AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Archive for May, 2009

Quick hits on the DPJ election

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 17, 2009

THOSE WHO FOLLOW Japanese politics know that Hatoyama Yukio defeated Okada Katsuya yesterday in the election to replace Democratic Party of Japan head Ozawa Ichiro, who resigned in the wake of a scandal that erupted when his chief aide was arrested for receiving illegal campaign contributions. The vote in Mr. Hatoyama’s favor to lead the country’s primary opposition party was 124-95.

Floating just beneath the surface, however, were some morsels of news and rumor that even the politicos might have overlooked. Here are three.

  • Detesting the press

The Japanese mass media is a bit more balanced than their fellows in the United States when they choose a political party to savage. The center of gravity in the DPJ tends to be center-left, but that’s not enough to spare them the barbs of the Japanese press.

Upper house DPJ proportional representative Ishii Hajime (Hata group) was once a rising star in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party as a lower house member. That star dimmed after the disclosure of some unrevealed financial interests and a trip to North Korea, however. Mr. Ishii aligned himself with then-LDP members Hata Tsutomu and Ozawa Ichiro and accompanied them on the twisting path of their Long March into the DPJ.

Mr. Ishii took an opportunity after the Hatoyama victory to stick it in the face of some members of the press corps present at the hotel where the election was held:

“You tell Ozawa to quit, and then when he quits you (call Hatoyama) the Ozawa puppet. The DPJ will not do as you say!”

After Mr. Ishii’s outburst, an Okada supporter standing nearby grumbled:

“Elections are tough. They’ll just write that the DPJ wasn’t able to change.”

  • An Okada scandal?

The ruling LDP was concerned that Okada Katsuya would be a more formidable opponent in a general election than Mr. Hatoyama. Former LDP veep Yamasaki Hiraku (AKA Taku) was quoted as saying about the result, “Honestly, I’m relieved.”

Japanese politics is always awash with rumors of sinister machinations, especially where the LDP is concerned–even involving the internal elections of an opposition party. Here’s one story that made the rounds:

The Okada candidacy seemed to be generating some late momentum. Only the DPJ’s Diet members voted in the election, which favored the Hatoyama candidacy, but Okada supporters wanted to include votes from local branches nationwide, where their man was stronger. In fact, a movement started in the party’s Okayama branch to hold a primary election there and in other prefectures, and some in the Okada camp started talking about a possible upset on Friday night.

That same night, however, tongues started wagging about a connection between Nishimatsu Construction, the company involved in the scandal that brought Ozawa Ichiro down, and, as one newspaper discreetly put it, “the company in Mr. Okada’s family.”

The company in Mr. Okada’s family is Jusco, Japan’s largest retail chain, which was founded by his father, Okada Tatsuya. The holding company that owns all the Jusco subsidiaries is Aeon, whose president is Okada Motoya, Katsuya’s brother.

Said a DPJ upper house member off the record:

“The ruling party has gotten hold of a scandal. We can’t fight (this election) with Okada.”

According to this scenario, the party held late night meetings to arrange a 30-40 vote differential for Mr. Hatoyama to avoid wounding his opponent and to steer clear of still more bad publicity.

If there is any truth at all to this rumor, and it wasn’t just political psy-ops, it would mean that the LDP could trot it out again any time Okada Katsuya trotted out again on the national stage. Perhaps that was the reason for the particularly unpleasant expression on Mr. Okada’s face when the election results were announced.

  • Spin

A Kyodo poll just before the election showed that the public preferred Okada Katsuya as DPJ boss by a 23.7% to 16.9% margin.

Speaking after the election, Hatoyama supporter Haraguchi Kazuhiro, a proportional representative in the lower house from Saga and the Internal Affairs and Communications minister in the party’s shadow Cabinet, exulted:

“We’ve taken a step away from being held at the mercy of public opinion polls. It’s proof that the DPJ has grown.”

But isn’t the objective of a political party to win elections by running the candidates most popular with the voters? Apparently Mr. Haraguchi would have us believe the DPJ has transcended that concept.

Or maybe that’s as much spin as you’ll see outside of a batter’s box facing a Matsuzaka Daisuke breaking ball!

