Japan from the inside out

The shame of the shameless DPJ

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 24, 2009

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
– Mark 8:36

CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGIST Ruth Benedict famously described Japan as having a culture of shame and the United States as having a culture of guilt. She elaborated on the latter description by asserting that guilt inculcates standards of absolute morality, which America had but Japan didn’t.

Her viewpoint on the differences between the two countries quickly became both influential and controversial. Some discredit it for being “deeply flawed”, “politely arrogant”, and “anthropology at a distance”. Psychoanalyst Doi Takeo, the author of the equally influential Anatomy of Dependence (Amae no Kozo), criticized the concept for deliberately implying the superiority of the American value system to that of the Japanese.

Regardless of the validity of Benedict’s thesis, events in the 1990s demonstrated that notions of guilt and morality were obsolete in American political culture. The American President during most of that decade was publicly and credibly accused of rape; reports suggested that he might well have been a serial rapist. As a state governor, he committed the most puerile and tawdry acts of sexual harassment on state employees and used the state police as his personal procurers. While President, he toyed with an intern and a cigar in his office while keeping an overseas visitor on government business waiting in the Rose Garden.

Yet 66% of the American public thought the mass media should not follow up the rape accusation. The public was insufficiently aroused to demand his conviction when impeached. (No sniggering until you finish the sentence!) Needless to say, the Democrats, the President’s own party, thought none of this disqualified him to continue serving in the nation’s highest office.

Now, 10 years later, their namesake, the Democratic Party of Japan, seems to have placed a bet that the sense of shame in Japanese culture has become equally extinct.

L - R: Pinocchio, Geppetto

L - R: Pinocchio, Geppetto

On 10 May Ozawa Ichiro finally took it upon himself to resign his position of party president after his chief aide had been arrested six weeks earlier for accepting a total of $US 3 million since 1995 in illegal campaign contributions from a dummy organization established by a construction company. Had Mr. Ozawa a sense of guilt, morality, shame, or even held himself to the standards to which his party holds other politicians, he would have resigned immediately after his aide’s arrest.

Some in the political class now cling to the legal presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. But like Caesar’s wife, politicians should be above suspicion; their position and their dependence on the public trust demands that they conform to a standard higher than that for a high school dropout caught using a crowbar to jimmy open a vending machine for spare change. That would be the case even if the DPJ had not tried to sell itself as cleaner than thou.

Some insist that Mr. Ozawa should have relinquished his Diet seat in addition to his position in the party, and a few people speculated that he might eventually do just that. But he did not. In fact, his official statement on the DPJ website does not refer to the fund raising scandal at all:

In order to strengthen party unity with a view to ensuring victory in the forthcoming general election and realising a change of government, I have decided to sacrifice myself and tender my resignation as President of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Translation: The only reason I quit was to keep the party from breaking up and to make sure it takes power in the next election.

Well, if that’s the story he wants to stick to, he’s the one who’s going to need a prescription to get to sleep every night. But a political party with integrity and character would insist—at a minimum—that he have the decency to keep his public profile subterranean for the rest of his political career. What did the DPJ do?

They bestowed on him the honor of appointment to an executive position called “acting president”. That’s the same title held by Kan Naoto, one of the party’s founders and a past party president himself.

They also put him in charge of the upcoming election campaign. All five senior party officials appeared on stage together after their appointment looking for all the world as if happy days were here again. In other words, they thought their tainted political meat was still fit to serve to the voters as long as they covered it in enough sauce to mask the stench.

By doing so, they validated the apprehensions of party detractors and supporters alike by behaving precisely as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party might have done 30 years ago during the reign of Mr. Ozawa’s mentor, Tanaka Kakuei. The party has now forfeited any claim to political probity, relative or otherwise.

Some are concerned that the disgraced party president has become a Svengali in his own right who will continue to wield the real power in the DPJ while new president Hatoyama Yukio performs his role in front of the cameras as their public face. Just who, one wonders, is the “acting” president, and who is the real president?

Mr. Ozawa still has not fulfilled his basic obligation of explaining how he used all that money. Who could blame anyone for drawing the conclusion that public disclosure would result in more unpleasant encounters with The Law? Because the party changed only the label without changing the contents of the container, nothing at all has changed.

The LDP response

That made it even easier for the members of the ruling party, the Liberal Democrats, to take their own turn on stage as moralists. Said Prime Minister Aso Taro:

If we’re talking about the citizens’ mindset, their feelings would be that since Ozawa has become the acting president, the questions they most want to ask (Party President Hatoyama Yukio) are about the money connection with Mr. Ozawa. There might be a sense of a disconnect between the popular will and what the DPJ is saying. (Public opinion polls show that) most people think their explanation has been inadequate….

Mr. Aso swung at a fat pitch and nearly whiffed–not surprising for a man with a batting average below the Mendoza Line. But former party Secretary-General Kato Koichi connected more solidly. Mr. Kato was rumored to be examining the possibility of forming a new, small party last autumn with himself at the head. The idea would be to form a coalition with a stronger DPJ after the next lower house election and become a credible candidate for prime minister in a broad coalition government.

That option doesn’t seem to be in play any more. During a television broadcast last week, Mr. Kato said:

“When the people saw the photograph of Mr. Ozawa shaking hands with the new party president, Hatoyama Yukio, I suspect they thought, ‘They’re the same as the LDP’. (It means) the DPJ is no longer able to win an outright majority in the next lower house election…A movement transcending parties might now arise.”

In other words, he foresees the possibility of a post-election political realignment and the creation of a real reform bloc that does not include either Mr. Hatoyama or Mr. Ozawa.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was delivered by Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Hatoyama Kunio, Yukio’s younger brother. The atmosphere might be chilly at the next get-together of the Hatoyama clan:

“It’s apparent to everyone that (Yukio is) Ozawa Ichiro’s puppet. I’ve always thought of forming a fraternal alliance with him, but an alliance is impossible unless he dumps Ozawa.”

