Japan from the inside out

Ran-dumb thoughts: Last week in Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, November 8, 2007

HERE ARE SOME RAN(乱)-DUMB THOUGHTS after watching the petulant Sunday afternoon performance of Ichiro Ozawa, the peek-a-boo president of the Democratic Party of Japan, the country’s primary opposition party.

But first to set the scene: in the three months since the DPJ captured the upper house of the Diet in the election at the end of July, it has continuously clamored for the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party to dissolve the lower house and hold another election. The party controlling the lower house forms the government, and the DPJ insisted they would win after receiving what it viewed as a mandate this summer.

Rather than call a new election, however, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stepped down and was replaced by Yasuo Fukuda. The LDP also inserted some of its most influential members into the Cabinet to stiffen its backbone and burnish its badly tarnished image with the public.

But Japan is trying to cope with a divided legislature for the first time in its postwar history, and political and governmental affairs lacked forward momentum. The two party leaders held a summit last week to break the stalemate, and during their tête-à-tête, they discussed the idea of forming a grand coalition.

Mr. Ozawa took a tentative plan back to the other DPJ leaders for discussion. Even if they did not float the idea themselves, they should have known it was coming. The DPJ president had been in contact with Prime Minister Fukuda since mid-September. Unidentified LDP members told the press earlier last week they were apprehensive about the summit because they suspected someone had cooked up a coalition scheme. Reports suggest the DPJ party leaders—who wouldn’t trust Mr. Ozawa as far as they could throw him—were unhappy that he didn’t reject the proposal out of hand.

Sensing their distrust, and upset that his colleagues didn’t snap to it and obey his orders follow his suggestions, Mr. Ozawa announced during a press conference on national television that he was resigning as head of the party.

It was a curious performance. Mr. Ozawa’s manner of speaking resembled nothing so much as an upper level primary school student reciting a theme he had written for a homework assignment. He certainly did not present himself as a man worthy of leading a national government.

And what was worse, Mr. Ozawa made some rather barbed comments during the press conference about his erstwhile allies in the DPJ. He said they had “insufficient capabilities” and were unlikely to win the next lower house election. (According to some media reports, he had crunched the numbers with election analysts and some LDP members and concluded the DPJ would be beaten badly.)

In other words, he stood up and admitted that everything he and the other party members had said for the past three months was a load of bollocks.

For their part, the DPJ–recognizing Mr. Ozawa as a rare politician who speaks the truth and realizing the only replacements they could come up with on short notice were sloppy seconds–begged their former leader to reconsider and to return.

More important, unidentified party members also told some Japanese reporters they were afraid Mr. Ozawa would bolt the DPJ and take up to 20 of the newly elected upper house members with him to form a new party. (That would make political party number six for him, which gives you an idea why the DPJ doesn’t trust him.)

That defection could very well have returned the LDP to majority status in the House of Councilors, especially if they formed an alliance with Mr. Ozawa’s new group, which the latter is reported to have briefly threatened. It also could have done more than just send the DPJ back to square one—it would have created the real possibility that the party would splinter. (It is not a political party cemented by common ideological ties to begin with; it is better described as an ad hoc grouping of spare political parts that hardened into a permanent structure.)

Mr. Ozawa, perhaps realizing that he would never again have a seat so close to the center of political action if he left, relented and returned as DPJ president. He announced his decision at another press conference, during which the “next prime minister of Japan” was reduced to tears.

But here’s the rub–if the status quo is maintained, the DPJ will go into the next election campaign fighting to gain control of the lower house (and the right to form the government) under the leadership of a man who told the nation point-blank that the party had little chance of winning and didn’t have what it takes to form a government even if it did win.

Imagine for a second what would happen if this were an election campaign in the United States. The DPJ’s opponents wouldn’t have to lift a finger. They would film one campaign commercial—consisting exclusively of Mr. Ozawa’s comments about the DPJ—and run it daily on every television station in the country. The DPJ would be laughed off the political stage.

