THE DONKEY is the symbol of the Democratic Party in the United States, while their GOP rivals are caricatured as an elephant. What animal would best illustrate Japanese politics, the membership of the country’s two major political parties, and their respective factions? Some might suggest the Australian platypus.
Political character goods
The platypus is so odd that some European naturalists in the 19th century thought reports of the creature were a deliberate fraud when they first heard them. One of the few mammals that lays eggs, it has thick fur, a bill like a duck, webbed feet like an otter with nails for digging, and a tail like a beaver. Males have hollow spurs on their ankles that carry enough venom to kill a dog. Females have two ovaries, but only the left one is functional. It finds food by sticking its bill in the dirt and using spots on the bill that detect minute electrical discharges from its prey.
That agglomeration of anomalies is the perfect description of politics in Japan. Members of the same party or faction often have ideologies as different as a turtle and the moon. They can be at such variance it’s difficult to see how they can function as a coherent group.
Nevertheless, the system created by the Liberal Democratic Party not only functioned, it served as the structure for rebuilding Japan from postwar ruins to the world’s second largest economy. More than a half-century later, however, the evolution of the national polity has exposed the rusted girders, frayed wiring, and sagging foundation of the old system. The Democratic Party of Japan has finally given the country a credible opposition, though they are every bit the platypus as the LDP. Nevertheless, the combination of their growing electoral strength and tactics designed solely to generate political crises has created a stalemate that forcing everyone to confront the reality of a major political restructuring. For Japan to continue functioning at a level that everyone now takes for granted, nothing less will do.
When this restructuring is complete, the new entities will resemble animals that are more commonly found in political zoos. Until then, however, we can expect the cloning process to create many morbid failures.
Iijima Isao, once the top advisor to former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, declared earlier this year that political realignment had already started. But money is the ultimate guarantor of political viability, and Japan’s three foremost political parties are efficient fund raising mechanisms. (The subsidies of public funds given for votes received also help.) Turning one’s back on that cornucopia of cash, going out on a limb, and forming a new party requires more courage that most politicians would like to muster.
By now it is obvious that the Aso Taro administration is going nowhere, mainly because his Cabinet is a front for preventing further governmental reform of the type sought by an estimated 70% of the LDP Diet members, some in the DPJ, and most of the Japanese public. There is also the suspicion that the Aso administration wants to roll back the hard-earned achievements that have been gained so far. Making matters worse for the LDP is that unless the mudboat wing wants to bite the bullet and return to the Koizumi days, there’s not much left in the leadership locker room after Mr. Aso.
Now that the stars have finally aligned, fate is kicking the political class in the pants to reject their inner platypus and launch a political realignment that will be painful, bloody, and last the better part of a decade. Here’s a summary of recent events and the people driving them.
“I want to examine the popular support for the LDP and DPJ reformers to emerge and form a coalition.”
The 68-year-old Mr. Nakagawa is both the most prominent champion of Koizumi-style political and governmental reform and the strongest pro-growth, anti-tax voice left in the LDP. A former chief cabinet secretary and party bigwig, he has written books describing the pernicious influence of Kasumigaseki, the government-within-a-government run by Japan’s bureaucracy. He is also a member of the Machimura faction, the party’s largest and a particularly ungainly platypus.
In a television interview on the 7th, Mr. Nakagawa addressed the coming political realignment and suggested an alliance with some opposition politicians:
“This is not on the minor level of asking who’s going to leave the party, or whether I will be leaving the party. Public opinion wants a reform element to emerge from both the ruling coalition and the opposition to overturn the entire political world.”
He added that he wasn’t yet at the stage of bolting the LDP, and said he would decide his course of action on realignment “in the instant after the lower house election.”
L-R: Abe, Nakagawa H., Koizumi, Ishihara; platypus not pictured
Mr. Nakagawa is perhaps the most important member of a new group launched by Mr. Koizumi to keep his privatization of the postal system alive. As he nears retirement, the former prime minister is concerned that anti-privatization members have received high-profile roles in the Aso Cabinet. He also knows that Mr. Aso was anti-privatization (and anti-bureaucratic reform) to begin with. For all the campaign shouting it does in favor of reform, the opposition DPJ has become a center of anti-privatization activity among the opposition groups. It is not out of the question that postal privatization—supported by 70% of the electorate in 2005—may be derailed.
