Japan from the inside out

An interview with Watanabe Yoshimi

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 16, 2009

AS THE MINISTER in charge of governmental reform during the Abe and Fukuda administrations, Watanabe Yoshimi almost single-handedly pushed through a bill outlawing amakudari. That’s a practice in which former senior employees of the national governmental bureaucracy are hired by public or private sector corporations either connected with or under the supervision of their former ministries. That in turn enables their new employers to receive favorable treatment from the ministries that are supposed to oversee them. It is perhaps the most pernicious of the many misdeeds committed by Japan’s public sector, and one of the ways the bureaucracy, known as Kasumigaseki, maintains its control over governmental policy.

Watanabe Yoshimi

Watanabe Yoshimi

The Aso administration found a way to skirt the law through a Cabinet order, which enraged those in Japan pushing for reform. Mr. Watanabe was so upset he bolted the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to pursue reform through other channels, thereby becoming a national sensation. His departure was widely covered by the Japanese news media, who are as anxious as anyone to see real change instead of the farce presented by the tired hacks who run the LDP and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

I wanted to do a profile of Mr. Watanabe at the time, but I had other pressing matters to attend to and events moved on. Luckily, however, the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai published a lengthy interview with the man in their 31 January issue, and here you have it straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s well worth reading, so I’ve rendered it in English.

When did you finally decide to leave the Liberal-Democratic Party?

I decided at the end of last year. With that resolve, I supported the proposal of the (opposition) Democratic Party of Japan to dissolve the lower house on 24 December. I was prepared for the party to expel me, but they chose to issue only a warning instead. Then my departure got put off until now (laughs).

How did your supporters respond to your decision to be the only one to leave the LDP?

The response was completely different from the chilly reaction at Nagata-cho. There was a flood of telephone calls to my office on the day of the press conference (announcing the decision). I was told that other politicians got calls from their constituents telling them not to take down under any circumstances the campaign posters on which our photographs appeared together.

This is the voice of the people. Some Diet members were concerned about the party’s reaction and canceled speeches they asked me to give (on their behalf), but I have to wonder how the voters will respond in the election that will eventually come. (laughs)

In fact, I’ve gotten several encouraging e-mails from people inside the LDP, but I’m not going to mention any names.

Some people say that he (Watanabe) was able to bolt the party because he’s a big vote-getter, but it’s not that simple. When you leave the party, they’ll send “assassins” (to run against you in elections), you no longer get campaign funds from the party, and you can’t put up party posters or distribute party flyers. Fighting an election without a party affiliation is a hard road.

When you appeared on television news programs right after leaving the party, many of the newscasters seemed to be somewhat malicious by suggesting that you’ll be crushed because you took this step by yourself.

That’s because those people are the so-called political “pros”. They’ve evaluated a politician’s behavior using such scales as the dynamics of party factions or how many other Diet members are lined up in support. The people who view events from the perspective of Nagata-cho, including politicians, are incapable of understanding my actions. As far as I’m concerned, they can go ahead and criticize me all they like.

A People’s Movement

You’ve said that in the future, you’d like to rally other people with the same ambitions, including the chief executives of local government, people in business and financial circles, and academics, to create a people’s movement. Specifically, what sort of activities will you conduct?

The image I have in mind is close to that of Sentaku, the group formed by former Mie Governor Kitakawa Masayasu from the perspective of eradicating the influence of the bureaucracy and Kasumigaseki. Unfortunately, while the Sentaku concept is superb, the group seems to have temporarily suspended its activities. That’s because they added too many Diet members. More than 100 members from all parties joined their association for Diet members. Their joint representative is the current Chief Cabinet Secretary, Kawamura Takeo, and more than half the members are MPs from the ruling party. It’s not possible for them to escape the clutches of the current administration. It turned out to be anticlimactic.

That’s why I intend to limit the membership to the most capable people I can find. There’s no merit at all in an assembly consisting only of Diet members.

What are the main slogans for your activities?

We will work under the banner of the slogan, “Smash the System of Bureaucracy-Led Cabinets”. Prime Minister Aso has said the bureaucracy is not the enemy, but he has completely relinquished public policy to the bureaucrats, and as a quid pro quo, he has restored amakudari, which had been prohibited. The bureaucracy has the Aso administration wrapped around its little finger. My mission is to move forward by creating a great change and smashing the current system, replacing it with one in which the cabinets are led by the prime minister.

Other Supporters

Your belief in eliminating bureaucratic domination and promoting regional autonomy is very close to that of Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru, or at least to the ideas of his principal political advisor, Sakaiya Taichi, former Director-General of the Economic Planning Agency. There are also rumors of your association with Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo. Will they also become members of your people’s movement?

I can’t give you any names yet. It’s not only a question of my decision—it’s also the decision of the core members who will work with me.

The names of MPs Mizuno Ken’ichi (LDP, no faction) and Shibayama Masahiko (LDP, Machimura faction) also have been linked to you.

I can’t say anything about the members yet.

Who will the core members be?

Eda Kenji (Independent) is one, and in the future, the number of kindred spirits will grow and expand beyond the confines of Nagata-cho.

There’s a story that Gov. Hashimoto met with you for four hours but turned down an offer to join you.

It wasn’t a question of turning me down, but of him saying ‘Let me think about it’. I think he was concerned about his dealings with the Diet. He’s very anxious to move the Osaka Prefecture offices to the Osaka World Trade Center, which is losing a lot of money. That will require the cooperation of Diet members in both the LDP and New Komeito. If he were to join my movement, his relationship with both of those parties would deteriorate. I think that’s the judgment he made.

A Non-Political Movement

Will the ‘People’s Movement’ try to bring down the Aso administration?

This will not be a movement that becomes involved with politics. It will be a pure citizen’s movement.

Will the ‘People’s Movement’ put forth any candidates in the next general election?

That’s different from any movement. People might say that if you’re going to put up candidates, you should form a party. Even if we gathered the five MPs required for creating a new party, the movement wouldn’t spread to the people. A party would be centered on the Diet members.

It’s important to destroy bureaucracy-led politics, but the economy is an urgent priority today.

Mr. Aso has said that his individual stimulus payments will boost consumption, but at 12,000 yen (about US$ 120.43) per person, that’s one digit short. It would be better if the government were to issue bank notes instead of the Bank of Japan, and distribute 20 trillion yen, 10 times Mr. Aso’s two trillion yen, to the people. If this is supposed to be a “once in a hundred years” crisis, you have to show that sort of resolve.

If it’s not possible to implement that sort of bold policy, we should discuss a forward-looking compromise on the two trillion yen stimulus measure with the opposition and allocate it to the regional areas plagued by unemployment. Mr. Aso can’t even do that.

What sort of conversations have you had with former LDP Secretary-General Takebe Tsutomu?

I wouldn’t call them consultations, but detailed reports. Mr. Takebe himself often says that he wants to work with me, but that his priority is the New Wind policy group that consists primarily of the Koizumi Children, the Diet members elected to their first term when he was secretary-general. He has to look out for them, so it’s not possible for him to work with a smaller group now.

My father (former Finance Minister Watanabe Michio) was asked by Ozawa Ichiro, then head of the Renewal Party, to take over as prime minister in 1994 when Hosokawa Morihiro stepped down. His condition was that my father leave the LDP. My father ultimately could not leave the party because he was a faction head. The reason is the same (as in Mr. Takebe’s case). I’m not part of a faction, so I was free.

Did you visit your father’s grave to tell him about your decision?

Yes, I did on 12 January, before the executives of my local support group gave their approval. When he was alive, my father often said, “The party comes before faction, and the country and the people come before party.” If you return to that starting point, I think my father also worked in politics for the country and the people, not party interests. That’s why I said at the press conference after I left the party that I probably had my father’s DNA.

His Political Future

An FNN poll about people who would make suitable prime ministers shows you coming in third behind Koizumi Jun’ichiro and Ozawa Ichiro. Are you interested in becoming prime minister?

It was the same situation with my father–it’s not possible to become prime minister through actual ability alone. Luck is a big factor.

Ozawa Ichiro of the DPJ said when you left the LDP that your political stance and way of thinking are the same as his. What ties do you have with the DPJ?

The DPJ says they’re interested in “alternating governments”. I’m interested in reorganizing government. There’s a big difference between the two. We agree on an early Diet dissolution and getting the bureaucrats out of government, but there are people in the LDP who believe the same thing. That’s why I think reorganizing government is the proper course.

Will you take any steps for governmental reorganization before the election?

It’s important to be established before the election. Then we can have a political realignment after the election based on the people’s judgment. I think that’s how affairs are trending.

Anyway, people are calling me a Don Quixote. I decided to jump out in front and sacrifice myself for governmental reorganization. I might be killed once politically because of it, but if so, I will most certainly come back to life.

The Osaka prefectural assembly rejected the initiative to move the prefecture offices to the World Trade Center. That may make it possible for Mr. Hashimoto to work more openly with Mr. Watanabe.

There are actually two parts to the Sentaku group, and Mr. Watanabe is referring to the liaison group with the national Diet. The original group was formed with the chief executives of local governments.

Now that his chief aide has been arrested in a political contribution scandal, Mr. Ozawa is no longer likely to be at the top of any lists of potential prime ministers. A Mainichi Shimbun poll in the past week shows that 39% of the respondents think he should step down as party boss immediately, and 33% say he should quit before the next election. In other words, almost three-quarters of the people think it’s time for him to take a hike.

5 Responses to “An interview with Watanabe Yoshimi”

  1. Bender said

    Crushing the bureaucracy is fine, I think they’re corrupt, too, but I always wonder: what afterwards? The lack of how the day after goes is kind of disturbing. Maybe this analogy is ill-founded, but reminds me of how Japanese leaders came to the conclusion to attack America back in 1941. Sure, they must have thought the Americans are major a-holes, but I’m not sure if they were really deliberating on what should come after the fiasco.

  2. ampontan said

    I understand what you’re saying, but first things first. The more one reads and discovers what goes on, the more one is disturbed by the extent of Kasumigaseki influence. What the politicians are looking for (both the LDP reformers and some in the DPJ) is probably a situation that winds up looking like competing bureaucracies–a group of competing bureaucrats, some backing party A, some backing party B.

    That’s not a great idea either, but at least it’s the first step in the right direction. The situation now is that an unelected elite who graduated from the finest schools are in de facto control of the government. It’s not so much that they are corrupt, it’s that they’re answerable only to themselves. They knocked Abe out of office (who tried to eliminate the Social Insurance Agency and brought Watanabe into government to begin with). A lot of informed opinion (in the print media anyway) thinks they were responsible for dumping Ozawa into hot water. I just saw a comment from an unnamed METI official who thinks they’ve got a bunch more stuff on Ozawa that they’re holding on to, waiting to see if he ever looks like he’ll come close again.

    It’s interesting, but you never see those sources do any of the petty whining about leaks from the prosecutor’s office. They know there are much, much bigger fish to fry, and the problems are much more serious than that.

    I honestly think this political civil war is the most interesting political story today in the advanced industrial democracies. I’d love to write a book, but it’s hard to keep up with the daily flood of information.

  3. Bender said

    The situation now is that an unelected elite who graduated from the finest schools are in de facto control of the government.

    I think they do- they’re one are of the “iron triangle” that die hard. One reason that it persists is that the people are supporting it. The people want pork barrel projects, and in many regions in Japan, they’re the only jobs that exist. Ozawa seemed very much a part of it.

  4. Bender said

    Also, I don’t think the Social Security Agency and the METI are connected. You’re forgetting about the sectionalism that exists. Kyogoku Jun’ichi (Japanese political science scholar) called the situation the “united states of ministries” (shocho-renpo). Instead of independent states, there are independent ministries and agencies- all with their independent pork barrel projects. And the amazing thing is that opposition party politicians also seem to have their own bite of the pie.

  5. ampontan said

    Ordinarily, you’re probably right, but the same article in which the comment from the METI guy appeared, the claim was made that Kasumigaseki teamed up to take out Abe. You’re in Japan now, right? Look at the article on page 12 of the current Sapio. (You can read it quickly in a bookstore.) Interesting suggestion there about Koizumi, too.

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