Japan from the inside out

Sentaku: Getting Japan to choose

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 6, 2008

I want to clean up Japan once and for all.
– Sakamoto Ryoma

THERE’S A REASON the activist group Sentaku chose this statement by Sakamoto Ryoma (1834-1867), a citizen-activist himself, as the inspiration for its activities and the name of its organization. Sentaku in Japanese means both to choose and to clean. (They are homonyms.)

Sakamoto lived during a period of yeasty ferment in Japanese history—the old order had succumbed to entropy, and a new order was struggling to be born. When Commodore Perry barged into Tokyo Bay in 1853 with his black ships, Japan was a technologically backward nation whose political structure was the essence of top-down rule. It had been governed for 250 years by the Tokugawa shoguns, hereditary military dictators who strictly enforced the country’s isolation. Local government consisted of about 260 feudal domains, and an oppressive class structure stunted the nation’s growth.

A self-described “potato digger from Tosa” (now Kochi Prefecture) and a masterless samurai, Sakamoto at first wanted to expel the barbarian foreigners, but later came to admire the Western system of representative government and free trade with other nations. He played a key role in the events that led to the downfall of the Tokugawa regime when he and others convinced the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, to resign rather than face open rebellion. That finally placed Japan on the road to modernization and interaction with the world.

Sakamoto expressed the motive for his desire to make Japan choose when he write in a letter to his sister that his intent was to “clean up Japan once and for all.”

It’s Yesterday Once More

Today, Japan’s stagnant political system shares some of the characteristics of the terminal stage Shogunate that Sakamoto wished to scrub out. Entropy has had its way with the postwar paradigm of the so-called Iron Triangle: rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (the original grand coalition), the bureaucracy, and business interests working hand in glove.

This system once worked to Japan’s advantage because it allowed the country to pull itself up by its bootstraps in the space of a generation from the havoc wreaked by the war and climb into the ranks of the advanced industrialized nations, creating in the process the world’s second largest economy.

But the arrangements that allowed Japan to remake itself have become an obstacle to its continued progress now that success has been achieved. No iron triangle has the flexibility to permit a country to move swiftly and freely in a modern global economy and to reap the benefits of the unfettered talents of individual citizens acting on their own behalf. Iron becomes encrusted with corrosive layers of vested interests more interested in gaining the political upper hand and feathering their own nest rather than in the national welfare.

The behavior of national government is stifling the emergence of the reforms necessary for the sustaining the country’s prosperity and well-being, and the political class at the national level is more often part of the problem rather than part of the solution. While significant elements within the ruling LDP would follow the path to reform created by its icebreaker, former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, they are stymied by the party’s ties to the bureaucracy and vested interests.

There are reformists among the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, but the party lacks integrity in both senses of the word–it is composed of incompatible elements incapable of action as a cohesive unit without strict top-down party discipline, and its behavior in the Diet as a party seems designed only to create a Nagata-cho sturm-und-drang that would allow it to take power. Had the near-desperate electorate of Japan approved of their behavior, they would have given the party a mandate to form a government years ago.

But as in the latter days of the Tokugawas, a yeasty ferment is at work in today’s Japan that would transform Japan from the ground up.

One problem plaguing Japanese politics and society is that the traditional reliance on top-down control creates a tendency toward what the French call dirigisme, or government control and intervention, especially in business activity or the economy.

There’s no better illustration than the story former Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro told about his experience as the governor of Kumamoto Prefecture when he tried to move the location of a bus stop. “For an advanced country,” he explained, “this is embarrassing. To move the stop a few hundred meters, I had to send a delegation to Tokyo. In Japan, you can’t tie your own shoes without official permission.”

Many in Japan fed up with this state of affairs see in the current political stalemate an opportunity to finally generate a wave of reform from regional areas that would engulf and wash the center. The Sentaku group was formed with the same intention as that expressed by Sakamoto Ryoma: to clean up Japan by having it choose.

Sentaku: Choose Clean!

Officially launched on January 20, the group’s full name roughly translates to The People’s Federation for Cleaning (Choosing) Japan by the Regions and Individual Citizens.

One of the group’s founding members and its representative is Kitagawa Masayasu, who understands local Japanese politics from the inside out. A former governor of Mie Prefecture who retired voluntarily from politics after serving two terms, he is now a Waseda University professor and head of the Waseda University Political Platform Research Institute.