Who handles the dwindling amount of physical mail that people send these days is not important. Rather, privatization keeps the government’s hands off the money in the postal savings accounts. That prevents it from being used to finance pork barrel public works projects to buy off the construction industry and rural voters at the same time. It is the cornerstone of governmental reform itself, and a highly visible symbol.
The former prime minister, whom some polls still show as the man Japanese view as the person they’d most want to run the government, was applauded by 60 MPs when he said:
“I want to remind people of what sort of election was held three years ago. It seems that many of the people who are doing these incomprehensible things (i.e., anti-reform) were originally opposed to privatization. But they were allowed back into the party after writing a pledge and admitting their mistakes.”
Mr. Nakagawa added a warning against gutting the Koizumi reforms:
“There is meaning in sending a message to the people that we will not reverse course.”
Yet sitting at the head table with Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Nakagawa was this platypus tribe:
- The 56-year-old former Environment and Defense Minister Koike Yuriko (Machimura faction), who was once an ally of opposition DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro in a party that governed in a coalition with the LDP. A hawkish supporter of Yasukuni visits, Ms. Koike recently ran against Aso Taro for the party presidency as a reform wing candidate and received fewer than 50 votes. (Some question her party loyalty.) Mr. Koizumi was something a realpolitik feminist, and one of his favorite tactics was to put women in prominent positions, either in the Cabinet or in Diet seats. Some think Ms. Koike is being groomed as a potential prime minister of the type that minds the store while Mr. Nakagawa and others handle back-office operations.
- Ishihara Nobuteru, the son of Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro, Abe Shinzo ally, and Mr. Koizumi’s former reform minister.
- Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who was responsible for allowing the anti-privatization rebels back into the LDP in the first place. Indeed, one of them, Yamaguchi Shun’ichi (Aso faction), was just tapped by Prime Minister Aso to serve as an aide. Mr. Yamaguchi is involved in another group launched in October to stop the privatization process.
Though he too pursued governmental reform during his administration, Mr. Abe did so because he is first of all a party man. He said at the meeting that he supported privatization because it was a policy that had already been approved by the party and the Diet.
In the audience were many of the so-called Koizumi Children, younger MPs who won their seats on the former Prime Minister’s coattails in the 2005 election. This group has been talking openly since the spring about breaking away and forming a new, urban-based party headed by Mr. Nakagawa or someone like him. There is some irony in their self-description as urban based. In the old days, big city folks tended to vote for the opposition, while the LDP derived much of its strength from rural strongholds.
Also present at the meeting was upper house member Yamamoto Ichita (Machimura faction), generally a Nakagawa ally on domestic issues. Said Mr. Yamamoto of the need to continue privatization:
“The debate in the party now seems to be that since we face a crisis, it’s acceptable to return to the old pork barrel ways.”
The latter complaint is often heard now within the LDP about Prime Minister Aso. Here’s still more irony: It is also the complaint most frequently heard about the DPJ’s electoral platform.
The Nakagawa group
Mr. Nakagawa launched his own 87-member study group on the 11th to examine social welfare issues. The members plan to look for ways to resolve the problem of the botched national pension records that became the final nail in the Abe administration’s coffin. They also want to refine the concept of what is called the Social Welfare Card, an Abe Cabinet proposal that involves combining the social welfare and tax systems into personal accounts. Since the DPJ has suggested a similar idea, they want to explore areas of agreement across party lines.
In addition to Mr. Nakagawa, the members include:
- Koike Yuriko
- Abe Shinzo
- Watanabe Yoshimi (no faction), a crusader and firebrand profiled here a few days ago. Of all the LDP reformers, he has taken the most outspoken anti-Aso, anti-mudboat wing stance in public.
