Japan from the inside out

Watanabe Yoshimi: Pushing events to the tipping point?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 4, 2008

ONE WAY in which the parliamentary system of government differs from the presidential system in the U.S. is that events in the former can change on a dime. Affairs might proceed at a stately pace for months or years, but a sudden shift in political or public sentiment can cause a sharp jolt in the tectonic plates of government, radically altering the landscape.

Watanabe Yoshimi

Watanabe Yoshimi

Such a shift may be underway right now in Japan. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that Prime Minister Aso Taro is not the answer to anyone’s question. Loose cannons are never more dangerous as when they are leading their party and the government, and Mr. Aso is behaving as if he were a one-man battery of political artillery firing and misfiring in all directions.

Speaking off the record, some leaders of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party now admit the possibility that their days in power might be numbered. Their junior coalition partners in New Komeito are muttering that it was not supposed to happen this way. And perhaps the most ominous sign of all is that the more outspoken and independent members of the LDP are no longer holding their tongues.

The man leading the fusillade in public against the prime minister is outspoken reformer Watanabe Yoshimi, previously the Minister for Financial Policy and Regulatory Reform. As a member of the Abe and Fukuda Cabinets, Mr. Watanabe was responsible for promoting national and local governmental reform, devolution, and the proposed state/province system. Takenaka Heizo, former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s straw boss for privatization and economic reconstruction, gives him the credit for single-handedly pushing through a civil service reform package during the Abe Administration. In addition to his reputation as a reformer, he is also known for his outspoken views on the economy.

Mr. Watanabe, who no longer belongs to a party faction and is seen as something of a lone wolf, has been challenging the old guard of the LDP since the start of his political career. He was an early backer of Kato Koichi when the latter tried, and failed, to oust then-Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro in 2000. (The effort did open the way for Mr. Koizumi and his reforms, however.) During his term in the Cabinet, he butted heads more than once with former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo on the pace and the extent of reform. It goes without saying that Mr. Watanabe was a forceful advocate of doing more and doing it faster.

The background

His frustration with Prime Minister Aso boiled over when the latter kept postponing a general election. It was tacitly assumed by everyone in political circles that Mr. Aso’s Cabinet was formed specifically for taking the ruling coalition into the election this fall. The new prime minister was to be the face of the party during that campaign.

One of the points at issue has been whether to submit a second supplementary budget now, or whether to hold off until the regularly scheduled Diet session in January. In addition, Mr. Aso has spoken recently of delaying the election until next April. (An election doesn’t have to be held until September 2009.)

In a recent Reuters interview, Mr. Watanabe asserted that the prime minister should submit the budget during this session of the Diet, which will end later this month, and dissolve the Diet in January for a general election. He also rather bluntly called for the ruling coalition and the opposition to form a grand coalition to create a Cabinet to deal with the current (economic) crisis.

“The more the Aso Cabinet delays the dissolution and general election,” said Mr. Watanabe, “the farther its support rate will drop. It could fall to the single digits.” He added that if the stalemate continues, the process of “entropy” would cause the dissipated energy to accumulate and explode, which might lead to the creation of a new party. If that were to happen, he said, the Aso Cabinet would be pressed to resign en masse. Without a successor lined up, the LDP might then split, and the long-anticipated political realignment would begin.

On TV too

During an interview conducted a few days later on a cable TV channel, Mr. Watanabe went so far as to mimic the prime minister’s gravelly voice: “The prime minister says, ‘This is a once in a century emergency,’ but he has absolutely no measures for dealing with it.” He again called for an early dissolution to the lower house and for the LDP and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to form a coalition to deal with the financial crisis.

He was even blunter after the program finished taping. “The overwhelming public opinion is that neither Mr. Aso nor Mr. Ozawa (of the DPJ) are right for the job, and that a third person would be best…Now, issues are sprouting up like bamboo shoots after the rain, so (an anti-Aso) coalition is possible.”

Mr. Watanabe is becoming something of a bamboo shoot himself. During another television interview on the 2nd, he hinted he might leave the party and form a new one. When asked about his repeated criticism of Prime Minister Aso, he said, “(Someone in) the LDP started to tell me to leave the party. If he were to say more, it is not outside the realm of possibility that it would happen.”

As to when he might leave, he said, “We created a new party president two months ago, so these are not the circumstances in which 20 or 30 people can turn the rudder in a new direction. If only one person were to leave, the movement would not spread, so nothing would happen. The only thing to do is to proceed slowly and pick up companions along the way.”

Talking to the hometown press

Yesterday, he sat with for an interview with the Shimotsuke Shimbun, his hometown newspaper. Here is a translation:

Some reports say the approval rate of the Aso Cabinet has plunged.