This is not a spur-of-the-moment commitment by Mr. Kitagawa—he has been involved with promoting bottom-up government in Japan for some years. In a speech earlier this decade, he declared:

“The excessive concentration of government and business organizations in Tokyo has resulted in a serious decline in the health of the regions. Those local governments with the intent to create reform will work together to change our social systems from the local level. Rather than fearing mistakes, it is more appropriate for us to move forward with a positive attitude and correct any mistakes. Fair competition among regional governments will surely spur our communities to engage in the reform of society.”

He is aware of the magnitude of his task. In an interview conducted a few years ago, he noted:

With local politics, it’s bad enough that the media doesn’t cover the chief executives, but they don’t even cover the prefectural assemblies. That’s both the national media and the local media.

At the Tokyo press conference held to unveil the group in January, Mr. Kitagawa explained that Sentaku was an organization for promoting true political reform for the next lower house election, expected sometime later this year. Considering Mr. Kitagawa’s long commitment to local reform and the ideas of the people he has brought on board, it seems likely that the organization’s efforts will continue after the election.

Sentaku’s parent organization is the Citizen’s Council to Create a New Japan, whose membership consists of leading figures in the private sector. That group has focused its efforts on having political parties and groups throughout the nation formulate specific policy platforms and present them to the public to offer them a choice. These goals are congruent with Mr. Kitagawa’s current efforts at the Waseda institute he heads.

At the inaugural press conference, Mr. Kitagawa seemed to be channeling Sakamoto Ryoma when he said:

“Today’s Diet is incapable of conducting debate that seeks a choice from the citizens and a systemic policy. Both the regions and the citizens still view the central government as their lord and master. We will provide a platform for encouraging serious debate among the parties and politicians.”

Specifically, Sentaku’s goals are the following:

  • Reform citizen awareness, including the Japanese approach to living and working
  • Achieve devolution to break free from (the ties of) the bureaucracy and central government authority and to achieve responsible political leadership
  • Promote citizen debate focusing on policy that is based on regions, areas, and individual citizens, and rework the concept of the state. Cast aside the postwar democracy that leaves (policy decisions) to the politicians. Make the parties create and present specific platforms.

Mr. Kitagawa stressed that the group has no plans to endorse candidates. “We’re not a party. We’re offering a venue for debate.” He also noted Sentaku was not necessarily opposed to the idea of a grand coalition of the type discussed late last year by Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro.

Addressing Sentaku’s agenda for the immediate future, he said:

“We should have each political party present their platforms about major issues on which no agreement has been reached, and hold a general election for choosing a policy-based government.”

He also stated during the press conference:

“We are aware that this is an extremely important year that will determine Japan’s future. Yet, looking at current conditions in the government, the ruling and opposition parties, and the Diet, we are forced to say that they are far removed from the citizens’ expectations…Our past group has promoted the verification and evaluation of the platforms of the political parties, but the situation today is that those activities are insufficient. The role of Sentaku will be to seek the parties to fulfill their responsibility to explain by formulating policies and actively expressing our opinions from the citizens’ perspective in the process of creating platforms.”

The politician turned professor is not leading a solitary charge. The roster, background, and views of other founding members of the group offer an intriguing glimpse of the yeasty ferment at work at the subnational level in Japan and the diversity of the country’s political and social thought. Here are profiles of some of the members.

Matsuzawa Shigefumi

Mr. Matsuzawa is in his second term as the governor of Kanagawa Prefecture (where the city of Yokohama is located). He is a graduate of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, an academy for training a new generation of politicians with a long-term vision for the nation’s future. It was established in 1979 by Matsushita Konosuke, the founder of consumer electronics giant Matsushita Electric Industrial, when he became distressed by the direction of Japanese politics a generation ago.

A former member of the small Progressive Party (formed by the members of a slightly larger group who chose not to merge with the LDP), he became the youngest prefectural assembly member in Kanagawa history. Mr. Matsuzawa later joined the opposition DPJ and won election to the Diet, and was quickly enlisted into the party’s shadow cabinet. A proponent of Constitutional reform and a resolute stance against the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens, he ran against Kan Naoto for the party leadership, but lost. He left the DPJ in 2003 and won election as governor later that year. His political hero is former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mr. Matsuzawa describes his vision for Sentaku:

“The perpetual crises generated by the two major parties are not the way to save Japan. Our objective is to have the national government implement true reform in their platforms. We will pressure the political parties to create real platforms and ask the citizens to make a choice. If devolution continues, we can smash the centralized authority of the bureaucracy and create a dynamic Japan.”