- Suga Yoshihide (Koga faction), who is close to Prime Minister Aso and a former member of the Abe Cabinet. Mr. Suga is another party-first man, and is known for having refused to join the revolt against Prime Minister Mori in 2000.
This group was widely seen as an anti-Aso vehicle for the mid-tier and younger LDP members starting to distance themselves from the prime minister. Mr. Nakagawa insisted otherwise, and asked people not to get excited because it was “an extremely pure study group”.
“The Aso Cabinet should boldly present its own policies without worrying about the polls. Now is not the time to bring down the Cabinet. No one is farther apart from Prime Minister Aso than I am, so if I say it, it has to be the truth.
Mr. Watanabe chimed in:
“There is such a feeling of obstruction that people even think this serious study group was formed to create a sense of political crisis.”
Not everyone buys that line, however. Some think the group was actually organized to explore post-realignment politics in addition to social welfare questions, but was co-opted by the mudboat wing of the Machimura faction to create yet another platypus.
Here’s why: Mr. Nakagawa called former Prime Minister Abe personally to ask him to join, and Mr. Abe, who resigned from the faction when he became prime minister, agreed. Mr. Machimura later objected to the formation of the group, but Mr. Abe and former Prime Minister Mori, the former faction head, convinced him to let Mr. Abe participate to prevent a factional split.
Their strategy was to use Mr. Abe to neutralize Mr. Nakagawa and dilute the impact of the group’s formation. Indeed, Mr. Mori is said to have angrily telephoned some of the younger faction members thinking about signing up to say:
“Don’t do anything stupid when Mr. Aso is in such serious trouble. Do you seriously intend to install Nakagawa as party president?”
The subtle subversion disappointed many people who wanted to see a Nakagawa challenge. The disappointment grew when former Prime Minister Abe publicly said the group wanted to get together and support Mr. Aso.
Privately, nobody believes that for a second. Nor does anyone believe it is an anti-Aso step so much as the start of several post-Aso steps. Everyone has factored Mr. Aso’s eventual departure into their thinking.
Mr. Watanabe is raising the voltage as Prime Minister Aso’s popularity is falling. He has openly criticized the prime minister, made references to creating a new party, and shifted from merely being anti-Aso to encouraging political realignment.
Here’s a taste of Mr. Watanabe going off on Prime Minister Aso in public:
“He won’t hold an election. He puts off economic measures. Just what the heck’s going on here?”
The critical question is how long it takes for people to move in his direction, or whether they decide to stay put for the time being.
At a party on the 8th attended by 800 supporters, Mr. Watanabe started talking about “mental calisthenics”, which he used as an excuse to segue into speculation about a new party.
He ended his intellectual workout by saying:
“Starting from scratch will have an impact and has the potential for great transformation. (Creating a new party) is possible to do with resolve alone.”
He started ramping up the voltage on 21 November when he and 24 younger Diet members called on Prime Minister Abe to quickly introduce a second supplementary budget and hold elections. Even that group bore a slight resemblance to a platypus—one of its members was Shiozaki Yasuhisa (Koga faction), the chief cabinet secretary during the Abe administration. It was the Shiozaki appointment, his first to an important position, that led critics to use the term “Friends Cabinet”. Somewhat less of a foreign policy hardliner than his former boss, his spat with Koike Yuriko over the appointment of a deputy in the Defense Ministry led to her resignation from the Cabinet after fewer than two months.
Watanabe Yoshimi and his mental calisthenics
Mr. Shiozaki cautioned reporters that the group, which is expected to grow to 40, was not formed as an anti-Aso faction or the predecessor of a new party. But nobody believed that, either. One of the doubters was Koga Makoto, his faction boss and current head of the party’s Election Strategy Council. He made a point of warning his charges, including Mr. Shiozaki, to hold their tongues where Aso Taro was concerned.
Other party elders are getting as snippy as a flock of old maids chaperoning a college mixer. Earlier this month, Mr. Machimura noted:
“Attacking another person’s weakness and preventing them from advancing is not the action of a responsible adult. I hope he (Watanabe) keeps running further away.”
