Japan from the inside out

Is the magma of Japanese politics starting to move?

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 26, 2009

We must not expect political decisions to emerge from an elite chosen on the basis of competitive examinations. Rather, now is the time to establish true political leadership.
– Watanabe Yoshimi

No power on earth can sustain an idea whose time has gone.
– Peter Hitchens

EVERYONE WHO PAYS ATTENTION to Japanese politics is waiting for the volcano to blow. That the voting public will erupt, soon or late, is inevitable. The voters have been hungry for real reform for decades, and they know they aren’t going to get it as long as the current political structure stands. The ruling coalition dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party has, during the Fukuda and Aso administrations, slammed the door on Koizumian reform and is starting to hammer in the nails. The Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition group, has lost what little credibility it had among the electorate since gaining control of the upper house in the Diet a year and a half ago due to a combination of politically juvenile and inept behavior, the failure to present themselves as a credible reformers, and their alliances with anti-reform elements struck solely for the objective of gaining power. The leadership of both parties represent ideas whose time has gone.

An Asahi Shimbun poll published last week is testimony to the public’s disgust. It shows that:

  • 60% of the respondents are greatly dissatisfied with politics today, 31% are somewhat dissatisfied, 6% are somewhat satisfied, and only 1% is greatly satisfied.
  • 60% do not think the LDP is capable of contributing to the development of Japan
  • 59% think that politics would not change for the better if the DPJ were to lead a government
  • 67% do not see a significant difference in the policies of both parties
  • 68% think the best solution would be a political realignment, in which the parties split up and create new blocs.
  • 11% would like to see an LDP-led government
  • 15% would like to see a DPJ-led government
  • 19% would like to see a grand coalition
  • 65% would like to see a political realignment with the possibility of a grand coalition
Watanabe Yoshimi

Watanabe Yoshimi

The internal polls of both parties had been showing that the DPJ would take control of the lower house in the next election, thereby enabling them to form what would be only the second non-LDP government in Japan since 1955. That’s one reason the party leaders and Aso Taro, who was assigned the task of leading the LDP in an election last fall, keep putting off that election.

But that was until an aide of DPJ party chief Ozawa Ichiro was arrested in a fund-raising scandal involving at least one construction company, with the potential for several more shoes to drop. Since then, the weekly Shukan Bunshun has reported the most recent polling suggests the scandal could cost the opposition as many as 47 of the seats they were projected to win in a general election, depriving them of an outright majority.

The conduct of political and governmental reform is the responsibility of the legislators, but those who are aware of the opportunities that await by promoting reform are also aware of the potential peril. Japanese political parties demand Politburo-type obedience to leadership decisions. For an MP from either party to stake a credible claim to reform would mean voting one’s conscience rather than the party line, and that would result in harsh penalties, including expulsion from the party. Winning a Diet seat as an independent is no easy matter; candidates would have to find ways to finance their campaigns without party help, and the two major parties might send in an “assassin” from a different district to take out the apostate.

Those national legislators who value their political survival more than political principle—which, as anywhere else, includes most of them—will be the last to move, and only after extraordinary pressure has been applied from below. A revolution must emerge from the bottom up to succeed, after all.

The Middle-Aged Turks

The process of a volcanic eruption starts with the movement of magma beneath the earth’s surface, which is then ejected as lava. One man who thinks he sees the eruption coming is firebrand Watanabe Yoshimi, the son of a former foreign minister and himself a former Cabinet minister in charge of governmental reform. During his term in the Fukuda administration, he pushed through a civil service reform measure in the face of strong opposition by what seems to have been sheer force of will.

Mr. Watanabe looks as if his hair is on fire, and for the past few months he’s been acting that way too. He demonstrated that he is one of the few Japanese politicians who dares walk the walk as well as talk the talk by quitting the LDP in January and committing himself to creating a citizens’ movement to rein in the bureaucracy and encourage the devolution of power.

Speaking to a crowd in the street in Saitama City on the 14th during a campaign appearance for Shimizu Hayato, a Saitama prefectural councilman who left the LDP to run for mayor, Mr. Watanabe declared:

“The magma that will change this country is beginning to move”.

He was campaigning jointly with fellow independent lower house member Eda Kenji, with whom he has formed an alliance. Said Mr. Eda at the same event:

“Many are asking which party they should vote for. We will gather like-minded colleagues from the Diet to create a ‘receptacle’ for those votes in the lower house election.

Before that next election, which must come by September at the latest, the two have decided to campaign in support of local candidates nationwide in sympathy with their aims. They are seizing the opportunity to form a new political bloc, which might eventually become a new party. This opportunity was created by a combination of several factors that include the unpopularity of Prime Minister Aso, Mr. Ozawa, and their respective parties, as well as the failure of other viable reform candidates to take the lead. Rather than start at the top, they seem to have chosen the course of working from the bottom up.