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

The death and resurrection of a Japanese festival

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 15, 2009

FOR A SUPERB DEMONSTRATION of just how much traditional Shinto festivals mean to the Japanese, look no further than the recent success of the people in a small district in Saeki, Oita. The outflow of young people from the area over the years has left only 3,030 people living there now, of which 390 are aged 65 or older. That gives the district an elderly population of 38%, much higher than the already high rate of 26% for Oita as a whole.

The lack of able bodies forced the local Hayasuhime Shinto shrine to discontinue the Gojinkosai, its annual summer festival, four years ago. An additional complication was that the main event required volunteers with a high testosterone count—it was a particularly fierce fighting festival, and as long-time friends know, Japanese fighting festivals can be fierce indeed. Matsuri of this sort often involve groups of men smashing portable Shinto shrines known as mikoshi into each other, usually with the intent of driving the other group into a river or smashing their mikoshi altogether. Sometimes in Shinto, rowdiness is next to godliness.

Saeki’s Gojinkosai required three mikoshi instead of the usual two, and to facilitate the bashing they lined up on a nearby beach. A photograph from the last festival, held in 2005, shows that all three mikoshi and their carriers wound up waist-deep in water.

The dwindling total of young people meant that the numbers no longer added up. A team of 30 people was needed for each mikoshi because all that mayhem required the participants to take turns due to fatigue. There are only 410 men in the district between the ages of 16 and 49, so almost 25% of them would have to participate every year.

But a group of diehards in that district refused to let the 850-year-old event fade away. Held in supplication for a good harvest, good fishing, and safety at sea, the festival also featured taiko drumming and a performance of the shishimai, or lion dance, in addition to the shrine-sanctioned brawling. Those who wanted to resume the festival successfully organized a local referendum in January. One faction in the district was content to let sleeping traditions lie; they said the economic downturn was an inappropriate time for such sportive rambunctiousness, much less for the eating, drinking, merriment, and more drinking that are essential elements of most matsuri. But the veneration of tradition and love of a good time prevailed, as the group which countered that an economic downturn was the perfect time for a festival carried the day and won the election.

Prevailing in the referendum was one thing, but rounding up the men to actually put their bodies on the line was another. How did they solve that problem?

They sent out a call to those young people who had moved away to return for the weekend and resuscitate the event. The heads of the four neighborhood associations went from door to door in their areas to ask the residents to ask their sons and grandsons to lend a helping hand and a sturdy shoulder to come home for the weekend and hoist the mikoshi for the old hometown.

Aided either by their persuasive abilities or a divine wind, the arm-twisting worked on a sufficient number of children and grandchildren to bring the Gojinkosai back to life this summer. To make it easier on the participants, the traditional festival date of 29 July was switched to the 26th, a Sunday. That will allow the mikoshi carriers sufficient time to travel and recover from their bumps and bruises for work the next day.

Some people think traditional culture in the modern world is a fragile heirloom that would wither and die without being propped up by bureaucrats and infusions of public funds. But as a small group in Saeki showed, all that’s required to keep alive the traditions people value is a bit of imagination and effort.

Posted in Demography, Festivals | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Japan’s Democratic Party on a mudboat of its own

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, May 14, 2009

That’s life, that’s what all the people say.
You’re riding high in April,
Shot down in May
– That’s Life, Kelly Gordon and Dean K. Thompson, as performed by Frank Sinatra

Without bread, a stud can’t even rule an anthill.
– Lord Buckley, riffing on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

IT HAD LONG BEEN OBVIOUS to all but the most wishful of thinkers and rankest of hacks and sycophants that Ozawa Ichiro, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, would have to step down after his chief aide was arrested in a fund-raising scandal earlier this year. He finally did so on Monday after letting his party, the Diet, and the business of the nation twist slowly, slowly in the wind for more than two months. Rather than retire to write his memoirs and revise history while the iron is hot, however, he appears to be reverting to type–and to Japanese politics of the 1970s.

Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

The scandal couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time for the DPJ. Newspaper polls in early January had at last showed a swing toward the party, though their internal polling at the end of November had been pointing to the capture of 260 out of 480 lower house seats. That would have given them an outright majority and enabled them to form a government.

The weekly Shukan Gendai reported in its 31 January edition that spirits were bright at the DPJ’s New Year party. Diet members are said to have slapped each other on the back and addressed each other as “Minister”. The 30 April edition of Shukan Bunshun quoted a reporter describing a political party intoxicated with itself, as members flooded headquarters with policy proposals and scavenged for political appointments.

