Japan from the inside out

A Koizumi coup?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 1, 2008

Political realignment has now started. That’s a 100% certainty.
Iijima Isao, former principal aide to Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro

IT’S NOW OBVIOUS to everyone that Japan’s Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo has become the lamest of ducks whose remaining days in office are numbered. His pillar of support is the retro wing of his own Liberal Democratic Party, but they must surely be dismayed at his performance over the past six months–not that they managed to formulate a winning strategy on his behalf. And the LDP reformers wrote him off months ago.

Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Party of Japan has kept intact their reputation for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity to convince anyone they’re capable of heading a government. The glittering jewel of the landslide upper house election victory that fell into their laps last summer slipped between their legs by late autumn due to internal dissension among the leadership and poor political choices.

Since gaining control of the upper house, they’ve alienated an electorate increasingly irritated with both parties by following the script of a political Punch and Judy show, whacking the LDP with a slapstick and exulting “That’s the way to do it!” Unlike the latter-day Pulcinella, however, they’ve harmed themselves as much, if not more, than the cardboard Devil of the LDP. Their poll numbers are even worse than those for Mr. Fukuda’s Cabinet, and they’re having an increasingly difficult time maintaining party discipline.

It’s the Japanese version of government gridlock, and the situation cries out for a patrolman to direct traffic—preferably one mounted on a white horse.

That’s why the recent public reemergence of former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro is leading to increased speculation that he wants to correct the course of Japanese politics now that it’s veered from the direction he set before stepping down in September 2006. Of particular concern to him must be the regression to faction-oriented politics based on hand-in-glove ties with the bureaucracy, which he spearheaded an effort to destroy during his term in office. Those weeds have been growing for a long time, and their roots go very deep.

We’ve seen before that Iijima Isao, formerly his principal political aide, floated what seemed very much like a trial balloon for a comeback in February. Then, earlier this month came the announcement that Mr. Koizumi—still Japan’s most popular politician—had formed a policy study group consisting of people both in his own party and from the opposition.

Finally, Shukan Gendai ran an article in its 26 April edition suggesting that he would join forces with fellow LDP politicos Nakagawa Hidenao (Machimura faction) and Koga Makoto (Faction leader) to stage a political coup d’etat in May and remove Mr. Fukuda from office. They also speculated that he might form a new party.

Shukan Gendai is one of those wild and wooly Japanese weeklies whose word can’t always be trusted, and the article itself seems to be a congeries of the rumors currently circulating in Nagata-cho. Nevertheless, some of it is plausible enough to make it worth presenting in English here. It’s also an excellent illustration of the opacity and Byzantine maneuverings in the palace intrigue that passes for Japanese politics. The following is a translated summary of the article, called The Great Heisei Political Realignment (Heisei being the reign name of the current Tenno, or emperor) and the voice is that of the magazine itself.


The Fukuda Flop

There is an air of uneasiness surrounding Prime Minister Fukuda. He is reported to have told an associate, “If (the party makes arrangements) to pass the job to Aso (Taro), I’ll dissolve the Diet and take him down with me.”

Mr. Fukuda also exploded in frustration during the question period in the Diet with opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro. He answered few of the questions and angrily went on the attack himself, peppering Mr. Ozawa with many questions of his own.

The Ministry of Finance is now serving as a primary means of support for the prime minister. His proposal for eliminating the contentious temporary gasoline surtax for road construction and placing the funds in the general account was written by Saka Atsuo, an aide to the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary whose career started in the MOF. Mr. Fukuda’s announcement during a press conference that he intended to eventually reform the tax system concealed the fact that it would mean a boost in the consumption tax rate (currently 5%), which the MOF is desperate to implement.

The MOF plans to increase their control over the prime minister. Now that their efforts to place their own man at the head of the Bank of Japan have failed, they’ve switched to a strategy of infiltrating the Cabinet Secretariat. The ministry is focusing on deputy-level positions, and they initially planned to place Mr. Saka there after the July summit. The name of Muto Toshiro, rejected as the BOJ head, has also emerged for that position. Their free hand in the executive branch will depend on whether Mr. Fukuda can stay in office until the summit.

Are the Prime Minister’s Days Numbered?

Some people are beginning to think he won’t last that long. His itinerary for a foreign trip during the first week of May, which is a holiday period in Japan, has not been finalized, and it is suspected that this is a sign he will be stepping down. Dissolution of the Diet and the subsequent election would likely mean the LDP loses its supermajority in the lower house—making such a step the height of stupidity.

Mr. Koizumi is giving it some credence, however. In a recent speech he broadly hinted that he thinks an election will be called soon, and the LDP will find itself in a tight spot. (See a previous post on that subject here.)

In March, Mr. Koizumi seemed to think that the next election would not be held until the summer of 2009, but he’s suddenly changed his mind. Another change has been his return to active participation in the political fray. He joined former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko (LDP; Machimura faction) and former LDP Secretary-General Nakagawa Hidenao to become honorary advisors for a group of diet members working to achieve Japan’s Kyoto Protocol targets. The Koizumi Children, the political newcomers who were swept into office on the prime minister’s coattails during the LDP’s landslide 2005 victory, have been meeting more frequently behind the scenes.