Yamada Keiji

The Governor of the Kyoto Metropolitan District, Mr. Yamada has chaired a committee in the National Governors’ Conference focusing on the devolution of governmental authority.

Furukawa Yasushi

When elected governor of Saga Prefecture in 2003, he became the youngest governor in the country. Mr. Furukawa initially entered governmental service when he joined the former Ministry of Home Affairs, now the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. He has extensive experience in working with local governments to implement reorganization and promote local development. He was asked to consider running for governor of other prefectures, including Nagano Prefecture, where he was once assigned, but returned to serve in his home prefecture of Saga.

Higashikokubaru Hideo

The bien pensant pundits of Japan are quick to dismiss Mr. Higashikokubaru (on the left in the photo) because of his previous career as a comedian and the boorish, roughhouse behavior of his younger days. A former protégé of comedian, film director, and television personality Beat Takeshi, known internationally by his original name of Kitano Takeshi, the man once known as Sonomanma Higashi was arrested in 1986 when he got carried away with himself during a visit with his boss and a few other cohorts to the offices of a weekly magazine to complain about its coverage of Mr. Kitano.

After this and several other unflattering incidents, Mr. Higashikokubaru literally decided to clean up his act. He suspended public performances, started practicing Zen, and was admitted to Waseda University in 2000. By all accounts, his academic record was superb, and he graduated in 2004 at the age of 46. The subject of his graduation thesis was election campaigns. When the former governor of Miyazaki Prefecture, Ando Tadahiro, was arrested for bribery, Mr. Higashikokubaru saw his chance and returned to his childhood home to run for office, winning handily against an LDP-backed opponent.

His ability to handle a crisis was immediately tested by an outbreak of avian flu in his largely rural prefecture, which accounts for the production of 25% of the chickens consumed in Japan. He also assumed office at a time when scandals involving slush funds were coming to light throughout the country and the Kyushu region in particular. Mr. Higashikokubaru instructed prefectural employees to come clean about any potential problems. He suceeded beyond his expectations: through his efforts the prefecture recovered roughly 91.5 million yen (about $US 883,500) generated by illegal slush funds, exceeding the 76 million yen he had targeted. The money included cash returned by the disgraced former Governor Ando and the family of the late former Governor Matsukata Suketaka

While his celebrity is undoubtedly a factor, his constituents are thrilled by his no-frills style and his tireless promotion of the products of his prefecture; at one point last year his disapproval rating was under 2%. He has become famous nationally for using a phrase in the local dialect, “Miyazaki wo dogenkasen to ikan” (We must do something about Miyazaki.)

Mr. Higashikokubaru’s current efforts mesh perfectly with the objectives of Sentaku. While campaigning for election, the governor repeatedly emphasized that his goal was to achieve political reform in the prefecture and spread those reforms nationwide. Explaining the rationale for joining the group, he said:

“I can’t see any national vision or strategy. Isn’t it time to question the approach of the country as a whole, when politics is so stagnant and confused? This (Sentaku) is not a third force between the ruling and opposition parties. Both the opposition and the government parties should offer policies easily understood by the citizens, and allow them to be the standard by which a government is chosen. I want to speak to the national government from a regional perspective.”

He also said, “The reason (the group was formed) was dissatisfaction and distrust in the national government. It will not be possible (to put) regional finances (on a solid footing) without a debate on the consumption tax. The citizens are seeking a real forum for debate.”

Some have suggested that one flaw in Sentaku’s original membership roster was their failure to include a person associated with the media. This suggestion overlooks that Mr. Higashikokubaru is a media magnet who attracts publicity with little effort. (See here, here, and here for previous Ampontan articles about the governor.)

Ikeda Morio

Mr. Ikeda is the former president and chairman of Shiseido, the major cosmetics company, and is now a senior advisor to the firm. He was a member of the so-called Education Rebuilding Council, a group established by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo for the reform of Japanese education, which was since disbanded by his successor Mr. Fukuda.

Mogi Yuzaburo

Mr. Mogi is the chairman of the food products company Kikkoman. A graduate of the Columbia School of Business in 1961, he thus became the first Japanese to be awarded an MBA. Kikkoman enjoyed extraordinary success under his leadership. Mr. Mogi believes in training people with an international perspective for the era of globalization, and thinks the key to success for Japanese enterprises abroad is to form ties with local communities and rely on local personnel instead of sending Japanese from the home office.