“Well, the prime minister has made his bed, and now he’s got to lie in it. He said, ‘In my Cabinet, the bureaucrats will not be the enemy’, and now it’s time for him to pay the price. With the law to reform the public employee system, we provided a mechanism to create a means of governance centered on the prime minister. Prime Minister Aso has given no indication that he anticipated that. In addition, he has shown no initiative whatsoever for utilizing the Cabinet Personnel Bureau that was created to break the stranglehold in which the primary interest of each ministry is to protect its own turf. I suspect he has lost his power to influence events because he has been swayed by the opposition from the ministries and the Diet members affiliated with them.”

The postponement of the second supplementary budget seems to be having an effect.

“The expectation for the Aso Cabinet was to manage the election. The election was postponed with the explanation that economic measures took precedence. Now the economic measures are being postponed, so its basic political position is no longer stable. This has probably earned them the mistrust of the people.”

There has been criticism from the party leadership and the factions about the mid-level and younger members in the party urging the government to submit a second supplementary budget to the Diet during the current session.

“My father (the late Watanabe Michio, former foreign minister) said that the party comes before factions and the nation and the people come before the party. That must be the starting point for all politicians. Today, the global economy is undergoing a rapid, large-scale decline. The world might be plunged into a Depression unless the decline is halted by the first half of next year. That’s why leaders in the Western countries are offering measures without worrying about how they look. The prime minister lacks that sense of crisis. I have a real sense of the need for crisis management that transcends party and faction.”

You’ve formed a parliamentarians’ league with Nakagawa Hidenao (an influential LDP Koizumi-type reformer) to discuss social welfare. Is this connected to an anti-Aso movement?

“Groups have been formed for many different issues at debate, and it’s good that all of them are coalitions. I don’t know now what form they will take in the end. But at this rate, the Aso Cabinet will find itself increasingly alienated from the public. The most important thing in politics is to win the hearts of the people. The worst thing in politics is for there to be a great deal of confusion among the people.”

Becoming a target himself

Naturally Mr. Watanabe has himself come under sharp criticism from LDP leaders. The last thing leadership wants to see after a party has circled the wagons to make a last stand is friendly fire.

In one sense, he is mirroring within the LDP what Maehara Seiji, a former Democratic Party of Japan president, did within his own party by fomenting revolution against its standard bearer, Ozawa Ichiro. Mr. Maehara was bluntly told by the party to knock it off after he derided the party’s platform in a roundtable discussion with Yosano Kaoru of the LDP published in the July edition of Chuo Koron. But Mr. Maehara went public with his campaign against Mr. Ozawa the month before in an interview with the monthly Gendai.

It is worth noting one of the questions the former DPJ president was asked in the June Gendai interview:

From a generational perspective, and from the perspective of political beliefs, couldn’t you form an alliance with Watanabe Yoshimi?

“Isn’t it too simplistic to say that we should get together? There must be people of that sort in both the LDP and the DPJ. We’ll cooperate to fight against the people from the old system, seize political leadership, and work together for the good of the nation. Only then will politics change.”

Now recall what Mr. Watanabe had to say about Ozawa Ichiro above.

Mr. Ozawa holds forth

Speaking of the DPJ leader, he let it be known at an informal political get-together over the weekend that he thinks Mr. Aso will not be in office too much longer. He expects the Aso Cabinet will be replaced by a Grand Grand Coalition, for want of a better term, which will include members of both the LDP and New Komeito. (Recall also that he briefly stepped down from his DPJ post for suggesting a Grand Coalition with the LDP this time last year. This time DPJ bigwig Hatoyama Yukio was able to sit in the restaurant and listen to him talk about a coalition without flinching.)

With Mr. Watanabe fanning the increasingly heated LDP criticism of Mr. Aso, Mr. Ozawa has suggested that another coalition be formed specifically to dissolve the Diet and hold a new election.

This time, he just might get his wish.

The new year could turn out to be an extremely eventful—and significant—one for politics and government in Japan. By the end of it, Mr. Aso and the members of his political generation, including Ozawa Ichiro, the Hatoyama brothers, and Kan Naoto, might find that their day in the sun is over just after it dawned. It is impossible to predict the winners, the losers, and the political configuration to come, but it will be fascinating to watch what happens.


This article from a few years ago presents an overview of Watanabe Yoshimi’s general outlook. In this article from April, he anticipates that the U.S. government will have to use public funds to deal with the subprime mess. He also observes that the current American crisis is similar to the one the Japanese faced when the bubble economy collapsed nearly 20 years ago. His view is shared by the American libertarian economist Robert Higgs.

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