The situation got so out of hand that Mr. Ozawa had to make the rounds of the candidates’ headquarters to tell them the election wouldn’t be that easy.

They should have listened.

Just a few weeks later, one pollster found the arrest and Mr. Ozawa’s subsequent mishandling of affairs could cost the DPJ as many as 46 seats in the next election. A Yomiuri/Waseda poll showed the number of respondents who were “disappointed” in the DPJ rose to 60%, up from an already high 50% in January. Only 45% thought they were capable of handling the reins of government, down from 51%. Meanwhile the number of people who found the LDP capable rose to 61% from 54% (though 73% were disappointed in them, too).

The DPJ members must have known in their hearts that Mr. Ozawa’s refusal to leave his position was killing them, yet few had the courage to say it when other people could hear them. Those who did at first were members of the party’s anti-Ozawa Maehara/Edano group (faction), including Maehara Seiji himself. Addressing the aide’s arrest and Mr. Ozawa’s excuses, he told a group in Kyoto:

“Even if it was legal, it would be a problem whether it’s acceptable to accept that amount of money. That amount of money would be inconceivable for me.”

The inconceivable amount for Mr. Maehara—once the party leader himself and still a group/faction boss—was roughly $US three million since 1995, with the possibility of still more to be uncovered. What he didn’t mention, but other party leaders later confirmed, was that the DPJ had instituted a policy in 2000 in which individual members were disallowed from accepting personal contributions from corporate donors. Not only was Mr. Ozawa thumbing his nose at those calling for his resignation, he flipped off his own party rules as well.

A more principled politician would have resigned immediately after his aide’s arrest to preserve his party’s chances, but no one would use that word to describe Mr. Ozawa, and few principled politicians become leaders in any party anyway. The DPJ promotes itself as the clean alternative to the LDP, but the arrest let all the air out of that already leaden balloon. The party leader held a tearful press conference in March in which he protested his innocence, ruled out a resignation, and vowed to fight on. Far from convincing anyone, his performance raised more questions than it answered and left his party vulnerable for the better part of two months during one of the most critical periods in postwar Japanese politics.

The fallout

The electorate was not impressed with what it saw. Polling after the press conference found that 79% of the public didn’t believe him and 66% thought he should quit as party head. (That 13-percentage-point differential makes one wonder whether cynicism has become the default position for some of the Japanese public.) The poll numbers never budged after that.

Komiyama Yoko, the DPJ’s shadow Education Minister and a member of Mr. Maehara’s group, was another one of the few who spoke out:

“The most important thing is to take an approach (to ensure) that we win the next election. I really think he ought to do us the favor of withdrawing at this point. I don’t think we’ll be able to win a difficult election by apologies and excuses.”

Less circumspect was one of the party’s three Supreme Advisors, Watanabe Kozo. Mr. Watanabe, who was elected as an independent to the Diet in 1969, joined the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, served in three Cabinet positions, and then fled to the DPJ, commented:

“He shouldn’t have cried. It’s one thing if a man cries over what happens to other people, but he can’t cry over something that happened to himself. The people seek a strong Ozawa—a crybaby Ozawa isn’t acceptable. After the press conference, one of the Ozawa toadies told some people he knew that he had suggested the tears. That’s just what I thought.”

Mr. Watanabe also noted that one of the biggest hits in the poll numbers had been among women, a group that generally favors the DPJ.

I am not a crook!

I am not a crook!

The tears reminded the public that Mr. Ozawa had also gotten weepy the last time he appeared at a critical press conference—in November 2007 when he withdrew his resignation as party head after his efforts to form a grand coalition with the Fukuda Administration blew up in his face. Whether the voters considered him a crybaby, or believed as Shakespeare that “ambition should be made of sterner stuff”, the result was the same. They wrote him off and didn’t change their minds.

Why should anyone have pretended to think otherwise? The voting public, not to mention the mass media, are unforgiving when politicians who sell themselves as cleaner than everyone else turn out be just as dirty as everyone else—particularly when they all assumed Mr. Ozawa was simply more successful at hiding the dirt to begin with.

By late April, the party’s dilemma was summed up when Komiyama Yoko told Mr. Maehara during a hallway conversation in the Diet building that they’d reached their limit. He responded: “No, we’ve already gone beyond the limit.”