In fact, something similar did happen in the U.S. in 1988. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was the Democratic Party’s candidate during the presidential election that year, facing off against then-Vice-President George H.W. Bush. For the past 35 years, Democrats in the U.S. have had the reputation of being weak on national defense and military affairs. This problem was exacerbated in 1988 because Mr. Bush had served as a naval pilot in World War II—and in fact was shot down by the Japanese.

To create a sense of their candidate as a man who would be comfortable as commander-in-chief, the Democrats filmed a campaign commercial of Mr. Dukakis riding around in circles in a tank. Rather than looking comfortable, however, Mr. Dukakis looked like a horse’s ass. The Republicans gleefully used that same footage to produce their own campaign commercial, accompanied by a recitation of the Democrat’s positions, to ask the voters if that was the man they really wanted in the White House. It was one of the final nails in the coffin of Mr. Dukakis’s campaign.

So, in the next lower house election, will the LDP create a campaign commercial starring Mr. Ozawa making a horse’s ass of himself?

No. And if the geta were on the other foot, the DPJ wouldn’t do it to the LDP either.

Some might object to those tactics as negative campaigning. But there is nothing wrong with criticizing an opponent’s policy if one disagrees with it, nor is it wrong to cast doubt on an opponent’s qualifications if they can be so easily called into question.

The reason Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ will not have to suffer from daily replays of that press conference during an election campaign is that Japanese politicians seldom conduct debates by making direct, highly visible, and aggressive appeals to the public that draw a distinction between themselves and their opposition. Instead, political debate in Japan is too often conducted as some esoteric contest between members of a Nagata-cho schoolboy club that the nation’s citizens are occasionally allowed to glimpse between the stakes of a picket fence from a safe distance.

It is astonishing that no one has yet learned the lesson of Jun’ichiro Koizumi. Mr. Koizumi bypassed the bosses and the chieftains of petty fiefdoms to appeal directly to the people. This won him enormous popularity during much of his administration, most notably during its first few months. He eventually engineered the second-largest margin of victory in postwar Japanese history in the lower house election of 2005.

Yet to watch Japanese politicians today, it is as if Mr. Koizumi had never existed.

While Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ come out of this episode looking like a full corral of horses’ asses, the LDP has performed only marginally better. During the recent LDP presidential election, a surprising number of LDP members voted for Taro Aso, Mr. Fukuda’s opponent, in part because they were loath to return to the old style of political backroom dealmaking.

And that was what exactly started last week’s farce to begin with—the leaders of both parties were holding backroom meetings with the idea of cutting a deal and making things easier on themselves.

For an idea of what would have happened had the two parties agreed to a grand coalition, it was reported that Mr. Fukuda was considering a restoration of the old system of representation in the Diet’s lower house, in which more than one politician represented a single district. That would eliminate any head-to-head conflict between the parties during an election.

But are not politicians supposed to be serving the public rather than making things easier on themselves?

It’s the same old story everywhere. The only time they serve the public is when the electorate holds their feet to the fire and doesn’t let go.

Meanwhile, there’s Mr. Ozawa. In July he ran a campaign asking the voters whom they would rather see as prime minister.

I don’t think he’ll be asking that question again any time soon.

3 Responses to “Ran-dumb thoughts: Last week in Japanese politics”

  1. Paul said

    You make winning an election in Japan sound easy.

  2. bender said

    Yep. Japanese politics is back to the usual. The Ozawa ordeal was pretty depressing. In the end, what was that all about?- the debates were made not because anyone thought they were right, but only for the sake of the political game of who gets to rule Japan, and nothing about how Japan should be ruled. Meanwhile, stocks plummeted.

  3. […] of the party faithful, to offer his resignation, taking the opportunity in the process to trash his own party. Turmoil followed, some contemplating the end of an era, but eventually Ozawa was back in the seat […]

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