For public consumption, Mr. Koizumi is now saying, “At a time like this, we should support Prime Minister Fukuda.” In fact, however, he is not sanguine about the future of the Fukuda administration.

On 20 March, Mr. Fukuda met with former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yosano Kaoru (LDP, No faction) and then immediately called Mr. Nakagawa, a Yosano opponent, to the prime minister’s residence. Mr. Koizumi remarked to a friend, “Fukuda has reached his limit. He thinks he’s trying to strike a balance, but neither one of them can stand him.”

One LDP Diet member observed that Mr. Koizumi, who is unsurpassed at reading political tea leaves, thinks Prime Minister Fukuda is finished. He also thinks the LDP will be clobbered in the next election unless the prime minister is replaced beforehand. The voters have abandoned him over his handling of the gasoline surtax and pension issues. Many in the party would have preferred to allow him to go out on a high note after the summit, but he may not last that long.

The magazine quotes an unnamed political reporter for a national newspaper saying the belief is growing that the Fukuda administration will have run its course after Golden Week (an eight-day period from 29 April to 6 May with five national holidays). If the party employs their lower house supermajority to readopt the road construction and gas tax bills, the DPJ could submit and adopt in the upper house a motion to censure him. If the prime minister then chooses to remain in office, the opposition will refuse to conduct deliberations, leaving the Fukuda administration dead in the water.

Kono Taro (LDP; Aso faction), 37 Diet members from the LDP and New Komeito, and 18 proxies convened a meeting to support the Fukuda proposal to put the funds from the gasoline tax into the general account rather than hold them separately for road construction projects. But Mr. Kono says that adopting the measure will require that the revised bill for the gasoline surtax be abandoned because they are contradictory. He told the magazine that he would revolt if both bills are readopted in the lower house. (Note: Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura Nobutaka, head of the largest LDP faction, disagrees that the bills are contradictory).

Even without a revolt, 16 absences would scuttle the readoption, which in turn would scuttle the Fukuda administration. Some observers believe that Mr. Kono would then form an alliance with Mr. Koizumi.

That would trigger the widely anticipated political realignment, and Mr. Koizumi would be at the center of it.

Yamamoto Ichita (LDP; Machimura faction), upper house member and long-time Koizumi supporter, told the magazine that the former prime minister would play a key role in the political realignment. Mr. Yamamoto said it is not an ironclad certainty that he will actively reemerge, but he is still the most popular politician in Japan and is far and away the most adept at communicating with the public. MPs have a survival instinct, and politicians instinctively place their trust in Koizumi.

Any new political grouping of this type would attract the so-called Koizumi Children, some LPD members, and also some DPJ members. This group would initially consist of LDP members and then become a multi-party group. In the future, it would merge with the reform elements of the LDP.

An LDP official characterized this as a case of the smaller eating the larger. He said that Mr. Koizumi considers the “trump card” for political realignment to be a return to the electoral system with multiple representatives for a single district. He also said that Mr. Koizumi is urging other LDP election officials to bring this about.

Koga Makoto, chairman of the LDP Election Strategy Council, is quoted as saying, “Returning to the multiple seat electoral system will be the major axis of political realignment.” The magazine finds it odd that the reformer Koizumi and Mr. Koga, the unofficial head of those Diet members who want to maintain the status quo with road construction projects, would be in accord. It points out, however, that despite their political differences, they’ve known each other for some time and have personal connections.

The magazine then speculates that Mr. Nakagawa, a member of the so-called “Ageshio group” (ageshio means incoming tide) and a critic of the Finance Ministry, and Mr. Koga, a hyper-realist, are working with the former prime minister to pull off a political coup, having written off the Fukuda administration. It quotes a commentator to the effect that Mr. Koizumi has undergone a change. Gone is his taste for orchestrating political crises for his own benefit. The commentator says that the last time he met Mr. Koizumi, he had become a policy maven interested in the global environment, food safety, and fiscal reform. The commentator concludes by suggesting that instead of choosing to become prime minister again, he might back Koike Yuriko and take on the role of backstage advisor (a common practice in Japanese politics.)

SIDEBAR: The Ageshio group are promoting fiscal reform. Their objectives are, in this order:

  1. Ending deflation
  2. Reducing government assets
  3. Cutting government expenditures
  4. Systemic reform, and
  5. Increasing taxes

The first words that strike the eye on Mr. Nakagawa’s Japanese-language website are “Small Government”


Who is the Kingmaker Thinking of?

A source close to the LDP told the magazine that Ms. Koike is really just a stalking horse, however. The source said to forget about both Mr. Yosano and Mr. Aso in this scenario. He suggested instead that people keep an eye on Watanabe Yoshimi (LDP; no faction), a champion of reform and the Minister of State for Financial Services and Regulatory Reform (who has also clashed with Prime Minister Fukuda over moves to water down reform policies).