But rather than oust their leader, the dismayed DPJ MPs resigned themselves to the situation. Ren Ho, (also known as Murata Renho; Noda group) a former magazine model and TV presenter now serving her first term in the upper house, and the party’s deputy minister in charge of pensions in the shadow cabinet, said:

“If Mr. Ozawa’s not going to quit, we’ll just have to wait until he does.”

Mr. Ozawa decided he would try to ride things out in the absence of a public outcry, or unless he was dealt the ace of spades from the prosecutorial deck of cards. By allowing him to do so, the party members were guilty of enabling behavior. One of his DPJ opponents, Edano Yukio, co-chair of the faction with Maehara Seiji, admitted that most members wanted Ozawa to stay on if the investigation didn’t spread to him. In a classic case of denying the obvious, some even suggested that the problem with the funds was only a “violation of the regulations”, and if the scandal went no further, it would constitute an Ozawa victory.

The bunker mentality

But the poll numbers showing public disapproval never changed, and Mr. Ozawa started exhibiting signs of a bunker mentality. There is a national invitational baseball tournament for high school boys held every year in Osaka during spring vacation. The team representing Iwate, Mr. Ozawa’s home prefecture, reached the finals (but lost). Party Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio suggested that he attend the championship game; public appearances at events such as those are catnip for politicians. He declined, however, saying, “I can’t very well go.”

A debate between party heads was held in the Diet on 28 November last year, and the consensus was that Mr. Ozawa outperformed Prime Minister Aso Taro. The LDP suggested a second round, but the DPJ head kept ducking the request. He finally agreed a scant few days before he resigned. Perhaps he only agreed because he knew he was going to resign.

Senior party members gingerly suggested that he needed to provide a more detailed explanation of the circumstances, both to the public and to themselves—a tacit admission that the explanation he gave at the press conference was so much lunchmeat. The pressure grew more intense for everyone; Mr. Hatoyama developed an ulcer in March from defending the indefensible, though he would not reveal it until later.

Some in the DPJ suggested their leader should resign if the Chiba gubernatorial election on 29 March turned out poorly for the party candidate. Mr. Ozawa went to Chiba to appear for the candidate, but heard discouraging news during a visit to campaign headquarters. A female volunteer told him to his face: “I’m hearing serious complaints over the telephone.”

Reports said there was a sharp, collective intake of breath from those nearby when this lowly campaign worker had the impertinence to deliver bad news to the boss himself, but Mr. Ozawa accepted it without a word.

The DPJ candidate wound up losing to Morita Kensaku, an independent formerly associated with the LDP and running with support from many local LDP politicians. He took 43% of the vote in a five-man field.

Mr. Ozawa still did not step down. The first question he was asked at a press conference to discuss the election was whether he thought the scandal had an effect on the results. Mr. Ozawa replied:

“For more than three weeks, all of you (reporters) have been working overtime reporting on this issue involving my aide, so I think there may have been an impact.”

That was yet another telltale sign of the bunker mentality. The DPJ claims the mantle of the clean government alternative, the party leader’s chief aide is arrested for his involvement in collecting more than three million dollars in illegal campaign contributions over 10 years from a dummy organization, and the first words out of his mouth when the public expresses its disapproval are to blame the press for covering the story. Did Mr. Ozawa read nothing about Watergate?

The blowback

Those outside the party had no reason to hold their tongues, however. Kamei Shizuka of the People’s New Party, a splinter group nominally aligned with the DPJ, was blunt. He alluded to the political paralysis caused by the party’s failure to clean up their mess, and to how the party appeared to the real world:

“During the lower house election campaign, it will be difficult to clear the air of the charge that Mr. Ozawa is a disgrace. He should sacrifice himself for the sake of allowing a DPJ victory…The DPJ is now in a brain dead state. Their hands and feet are bound and can’t do anything. This is not the time to be telling us to wait until the investigation is over. The people will draw the conclusion that Ozawa is trying to flee from justice after all. Yet no one in the DPJ speaks up…The voters will watch how they handle a crisis. It’s not my party, so I shouldn’t be telling them to do this or that, but I do want to tell them to take this more seriously.”