Hatoyama the Younger helped form the DPJ in 1996 with Yukio, but later left to rejoin the LDP. Here’s what he had to say about his handiwork:

“I’m the one who gave the Democratic Party its name. Yet, it’s regrettable that what they’ve done is the most undemocratic thing. I didn’t want my brother to get involved with those procedures (that allowed only the party’s diet members to vote for party president)”.

Politicians never pass up the chance to bash the opposition, but seldom does a man call his brother a willing dupe in public, member of the political opposition or not.

The late American humorist Fred Allen once observed, “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a fruit fly, and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer’s heart.”

The same could equally apply to all the sincerity in politics, and the reason the DPJ chose to praise Caesar’s wife rather than bury her is as we’ve noted before: They’re afraid he’ll take his 50 supporters in the Diet, flounce out of the party, and find someone else to go to the ball with. That has been the chief activity of Mr. Ozawa’s career, after all. The DPJ is also well aware of its electoral impotence with anyone else at the helm, so why muck around with principle and honor when the chance to take power is still up for grabs?

What comes next?

The ultimate verdict will be rendered by the electorate, and if recent polls are any indication, the DPJ might get away with it. The party itself got an eight-point jump in polling after placing Mr. Hatoyama in the shop window. Before Mr. Ozawa resigned, voters favored Aso Taro by more than 10 percentage points in a head-to-head comparison. Now a similar advantage is enjoyed by Mr. Hatoyama.

Yet the same polls show that more than 70% of the respondents found Ozawa Ichiro’s explanation for resigning unacceptable. As always, we’ll have to stay tuned to see whether the polls hold firm, this is just a temporary bounce or a transient phenomenon, or if the DPJ discovers yet another way to fumble its opportunities.

Despite the naked opportunism and alley cat scruples, some good might come of an eventual DPJ victory and formation of a government. It could lead to the eventual creation of a legitimate two-party system in Japan. If the party behaves in power anything like they did in opposition, the voters would soon realize that incompetence and venality transcend party affiliation and start drawing conclusions. The inevitable early crumbling of a DPJ-led government might accelerate the political realignment the country desperately needs. And finally, it would provide people like me with what the American military calls a “target rich environment”.

But even with the accrual of all these benefits, the bad would still outweigh the good. When people such as these win, everyone loses in the end. It would show just what the Japanese are prepared to put up with from their politicians. And finally, it would reveal their contemporary attitude toward shame.

The word for shame in Japanese is haji, and the word for shameless is hajishirazu; literally, not knowing shame. A victory in the lower house election with Ozawa Ichiro pulling the DPJ strings without bothering to stand behind the curtain hiding him from the audience’s view would lay to rest for good Ruth Benedict’s notion of Japan as having a culture of shame.

That’s because it would be hajishirazu its own self.

C. Douglas Lummis had this to say about Ruth Benedict:

Militarist Japan was for her simply “Japan” – Japan as it had always been, and as it would continue to be unless changed from the outside.

Ruth Benedict, who died more than 60 years ago, worked from second- and third-hand sources. But isn’t it odd that Mr. Lummis’s observation could just as well be applied to contemporary Western mass media and some maladjusted foreigners, despite the accessibility of international air travel and the libraries of information available with just a few keystrokes?

The U.K. is now undergoing the mother of all political/financial scandals in which, very briefly put, MPs of all parties are being exposed for diverting public funds and the benefits derived from their position to their personal gain.

The Archbishop of Canterbury makes an excellent point here about the limitations inherent in regulating the behavior of politicians:

The question “What can I get away with without technically breaching the regulations?” is not a good basis for any professional behaviour that has real integrity…

…if the culture is such that regulation takes the place of virtue, we shouldn’t be too surprised if public figures show signs of the virus and take refuge in the “no rules were broken” tactic.

Daniel Hannan of England, a member of the European Parliament, approves. He says the concept:

…is the basis of Protestantism, of liberalism, of the British conception of freedom. It is the foundation of modern Conservatism too. As Keith Joseph used to say, when you give people responsibility, you make them responsible. And, although Dr Williams quite properly refrains from saying so, it is the strongest possible argument against Gordon Brown’s plan to subject MPs to an external quango.

I’m neither British nor a Protestant (though I will cop to being a broadly non-denominational, classic liberal), but I wholeheartedly agree.

That’s why I think some well-intentioned laws, such the Japanese law funding political parties (defined as having five Diet members) from the Treasury to prevent a corrupting reliance on corporate donations, are ultimately self-defeating. (Not to mention an infringement of the rights of those people who choose not to contribute to political parties at all.)

That’s also why I think such innovations as the lay judge system, which began functioning last week amidst controversy and some public opposition, are excellent ideas. As the man said, when you give people responsibility, you make them responsible. True reform of the Japanese political system will not be achieved until the people are given as much responsibility as they can handle–and that means downsizing government to the lowest levels possible while enforcing the basic laws governing human behavior.

Regardless of the reasons people give, I suspect the opposition to the lay judge system is based mostly on the absence of a sense of civic responsibility. For some people, it just takes too much time and trouble to assume that responsibility, and it cuts into their social life and TV-watching time to boot.

The attitude I would hold up as a model was that of a former housemate of mine in the United States who was summoned to jury duty. He would be the first to admit that it took a lot of time and trouble. But he has a strong sense of both curiosity and integrity, which meant that he was fascinated by the glimpse his service provided into the legal system and human nature, and that he performed that service in the most conscientious way he could.

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