Koga Nobuaki

Mr. Koga is the primary representative of organized labor. He is the former President of the Japanese Electrical, Electronic and Information Union and is now an official with Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation

Sasaki Takeshi

The former president of the University of Tokyo, Mr. Sasaki’s area of specialization is the history of Western political thought. He tried to reform the structure of the university (known in Japan for its conservative approach) but was defeated for reelection. He was awarded the Japanese Medal of Honor (Medal with Purple Ribbon) for his service.

Sentaku has succeeded in attracting more reform-minded local politicians to its cause since its inauguration six weeks ago. These include:

Terata Sukeshiro

The popular governor of Akita Prefecture, he initially ran at the request of DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro when the latter headed the small New Frontier party. He won despite the opposition of the LDP, which has continued since his election.

Kada Yukiko

Shiga Prefecture Governor Kada has a doctor’s degree in agriculture and is the fifth woman to serve as the governor of a Japanese prefecture. Still in her first term, she campaigned on a platform of freezing public works projects, including the construction of six dams and a new Shinkansen station. (This stance is often a winner among the Japanese public and just as often earns the enmity of the long-entrenched political interests allied with the construction industry.)

Her political philosophy as governor is that leaders at the local level should transcend political parties and treat the prefecture’s citizens as their party, echoing the same theme presented by Mr. Higashikokubaru in Miyazaki Prefecture. Neither of the two major parties supported her during her election campaign–the DPJ, ironically, because of her opposition to the Shinkansen station. She wound up with the support of the Social Democrats, a small party that contains what is left of the former Socialist Party, and defeated the candidate backed by the LDP, the DPJ, and New Komeito.

Ms. Kada already has succeeded in freezing the construction of the Shinkansen station by refusing to prepare a budget for the related expenditures, which nearly embroiled her in a lawsuit that sought to recover damages.

Sentaku’s membership also includes the nation’s youngest mayor, 35-year-old Kunisada Isato of Sanjo, Niigata.

Joining in late February was Kojima Zenkichi, the mayor of Shizuoka City. Mr. Kojima explained that Japan was in a critical period in the second stage of reform for devolution. He said he wanted to work with the group to increase regional authority now that debate at the national level is stalled, which has created a sense of crisis among local governments. The Diet, said Mr. Kojima, is tied up in the issue of the gasoline tax and the road funds and there is little discussion reform or devolution. Sentaku, he believes, is the means to get the Diet to pay more attention.

To be fair, not every local politician is on board. Itoh Yuichiro, the governor of Kagoshima Prefecture, carped to the press, “I don’t know why (Sentaku) is necessary. It’s the job of the mass media to conduct debate regarding various issues and to create a venue for the exchange of opinions.” (Since Mr. Itoh was speaking to a reporter, it should be no surprise that his interviewer failed to follow up by asking why the mass media has so dismally failed to fulfill this function.)

Diet Liaison Group

When Sentaku was launched in January, Mr. Kitagawa also said he would seek the formation of a group consisting of members of the national Diet to work together to implement the group’s goals for the next lower house election:

We also will call on Diet members of all parties who agree with our activities and aims to form a new federation among themselves. We can provide the MPs with a platform for the debate required.

The formation of that group was announced on 3 March with the participation of 110 members from four parties, much more than the originally anticipated 70. Unlike the main Sentaku group, this is expected to be a temporary body for promoting the group’s aims in the next lower house election, expected to be held later this year.

The point was explicitly made that the Diet liaison group was not created to promote political realignment, which is the defining trend in Japanese politics at the national level and the backdrop to the tactical maneuvers of both parties that are ostensibly related to national policy. Prominent DPJ Diet member Noda Yoshihiko had this to say on his participation: “I am not one of those seeking a political realignment. I want to form a government without the LDP. I am interested in (a system) in which governments are formed alternately by the two parties.”

Kyoto Governor Yamada also explained the need for this liaison group: “The opposition of central government agencies has prevented debate on devolution. This way we can avoid the distorted connection with (the bureaucracy).”

Not everyone is sanguine about the prospects of success for the Diet liaison group. In an editorial, the Nishinippon Shimbun wondered if it would be able to focus on policy-based reform, considering that most Diet members are conducting themselves with an eye on political realignment. The newspaper also wondered whether this group would subvert the goals of Sentaku by serving as the means to accelerate the creation of alliances of politicians of different parties and lead to talks for another grand coalition. Indeed, the newspaper reported that one MP from Kyushu was instructed by his faction leader to attend the inaugural meeting for the specific purpose of confirming who was present.