One of their natural allies is the small-government deficit hawk Nakagawa Hidenao and his roughly 30 core followers, who are as intent on taming the bureaucracy as Messrs. Watanabe and Eda. (Whether they are as compatible on fiscal issues is another question.) Other potential allies include Takebe Tsutomu and his Atarashii Kaze (New Wind) group. Mr. Takebe was party secretary-general during the 2005 Koizumi landslide and took it upon himself to mentor the large number of new first-term Diet members, who were dubbed the Koizumi Children. (Mr. Takebe was once an early foe of Mr. Koizumi’s prime ministerial ambitions.) Dismayed at the reactionary turn the party has taken since their election–and their diminishing chances of reelection–more than 80 LDP MPs, primarily the Children, formed the group with their former mentor as their head. They are viewed as a pro-reform, anti-Aso bloc within the party.

Eda Kenji

Eda Kenji

Recent opinion polls have found that many are starting to seriously consider Mr. Watanabe as a future prime minister. However, his companion for the campaign appearances, Eda Kenji, is equally worthy of regard and also well known by the public. It is most interesting that the man who would tame Kasumigaseki is a product of that world himself: Mr. Eda’s career started in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. He rose rapidly through the bureaucratic ranks and made his name by becoming a senior aide to Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro at the age of 39.

Mr. Eda left METI to pursue a career in electoral politics. He was endorsed by the LDP in his first election try, which he lost. After boosting his name recognition with frequent television appearances, he ran again as an independent to fill a vacant seat in Kanagawa, and won. A year later he was defeated for reelection by a transplanted DPJ candidate, but returned to the Diet from the same district in the 2005 Koizumi landslide. He was the only candidate in Kanagawa not from the LDP to win a directly elected seat (rather than a proportional representation seat).

He has demonstrated his independence and a true maverick sensibility in the Diet elections for prime minister. A supporter of postal privatization, he voted to re-elect Prime Minister Koizumi in 2005, but submitted invalid ballots when Abe Shinzo and Fukuda Yasuo were elected by omitting the name of his preferred candidate. He later voted for Ozawa Ichiro in the election won by Aso Taro.

Just as intriguing as his Diet career, and with perhaps greater potential to influence events, is his involvement in the formation of a group of eight former bureaucrats devoted to, in their words, “transforming the political system from one led by the bureaucracy and tribal MPs (i.e., Diet members that serve the interests of specific ministries) into one led by the people”. The group, whose name roughly translates to “The Association of Renegade Bureaucrats” (脱藩官僚の会) published a book last September describing the excesses of Kasumigaseki and their vision for the future. Mr. Eda wrote the first chapter.

The First Rumbles

And that brings us to what is perhaps the hottest—and most underreported—political story in Japan today. There is an extraordinary amount of intellectual ferment at both the national and local level focused on the reform of Japan’s political system. More than one Japanese commentator has compared the current situation with the one prevailing at the end of the Shogunate in the 1860s just before the Meiji Restoration. So much energy is being applied to find ways to best combat the bureaucracy and decentralize government that an eruption of some sort is surely inevitable.

Yet even some in Japan are unaware of this lively debate because the newspapers usually gloss over it, and the subject is too abstract for weekly magazines. Following the arguments requires keeping a close watch on about eight monthly magazines and the list of newly published books. I’ve been reading the horror stories for a while now, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the Japanese bureaucracy’s domination of the political process, abetted by unprincipled politicians, could be compared to an aggressive parasite that has taken over the host. The nutrients keeping the parasite alive, of course, are taxpayer funds.

The difficulties of this complex state of affairs are compounded by the millennia-old tradition in Northeast Asia of entrusting the operation of government to a bureaucratic elite. Naturally, this tradition includes parents encouraging their children with intelligence and talent to become part of that elite.

But today’s voting public in Japan has shown more than once that they will offer their support to any politician who vows to tame the beast. They, and a growing number of younger politicians, know that the time has come to put Kasumigaseki on a leash.

They also know that the leadership of all the political parties, including the two largest, will never do what needs to be done. Indeed, they would rather treat the Koizumi era as an unpleasant interlude that is best forgotten as soon as possible.

In 1517, a young theology professor named Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenburg, Germany, in which he accused the Roman Catholic church of heresy. Many historians cite this act as the start of the Protestant Reformation.

In January 2009, Watanabe Yoshimi hand-delivered a list of demands for bureaucratic reform (and economic stimulus) at the Liberal Democratic Party headquarters and threatened to resign if his demands weren’t met. (He knew they wouldn’t be, and resigned shortly thereafter.) It is not out of the question that his list might become the spark for a Japanese political Reformation in the same way that Martin Luther’s Theses ignited religious reform.

One can only hope Mr. Watanabe and his allies are correct in their assessment that the magma is starting to move. It’s long past time for the pyroclastic flows of reform to bury permanently the people who have shown they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

3 Responses to “Is the magma of Japanese politics starting to move?”

  1. […] gives an update on the Japan political climate that the voting public will erupt, soon or late, is inevitable. Cancel this […]

  2. Joel said

    I wish I could say you’re not overoptimistic.

  3. Bender said

    I think it’ll end up as a sukashi’pe instead of a real blow.

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