Shii Kazuo, head of the Japanese Communist Party, commented on the Ozawa justification that he broke no laws:

“Even if there isn’t a law, he could still resign of his own free will. “

But no one enjoyed watching the DPJ squirm more than the LDP. Speaking in Osaka, ruling party member Suga Yoshihide minced no words to describe how the DPJ Diet members avoided discussing the subject at a party meeting:

“Very few (of the members) expressed opinions. Those are the people who always demand an explanation of responsibility, yet they haven’t lifted a finger. The people’s verdict is that he hasn’t explained who is responsibile, yet the DPJ protects him and lets him continue in office. What a horrible party!” (hidoi seito)

On the same day, LDP Koizumian reformer Nakagawa Hidenao went so far as to suggest dissolving the Diet and holding a general election in May:

“If this were the ruling party, they (the DPJ) would say he should resign. The DPJ emphasized its clean hands regarding politics and money, but they support Mr. Ozawa’s remaining in office. All that’s left is for the voters to make a decision.”

When Aso Taro opponent Nakagawa, who seems to be simultaneously mulling the formation of his own party while trying to drag the LDP back to its reform stance under Prime Minister Koizumi, suggests a snap election under Mr. Aso’s leadership, the DPJ should have realized just how much of a hole it had dug itself.

Hamayotsu Toshiko, the acting chief representative of LDP coalition partner New Komeito, and their number two until last November, said:

“Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ are still clinging to the ways of the old LDP years ago.”

Funny she should say that. One of the few politicians of note outside the DPJ who defended Mr. Ozawa was Suzuki Muneo, a former LDP mini-baron who spent 437 days in jail after being found guilty of influence peddling in connection with local lumber contracts. That time behind bars is a record for a Diet member. He was also famously called “a trading company for scandal” to his face during questioning on the Diet floor. After his release from jail, he formed a vanity party and was returned to the Diet as a proportional representative.

The two men met privately in Mr. Ozawa’s Tokyo office, and during the meeting Mr. Suzuki offered his strong support and advice on handling problems related to political funds. The embattled DPJ leader must have found that comforting.

With Ozawa Ichiro in a cauldron up to his neck in boiling water as the cannibals were peeling turnips, the question remains: what took him so long? He was almost certainly driven by stubbornness, vanity, and an overdeveloped sense of pride. Add to that his understanding that stepping down meant he would never become prime minister.

Let me make myself perfectly clear...

Let me make myself perfectly clear...

That much would be clear to the casual observer. Less widely known, however, were the rumors from close associates of Mr. Ozawa that he was convinced he would never be arrested. His self-assurance was not based on a belief that he didn’t do anything wrong. Rather, he had applied himself to the study of campaign financing after the Lockheed scandal brought down Tanaka Kakuei, his patron as a young politician. Mr. Ozawa thought he had his tracks covered.

The ghost of scandals past

The manifestation of the ghost of Tanaka Kakuei also leads to the question of why his party didn’t insist that he be gone. Ms. Hamayotsu’s charge that the DPJ was behaving like the LPD of the bad old days is one that occurred to many people in Japan. Writing in the May issue of Shokun!, journalist Ito Atsuo argued that the Democratic Party of Japan as led by Ozawa Ichiro is the last real faction in the style of Tanaka Kakuei of the old Liberal Democratic Party—the Japanese version of Boss Tweed and his political machine. In other words, the new boss looks and acts a whole lot like the old boss did.

In addition to their shared preference for party organization, Mr. Ozawa is said to resemble his patron in another important aspect: his attitude toward political associates. As was the case with Tanaka Kakuei (and daughter Makiko), you’re either his slave or his enemy. He demands total obedience and has no patience with people who don’t offer it immediately. He is not interested in debate or explanations to people with different opinions. During his days as leader of the Liberal Party, he is said to have told an acquaintance:

“If a person can’t understand without an explanation, they won’t understand even if they’re given an explanation.”

Now you know why he briefly quit the party leadership in November 2007 when others objected to his idea of a coalition. (That Mr. Maehara and others of his group criticized their party leader so openly speaks to their degree of political courage. Mr. Maehara will never get a chance to lead the DPJ again as long as it stays as presently constituted.)

That’s also why he refused to meet with groups inside the party to provide them with a more detailed explanation of his fund-raising practices. His avoidance of those meetings with other party members continued before and during the week-long holidays at the beginning of May, which the party expected him to attend.