But Mr. Watanabe did not back down. He repeated his call for a new election, and retorted:
“If that voice becomes a chorus, it’s possible (I’ll leave). I’ll prepare myself for any activity to bring down the Cabinet.”
There’s another curious aspect to this situation. When Ozawa Ichiro was fishing for someone to replace Hosokawa Morihiro in 1994 as the head the only non-LDP government of the past half-century, he nearly coaxed Watanabe’s father Michio, a former foreign minister and LDP faction leader, to leave the party and serve as prime minister. (He settled on Hata Tsutomu instead.)
It’s also worth noting that while Mr. Watanabe’s name has not been linked to the DPJ, the party has declined to officially sponsor a candidate for his lower house seat–one of only five seats nationwide that it’s conceding.
Another most unusual platypus is not to be found among the reformers, bogus or otherwise, but in a bunk full of strange bedfellows whom the press immediately dubbed YKKK.
During the 1990s, Yamasaki Hiraku, Kato Koichi, and Koizumi Jun’ichiro worked together as a band of LDP reformers the press called YKK for the initials of their family names. Mr. Kato, assisted by Mr. Yamasaki, led a failed insurrection against Mori Yoshiro in 2000 that ultimately cleared the way for the third musketeer Mr. Koizumi to become prime minister about six months later.
This time, the YKKK platypus is:
- Yamasaki Hiraku (AKA Taku), a faction leader
- Kato Koichi, no faction
- Kan Naoto, acting president of the opposition DPJ
- Kamei Shizuka, representative of the People’s New Party, a splinter group formed of politicians thrown out of the LDP by Prime Minister Koizumi for opposing postal privatization and who chose not to return when invited to do so by Prime Minister Abe.
YKKK appeared together on a recent TV program in the political equivalent of a jam session to discuss political realignment. Mr. Yamasaki riffed:
“Let’s face it–political realignment will happen in the future. An axis is necessary to promote political realignment. At that time, the four (of us) could form one such axis….The gridlock phenomenon must be eliminated. It is clear that a political realignment will occur regardless of what conditions prevailed before or after the election.”
“The LDP has borne an historical mission, and now confusion is deepening among both the LDP and the DPJ, which have neither a mission nor an ideology.”
The other two members of the team are trying to coax Y and K1 to bolt and form a supergroup.
“After the next lower house election when an Ozawa Ichiro government (DPJ) is formed, it will be meaningless to say, ‘Me too’.”
Mr. Kato downplayed his suggestion that he leave the party by saying that’s not in the cards for now.
“(What happens) next will not be a mere breakup and reassembly. It will be a major transformation of the system…I would like those people who have courage to leave the LDP, just as Mr. Ozawa fled from right in the middle of the party.”
It’s difficult to see just what’s going on here. Mr. Kato and DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro have not been on good terms for some time. Mr. Kato values party loyalty, and he was highly critical of Mr. Ozawa when he left the LDP. In fact, he fought against his readmission to the party when that was discussed in the late 90s.
It’s also difficult to imagine that he and his longtime ally would join the DPJ. One possible area of agreement might be a shift in foreign policy away from an American orientation toward closer relations with East Asian countries. Mr. Kato in particular is strongly opposed to the hard line against North Korea. But foreign policy questions have little or nothing to do with the crisis in Japanese politics.
Still, Mori Yoshiro didn’t care for this development at all. In Yamagata City earlier this week, he said:
“(YK) joining forces with Mr. Kan and, depending on the circumstances, forming a new party…Mr. Nakagawa joining forces with the DPJ and, depending on the circumstances, opening up a third axis…They say it’s for the benefit of the LDP. But if they start taking off in different directions, it will cause instability among the younger party members. That’s shameful…Japanese politics seems to have nothing but these lightweight, shallow-minded politicians. I apologize to all of you who have worked so hard to create politics (in this country)”.
