caveat notwithstanding, they project the DPJ to lose 124 seats from their current total of 306 to fall to 182. They think some of the DPJ party stalwarts could be at risk, including Hatoyama Yukio and Sengoku Yoshito, and that most of the Ozawa-backed candidates who won for the first time in 2009 should think about other employment. The LDP would regain its position as the party with the most seats at 212, a pickup of 96, but that’s still short of the 241 needed for a majority. The magazine suggests they would have to create a coalition with both New Komeito and Your Party (+25) to form a government.

Former Yokohama Mayor Nakada Hiroshi observed that Cabinet reshuffles to boost electile dysfunction are a perverse part of Japanese political culture. He’s also concerned that the use of the censure weapon in an upper house controlled by an opposition party could get out of hand and turn the Diet into a political battleground. Mr. Nakata has a point, but in this case the DPJ were hoist by their own petard. They were the ones who created the weapon after their 2007 upper house election victory.

Now the DPJ wants to introduce Diet rules that would prevent upper house censure motions from causing Cabinet members to lose their position. Fancy that.

The new lineup

A common observation is that the DPJ, which proclaimed itself the standard bearer for new politics, has become a throwback to the bad old days of the LDP with a leftward tilt. Five of the 17 Cabinet ministers are affiliated with Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation.

One criticism of the old LDP was its faction politics. During its heyday, five major factions functioned as parties within the party. The DPJ criticized that approach, but in 2008, Keio Professor Kusano Atsushi argued in Seiken Kotai no Hosoku (The Law of the Change of Government) that the formation of factions was inevitable in the DPJ.

The new Cabinet suggests he was prescient. Six “groups” in the DPJ have two members each. Former Prime Minister Hatoyama’s group has only one. No one affiliated with former party President and Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro was appointed. All the members have won at least five terms in the lower house, similar to an older informal rule of thumb used by the LDP.

The absence of Ozawa allies suggests there might be something to the rumors that Mr. Kan and Mr. Sengoku are ready to purge him. The Asahi Shimbun gossips that they’ll dump him if a citizen review panel forces his indictment. UPDATE: Mr. Ozawa was indicted. (The appointment of only one Hatoyama affiliate—the man who launched and bankrolled the party, and its first prime minister—might also be a sign they’re ready to have Mr. Hatoyama leave along with him.)

The game

They say you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, but in this case, a scorecard won’t make much sense without knowing the game they’re playing.

People often cite the system of 1955, when two conservative parties merged to create the LDP and dominated politics for the rest of the century, as Japan’s primary political problem. Others, however, such as Watanabe Yoshimi of Your Party and Nakagawa Hidenao of the LDP, point to the statist system implemented in 1940 as explicated by Prof. Noguchi Yukio. That system instituted a total mobilization for the war effort and concentrated power in the central government under bureaucratic control. In that system, it makes no difference who the prime minister is. (Prof. Noguchi also thinks that the consumption tax would have to be raised to at least 20%–European VAT levels—to pay for social welfare programs.)

The Kan worldview

On 25 December last year, Kan Naoto met at the Kantei for three hours with a group of long-time friends who included Shinohara Hajime, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, and Kataoka Masaru of the old Shakai Shimin Rengo (Socialist Citizens Federation). It is thought they gave the prime minister a pep talk, urging him to stay the course to achieve a citizen revolution. They might have suggested Mr. Kan remember his lifelong political motto of “Deal with one problem and then move forward on all fronts.”

We already know the prime minister is a devotee of the ideas of Matsushita Keiichi, who looks forward to the dissolution of the nation-state and its replacement by supranational institutions above and local institutions below. Another aspect of the Kan philosophy is found in Prof. Shinohara’s book Shimin no Seijigaku (The Citizens’ Political Science), which holds that modern legislative democracy is unresponsive. Instead, Prof. Shinohara thinks policy should be determined by a random and compulsory (yes, compulsory) sampling of public opinion, followed by a time-limited debate in so-called “planning cells”. This would include even central government policies for science and technology.

That vision was shared to a certain extent by Hatoyama Yukio, who in his first Diet speech in October 2009 called for the creation of new values in a society that would enable greater participation by regional NPOs and citizens in issues involving public services. The DPJ favors greater support of NPOs with public funds.

Americans are familiar with the potential abuses of taxpayer-funded support of NPOs, as exemplified by the activities of the nefarious ACORN in the United States, which was forced to disband. Other Japanese point out that the Shinohara model resembles the Russian system of soviets (soviet being the word for “council”), originally worker and soldier councils thought to be a grassroots effort to promote direct democracy.

During the DPJ Party Conference held earlier this month, the delegates expressed the opinion that they had to return to their roots and differentiate themselves from “neo-liberals”.

Player transactions

Sengoku Yoshito traded for Edano Yukio

The widespread assumption that Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito was the real power in the government prompted Kan Naoto to grumble to associates that he, and not Mr. Sengoku, was the prime minister. It was also widely assumed Mr. Sengoku took on so much responsibility for the operation of government because Mr. Kan was a constant threat to walk smack into the proverbial lamppost on the street.

As we’ve seen, however, the problem with this arrangement was that Mr. Sengoku’s behavior in office was so repellent people were fed up with him in just a few weeks.

He was traded straight up for Edano Yukio, the party’s acting secretary general, another former labor lawyer with ties to radicals. Mr. Sengoku will take Mr. Edano’s old job, and will also serve as the head of a party committee dealing with pension reform and whatever euphemism they’re using for raising taxes.

People thought Sengoku Yoshito was Kan Naoto’s puppeteer, and they think he operates the strings for Mr. Edano too. As far as it is possible to speculate about such matters, the most common view is that Mr. Sengoku is trying to take control of the party. He seems to be waiting for his chance to cut Ozawa Ichiro adrift, and the latest rumors have him trying to elbow aside the real party secretary-general, Okada Katsuya.

Here’s one DPJ MP on the selection of Mr. Edano as chief cabinet secretary:

“He was the secretary-general when we lost the upper house election last year. Should we forget his responsibility for that in just six months? I don’t understand it…none of the people have any expectations for this Cabinet.”

That was former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, speaking of his own party while on a visit to India.

Okazaki Tomiko released outright

Okazaki Tomiko is another rodent who fled the sinking ship of the Socialist Party and scampered up the gangway to the Democratic Party vessel. She is opposed to Japan’s national flag and anthem. In July 2001, her political group illegally received funds from foreigners, including the director of the North Korean-affiliated schools in the country—a North Korean citizen–and a South Korean citizen who operates a pachinko parlor. The most controversial aspect of her career, however, was this:

That’s Ms. Okazaki participating in one of the weekly Wednesday comfort women demos at the Japanese embassy in Seoul in March 2005. She called for a Japanese embassy car to take her there.

They didn’t find some token make-work position for her in the Cabinet, either. She was named the chair of the National Public Safety Commission, which administers the National Police Agency. In other words, she was the head of the government agency in charge of maintaining public safety.

Politicians have the same right to free speech as anyone else, but they’re expected to exercise it with common sense and an awareness of their position. When a member of the Japanese Diet participates in a demonstration with Xs over the Japanese flag, it suggests an absence of common sense and self-awareness. Consider also what it suggests about Kan Naoto, who appointed her knowing about her background.

Ms. Okazaki’s immediate problem was that despite the ease with which she showed up for an anti-Japanese demonstration in Seoul, she couldn’t manage to drag herself to her office in Tokyo after North Korea shelled the South in November. Also, documents related to international terror investigations put together by the NPA somehow wound up on the Internet, and she made no effort to find a way to prevent the problem from recurring in the future.

She lasted just four and a half months in office.

Signed Yosano Kaoru to a free agent contract

Yosano Kaoru is the bad penny of Japanese Cabinet members. He’s now been a part of every Cabinet since Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s last one, with the exception of Hatoyama Yukio’s brief spell. He so often shows up when a Cabinet is on its deathbed that he became known as “the gravedigger” in the LDP.

He holds three portfolios in the Kan Cabinet: Minister for Economic and Fiscal Policy, Social Affairs and Gender Equality (which includes responsibility for the population decline), and Comprehensive Reform of Social Security and Taxes.