Shukan Gendai also cautions that the so-called New Bureaucracy Faction will not stand by quietly without putting up a fight. Yosano Kaoru has close ties to the Ministry of Finance and in April published his first book, Dodotaru Seiji, or Heroic Politics. (Note that several other translations are possible, however.) Mr. Yosano uses the book to criticize the growth policies of Mr. Nakagawa and others, calling them a “sneak attack that is the ultimate in political escape.” He also thinks it’s necessary to undo the structural reforms of the Koizumi-Abe era, and he refers to them as a distortion.

One of those close to Mr. Yosano is Sonoda Hiroyuki (LDP; Tanigaki faction), who in turn is close to members of the former New Party Sakigake (sakigake means harbinger), a 10-man splinter party formed in 1993 by former LDP members that disbanded in 2002. In fact, Mr. Sonoda was himself a member of the party (as were Hatoyama Yukio and Kan Naoto until they left to form the DPJ). Another political reporter for a national paper says this group is looking into the possibility of reviving the party with like-minded people. He suggests that the Finance Ministry is backing this effort with the idea of putting Mr. Yosano in office.

The same reporter also thinks there is a chance Mr. Koizumi might ally himself with this group rather than Mr. Nakagawa because of his ties to the Finance Ministry.

But then the magazine quotes a Japanese proverb by saying that in Nagata-cho, “fear populates the night with monsters”.

The article concludes with the report that several politicians met for an old-fashioned backroom restaurant party on the night of 2 April. In the United States, political deals used to be cut in smoke-filled rooms; in Japan, those deals are settled in expensive restaurants.

The list of those attending the gathering is fascinating:

Liberal Democrats
Yamasaki Hiraku (AKA Taku) (Faction leader)
Kato Koichi (No faction)

SIDEBAR: Both Mr. Yamasaki and Mr. Kato were long-time allies of Mr. Koizumi; in January 1991 they formed a trio that operated as a sort of political chakra within the LDP called YKK after the initials of their surnames. They represented a force opposed to old-style LDP politics and favoring reform within the party. All three were considered prime ministerial material; only Mr. Koizumi grasped the brass ring after an aborted attempt by Mr. Kato to unseat Mr. Koizumi’s predecessor. They are no longer working as allies.

Democratic Party of Japan
Kan Naoto
Edano Yukio (Maehara/Edano group)

Mr. Kan is of course one of the founders of the party.

People’s New Party
Kamei Shizuka

The PNP is a splinter party that formed after Mr. Koizumi threw out of the LDP those Diet members who failed to support his postal privatization plan, and who rejected the invitation to return to the party extended by former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

There is no word about what they discussed, but Mr. Yamasaki was quoted after the meeting as saying that an election will be held this year, and that political realignment will follow. He concluded with the words, “Anything is possible.”

Shukan Gendai observes that it is significant people in both of the main parties are more forthcoming about internal conditions than usual, and concludes that the LDP and the DPJ will split and realign.


After the article was published:

  • Prime Minister Fukuda cancelled his overseas trip.
  • Yosano Kaoru published an article in another weekly magazine calling on Mr. Fukuda to conduct dodotaru seiji.
  • The Ministry of Finance openly admitted they wanted to boost the consumption tax.
  • Aso Taro visited Yamaguchi twice to campaign for the LDP candidate in a recent by-election. Mr. Aso has been campaigning heavily for local candidates, and said he would run again for the LDP presidency (and therefore prime minister).
  • The opposition DPJ candidate won the by-election and party leader Ozawa Ichiro said they would not file a censure motion at this time if the gasoline surtax was readopted.
  • The gasoline surtax was readopted, however, and NHK reports that the DPJ is considering a censure motion after all.
  • NHK also reports that unidentified LDP members are muttering about having Mr. Fukuda step down after the summit. Is the broadcaster behind the curve?
  • Kono Taro has not revolted yet.

Ran (乱) dumb Commentary

The point of the article was a possible alliance between Messrs. Koizumi, Nakagawa, and Koga to unseat Prime Minister Fukuda. The magazine didn’t do a whole lot to connect those particular dots, however. Undoubtedly one factor behind their story was a desire to sell magazines. Yet it isn’t out of the question that discussions of this sort have taken place. Whether it is true or not, this story as a whole is a vivid example of how difficult it is to penetrate the multiple veils of Japanese political circles.

Here’s a case in point: In a speech earlier this year, Iijima Isao said the natural heir to Mr. Koizumi’s policies was Yosano Kaoru.

Now really–That tells you just how difficult it is for people following politics to make heads or tails of anything. Mr. Yosano just published a book saying that the Koizumi-Abe reforms are a distortion and must be rolled back. How then can he be the natural heir to Mr. Koizumi? And what would prompt Mr. Iijima, who was close to Mr. Fukuda for decades, to say such a thing?

Anyone who knows isn’t saying, and anyone who’s saying doesn’t know.

2 Responses to “A Koizumi coup?”

  1. Koizumi should become President.

  2. KokuRyu said

    Great article with lots of background.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: