Japan from the inside out

Mr. Koizumi speaks up at last

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kanson minpi
– A Japanese term for putting the government and its officials above the people

WITH THE POSSIBLE EXCEPTION of the Trobriand Islanders, who thought pregnancy occurred because the ancestral spirit Baloma animated a spirit-child to enter a woman’s belly, the most ignorant people on the planet have got to be the Japanese political class, regardless of their party membership.

Consider: When Koizumi Jun’ichiro, the icebreaker of Japanese politics, left office in 2006 after five years of reform, deregulation, and drama, he bequeathed public approval ratings of 70% to his successor, Abe Shinzo. In the subsequent 30 months, the Three Stooges who followed him as prime minister have managed to drive their own approval ratings down to the teens. Political failure on that scale is no accident—politicians have to actually work at it to be that unpopular.

Messrs. Abe, Fukuda, and Aso all applied the same losing strategy in their own unique ways by rolling back the wildly popular Koizumian reforms. First, Mr. Abe allowed the return of the postal privatization rebels thrown out of the Liberal Democratic Party by his predecessor. Mr. Fukuda followed by allowing the return of the wolves of the Finance Ministry bureaucracy into the political henhouse. And now, Prime Minister Aso is dragging his feet on bureaucratic reform and dropping strong hints about “reexamining” (i.e., killing) the privatization of Japan Post because he never liked it to begin with.

Every one of these examples is a demonstration of kanson minpi in action.

Aso Taro shoved in the direction of progress

Take for example the recent controversy over the practice of watari, an informal job placement program run by government ministries and agencies in which they find employment for retired bureaucrats in enterprises or groups involved in sectors they once supervised.

Where's Baloma when you need him?

Where's Baloma when you need him?

Even the Japanese political equivalent of a Tobriand Islander should realize that the Japanese public detests the extreme bureaucratic intrusion into government affairs that makes it tantamount to a shadow government, as well as the privileges those bureaucrats enjoy. The solution should be simple—ban the practice of watari, win the acclaim of the Japanese public, and use that as a springboard for winning elections.

But no, Prime Minister Aso and the rest of the crew members of the LDP’s Mudboat-maru can’t summon the political courage to make the denizens of Kasumigaseki behave as the public servants they’re supposed to be. The prime minister at first did not want to revise current government ordinances to ban the practice. He had to be bludgeoned into it by the LDP’s reform wing and the party’s coalition partners in New Komeito. Another element in the calculations must surely have been that failure to take action would be used as a weapon by the opposition in the next election.

The government eventually established a “personnel exchange promotion center” to consolidate the bureaucracy’s job placement efforts and restrict job placements to one per employee. But this is indefensible—why should the taxpayers foot the bill for an employment agency for personnel leaving government service, must less the upper levels of the bureaucracy? Shouldn’t those who presume to be a national elite and the real power of government use their own initiative to land on their feet in cushy new jobs like the fat cats they are?

Mr. Aso at last began singing a different tune. He said he wanted to create an ordinance to ban watari by the end of the year, replacing the current ordinance that allows it to continue until 2011. The new ordinance would take effect in 2010, thereby moving up the schedule by a year.

Instead of all this rigamarole, the answer is to prohibit all bureaucrats from working at any group, organization, or entity subject to the supervision of the ministry or agency where they were formerly employed.

That would at least partially limit the influence of bureaucrats on government operations and be met with hosannas by the Japanese public. In fact, the only people who wouldn’t care for it would be the bureaucrats themselves. But why shouldn’t they hit the pavement with their resume and use the same resources as everyone else to find employment?

Koizumi: E-nuff!

Prime Minister Koizumi once vowed to produce reform, foster deregulation, and break up his own political party. After seeing his handiwork turned into shambles by his successors, it would be natural if he felt as if he had hacked a trail through the jungle only to have the vines and underbrush grow back over the trail mere months after he passed through.

Are these noodniks the best you could do?

Are these noodniks the best you could do?

Mr. Koizumi has been strangely quiet since stepping down in the fall of 2006, showing little or no public sign of concern about the course of his reforms since then. There were some brief flurries in the news when his former aide, Iijima Isao, floated a trial balloon last spring about a possible comeback to form a multiparty reform government. Later that year, he also formed a multiparty study group with sympathetic members of his own party and former opposition leader Maehara Seiji. But considering how brusquely his reforms were neutered, and how openly politicians in both the ruling and opposition camps were talking about throwing more monkey wrenches into the path of postal privatization, his weak response seemed to suggest that he didn’t care anymore.

That ended abruptly two weeks ago.

The trigger was the following comments by Mr. Aso on postal privatization:

“I couldn’t support it.” (At the time of the Diet vote on the bill)


“During the election, most of the voters didn’t realize it would be broken up into four companies.”

At a meeting at party headquarters of a group committed to maintaining the process of privatization, Mr. Koizumi was downright scathing about Prime Minister Aso and his behavior:

“Rather than being angry, I have to laugh. I’m just dumbstruck. We won’t be able to contest the election if we can’t trust what the prime minister says.”

He also didn’t have anything good to say about the individual stimulus proposal the budget, which was originally the idea of the party’s New Komeito coalition partners, and Mr. Aso’s handling of the surprisingly unpopular issue:

“The PM has called it sordid, said he personally wouldn’t accept the money, and then claimed ‘I didn’t say that’.”

Ah, well, politicians do like to be on all sides of an issue, don’t they?

More chilling for the LDP elders was his threat to vote against the bill when it comes back to the lower house after the inevitable rejection by the opposition-controlled upper house. A straight party line vote of the ruling coalition would enable this measure to pass through a two-thirds supermajority.

“I don’t think this bill requires a two-thirds override for it to pass.”

But then why did he vote for it the first time?

He has a low opinion of the leadership skills of Mr. Aso as well as the LDP honchos:

“When the younger (party members) express critical opinions of the prime minister, the party leadership says, ‘Don’t fire your rifles from behind’. But considering recent conditions, the prime minister is firing from the front at the people who have to stand for election.”

One of Mr. Koizumi’s favorite games is to use his image of eccentricity as a trump card, so he also trotted out this blast from the past:

“They’re calling me a man on whom common sense has no impact, or a weirdo, but I think I’m a normal man who is full of common sense.”

While the former prime minister enjoys playing this part, it is worthwhile to remember that he enjoyed occasional popularity ratings of more than 80% (and 70% when he left office), he engineered an election victory that delivered the second-largest lower house LDP majority ever, and he served the third-longest term as prime minister in postwar history.

The impact

It is not possible to overestimate the significance of this criticism. First, it gave a much-needed second wind to the LDP reformers. Said upper house member Yamamoto Ichita, a long-time Koizumi supporter (Machimura faction):

“It’s been a while since we’ve seen Prime Minister Koizumi so angry. This speech will be a detonator and breathe life into the party’s reform faction again.”

The speech also generated a barrage of speculation that the party will force Mr. Aso from office before the election that must be held this year. Regardless of what happens, he is essentially a dead man walking.

The prime minister can’t even hand out promotional material without a blowback. The weekly e-mail magazine distributed by the prime minister’s office has seen readership drop by half from its peak during the Koizumi administration (the falloff was not that pronounced during the Abe and Fukuda administrations), coupled with a sharp increase in critical comments from the recipients. Such as:

“If you’re going to ignore the results of the previous lower house election, then you should dissolve the Diet.”


“I didn’t think you would go that far to treat the people like fools.”

Also significant is the venue at which Mr. Koizumi delivered his criticism. The audience for his remarks consisted of his heirs in the party, committed to privatization, deregulation, devolution of central government authority, keeping the bureaucracy on a leash, and commonsense economic policies.

Those in attendance included Nakagawa Hidenao, who is clearly working to organize a potent political force capable of surviving the upcoming election debacle and either outlive the rump elements of a depleted LDP, or take the party over entirely. While still acting as if he is willing to work within the party, he was recently removed from a position of responsibility in the Machimura faction, the party’s largest, for his criticism of Prime Minister Aso.

Said Mr. Nakagawa at the meeting:

“A reexamination of the plan to break up (Japan Post) into four companies is tantamount to reexamining the complete privatization that Prime Minister Koizumi achieved. We must call on all party members to take steps to maintain the (decision) for privatization.”

It is also worth noting that 18 people were present at the meeting. That’s two more than are needed to deprive the LDP of its supermajority in a Diet election and prevent the legislation from being enacted. Did Mr. Koizumi bring up a possible vote against the stimulus measure merely as leverage to maintain the course of privatization, or would he rally MPs to vote against it and therefore reject it entirely. A Koizumi-led lower house defeat for the bill would make it very difficult to postpone a general election that the LDP would surely lose.

Finally, we should also note that unidentified members of the opposition found Mr. Koizumi’s comments risible. One of them suggested the former prime minister was behind the times.

There you have a good indication why the opposition is still the opposition and not the ruling party. It’s been fewer than three years since Mr. Koizumi stepped down, and his ideas are still viable. (Indeed, they are permanently viable, the current financial crisis notwithstanding.) And it’s not as if anyone in the opposition party has a record that comes close to matching his achievements. It’s possible the opposition’s observation gave the former prime minister a second reason to laugh.

Koizumi Jun’ichiro once claimed that he wanted to destroy the LDP. While he certainly remodeled it during his tenure, he didn’t destroy it. But his recent speech might be the blow that eventually accomplishes his original aim. Perhaps the only question remaining is whether the reform wing forms a new party of its own, leaving the mudboat wing to disintegrate and sink, or whether they take control of the party for themselves.

Afterwords: Also attending the meeting was former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko, whom Mr. Koizumi supported for prime minister in the party election that chose Aso Taro. Ms. Koike is a staunch supporter of the policies of both Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Nakagawa. She does not have much support within the LDP, however, as she is seen as something of an opportunist.

The mass media tend to dismiss her, but she is worth paying attention to for at least one reason. Ms. Koike was a member of the now-defunct Liberal Party, headed by current opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro of the Democratic Party of Japan. She became a strong Ozawa supporter after reading his book Blueprint for a New Japan, which called for smaller government and the encouragement of greater individual initiative.

When Mr. Ozawa merged his party with the opposition DPJ, she chose to join the LDP instead, at least partly because the reformers in that party were more kindred spirits. She has publicly taken Mr. Ozawa to task several times for abandoning nearly all of the principles he laid out in his book.

And that is a critically important matter. It would behoove the media to focus on Mr. Ozawa’s core political beliefs—assuming he has any–or whether his political activity is just a semi-permanent political pastime of schmoozing with da bhoys to create coalitions the way some boys trade baseball cards.

What policies would he pursue if he in fact became prime minister?

Anyone else who thinks they know is fooling himself. And those folks who think he is the best bet to achieve the reforms Japan needs might want to consider that with Mr. Ozawa, what you see is not always what you get. They just might find that what Japan would get under an Ozawa Administration would be an unpleasant surprise.

It’s not as if it can’t happen here. Ask the left-wing bloggers in the U.S. what they think of the new President’s wholesale adoption of George Bush’s terror war policies.

10 Responses to “Mr. Koizumi speaks up at last”

  1. Too bad Koizumi cannot become PM again. Five years is too short.

  2. Martin F said

    Koike Y, now there is a good bet.

  3. […] Sino-Japanese four-character idiom (yojijukugo) in his lengthy analysis of former Prime Minister Koizumi’s exasperated lambasting of the backsliding by his successors on key aspects of his popular reform […]

  4. Mat said

    Dear Ampontan, how do you know voters supported Koizumi because of the Post privatization and not for another reason like:
    – he has lot of charisma.
    – he is good-looking (important for female voters ;-).
    – unlike other politicians he seems to realize what he is speaking about.
    – he has his own “theme song” by X Japan.

    Cheers !

  5. ampontan said

    Nat: Two reasons.

    First, any politician in Japan who promises reform and seriously acts on it gets good ratings. Always. I tried to make that point, and the Japanese political class’s ignorance of it, in the piece.

    Second, an Asahi poll (usually with results slanted to the left) found 70% of respondents approving of privatization during that election campaign.

    Now, if you want to make the argument that the voters’ support was for other reasons, OK, but that same argument has to be applied to every other living politician.

  6. Mark said

    “the Three Stooges who followed him as prime minister”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you used to incessantly shill for at least the first and third of those Three Stooges?

  7. ampontan said

    I defended certain policies and behavior of the first, and criticized him for other policies, particularly the one I noted here about the readmission of the postal rebels.

    If you can find anything significantly favorable I’ve said about the policies of the third on this site, you are cordially invited to direct our attention to it.

  8. […] looks like former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has had enough of the political decay in […]

  9. Paul said

    First, any politician in Japan who promises reform and seriously acts on it gets good ratings. Always.

    Can we see some proof?


    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you used to incessantly shill for at least the first and third of those Three Stooges?

    He did, but now that they’re not popular we hear the tune changing. Don’t be too hard on him, the posts about festivals are quaint.

  10. Trapped in Brazil said

    Paul and Mark, politicians are a bizarre species, they are in constant mutation so, it is impossible to keep your impression of them, unless they die before screwing everything up, like Lincoln who was killed while winning the game.

    But this post got me worried, i didn´t know that japanese politicians were this corrupted. It is starting to look like Brazil, but since Japan doesn´t have the size and the natural riches of it….. this is bad, this is really really bad…..

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