“Comprehensive reform of taxes” means promoting the Ministry of Finance position of raising taxes instead of cutting spending to fix the country’s budgetary problems. He’s long been known as the MOF bat boy. Your Party Secretary-General Eda Kenji was an aide to former Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro when Mr. Yosano was the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. Mr. Eda says he pushed the Finance Ministry line within the government more than even some ministry employees. Hashimoto wanted to reform the ministry by dividing up their responsibility for fiscal and financial service oversight, but the ministry was opposed. Mr. Yosano argued their case most strenuously. (A new agency for overseeing the banking, securities exchange, and insurance industries was created in 2000 after Hashimoto left office.)

Says Mr. Eda: “His entry into the Cabinet is the decisive factor in making this a Finance Ministry government.” That means, he explains, a tax increase government directed behind the scenes by the Finance Ministry.

He wasn’t alone in that opinion. Fukushima Mizuho, head of the Social Democrats, said much the same thing using many of the same words.

Takahashi Yoichi, a former official in both the Koizumi and Abe administrations, provides additional evidence in Gendai Business Online. When Takenaka Heizo shifted positions from Mr. Koizumi’s Financial Services Minister to Internal Affairs Minister to push the privatization of Japan Post, Mr. Yosano took his place. He argued within the Cabinet for rolling back government policy investment reforms, another Finance Ministry position.

Mr. Takahashi says he often debated with Mr. Yosano when the latter backed ministry efforts to debone reforms:

“Yosano is said to be an expert on policy, but he offered no policy-based arguments against my explanations. He only mentioned the names of people responsible for specific policies in the Finance Ministry and said we should do as they say. His statements were rather unlike that of a minister in charge of financial services.”

Mr. Yosano has also claimed there is no hidden surplus of funds in the Finance Ministry, but that nothing has manifested into something every year at yearend since 2006, and that something now totals JPY 40 trillion in the aggregate.

Here’s the delicious part: This politician who advocates a sharp rise in taxes to pay for social welfare spending, has no plans to cut spending or modify social welfare programs to make them more inexpensive, and fights governmental reform is referred to as a “fiscal hawk” in the Western media.

Absurdity squared

Mr. Kan’s selection of Mr. Yosano in the Cabinet is just the sort of move a dullwit would think is clever. The prime minister may even have thought the selection of a former enemy would been seen as a coup. The Asahi said Mr. Kan believed it would be the key to breaking the political deadlock. Three strikes and you’re out.

The prime minister had remarkably kind words for his former foe:

“I recognize that he is a politician with whom we have a great deal in common when it comes to the issues of the soundness of national finances and social welfare.”

But when Yosano Kaoru left the Liberal Democratic Party to form the Sunrise Party with Hiranuma Takeo, a high school classmate more than half a century ago, he told Reuters:

“We are fighting against the DPJ outside of the LDP. We intend to act as a brake. None of us is thinking about becoming the ruling party.”

In an April 2010 interview with the Asahi Shimbun, he said:

“This slovenly DPJ government must not be allowed to continue.”

And:

“I have doubts about the DPJ policies overall, their political methods, and their use of the bureaucracy. It is unusual among the world’s democracies for a party to lack such clarity in the decision making process as the DPJ.”

During the same interview, he defined political leadership:

“Chart a general course and take responsibility for it. Take responsibility for your statements. That’s political leadership.”

Speaking to the Nikkei Shimbun about government pensions in 2005, he said:

“The DPJ follows the Swedish model. They’re trying to pull us toward a society in which the people are liable for 75%. It is clear they will rely on taxes, which will result in a large tax increase.”

In 2009, he called the DPJ party manifesto “almost fancy,” said it resembled “works of illusionist paintings”, and was “something like artificial bait for the election.” He also said the DPJ’s pet policy of child allowance payments “would not be fully achieved unless the consumption tax rate was raised to 25 percent or higher.”

He maintained that attitude through the 14th of this month, when he said at a press conference:

“The certainty of the effect of the (child allowance) policy was not fully explained when it was introduced…my spirit of criticism remains.”

He changed his mind in the intervening five days. On the 19th in an interview with Fuji TV, he said:

“I have little sense that it is unnatural”

Fujii Hirohisa named bench coach

The Hatoyama Cabinet’s first Finance Minister, Fujii Hirohisa (78) was brought back as the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. He is the former head of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau, and his appointment is an unmistakable signal to both the ministry and those hoping to reform Japanese government by curbing its influence.

He left the Hatoyama administration after little more than three months for “health reasons.” Those weren’t specified, but it might have been a sore back from being pushed out the door by former friend and ally Ozawa Ichiro. There were also rumors he had to carry a stash of liquor in his official vehicle to help him make it through the day. Perhaps Mr. Kan finds him a kindred spirit.

Other transactions

Sengoku Yoshito assumed the Justice Ministry portfolio when the former minister Chiba Keiko finally resigned after losing her upper house Diet seat last July. He was replaced by Eda Satsuki, who years ago started out in the same party as Kan Naoto: the Socialist Democratic Federation. He is known to be an opponent of the death penalty in a country whose electorate consistently polls from 60% to 70% in favor of capital punishment.

It was rumored that party poster girl Ren Ho was thinking of jumping the Kan Cabinet mudboat and running for governor of the Tokyo Metro District, but she chose to stay on board. Her puny 8.8% support rating among Tokyoites from among a hypothetical slate of candidates in a Shinhodo 2001 poll might have been one of the reasons.

Also staying put is Agriculture Minister Kano Michihiko. This is Mr. Kano’s second time in that post (the first was in 1989 during the GATT Uruguay round discussions). He is viewed as an ally of the Agriculture Ministry bureaucracy. As such, he is opposed to the prime minister’s proposal to join the TPP. Many thought he would be replaced for that reason, but now he most surely will join with ministry bureaucrats and the national agricultural co-ops to try to block entry into the TPP.

If you’ve gotten the idea by now that Kan Naoto has no idea what he’s doing, I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise.

Absurdity cubed

Political commentator Yayama Taro was a long-time LDP supporter who backed the DPJ in the 2009 election because he saw them as the only way at the time to push forward with reform of the bureaucracy and government. His views have changed again:

“Prime Minister Abe of the LDP was the one who began to attack this disease, and Watanabe Yoshimi took up the baton as Reform Minister. They were unable to separate the adhesion between the politicians and the bureaucrats that has lasted 60 years. The DPJ won a massive victory in the 2009 election using the slogan, “Disassociation from the bureaucracy”.

“The resolution of this problem required the establishment of a National Strategy Bureau, a governmental reform council, and putting fiscal policy under the direction of the politicians. While implementing reform, they would establish a cabinet personnel bureau to evaluate civil service personnel.

“It should have been the work of the Hatoyama administration to pass the required legislation, but Finance Minister Fujii Hirohisa said a National Strategy Bureau wasn’t necessary and an office would do. Deputy Prime Minister Kan headed the office. He later became Finance Minister and was completely brainwashed by the ministry. He has not been interested in disassociating from the bureaucracy since becoming prime minister.

“Yosano is the politician the Finance Ministry bureaucrats have relied on the most. Based on his ideas and what he’s said, some have even referred to him as a Finance Ministry plant. Now he’s the Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister and Fujii is the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. There are no laws securing the political disassociation from the bureaucracy. These personnel choices are simply to enable tax and social welfare policies in accordance with Finance Ministry specifications. The specifications for both policies were proposed by Yosano during the Aso administration. If the DPJ thought those policies were acceptable, they should have been adopted a long time ago.”

One economic news website quoted a politician whom the identified only as a former member of an LDP government:

“I have no idea what that person (Kan) wants to do. Even when he talks about the Heisei Opening of Japan, it has no backbone, and I can only view it as playing with words. The Cabinet reshuffle was just a switch from Mr. Sengoku to the Sengoku henchman Mr. Edano. The entry of the “lost bird” Mr. Yosano in the Cabinet has brought criticism rather than acclaim. A key will be how they change their methods of conducting the Diet. During the extraordinary session last fall, they adopted the fewest amount of bills as a percentage of proposed legislation in history.”

