Japan from the inside out

Oracles, pundits, pretenders, and political hacks

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 10, 2008

ONE OF THE PERKS of being an ex-president or prime minister is that people tend to take your political punditry seriously. Thus it was no surprise to see the ripples spread throughout the media after Koizumi Jun’ichiro, one of the most successful and popular prime ministers in Japanese political history, commented on the timing of the next lower house election at a Liberal Democratic Party reception in his native Kanagawa Prefecture.

Well, that’s what everyone thinks he was talking about. There was a touch of the Oracle of Delphi about Mr. Koizumi’s statements. Here’s a direct translation of the first sentence:

“It seems as if the wind of the important ‘something-or-other’ has now started blowing.”

There is a well-known Japanese preference for using indirect and intentionally vague speech; in this country, a sentence that directly translates to “This is that” will be perfectly clear in context. Therefore, Mr. Koizumi’s listeners applied their considerable experience at inference to understand that he was referring to the preparations for the election.

But there was no doubt about his meaning when he continued:

“It won’t be like the overwhelming victory of the previous lower house election. We’re really going to have to brace ourselves.”

He then added, “The “distorted Diet” (i.e., with the opposition in control of the upper house) signals the advent of a major transformation. When I was prime minister, I often used the words ‘boldly and flexibly’, and those traits are critical now. This isn’t a case of just the strong surviving. Those politicians and political parties capable of responding to change will also survive.”

Koga Makoto, the Chairman of the LDP’S Election Strategy Council, was another guest at the party and almost as elliptical when discussing the looming election:

“I have continually maintained that the lower house of the Diet won’t be dissolved this year. Now, I can’t say there won’t be an election within the year, and I must be allowed to say that (the situation) is dangerous. We’ll have to use all our strength to stand up to this headwind.”

The broadcast media turned to commentator Miyake Hisayuki, known for his close ties to the LDP, for his translation, and he spelled it out in more detail. Mr. Miyake repeated the claim that Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo will not be permitted to decide the timing for the dissolution of the Diet and the subsequent election. (That will be the decision of the backroom bigwigs, and was supposedly made clear to Mr. Fukuda when he took office.) What he will be permitted to do is retire with honor (yutai in Japanese) following the July G8 summit, rather than have to face the electorate with slumping poll numbers after presiding over the probable reinstatement of the gasoline surtax. Mr. Miyake thinks the Diet will then be called into an extraordinary session just to dissolve it.

Who’s Next?

The term yutai contains the nuance that the person retiring is voluntarily removing himself to allow younger people of talent to advance. So for whom would Mr. Fukuda be getting out of the way? Nobody’s pitching a tent in public yet, but everybody knows that former Foreign Minister Aso Taro wants the job—and besides, he’s all of four years younger than the prime minister. As this Yomiuri article points out, Mr. Aso has been driving up his stock with the party’s rank and file by stumping for local candidates around the country. He’s also working to widen the base of his support and floating policy proposals to create a de facto platform.

Mr. Aso surprised many observers in last year’s intra-party election to replace Abe Shinzo by winning a substantial share of the votes after the party’s heavy-hitters lined up to put the fix in for Mr. Fukuda. Even within the LDP, there is a sizeable group that wants no part of any behavior that smacks of…well, traditional LDP behavior.

But he was criticized in some quarters, most notably by former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, for a lean and hungry look that looked a little too lean and hungry. Circumspection is still a highly regarded virtue here. Therefore, as the Yomiuri article notes, Mr. Aso is trying to keep his head down this time around.

By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them

The opposition, of course, doesn’t have to be circumspect. They can say anything they like, and in the case of the Democratic Party of Japan, often do. For example, DPJ chief Ozawa Ichiro said on NHK radio and television last Sunday that his primary target date for dissolving the Diet and holding the election was before the July summit.

And there’s the disadvantage of direct speech—one receives a direct view of the exposed speakers. Unfortunately for Mr. Ozawa, the continued exposure of his thoughts makes him seem more like a provincial pol interested only in immediate tactical advantage than a statesman with a strategy to benefit the greater good.

One doesn’t have to look far for examples. After his party won control of the upper house last July, they chose to confront the ruling LDP over the issue of refueling Allied ships in the Indian Ocean to support the NATO anti-terrorism effort in Afghanistan. The problem was not that the DPJ challenged the LDP’s political supremacy—that’s what political parties are supposed to do, and it was inevitable after the thrashing they administered to the ruling party in the polls.

His blunder was that by trying to withdraw Japanese support (and succeeding only in temporarily halting it), he weakened the trust of the world’s democracies in Japan as a dependable ally. The more responsible course would have been to choose an issue for confrontation that did not impair Japan’s standing in the developed world. Instead, he wound up wasting everyone’s time.

Mr. Ozawa’s next idea was to challenge the government over the renewal of the 25-yen-per-liter gasoline surtax, which expired at the end of March. Overhaul of this part of the taxation system is a much-needed reform and a winner with the public. A real opportunity was lost, however, due to the party’s short-sighted approach and failure to present a feasible alternative for revenue sources before throwing a wrench into the works. Instead of focusing on the accomplishment of real reform, they merely tried to gain leverage with the electorate by causing problems for the LDP.

Their effort temporarily succeeded—the tax expired and they will force the LDP into the unpopular position of using their supermajority to reinstate it. But again, the opposition party took no one but themselves into account. The central government distributes most of that tax money to prefectural governments. The expiration of the tax means that the local governments will receive nothing at all (for now) instead of the 3.8 trillion yen that had been planned. As a result, 33 of Japan’s 47 prefectures had to partially freeze expenditures. Prefectural governments throughout the country are financially strapped (some are worried about bankruptcy) and need the funds generated by the gasoline surtax for more than just road construction and repair. They account for 8% of the entire budget of Iwate, to cite one example. Additionally, the failure to receive the expected outlays forced Ishikawa and Tochigi to suspend operations unrelated to roads.

The DPJ head’s response to their difficulties has been cavalier, at best. He suggested in the Diet today that all the money should be returned to “the people” because Japan doesn’t need any more new highways or major road repair.

See what happens when you spend too much time in chauffeured vehicles?

Mr. Ozawa’s next bright idea is to hold the lower house election sometime before the G8 Summit three months from now, earlier than the timing suggested by Mr. Miyake. He of course realizes this will be an unusually important election with as-yet-unforeseen ramifications. It will therefore require the concerted attention of the entire Japanese political class. He also realizes that a pre-summit election means a new prime minister will have to immediately shift gears after an intense campaign to capably represent Japan at the meeting of the world’s leading industrialized nations.

Why is a proposal for a pre-summit election selfish and myopic? Because the eight summit nations have a system with a rotating presidency, and each year the nation holding the presidency hosts the proceedings, sets their agenda, and determines which ministerial meetings will occur.

This year is Japan’s turn to be president. The new prime minister will have to do more than show up after attending a few briefings: He’ll have to run the show.

Japan’s Delphic oracle declared that it is important to be bold and flexible, and that the political survivors will be those capable of responding to change. But Ozawa Ichiro is brazen instead of bold, stubborn and unyielding instead of flexible, and hinders rather than facilitates the responsible implementation of the dynamic changes that people on both sides of the aisle know need to occur.

It’s a shame he doesn’t listen. If he were to accept counsel from someone besides himself, the entire country might benefit.

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