Regardless of how its relationship with the Diet evolves, Sentaku now counts among its members 144 heads of local government, including 13 of the 47 prefectural governors. They have formed four committees to examine policy alternatives, including one for Diet reform and one for the reform of the bureaucracy and political leadership. The group has without question established a beachhead for itself as a vehicle for people of intelligence and accomplishment throughout the country who have long been dismayed at the inability of national politicians and other leaders to see beyond their immediate interests and recognize that without change Japan is headed toward a dead end. (Indeed, I am aware of no similar group anywhere else in the Western world; certainly no such group with anything approaching the credentials of Sentaku exists in the United States)

In the days of the post-bubble economy, the Asahi Shimbun asked executives of 200 Japanese corporations who from the past 1,000 years of world history, regardless of nationality, would be most useful in overcoming Japan’s financial crisis. The winner of the poll? Sakamoto Ryoma, the man who midwifed the birth of the modern Japanese state.

Most of the public shares Sakamoto’s desire to have the country choose a thorough cleaning, once and for all. The enthusiasm for Sentaku evinced by local politicians of different political backgrounds shows that the spirit for bottom-up reform is still alive and well.

This time, they might finish the job that Sakamoto Ryoma started.

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10 Responses to “Sentaku: Getting Japan to choose”

  1. […] traces the political and historical origin of the new citizen group, Sentaku (meaning choose and clean), back to 1850s modernization period. Share […]

  2. bender said

    Interpreting Ryoma’s “sentaku” as “choice” is grammatically incorrect. It must mean “cleanse”. Is there any source other than from this new political gang that interprets Ryoma’s “sentaku” as “choice”?

  3. bender said


    – Reform citizen awareness, including the Japanese approach to living and working
    – Achieve devolution to break free from (the ties of) the bureaucracy and central government authority and to achieve responsible political leadership
    – Promote citizen debate focusing on policy that is based on regions, areas, and individual citizens, and rework the concept of the state. Cast aside the postwar democracy that leaves (policy decisions) to the politicians. Make the parties create and present specific platforms.

    So? Where’s the beef in this? I have seen these kind of “reformists” springing up from time to time in Japanese politics, but the trouble is, they have no substance. What do they think is needed to save Japan from stagnation? Give people the choice, they say, but they’re not showing any choice that the people should take. Dismantling the bureaucracy is fine, but then what? Is Japan going to deregulate and open up? Or is Japan going to take more of a protectionist stance? Any tax breaks or more tax to support government funded welfare programs? How about national security?

    In the end, I feel it’s the same: politicians aren’t grouping up based on political stances. They have no policy. Only political games (seikyoku).

  4. ampontan said

    Bender: Probably me! Thanks for the correction. I fixed it. I have trouble with that era of the Japanese language because I didn’t specifically study it. I discussed it with my wife and came up with that, but considering I found the same “clean up” quote in English, that’s probably the original.

    What I think is interesting about this group is that it is bottom-up instead of top-down. The idea is devolution, not setting national policy.

  5. bender said

    The “Sentaku” politicians were intentionally mixing the two up, so I don’t think it has to do anything with your language abilities…

    Let’s see what “choice” they’ll show Japan. I hope it’s not an empty suit.

  6. Willie said


    If local areas and their companies didn’t have to get Tokyo’s permission to go to the bathroom, a lot of possibilities would open up. And an immense amount of money would be saved by not taking the seemingly endless number of trips to Tokyo.

    In the end, though, this group is trying to reform or break the 1955 Order, aren’t they? Without a crisis, it may not be possible.

  7. […] image I have in mind is close to that of Sentaku, the group formed by former Mie Governor Kitakawa Masayasu from the perspective of eradicating the […]

  8. […] the words have been over-quoted lately, especially in the political scene, the sentiment hits close to our hearts. duku0312 blogged: It is said that Japan in the end of Edo […]

  9. […] dia niverimberina foana aza ireo teny tato ho ato, indrindra eo amin'ny sehatra politika, nanohina ny fontsika tsirairay ny fihetseham-po. Miblaogy i duku0312: Voalaza tao fa i Japana […]

  10. […] што зборовите беа претерано често цитирани, особено на политичката сцена, она што повеќе допираше до нашите срца беа чувствата. […]

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