Japan from the inside out

The new breed of Japanese politician

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 2, 2009

“I think the people of Japan and the prefecture seek a method of politics different from that based on political parties. We must change politics at the local level to win the approval of the people of Japan and the prefecture.”
– Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru

THOSE WHO RELY ON the overseas press to keep abreast of Japanese politics would get the impression that the country’s politicians are a faceless, duplicitous lot of hacks with bad suits and bad teeth barely able to conceal a belief that Imperial Japan is destined to rise again. In that version, the one exception was Koizumi Jun’ichro, the “maverick” who represented a “refreshing change”.

But that distorted view is a false impression. That’s what comes from looking through the wrong end of an obsolete telescope.

While it might have contained a measure of truth at one time, the characterization was never wholly accurate to begin with. And now, failing to play attention to current trends means observers are missing one of the most important aspects of contemporary Japan, as well as one of its most compelling political stories.

Mr. Koizumi was not an outlier: rather, he was the first of a new breed of politicians whose dynamism could further transform the face of an already transformed society.

Hashimoto Toru

Hashimoto Toru

As with all social trends, it is not possible to separate the chicken from the egg. It was inevitable that the dramatic changes that have occurred in Japanese society since the 1980s would produce a dramatically different type of Japanese citizen. What few people outside Japan have realized is that they also produced a dramatically different type of politician that is earning the enthusiastic support of those citizens.

Regardless of what one thinks about their policies, politics, and personalities, the old labels no longer apply to people such as lower house members Watanabe Yoshimi or Eda Kenji, briefly profiled in a post down the page. Nor do they apply to Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, the subject of many posts here and the one immediately below this.

After two years in office, Mr. Higashikokubaru has an approval rating of 88% as measured by his local newspaper. Politicians do not achieve that level of support by accident, no matter how long they spent in show business first, so it would behoove the rest of the political class and those who write about it to examine the reasons for his success.

In an interview in the April issue of Ushio, the first reason the governor cites for his popularity is a conscious effort to act naturally and not behave in the manner of government officials in the past. He also cites a willingness to listen to everyone without making an immediate judgment on their opinions or demands.

These traits have prompted one Japanese Internet news source to dub him “the cooperative type” of new, local politician. While that has worked for the Miyazaki governor, others are using different techniques.

Hashimoto Toru

One of those other types is a youthful firebrand who has made the devolution of authority to local government his calling card–the former attorney and television celebrity Hashimoto Toru, governor of Osaka Prefecture.

As the quote at the top of this post makes clear, the 39-year-old Mr. Hashimoto shares with Mr. Higashikokubaru the belief that the days of party-centered politics in Japan has to end. The Miyazaki governor, an independent, often says that the only party a local politician needs is the citizens.

This is an indirect corroboration of the changes in Japanese society, which traditionally was centered on group activity rather than individual behavior. One political consequence of this social structure was that all the political parties demanded Soviet-style obedience within the party once a consensus was reached, regardless of the individual views of the members.

But the younger generations no longer feel constrained to sacrifice their views on the altar of consensus, and their independent behavior is increasingly influencing that of their elders.

While Gov. Higashikokubaru is considered “the cooperative type”, Mr. Hashimoto, who has been in office only one year, is unabashedly the confrontational type. He seems to have taken a page out of the book of economist John Maynard Keynes, who once remarked that when all else failed “ruthless truth-telling” is the only answer.

This ruthless truth-telling has become such a phenomenon among the public that two newspapers, the Asahi and the Sankei, file daily features on his continuing adventures. The Sankei, being non-leftist and a supporter of devolution, is generally sympathetic to the governor. Just today they quoted him as calling the national bureaucracy “tyrannical” for their plans to erect a new building in Osaka for one of their local branches. A Japanese politician will never go far wrong with his constituents by attacking the bureaucracy in the harshest manner possible.

The Sankei also approvingly noted the stir he caused when he declared that “The regions are the slaves of the nation(al government).” The governor was specifically addressing the financial liability borne by local governments to support enterprises or institutions directly operated by the national government.

This certainly got Tokyo’s attention. Mr. Hashimoto has been invited to debate the issues with the Cabinet Office’s Committee for Promoting Regional Devolution and Reform. (You might keep this in mind if you ever read in English the tired old proverb that the nail that sticks out in Japan gets hammered down. Whoever dares repeat that these days is looking through the rearview mirror.)

Indeed, Mr. Hashimoto seems determined to be the first to do the hammering. He has been so outspoken on occasion that he has been charged, sometimes not unfairly, with intemperance, as this previous post describes.

North Korean schools

This week still more of the governor’s ruthless truth-telling stirred up a minor controversy in some quarters. This report came from the Asahi, which as a newspaper of the left has a vested interest in the character assassination of non-leftist politicians with significant popular appeal.

One of the governor’s primary initiatives has been to move the prefecture offices from the present building, which is more than 80 years old, to the Osaka City-run World Trade Center. The move was backed by local business leaders long before Mr. Hashimoto took office. Most are aligned with the Liberal Democratic Party, the dominant party of the national ruling coalition, but some from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan also supported the move. (Business leaders claimed it would spark greater regional development, and it would also solve the problem of the red ink the facility has been bleeding since it was built in the 90s.) Meanwhile, New Komeito, the Japanese Communist Party, and a significant amount of the population were opposed.

The Osaka Prefectural Assembly this week rejected the proposal to move the government offices, which required a two-thirds majority to pass. When asked about his defeat, Gov. Hashimoto said:

“Japan isn’t North Korea, after all. If I got my way in everything all the time, I’d become a dictator.”

More temperate public officials, hesitant to say something that could cause offense, might have considered blandness to be the better part of valor. They might have said that the people had spoken through their elected legislative representatives and the defeat demonstrates the health and soundness of the democratic process. In other words, the same boring old crap that goes in one ear and out the other.

But the Japanese public is fed up with mush-mouthed politicians, and Mr. Hashimoto was not elected because of an ability to sponge on the soft soap. He is in office because he calls a spade a spade.

The Asahi found (or was approached by) an association of the mothers in the prefecture who send their children to North Korean schools. The newspaper ran an article that reported the association’s demands that the governor withdraw the statement, apologize, and take measures to ensure the safety of the children at the schools.

Their demand says that his statement referring to North Korea in regard to a purely local issue while “North Korea bashing” is occurring due to that country’s upcoming launch of a missile is inappropriate. “We are concerned that the statement could encourage unjustified harassment of the children at the schools,” the mothers said.

The insolence of the North Koreans and their local lackeys is by no means a new phenomenon, but the moral repugnance of this particular complaint is breathtaking. Those of North Korean ancestry in Japan who are allowed to operate schools for the primary purpose of indoctrinating students in the propaganda of an enemy state should be grateful that they have the opportunity to exist at all, much less complain about democratically elected leaders in public. That opportunity certainly wouldn’t be available to them in Pyeongyang, and they know it.

Meanwhile, the North Koreans, who have threatened to turn Japan into a sea of flame, fired missiles in its direction several times, and regularly sent operatives into the country to kidnap private citizens—an infringement of national sovereignty that could also be argued to be a casus belli, is now preparing to launch a three-stage ballistic missile over Japan in violation of a United Nations ban (I know, I know) as soon as this weekend.

The schools themselves are operated by Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, whose chairman and five other senior officials are members of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly. If anyone by chance did harass the North Korean students—who are made to wear uniforms based on traditional Korean designs—it would be the blame of their schoolmasters, their parents, and the country to which they owe allegiance.

One might make the case that the Asahi is performing a service for the large ethnic Korean population in the Kansai district by reporting the news. But that would not be a credible excuse for a newspaper that has had its knives out for Mr. Hashimoto for most of his term trying to discredit him.

The Asahi seems to think that Mr. Hashimoto is irresponsible and intemperate. Some would agree, but many in Japan are thrilled to see a politician unafraid to say what he thinks and ruthlessly tells the truth as he sees it. I do not use the word “many” lightly. In January the support rate among his constituents was 82%.

Morita Kensaku

It is also worth mentioning in this context Morita Kensaku, who handily won the gubernatorial election in Chiba Prefecture in a race closely watched to see if the Ozawa fund-raising scandals would have an impact on the local DPJ candidate. (Apparently they did, to an extent.)

Morita Kensaku

Morita Kensaku

As a former actor, Mr. Morita already had the advantage of name recognition. But other Japanese observers suggest that one reason for his victory is that he presented himself as the face of the prefectural citizens and a man who transcended party. Despite endorsements by about half of the LDP members of the prefectural assembly, he avoided using those endorsements in the campaign.

His primary opponent, Yoshida Taira, was backed by the opposition DPJ. While that seems to have been a handicap this time around, the same observers note that Mr. Yoshida tried to nationalize the election by campaigning on a platform of throwing the bums of the LDP out of office and replacing them with the DPJ. In short, they say, Mr. Morita’s success may have been due to an approach identical to that of the Miyazaki and Osaka governors. All three have pledged their loyalty to the voters’ interests rather than to those of a political party.

It’s worth noting that Japan is a parliamentary democracy, and that prime ministers must be members of the Diet. That means they are legislators, a group notorious for a lack of executive skills. (That’s likely one reason the LDP usually has its prime ministerial candidates serve in several executive positions in the Cabinet and in party posts first.)

Mr. Higashikokubaru already seems intent on moving from the governor’s office to the Diet, and perhaps he thinks he looks upon the visage of a future prime minister when he faces the mirror in the morning. It remains to be seen if people such as Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Morita follow his example, or turn to individual initiatives such as Sentaku, the group organized by former Mie Governor Kitagawa Masayasu.

Whatever happens in the future, it must be emphasized that the presence of such men in Japanese politics is a lagging indicator rather than a leading indicator. That they exist is a corroboration of changes that already have occurred in Japanese society, not of changes that might happen in the future. Besides, there is now so much dynamism in political circles in Japan, particularly at the regional level, that further drastic change must be taken as a given.

But don’t expect to see much discussion of this in English anywhere, much less the media. They still think the LDP and DPJ mudboats of Aso Taro and Ozawa Ichiro are the norm.

They still think Japanese politicians are faceless.

Afterwords: Nothing about politics, but here’s an observation of a different sort. Mr. Morita is giving the banzai salute in celebration of his victory in the photo above. Notice that everyone’s hands are facing toward the front.

That wasn’t always the case. Older people with a prewar education invariably raise their hands with their palms facing each other, resembling an NFL official in American football signaling a touchdown. A few sticklers even talk about it.

Time brings about all sorts of changes, does it not?

5 Responses to “The new breed of Japanese politician”

  1. […] not. Blogger Ampontan reports that a group of mothers who send their children to North Korean schools in Japan has […]

  2. ampontan said

    I knew I should have split this into two posts…

  3. Bender said

    One aspect that I don’t really like is that these “new” breed popped straight out from television and annoyingly populist, which in my dictionary equates to brainless..oops. Higashikokubaru was in the news today complaining about the decision by the central government to cancel construction of some unnecessary “national road”- the road was not necessary, said he.

  4. […] Incredibly mother’s of students attending North Korean schools in Japan are complaining about possible harassment. […]

  5. akagenoan said

    You know, it’s good to find someone willing to report the news on Japanese political life (in English, no less). It’s refreshing to see someone take an active interest in aspects of Japanese culture besides that pop garbage filling the airwaves. I tip my hat to you, good sir.

    ~A writer for the Akagenoan blog

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