Japan from the inside out

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.


  • 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.

5 Responses to “Hiranuma: Koizumi would have been burned at the stake!”

  1. Aceface said

    Personally,I,the one who believe that an Ozawa-led DPJ government is the answer to the question of how to bring serious reform to Japan.But put aside that,nice work,Bill.

  2. ampontan said

    Aceface: Thanks!

    BTW, earlier this week, I saw an article in the Sankei, I think, about a compilation of Ozawa’s favorite stories from a particular comic book. He and the creator developed the book together.

    The photo of Ozawa used for the cover of the book (it looks like) makes me wonder about his health. He doesn’t look well at all, and he’s got a heart condition to begin with. I wonder if he’s physically up to the job.

  3. Aceface said

    Back in the 90’s,people called him “Gorbachev of Japan” for he wanted to reform within the power.
    Now he is more of a”Yelzin of Japan”.Doing everything and anything to topple the current regime.
    With his health problem,I think the analogy completes.

    Anyway,you gotta give the man a credit for threatening the LDP twice in 15 years.No one had ever gone that far.

  4. Bender said


    Don’t you think he’ll screw things up with his over-confrontational stance? I don’t see anything on his agenda that’s revealing…well, I don’t from the LDP either, for that matter.

  5. Aceface said

    Like I said,Bender.Ozawa is “Yeltzin”type of a guy.He is there to break the barriers,no less.
    I’m sure he can’t keep DPJ in one piece for long.But that’s not the point.The point is to dismantle LDP and topple the rule of the bureaucrats and bring power to the elected politicians.

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