Coalition partner Kamei Shizuka was asked at a news conference on the 19th what he thought about the Cabinet and the prime minster’s policies about taxes, social welfare, and TPP. He answered:

“To present policies that you cannot achieve is not politics.”

As we’ve seen, one of those policies he might not achieve is participation in TPP. A total of 110 DPJ MPs affiliated with Ozawa Ichiro has formed a group to oppose Japanese participation, even though Mr. Ozawa has said he supports a free trade agreement.

Does even Mr. Kan know what he’s going to do? He just got back from giving a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he said that Japan will make a decision on its participation in TPP by June.

Before they worry about opposition either from inside or outside the party, the Cabinet still has to get on the same page. Kan Naoto says the issues of pension reform and the consumption tax are separate, but Yosano Kaoru says they must be considered together. Mr. Yosano’s stance on social insurance differs from the tax-based approach of the DPJ manifesto. The DPJ still does not have a common policy for a system for health care for the late stage elderly, despite their opposition to the system that came into effect during the Fukuda administration.

At a news conference on the 24th, Fujii Hirohisa was asked about Mr. Yosano’s statement that the age of eligibility for pension payments should be raised to 70:

“That’s his personal opinion. That question hasn’t been raised in a formal discussion.”

Absurdity in the fourth dimension

Mr. Kan is a recent convert to tax increases, at least in public. Speaking as the Finance Minister in the Diet on 21 January 2010, he said:

“First, there is the debate over the consumption tax, but as both the prime minister (Hatoyama) and I have said repeatedly, the current coalition government will not raise the consumption tax for four years….I think the primary reason the tax hasn’t been raised is the lack of trust by the people. They believe if they allow a government spending so wastefully is allowed to increase taxes, they will use the money wastefully.”

He also gave an opinion on when the discussion of a tax increase should begin:

“When we have so completely eliminated government waste that we could stand on our heads and not get a nosebleed…If we were to raise taxes at the present stage, when waste has not been sufficiently eliminated, we’d just repeat the same mistakes.”

Since he made that statement, there has been no sale of government assets, no effort to uncover the special accounts and hidden reserves in the bureaucracy, no effort to reduce personnel expenditures (they’ve put it off until 2013 at the earliest), only the most half-hearted of efforts to reduce government programs, a record-high budget with a record-high deficit, and a new proposal for an even higher budget.

The scorecard

The Cabinet reshuffle had no effect on market trading. Said Segawa Tsuyoshi, an equity strategist at Mizuho Securities:

“That it has absolutely no impact on stock prices demonstrates the relationship between politics and the market.”

In other words, the markets expect nothing from this bunch.

Kamei Shizuka visited the office of the Chief Cabinet Secretary as the official representative of the DPJ’s coalition partner to ask for an explanation of the prime minister’s Diet speech. He was angered when he discovered that Mr. Edano was not there, and the deputy secretary Fukuyama Tetsuro agreed that he should have been. Said Mr. Kamei:

“Don’t hold it against us if we leave the coalition.”

Mr. Edano belatedly showed up to provide an explanation, but Mr. Kamei was not mollified:

“They are incapable of consideration for other parties in their coalition. Politically, they have no idea what to do.”

One Western commentator observed that the DPJ is finding out that governing is different than campaigning. The real problem, however, is that they still haven’t found out, and the people in charge likely never will.

They’re certainly unlikely to find out in time for the 1,402 sub-national elections scheduled for April. DPJ-backed candidates have had their clock cleaned in several local elections after the government’s mishandling of the Senkakus incident with China, and their prospects are growing dimmer.

Yet at a party conference earlier this month, here’s what the prime minister had to say about DPJ support for those elections.:

“I’ve been in political parties that had no money for a long time, but this is the first time I’ve been in a party that can use all these funds for its activities. Shouldn’t I generously use the money that’s required (to compete)?

“All these funds” refers in part to the subsidies each political party receives out of public funds. The amounts vary based on their Diet representation. Those are the views of the man the foreign media hailed as a “fiscal hawk” when he assumed office last June on his fiduciary responsibility for taxpayer funds.

******
If Mr. Kan thought he would be showered in glory for the brilliant maneuver of including an opponent in his Cabinet, he was mistaken. An Asahi poll found 50% of voters opposed to Mr. Yosano’s selection.

On the 19th Oshima Tadamori of the LDP, the new minister’s party two parties ago, said Mr. Yosano had signed a pledge during the previous election in which he promised to resign from the Diet if he acted against the LDP. He’s now part of the DPJ caucus, but still in the Diet.

Said his old high school running buddy and co-president of the Sunrise Party, Hiranuma Takeo:

“It’s too bad that he’s leaving…When we formed the party, Mr. Yosano said that if we entrusted the government to the DPJ, Japan would be finished, so we had to bring it down. I wonder what’s going to happen with that.”

When Mr. Yosano gave his first speech as a member of the Cabinet in the Diet last week, he was heckled by members from both the LDP in the opposition and the DPJ in government. Would you dislike someone more if he was an enemy, or if he was a traitor?

After the speech, LDP MP Koizumi Shinjiro said:

“This is like a marriage proposal without a wedding ring. They won’t make any headway without sincerity and trust.”

And DPJ MP (and former Foreign Minister) Tanaka Makiko said:

“I do not sense any enthusiasm.”

Left unprotected

Sengoku Yoshito saw as one of his primary duties the prevention or amelioration of the inevitable Kan Naoto blunders. His departure from the Cabinet thus presented the country with the unlovely prospect of Mr. Kan fending for himself. The prime minister’s only political skill is the bullying of opponents—a skill no doubt honed by all those years of arguing politics in drinking establishments. His sense of the appropriate is also different from that of most people. (That is not photoshopped, by the way.)

It’s only been two weeks, and already we’re going to have to shift to a second hand to get enough fingers to keep up with the blunder tally.

His temper has earned him the nickname Ira-Kan, which translates nicely to the Irascible Kan. At a recent news conference he was asked whether he would call an election to have the people revalidate the party’s promise to cut waste before boosting the consumption tax. He glared, turned away from the questioner, and gave no answer at all.

He was also asked what he thought about the general perception the new Cabinet is a group put together to raise taxes. He answered:

“It’s unfair to be judgmental and change the subject of discussion.”

When the opposition suggested it would not participate in DPJ-led discussions about social welfare reform, he got judgmental himself.

“If the opposition parties do not actively participate in discussions about social welfare reform, it is no exaggeration to say that will be an act of treason against history.”

See what I mean about his only political skill?

That’s when he lost New Komeito. The DPJ has been hoping to tempt the opposition party into the coalition and thereby solve its problems in the Diet, but his statement seems to have ended any chance of that. Said party head Yamaguchi Natsuo:

“That’s a rather presumptious choice of words, isn’t it? The prime minister has a responsibility. What does he think he’s doing, challenging the opposition like that?”

The prime minister most recently stepped in it when he was asked about rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgrade of Japanese government bonds, partly because they thought the DPJ didn’t have a coherent strategy for dealing with national debt. Mr. Kan, a former Finance Minister, replied using the word utoi, a word seldom used by prime ministers. The word has several meanings depending on the context. One is that he hadn’t heard the news, and another is that he doesn’t really understand the subject very well because it doesn’t have much to do with him.

He was immediately called on his word choice by the opposition, the media, and his wife (during an event in Kyoto). Mr. Kan explained that he meant he hadn’t been given any information about the news at the time, which is a) probably untrue, but if true means b) his Cabinet is inept at gathering and managing information. The news had already been out for an hour.

Everyone else suspected the other nuance, in part because of the financial illiteracy he demonstrated when Finance Minister. He made a statement in the Diet that revealed he had no idea what the multiplier effect was. He also admitted to giving up on Paul Samuelson’s standard textbook Economics after the first 10 pages.

Mr. Kan was forced to explain at a news conference that his latest blunder didn’t mean he didn’t know government bond ratings from hot pastrami. Yosano Kaoru defended him, however:

“That is not a problem about which the prime minister should make a statement. It was proper for him to use the word utoi.”

In other words, interpretation #2. One wonders whom Mr. Yosano thinks should deal with the problem—the Finance Ministry bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki?

But that was not Mr. Kan’s position in May 2002 when the rating of Japanese government bonds was downgraded during the Koizumi administration. He publicly slammed the prime minister and finance minister and sarcastically asked whether they knew of the ramifications of the change. The Japanese media quickly dug up this old quote and dubbed it the “boomerang effect”.

No excuses for this absurdity

And how have the members of the English-language news media who cover Japan reported the Cabinet reorganization story? They played mimeograph machine for the government’s (or the Finance Ministry’s) briefings by filing articles under their own bylines that almost unanimously described Yosano Kaoru as a “fiscal hawk” and claimed the new Kan Cabinet was committed to “tax and pension reform”. And they think the Japanese media practices convoy journalism?

Rick Wallace in The Australian even went so far as to say this about Mr. Yosano:

“Perhaps the closest thing to a deficit hawk in a country where governments routinely live beyond their means…”

If Wallace is interested in seeing what a Japanese deficit hawk looks like, he might try some of the books by Nakagawa Hidenao, Eda Kenji, or Watanabe Yoshimi. If reading written Japanese is not his forté, he can always try this. I’d also suggest he look at the deficit totals in the annual budgets for the past 10 years to see who’s supported living beyond the country’s means and who hasn’t, but all that research might give him vertigo.

Lisa Twaronite, meanwhile, seems committed to getting it wrong, despite reading this post, which she commented on. She had this to say:

“Yosano, known as a fiscal conservative, has called for raising Japan’s 5% consumption tax to help chip away at Japan’s mountain of public debt.”

…thus bringing an entirely new dimension to the term, “conservative”. At least she briefly mentioned the reason Sengoku Yoshito was censured, which was more than Rick Wallace could do.

In an admirable display of corporate loyalty, the BBC took its correspondent’s word for what was happening:

“Our correspondent says the changes also bring to the fore ministers who support reform to tackle Japan’s massive public debt and the trade liberalisation sought by business leaders.

“The appointment of a veteran fiscal hawk, Kaoru Yosano, as economic and fiscal policy minister is being taken as a signal that Mr Kan is serious about reining in the costs of Japan’s rapidly ageing society.”

In contrast, the People’s Daily of China wrote last 24 December:

“The Cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on Friday approved a draft budget which hit a record 92.40 trillion yen (1.11 trillion U.S. dollars) for fiscal year 2011.The figure is marginally higher than the initial budget for 2010, which stood at 92.30 trillion yen, as the government seeks to raise spending on key policies amid rising social welfare costs.The budget will include more than 44 trillion yen (530.11 billion U.S. dollars) from issuing new government bonds, a second straight year when bonds have exceeded tax revenue as a source of income. The swelling budget is believed to be contradictory to Kan’s pledge to cut spending to restore the nation’s fiscal health.”

When the People’s Daily reports on Japan are more accurate than those of the BBC, it’s time for some people to reevaluate their assumptions about contemporary journalism.

Assuming any of these people are not European-style social democrats and actually are interested in a functional definition of fiscal conservatism, they might consider this by columnist Robert Samuelson:

“If we ended deficits with tax increases, we would simply exchange one problem (high deficits) for another (high taxes). Either would weaken the economy, and sharply higher taxes would represent an undesirable transfer to retirees from younger taxpayers.”

They might also look into how other countries have accomplished spending reductions, as Dan Mitchell explains here.

What can you expect?

After reading those reports, it will come as no surprise that the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan is “facing difficulties”:

Georges Baumgartner, current president of the FCCJ and a veteran reporter for Swiss Radio and Television, expressed his frustration with the lack of news in Japan that would interest people elsewhere. “It’s quiet, like a little country like Switzerland,” said Baumgartner, who has been reporting from Japan since 1982. Japan is “blocked and paralyzed by the politicians and bureaucrats who don’t have the political will and courage to restructure the country to give a chance to young people. There is no new energy. . . . There are days that you can’t sell any story to your editors back home.”

Any journalist who thinks Japan is a quiet country with no news of interest is unqualified for his position on the face of it. True, they do have to please their editors back home, the ones responsible for turning their business into the smokestack industry of the information age. Then again, Baumgartner thinks the FCCJ is “a little island of freedom in Japan”, a presumptuous and arrogant bit of horsetootie that might explain why his organization has become irrelevant. (Let’s play journalistic poker. For every story someone can cite that the Japanese press has ignored, I can call and raise that bet with stories the New York Times et al. have ignored.)

If the FCCJ were populated by people nimble enough to hop off their bar stools and conduct serious research, they might have taken the approach on this story adopted by Takahashi Yoichi in Gendai Business Online:

“It is a restructure of a government facing its final days.”

And:

“(Yosano) is called a fiscal hawk because he parrots the Finance Ministry line. The objective is a fiscal balance, and the means is a tax increase.”

And:

“The new cabinet is a lineup of people whose arguments support continued deflation and tax increases. Prime Minister Kan says the economy will improve with a tax increase. Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano says the economy will improve with a rise in interest rates. Fujii Hirohisa favors a higher yen and “fiscal restructuring”. If these people put their ideas in practice, the DPJ really will destroy the Japanese economy, as the title of Mr. Yosano’s book had it.”

Afterwords:

* Mr. Yosano now says he thinks the consumption tax should be “more than 10%” by 2015. Watch for closer to 20%, assuming the same or similar people are still in charge.

* Another avenue the journos choose not to explore is Standard & Poor’s record of credit ratings. For example:

“Investors snapped up the $340.7 million CDO, a collection of securities backed by bonds, mortgages and other loans, within days of the Dec. 12, 2000, offering. The CDO buyers had assurances of its quality from the three leading credit rating companies –Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Group Inc. Each had blessed most of the CDO with the highest rating, AAA or Aaa. Investment-grade ratings on 95 percent of the securities in the CDO gave no hint of what was in the debt package — or that it might collapse. It was loaded with risky debt, from junk bonds to subprime home loans. During the next six years, the CDO plummeted as defaults mounted in its underlying securities. By the end of 2006, losses totaled about $125 million.”

S&P downgraded Japanese government bonds, but they’re maintaining their top AAA rating on U.S. debt despite the huge American deficit and phalanx of foreign creditors.

******
The country’s in the very best of hands.

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The race is on

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 27, 2010

IN JUNE 2008, we had this post covering Hiranuma Takeo’s criticism of former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro and the financial and privatization specialist in his Cabinet, Takenaka Heizo. Mr. Hiranuma was quoted as saying they would have been burned at the stake in another era. That’s an arresting statement, but it probably revealed more about the role of superstition in Mr. Hiranuma’s thought processes than it did about the accomplishments of Messrs. Koizumi and Takenaka.

Since then, Mr. Hiranuma’s recent launch of the small Sunrise Party with Yosano Kaoru generated more media heat than light among the electorate, while the Koizumian philosophy, either generally or specifically, is being raised as a banner by some of the most popular opposition politicians in Japan.

Part of that post included this prediction by former Labor Minister Murakami Masukuni, who was once in the same LDP faction as Mr. Hiranuma:

In two years the LDP-New Komeito coalition will not be in power. The next election will see a shift in the LDP’s strength relative to the opposition DPJ, resulting in an Ozawa Administration. The DPJ won’t have the numbers to form a government by themselves, but they will ally with Hiranuma’s new party for an anti-LDP, anti-New Komeito government. Once it is out of power for two years, the LDP will break up.

Well, he was right about the change of government, and about the DPJ coalition with a social conservative party, though it turned out to be the party of Kamei Shizuka and not Hiranuma Takeo. Also, no one could have foreseen at the time the scandal that would knock Ozawa Ichiro off his perch.

His last prediction about the LDP falling apart after two years in opposition is also a live possibility. To Mr. Murakami’s prediction, I added this:

Saying that the LDP would break up if it were to spend two years in the opposition is the easy prediction. Here’s the prediction Mr. Murakami won’t make: The Democratic Party of Japan would break up before it spent two years in power.

First, there are too many incompatible groups within the party for it to survive a disposition of the spoils and the determination of a uniform party policy. People have kept their mouths shut until now for the sake of party unity. They’ll stay open loud and long once they’re in a government together.

Second, we have the example of Mr. Ozawa’s previous experience at governing—albeit behind the scenes—with a coalition consisting of eight oil-and-water groups during the Hosokawa-Hata administrations. They lasted a combined total of 10 months.

If either an Ozawa Administration or the DPJ itself sticks around longer than that, chalk it up to the favors of Lady Luck.

June 2008 was also the month that former DPJ president and current Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Maehara Seiji criticized the behavior and strategy of then DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro in the monthly magazine Gendai. He would continue his criticism of Mr. Ozawa over the next few months in a roundtable discussion in another monthly magazine (in which Yosano Kaoru also participated), and in an article he wrote for a third monthly magazine.

Speculation mounted that Mr. Maehara might bolt the party to form a new group with co-faction leader Edano Yukio and some reformers from the LDP, but he kept a low public profile after that. He was in position to receive an important Cabinet portfolio once the DPJ took power, after all. He did support Okada Katsuya to replace Mr. Ozawa as party president last year, while the latter backed Hatoyama Yukio, but the two men have managed to keep their mutual dislike out of the public eye.

Until now.

When the popular dissatisfaction with the new expressway tolls was brought up in a news conference, Mr. Maehara responded that Mr. Ozawa’s insistence on building roads while simultaneously lowering or removing tolls was “antinomian”, a philosophical term for a contradiction between opposites.

It didn’t take long for the media tattletales to snitch on him to Ozawa Ichiro. When the Big Boss Man heard the story, he said:

What Maehara said or what he did neither concerns me nor interests me in the slightest.

In other words, you and the 20 members of your group can take a hike as far as I’m concerned. I don’t need you anyway.

If Mr. Maehara took the hint, he might not have to look to far for a branch on which to alight. He’s on good terms with the leaders of the new Innovation Party–they’re fellow graduates of the Matsushita Institute–and it turns out he was present when planning for the new party was discussed at a February meeting. He turned down the offer to join because he thought he couldn’t very well leave the Cabinet.

If Mr. Maehara were to switch to the silks of the Innovation Party with some of his group members, it would give the new party an instant voice in the Diet. (That’s not to say it will happen, of course.)

So the race is on. Will the LDP or the DPJ be the first to splinter?

If the summer upper house election doesn’t go well for the DPJ, that race might wind up in a photo finish.

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Aspirations

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 8, 2010

As Fukuzawa Yukichi said regarding an attitude of self-sufficiency and self-respect, a good nation, a good community, and superb people of ability cannot exist unless local governments and individuals support themselves by their own strength.
- Yamada Hiroshi

A CHART in Ito Atsuo’s Political Party Collapse: The 10 lost years of Nagata-Cho outlines the birth and death of political parties in Japan from 1992 to 1998. That chart covers two pages because 22 of those parties no longer exist, and even then I might have miscounted.

After a relatively quiescent decade, the politicos are starting to party hearty once again now that it’s apparent neither of the two major parties which emerged intact from the previous ferment—the Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party—will be viable over the long-term as presently constituted.

Left to right: Yamada Hiroshi, Nakamura Tokihiro, Nakada Hiroshi

The news media has focused this week on the new old party soon to be launched by Yosano Kaoru and Hiranuma Takeo, but they’ve been giving short shrift to the imminent birth of another party with the potential to have a more lasting–and more beneficial–impact. Unlike the granddads of the former group, the three amigos driving the latter venture have a shared, positive vision about the direction of the country and a sense of urgency about achieving their aims. Rather than spending their time in Tokyo television studios, they’re touring the country to take their case to the people.

The three are Nakada Hiroshi, Yamada Hiroshi, and Nakamura Tokihiro, all of whom are veterans of the new party movement of the 90s. They were involved with the Japan New Party headed by Hosokawa Morihiro, the country’s first non-LDP prime minister in nearly 40 years. The New Party was an intriguing mix of people that also included Koike Yuriko, now in the Koizumian wing of the LDP, and Maehara Seiji, the former DPJ head who is currently the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. All three served at least one term in the lower house of the Diet. Mr. Nakada and Mr. Yamada, the two Hiroshis, attended The Matsushita Institute of Government and Management.

What sets this trio apart is that all three turned their backs on national politics and continued their careers as chief executives in local government. Mr. Nakada served nearly two terms as the mayor of Yokohama, Mr. Nakamura is still the mayor of Matsuyama, a city of about 515,000 in Ehime, and Mr. Yamada is the chief municipal officer of Suginami Ward in Tokyo, which itself has a population of roughly 540,000.

They’re pitched a tent on a patch of land similar to that of Watanabe Yoshimi and Your Party, but they arrived from a different direction. They all stand for governmental reform and regional devolution, but as a lower house MP since 1996, Mr. Watanabe is working in the context of national politics. In contrast, these three men are trying to build a national base outside the capital to accomplish similar objectives from the bottom up. Says Mr. Nakada:

What is required is a reorganization to change the approach of the country and the regions. The (people in the) regions understand conditions on the ground, and the reorganization won’t happen unless they apply pressure to the central government.

They call their group 日本志民会議, or the Nihon Shimin Kaigi. The second word is their own creation and literally means people with aspirations. A good English translation is impossible because the word is also a homonym for citizen.

Another difference from Your Party is that the trio comes from a non-LDP background, whereas Mr. Watanabe and his father were prominent members of that party. They say their objective is not to confront the DPJ or the LDP, but to form an all-Japan party and create a core group to rescue Japan from its crisis. An interview conducted with Mr. Nakada last year illustrates their sense of mission and urgency. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m very concerned about the country, and I don’t think there’s much time left. The national budgets contain more debt than tax revenue. The principle behind my approach as mayor is that the regions won’t survive if the country crumbles. I’ll conduct a (national) citizens’ movement from the citizens’ perspective. What I want to do is not the question. The country will crumble unless we do everything we can in the time remaining. I want to do anything and everything.

- Won’t you be active in a political party?

There’s no time to rebuild Japan. I’ll do anything. Doing anything includes starting a new party. As a citizen of this country, I’ll keep building on what I’m already involved with. Part of that might include starting a party.

Japan is in a serious phase. Unless we apply fundamental remedies within five years, the country will be eaten up from within and without. I want to devote all my energy to this full-time, and that includes convening citizens’ conferences and the Alliance of Local Government Executives.

As their past association with both Ms. Koike and Mr. Maehara suggests, they also support a strong defense and a pride in country that would be unremarkable outside of Japan or contemporary left wing groupings incapable of distinguishing between nationalism and patriotism. Yamada Hiroshi wrote an article in the March issue of Voice arguing against the DPJ proposal to allow non-Japanese to participate in local elections. As this previous post based on a blog entry by Nakada Hiroshi demonstrates, they also support individualism and self sufficiency.

The record

They’ve yet to generate top-of-the-fold headlines, but some journalists are aware of them. Sakurai Yoshiko profiled them in a feature article for the July 2009 edition of Voice that presented some of their accomplishments in local government.

Yamada Hiroshi seems to have achieved a stunning success in resuscitating Suginami Ward’s finances. When he took office in 1999, the ward was JPY 95 billion in debt (about $US 1.012 billion) and had just JPY 1.9 billion in the bank. Mr. Yamada’s first step was to cut his own salary by 10%, his bonus by 50%, and the ward budget by 15%. As a symbol of his budget-cutting efforts, he eliminated the free manju distributed to senior citizens’ associations. That may seem like a trivial step, but it illustrates a greater problem whose solution seems beyond the capability or willpower of politicians in free market democracies nowadays. Distributing free confections is not why governments are devised, but people have gotten so used to these handouts that the old folks in Suginami initially complained about the loss of their taxpayer-funded sweets.

Under his leadership, the ward has cut its debt in 10 years to JPY 20 billion and has JPY 23 billion in the bank; in other words, they’re solvent again. He’s also managed to reduce the ward’s workforce from 4,700 to 3,700.

In the 2007 Nikkei Shimbun evaluation of local governments nationwide, Suginami Ward had risen to 3rd from 33rd in the category of government reform, and to 12th from 105th in the category of government services.