Perhaps Mr. Mori needn’t have worried abut YK forming a new party, though that seems to have been Mr. Kato’s intention. This week’s edition of the Shukan Bunshun quotes an unidentified member of the Yamasaki faction saying that Mr. Kato had dreams of leading a second rebellion:
“Mr. Kato has been trying to form a new party with an eye on the political realignment after the next lower house election. He thinks it’s possible the head of a small party could serve as prime minister, depending on the election results, just as Hosokawa Morihiro became prime minister in the non-LDP coalition in 1993.”
According to this source, Mr. Kato, now unaffiliated with a faction, called on his former faction members for help, and asked Mr. Yamasaki to “lend” him a few members temporarily. He also suggested that Mr. Yamasaki could join later.
Mr. Y put the kibosh on Mr. K pretty quickly:
“Even if I were to say that I was forming a new party, no one would join. It’s entirely out of the question for me to lend my faction members to anyone.”
But a “new axis” in an informal alliance with opposition party members? That seems possible.
A ruling coalition breakup?
No talk of platypuses is complete without mentioning the ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito, an alliance that never has made much sense from an ideological perspective. The latter party is more interested in domestic social welfare policies, and they do not care for the LDP’s more assertive military stance in international affairs. For example, they’ve had to be cajoled into supporting the Indian Ocean refueling mission for NATO forces that the LDP used its supermajority to pass.
Rumors are circulating that both the LDP and the DPJ want to end New Komeito’s influence for good. One story had the two parties continuing discussions about another grand coalition, despite the failure of the first effort, and eliminating the proportional representation districts in the lower house. That would effectively neuter New Komeito as a political force, because the allocation of seats based on the percentage of votes is the reason most of their lower house members are in the Diet at all.
Earlier this week, Koga Makoto (photo below) casually dropped a bomb when discussing the dates of a possible lower house election at a party gathering in Tokyo:
“I’ve said it will be when the cherries bloom. But they bloom in Okinawa in February, and Aomori in May. In fact, there is such a tree as the “October Cherry”. Taking all that into consideration, the current Diet term could end when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.”
This was an astonishing statement on several levels. First, it potentially pushes back an election until the end of the full Diet term next September—nearly a year after Aso Taro was elevated to party president on the assumption that he would have already led the LDP election campaign by now.
Of course the LDP wants to delay the election to prevent a catastrophe at the polls, but that’s not the surprise. Rather, their coalition partner New Komeito has been demanding an election as early as possible to enable them to play what many think is their favorite voting game. Japanese election laws require three months to establish official residency, so the party needs that interval between the national election and local Tokyo elections in July to switch the registered residences of their supporters.
Could this mean the LDP is thinking of writing off their partners?
It might. At the same party, Mr. Koga also hinted that the LDP might reevaluate—a Japanese euphemism for stop—automatically allocating some proportional representation candidacies to New Komeito and keep them for themselves. The Aso ally Mr. Suga is also said to have suggested this to the Prime Minister, who surely must be tempted.
Yet that would alarm those LDP members who won their seats by narrow margins. The voter mobilization efforts of New Komeito and their assumed allies, the lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, provides an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 vote advantage in some districts. Those LDP members who squeaked by in the last election could be bounced from office without the New Komeito foot soldiers, as the party ruefully discovered in a recent Yamaguchi by-election.
Still another sign of a possible ruling coalition rupture is that Prime Minister Aso insisted that the party include an increase in the consumption tax in three years in its plan to reform the tax code. He claims this is the only responsible and realistic choice Japan faces to pay for the care of its aging population.
New Komeito is opposed for obvious reasons. It’s not easy to win elections when a tax increase for voters is a key campaign promise. And tax increases are the last thing the small(er) government Nakagawa Hidenao/Koizumi reform wing wants to hear about. Put that all together and it starts to look as if the LDP platypus is an endangered species.
Economist J.A. Schumpeter referred to progress in the free market system as “creative destruction”. By that, he meant that the replacement of obsolete businesses by those with technological and organizational creativity was a natural and beneficial process.
That’s an excellent analogy for the next step that must occur in Japanese politics. But in this case, however, creative destruction must be combined with another natural process—Darwin’s survival of the fittest.
For that next step to occur, the political platypuses must turn pterodactyl.