Mr. Yamada plans to retire the ward’s debt in two years, and they recently passed a measure to create a fund for reducing taxes starting in ten years, with cuts coming every year.

In Matsuyama

Meanwhile, Matsuyama Mayor Nakamura managed to pull off a merger of three cities that won the approval of most residents in the new metropolis. That was no mean feat; the period from April 1999 to April 2006 was dubbed the Heisei no Dai-gappei (平成の大合併) (Great Heisei Era Mergers), during which the number of municipalities in Japan was reduced from 3,232 (670 cities, 1,994 towns, and 568 villages) to 1,820 (779 cities, 844 towns, and 197 villages). The objectives of the consolidation were to promote the decentralization and the downsizing of government, and to deal with the problems of declining tax revenues and reduced central government subsidies caused by the low birthrate.

Not all of these municipal marriages were love matches, and many had to navigate some rough patches. To cite one example, the new city of Matsuyama would have wound up with 80 city council members had all the delegates from the three municipalities kept their jobs. Some cities involved in the mergers did expand the chambers to include all the delegates, which sparked recall efforts by angry citizens. Mr. Nakamura, however, successfully reduced the number of councilmen from 80 to 45—reportedly by persuasion alone.

All politics is local

The triumvirate has conducted most of the spadework for their new party outside of the national spotlight. They first came to the notice of the public around this time last year, when devolution became a major issue in the lower house election campaign. Attention then focused on Miyazaki Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo and Osaka Governor Hashimoto Toru, both outspoken supporters of devolution, but whose reputations and popularity were based on their prior careers in television and a proclivity to say whatever popped into their heads.

These five formed a loose alliance, but the three municipal executives sidestepped a proposal by Mr. Hashimoto to turn the Local Chief Executive Alliance into a national party. It’s likely they were already planning to create their own party and wanted to keep the drama queens at arm’s length. They also declined the Osaka governor’s suggestion to endorse one of the national parties in the lower house election. Said Mr. Nakada, “It might mislead the people.” Added Mr. Nakamura, “We won’t attract supporters if we increase the risk.” There are no hard feelings, however–Mr. Hashimoto sent them a congratulatory message when they held a conference announcing their intention to start a new party:

The time has come to take action in earnest for all the people filled with the aspiration to change the country.

The Yokohama mayor

Nakada Hiroshi has perhaps the highest national profile of the three. He announced on 28 July last year that he would resign his position as Yokohama mayor with seven months remaining in his second term. Some thought he was getting ready to take a second run at the Diet, but he had other plans. His explained that he had finished the important business of his second term, the city would save money by holding a mayoralty election on the same day as the lower house voting, and the new mayor could get a head start on the new budget and personnel decisions:

The mayor’s election costs JPY 1.1 billion in city funds. By holding it at the same time as the national election, we can save JPY one billion. Considering our harsh financial circumstances, that’s extremely important.

In retrospect, he was surely starting to build the foundation for the new party. They formed a working group at the end of October, when Mr. Nakada would still have been in office in Yokohama had he not resigned. Their vision calls for a low-tax, high-vitality country whose foreign relations are based on the keynote of freedom, responsibility, and mutual respect. At that first conference, they said:

The Diet is just terrible. It’s just pulled along by parties that either want to take power or want to maintain power.

And:

Promoting regional devolution is necessary for a country with a narrowing fiscal base.

Mr. Nakada went into more detail:

There are different views on the population totals that should be required for the classification of local government jurisdictions. The problem, however, is not one of population alone. What is improper is that the national government sets the principles for local government rules, including such details as the number of people in local assemblies and the amount of space required for nursery schools. Each community has different cultures and customs.

On proposals for a province/state system, which would create nine to 14 subnational jurisdictions to eventually replace the prefectures:

If each local government were to decide on the construction of its own roads, harbors, and airports, this would be a very inefficient country, and it would lead to the deterioration of international competitiveness. I support the state/province system because decisions on these matters would be more efficient at that level.

The trio announced their plans to form a party at a meeting in Hiroshima on 20 March this year and in Osaka the next day. Without utilizing an organization to mobilize turnout, they drew 250 to the first meeting and, to the second, 750 at hall that seats 500. They hope to create a support group of 10,000 people, and they already claim 4,000. They also plan to run at least 10 candidates in the upper house election this summer. Mr. Yamada, the group’s primary spokesman, said the upper house election was a prime opportunity to demonstrate their ideas. He explained this opportunity couldn’t be overlooked because the next national election isn’t required for another three years.

Last weekend they visited Takamatsu, Kagawa, to drum up support and attracted an audience of 300. Accompanying them was the leader of their support group, Joko Akira, the former head of the Matsushita Institute. Mr. Joko, who has written books discussing the importance of aspirations, said at the Takamatsu meeting:

It’s impossible to have any expectations for today’s politicians. We want to gather 10,000 supporters and create a new party with the help of citizens with aspiration.

From Mr. Yamada:

Both the LDP and the DPJ have reached a dead end. If citizens rise up individually, Japan will change.

Now for the bad news

There are skeletons in every politician’s closet that will cause some to recoil, and these men are no exception. At one time, Messrs. Yamada and Nakada were part of a group that wanted to boost the idea of Hatoyama Kunio for prime minister. It’s not clear what possessed them to back that goofy plan, unless it was access to the Hatoyama family fortune for political funds.

Also, some people suspect Mr. Nakada stepped down as Yokohama mayor to avoid the blowback from the failure of an expo commemorating the 150th anniversary of that city’s opening as a port. The expo attracted less than one-fourth the expected turnout and wound up JPY 2.4 billion in the red. There were problems with leftover tickets, talk of a possible lawsuit, and suggestions that Yokohama public funds were used to paper over the problems.

Mr. Nakada claims the failures were the responsibility of the organizing committee and not the city, which just provided financial support. He is also involved in an unresolved lawsuit by a former lover, a bar hostess, for the payment of consolation money after he ended their relationship. Perhaps that’s the reason Mr. Yamada seems to be acting as the chief spokesman for the group.

Those issues notwithstanding, Japanese politics would be the better for the contribution from these men who combine experience as national legislators with real accomplishments as local government executives, and who understand the importance of working from the bottom up rather than the top down. As Mr. Yamada wrote on his website, theirs would be a party:

…created from the aspirations and wishes of the citizens, not a party like those in the past formed to suit the convenience of the politicians.

In other words, they’re not going anywhere near the political group that Yosano Kaoru and Hiranuma Takeo are now gluing together.

This week the People’s New Party, one of the junior members of the ruling coalition led by Kamei Shizuka, announced they would sponsor professional wrestler Nishimura Osamu for an upper house seat in this summer’s election. Using celebrity candidates as puppets in the upper house is not uncommon in Japan, and it’s a good bet that’s happening in this case too.

If you were a voter interested in responsible government and fed up with the two major national parties, and were presented with the option of voting for Mr. Nishimura or a candidate backed by the new party of aspirations, whose name would you write on the ballot?

Is it even necessary to ask?

Afterwords:

If I may make so bold as to spin a political fantasy, Japan could do a lot worse than a loose coalition between this group working with Your Party, the remaining LDP reformers, and potentially simpatico members of the DPJ, such as the Maehara Seiji group. They already are doing a lot worse now.

Speaking of Your Party, Mr. Nakada held the Kanagawa seat in the Diet that’s now represented by Eda Kenji. Mr. Eda challenged him in his first run for a Diet seat, but lost. He gained the seat after Mr. Nakada left to run for Yokohama mayor.

Mr. Yamada was defeated in his bid for a second term in the Diet by the LDP’s Ishihara Nobuteru. Mr. Ishihara later became the minister for governmental reform in Prime Minister Koizumi’s first Cabinet, and still is viewed as a reformer despite sticking it out with the LDP. Nevertheless, Mr. Yamada is said to be on good terms with Mr. Ishihara and his father Shintaro, the Tokyo governor and the co-author of The Japan That Can Say No.

Mr. Nakada thinks Masuzoe Yoichi, the former Health Minister who tops most opinion polls as the person people would like to see as prime minister, will not form a new party but is rather angling for a leadership position in the LDP.

I’ll get around to the Tachiagare Nihon Party of Messrs. Yosano and Hiranuma as soon as they formally agree on which lies they’ll tell each other to create a vehicle for Mr. Yosano to act as a front man for go-playing buddy Ozawa Ichiro if the latter decides to realign Japanese politics by breaking up the DPJ after a poor showing in the upper house election.

UPDATE:

Prime Minister Hatoyama was asked what he thought about the new party. Here’s what he said:

I think they are people who have worked hard for regional devolution, but we’re running ahead of them. Perhaps there are some similiarities in our thinking, but each politician acts based on his own convictions.

Mr. Hatoyama did not explain why he thought his party, which is incapable of coming up with an internal consensus on devolution, is “running ahead of them”, nor did he specify the similarities in their thinking. I sure don’t see any.

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Hiranuma: Koizumi would have been burned at the stake!

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 17, 2008

WHAT DOES A POLITICAL MAVERICK look like in Japan? That term has always been applied to former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro for his willingness to rock the political boat, rip apart his own party, cut the bureaucracy down to size, and pursue market-oriented reform.

Not to mention that hairstyle.

But other political mavericks graze on the political landscape. One of them just formed a political study group called the Yajin no Kai, whose name some take the liberty to translate as the Group of Mavericks. (It could just as easily be translated as the Group of Hicks.)

Hiranuma Takeo

The trail boss for that group is Hiranuma Takeo (first photo), a former Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry in Prime Minister Koizumi’s Cabinet. Do these two mavericks, who were once in the same party and worked together politically, share an affinity for each other?

Smile when you say that, podnuh. In fact, Mr. Hiranuma recently told a private gathering that in another era, Mr. Koizumi would have been burned at the stake.

But let’s start at the beginning.

In 2005, Prime Minister Koizumi was so intent on getting his Japan Post privatization scheme passed into law that when the upper house of the Japanese Diet rejected the bill, he dissolved the lower house (because he couldn’t touch the upper house members serving fixed terms), tossed out of his own Liberal Democratic Party those members who voted against the legislation, and called a new election. After his supporters triumphed in one of the greatest landslides in Japanese electoral history, a cowed upper house passed the bill the second time around.

One of the LDP members he booted from the party was his own Cabinet minister— Hiranuma Takeo, a diehard opponent of privatization.

Some of those who found themselves out in the political cold were later readmitted to the party by Abe Shinzo, Mr. Koizumi’s successor. Others, such as Watanuki Tamisuke, formed a new smaller party called the Peoples’ New Party.

But Mr. Hiranuma, one of the so-called postal rebels who successfully defied Mr. Koizumi to win re-election, chose to remain an independent, neither returning to the LDP nor joining the PNP.

He’s got bigger fish to fry. Since the end of last year, he has been studying the possibility of forming a new party. He says that he wants to create a “third (magnetic) pole” in Japanese politics.

By a third pole, Mr. Hiranuma means a grouping devoted to true conservative principles. And by that, Mr. Hiranuma means conservative in the sense of Japanese traditionalism.

Since then, he has agreed to serve as the senior advisor to the True Conservative Policy Study Group, whose 70 members are headed by former LDP Policy Research Council Chairman Nakagawa Shoichi (Ibuki faction). This is just one example of how politics makes for strange bedfellows in Japan: Mr. Nakagawa originally supported the Japan Post privatization but threw his lot in with Mr. Hiranuma because of personal and factional ties. (There will be more examples of strange political bedfellows to follow, all of which will be work safe.)

The former METI chief has in mind a new conservative grouping consisting of elements from the LDP, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, the PNP, and anyone else he can round up. He insists that political realignment in Japan is necessary to resolve the problem of the “twisted Diet”, i.e., government gridlock caused by the opposition’s majority in the upper house. “It is my mission,” intones Mr. Hiranuma, “to create a third pole so that legislation important to the nation can pass.”

Earlier this year, he said he would try to coax members from the opposition into his orbit, saying his effort “won’t work unless we create a political crisis by taking some of the DPJ members.” Who better than a maverick to do a little cattle rustling and rebrand the steers?

But that was then, and this is now. As the Sunday Mainichi weekly magazine reported in its 25 May edition, he has stepped up the rhetoric and crawled between the political sheets with an unusual assortment of characters. Here’s how the magazine reported it.

From the Sunday Mainichi

At a private gathering in Yoshino, Nara, in May, Hiranuma Takeo spoke on politics in general, and former Prime Minister Koizumi and Prof. Takenaka Heizo in particular.

“When I was first elected (1980), politicians used to say that Japan could never achieve economic growth of more than 2% even if we stood on our heads. Now, they want to raise the consumption tax from 5% to 10%. The denizens of Nagata-cho (the neighborhood where the Diet is located) don’t talk about their dreams and hopes.”

Hiranuma was speaking to a meeting of the Nihon Saisei Itteki no Kai (literally, the Association of One Drop for Japan’s Revival) to rally popular support and contribute to Japan’s development. The group, led by former Labor Minister Murakami Masakuni (second photo), is conducting a series of debates from the right wing/conservative perspective. Hiranuma appeared because the two men knew each other when they were part of what is now the LDP’S Ibuki faction. (Ibuki Bunmei is the LDP Secretary-General.)

Says a political journalist: “Murakami has consistently supported Hiranuma since leaving office. An example was when Prime Minister Koizumi dissolved the Diet for the election in September 2005 over postal privatization. Murakami allied himself with the postal rebels to defeat the privatization bill in the upper house (the first time). He also hopes to see Hiranuma become prime minister.”

About 70 people were present at the meeting, including two independent lower house members and one former lower house member. Suzuki Muneo of the New Party Daichi was supposed to be there, but had to cancel at the last minute to attend a funeral.

In Fine Form

“Mr. Koizumi was prime minister for five years and five months, and he followed skinflint economic policies the entire time. He said he would shift power from the center to the regions, and from the bureaucracy to the people. He kept talking about a sanmi ittai economic policy that sounds like something out of Christianity. (N.B.: For an explanation of that term, see the Sidebar in the second post below.)

“When he said that he would shift the funding sources to the heads of local government, everyone flocked to him because it sounded like a great idea. But he cut the allocation of central government tax revenues to local governments and central government subsidies to boot.

“Where I’m from in Okayama, there’s a shopping district that dates from the Edo period (1603-1868). Now all the shops on the street are shuttered. That’s how big the gap between the center and the regions has grown. That’s what the sanmi ittai reforms brought!

“I opposed the postal privatization bill because the details of the (deal with the) Long Term Credit Bank of Japan became clear. Claiming non-performing loans, Mr. Koizumi poured 8 trillion yen of public money into one bank. He even suckered the scholar Takenaka with the line of, ‘let the private sector do what the private sector can do’. The upshot was that the bank was sold to Ripplewood Holdings for one billion yen (actually 121 billion yen). If that happens again with the postal savings and insurance funds (340 trillion yen; roughly $US 3.14 trillion), it’ll be a catastrophe.”

He was just getting started.

“If this were the Middle Ages, both Mr. Koizumi and Takenaka would be burned at the stake. You’re all laughing, but if you bought the stock of the bank that was sold for a billion yen, it would cost 230 billion yen now.

“Why did Takenaka resign from the upper house of the Diet? He can make two million yen for an hour’s speech. He can’t make that money when he’s wearing a Diet member’s badge.”

Birds of a Feather?

On the evening of 28 April, one day after the opposition DPJ candidate won a lower house by-election in Yamaguchi, Mr. Hiranuma met with opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro in Tokyo. The meeting was set up by DPJ upper house member Kawakami Yoshihiro.

A Kawakami supporter claimed that the MP arranged the meeting as a favor to both men for supporting him in his election to the upper house last year. The Sunday Mainichi, however, says that at the get-together Mr. Kawakami encouraged Mr. Hiranuma to form a new party, and his listeners responded positively. The magazine speculates that a Hiranuma-Ozawa alliance, rumored for two years now, might be in the offing.

On the 8th, the day before Mr. Hiranuma’s Yoshino speech, he met at an upscale traditional Tokyo restaurant with Watanuki Tamisuke of the PNP (another postal rebel), Suzuki Muneo, PNP Secretary-General Kamei Hisaoki, and lower house member Shimoji Mikio of the Sozo Party Okinawa, a small regional party. The gathering was nominally to celebrate Mr. Watanuki’s 81st birthday, but the members decided to meet regularly and discuss ways to attack the government and LDP. This was the birth of the aforementioned Group of Mavericks/Hicks.

The magazine quotes an unidentified former cabinet member as saying that this group might become the core of Hiranuma’s new party.

In his Yoshino speech, Mr. Hiranuma also said:

“We must form a trustworthy “third pole”. I will make it a point to look after those politicians who lost elections by opposing postal privatization. People will come to me to recommend themselves or others as candidates…members of prefectural assemblies, former politicians, their aides…I’ll interview every one of them, and if I think they’ll hold firm to their beliefs, I’ll support them.”

A potential member of the new party attending the meeting remarked, “A true conservative force has to be created in Japan. Mr. Hiranuma is foremost among the few people in Japan capable of that.” Another person present, who said that he’s allied with the DPJ, observed, “It would be a good party for people who otherwise have no place to go. Mr. Ozawa is originally a conservative, so they should be in synch.”

Note: Reports earlier this year suggested that Mr. Hiranuma was going to try to recruit both former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, and former Defense Minister and PM aspirant Aso Taro into the fold because they are supposed to be politically simpatico. The Sunday Mainichi article does not mention them.

*****

The Murakami Forecast

An extremely influential LDP politician who headed the party’s upper house members, Murakami Masakuni was one of the Gang of Five who controversially selected Mori Yoshiro in secret to replace Obuchi Keizo as prime minister after the latter’s stroke. Though he resigned due to a financial scandal (and is now in jail), Mr. Murakami is said to still wield significant influence behind the scenes.

The Sunday Mainichi attached a brief interview with Mr. Murakami to the end of its piece about Hiranuma Takeo, in which the former “upper house don” gave his predictions for the next two years. Here they are:

In two years the LDP-New Komeito coalition will not be in power. The next election will see a shift in the LDP’s strength relative to the opposition DPJ, resulting in an Ozawa Administration. The DPJ won’t have the numbers to form a government by themselves, but they will ally with Hiranuma’s new party for an anti-LDP, anti-New Komeito government. Once it is out of power for two years, the LDP will break up.

*****
Comments

  • Down-at-the-heels shopping districts

Mr. Hiranuma claims that the Koizumi reforms caused his local shotengai, an older type of Japanese shopping district, to hit the skids. I don’t know anything about the streets of Okayama, but I do know about another tumbleweed-infested shotengai in the city of 180,000 where I live.

It was doomed before Mr. Koizumi became prime minister, and the merchants knew it. If one factor could be cited in its demise, it would be the amendment of the Large-Scale Retail Law (at American insistence), which once limited the establishment of large retailers in or near urban areas.

As the local shotengai, a 10-minute walk to the west of my house, became the commercial equivalent of a ghost town, a shopping mall as large as any I saw in the U.S. until the early 80s (when I came to Japan) was built a 10-minute walk to the east. Later, the largest shopping mall I’ve ever seen was built a 10-minute drive to the northeast. I’ve visited only selected shops there (such as the huge Kinokuniya bookstore), but it would take the better part of a day to investigate everything inside.

An acquaintance who runs a store selling timepieces saw the handwriting on the wall and left the old shotengai to open a new shop in the mall near my house. Most people aren’t as helpless as some would have us believe.

The old shotengai, by the way, had very little parking, and most of that in commercial lots that cost money. The two malls have free parking space galore.

  • The Demise of the LDP

Saying that the LDP would break up if it were to spend two years in the opposition is the easy prediction. Here’s the prediction Mr. Murakami won’t make: The Democratic Party of Japan would break up before it spent two years in power.

First, there are too many incompatible groups within the party for it to survive a disposition of the spoils and the determination of a uniform party policy. People have kept their mouths shut until now for the sake of party unity. They’ll stay open loud and long once they’re in a government together.

Second, we have the example of Mr. Ozawa’s previous experience at governing—albeit behind the scenes—with a coalition consisting of eight oil-and-water groups during the Hosokawa-Hata administrations. They lasted a combined total of 10 months.

If either an Ozawa Administration or the DPJ itself sticks around longer than that, chalk it up to the favors of Lady Luck.

************************
Mr. Hiranuma’s Strange Political Bedfellows

Hiranuma Takeo has pulled together quite the rogue’s gallery of supporters, if this article is to be believed. Here’s the cast:

Murakami Masakuni

On 15 May, Mr. Murakami began serving a 26-month jail term for accepting bribes from the mutual aid foundation KSD. His predictions above were given in the context of what the political situation will look like after he is released from prison.

He is one of the most influential Japanese lawmakers ever to do jail time. Here’s another.

Suzuki Muneo

A former LDP lower house representative from Hokkaido, the name of Suzuki Muneo (third photo) was synonymous in 2002 for political thievery and prevarication. He spent 437 days in the pig box, as they say, after being charged in two cases of influence peddling for local lumber contracts. That hard time might still be the record for a Japanese Diet member. Some of his aides were also arrested for bid-rigging housing and power plant construction projects.

In brief, Mr. Suzuki was the classic empire-building, influence-peddling pol. He had cozy ties to the Foreign Ministry and ambitions for even higher office. His new party is essentially a vanity vehicle.

Kawakami Yoshihiro

Mr. Kawakami was elected to the lower house as an independent loosely affiliated with the LDP and joined the Kamei faction. He rebelled against the postal privatization plan, was defeated in the lower house election of 2005, and thrown out of the party. He later joined the DPJ and was elected to the upper house last year.

He is a strong supporter of public works projects on the grounds that they are essential for the regional economy, and supports the normalization of relations with North Korea. He insists that the abductee problem was solved after Prime Minister Koizumi’s two visits to the country. He thinks Pyeongyang is telling the truth about the incidents, and he also thinks Japanese authorities lied when they claimed that the remains of Yokota Megumi provided by the North were not hers.

Shimoji Mikio

A visit to the Japanese language website of the Sozo Party Okinawa (Mr. Shimoji is the biggest fish) shows that they call for (a) a move away from politics dominated by the bureaucracy, and (b) the devolution of authority to regional areas, particularly Okinawa.

If there is any serious political principle this group holds in common, it’s doing a better job of hiding than Wally.

*****

As of last year, Mr. Hiranuma raked in the third-highest amount of contributions of any politician in Japan. A hardliner on North Korea, he traveled with the abductees’ family association to Washington last November to lobby against the lifting of sanctions. He supports visits by the prime minister to the Yasukuni Shrine on 15 August. He is opposed to female emperors. He signed the full-page ad in the Washington Post denouncing the House comfort women resolution, and claims there is no evidence for their coercion. He says his life’s work is to rewrite Japan’s constitution from scratch, because the present one was written with excessive American influence during the Allied Occupation.

The point here is not whether one agrees or disagrees with Mr. Hiranuma’s political philosophy or positions. This staunch traditionalist is in league with two political jailbirds who in several ways represent the worst flaws of the postwar political system. He is a supporter of Kawakami Yoshihiro, a politician who likes pork barrel public works projects, and thinks that North Korea is telling the truth and Japan is lying about the abductees–an opinion 180 degrees from his own. One member of his political coterie is an Okinawan fighting against the power of governmental bureaucrats and for the devolution of power.

Before surrendering to the authorities, Mr. Murakami predicted a governing Ozawa-Hiranuma coalition in two years.

And yet there are people who believe that an Ozawa-led DPJ government is the answer to the question of how to bring serious reform to Japan.

A more realistic question is whether it could stay together long enough to agree on lunch.

*****
Here’s a link to Hiranuma Takeo’s English website, and specifically, the story of his experience on 15 August 1945, the date of Japan’s surrender. Remember that he was six years old and had survived the horrific Tokyo air raids that March.

I recommend that you read the story and accept it for what it is. Put aside your judgments of the people involved, whatever they may be, and imagine yourself as that six-year-old boy.

*****

Thanks to Aceface for tipping me off about the Sunday Mainichi article.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

 
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