The most compelling evidence that Mr. Ozawa and his coterie were not congruent with reality came when it was reported that his allies in the party vowed that the crisis would be over at the end of April. The counterattack would begin in earnest after the early May holidays. Yet rather than mount the long-awaited defense, Mr. Ozawa chose that moment to resign his party position.

Of course Mr. Ozawa was disliked within the party, especially by its younger members. Senior party members had long told them to put aside their emotions and think realpolitik instead. The Asahi Shimbun reported that those senior members were working overtime to prevent a breakup. But they held their noses and stuck with him because no one else in the party was capable of organizing the members and their wildly incompatible philosophies into group capable of a credible political challenge to the LDP. They neutered themselves for a chance to be at the seat of power.

There was another reason that the DPJ members were hesitant to push Mr. Ozawa too hard. Here’s an off the record comment from a DPJ anti-Ozawa member to a reporter covering the party:

“We’re afraid that Mr. Ozawa will run off. It’s possible that he’d also bolt the party if he quits as party leader. If he takes the 50 people in his political group with him from the upper and lower houses of the Diet, he might plot a political realignment (without us). He won’t do that, however, as long as he’s party leader.”

This was not a case of a man seeing a twig in the dusk and mistaking it for a snake. Mr. Ozawa threatened to do just that in November 2007. Indeed, his entire career has been spent sloughing off his political skin and slithering through one party after another.

Even were he not to bolt, the party could still collapse of its own internal contradictions without his Soviet-style iron fist. The LDP has been waiting for that to happen since the party was formed, but so far has been waiting in vain. Many in the DPJ view him as some men view women: they can’t live with him, but they can’t live without him either.

What next?

Anyone who ventures to predict the actions of Japanese politicians is talking through the flimsiest of hats, but it’s worth looking at some of the possibilities for the immediate future.

A few DPJ supporters are excited at the departure of their party leader because the press won’t have Ozawa Ichiro to kick around any more. That sentiment might be both premature and ill-advised.

A survey of DPJ Diet members conducted early during the crisis revealed that the older members preferred either Acting President Kan Naoto or Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio as a successor, while the younger members backed Vice-President Okada Katsuya.

All three have held that post before, and all three have failed.

Mr. Kan is not running. That leaves Mr. Hatoyama, whom former Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro, his former faction leader in the LDP, once compared to “melted ice cream”, and Mr. Okada. If Mr. Okada is the answer, the only question can be, “What’s a good cure for insomnia”. Former New York Gov. Thomas Dewey was once derided as looking like the little man on top of the wedding cake; Mr. Okada is the Japanese version, except Mr. Dewey didn’t have those bags under his eyes. He was such a lackluster campaigner in the 2005 lower house election during his previous term as leader that it made the national news when a junior high school girl asked him why he didn’t smile more.

Why is this man laughing?

Why is this man laughing?

Most observers assumed that Mr. Hatoyama would not run because he had vowed during the crisis to resign his position if Ozawa Ichiro quit. But most observers should know better than to take politicians at their word. Just because a guy quits the job of party secretary-general doesn’t mean he can’t run for party president, and he has already announced he will stand for that office. After all, what’s integrity to a bonbon politician who knows this is his last chance of becoming prime minister at the head of the party he helped found?

Though it cuts no ice inside the party, the public seems to prefer Mr. Okada. An Internet survey conducted by Livedoor showed that he was favored by 37.12% of the respondents, while Mr. Hatoyama had less than half those numbers at 15.26. Maehara Seiji, who isn’t running (and probably never can for his Ozawa apostasy) even outpolled him at 19.16%.

A party that doesn’t get it–and doesn’t want to

Remember the comparisons of Ozawa Ichiro to former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei? Being driven out of office by the Lockheed scandal in the 1970s didn’t stop the latter from controlling LDP affairs from the back room. There are signs that Mr. Ozawa is still the chip off the old block and intends to keep pulling the strings in the party. He says he will help run the next election campaign, and there are indications he pushed for an early party election to ensure a Hatoyama victory.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that he will support Mr. Hatoyama in return for the latter’s servitude loyalty, but that does not necessarily mean that Mr. Okada would cross the boss were he to win. All three of these men are ex-LDP members. The story is told that when Mr. Okada ran in his first election for the Diet, he couldn’t persuade the LDP to endorse him. He eventually paid a visit to Ozawa Ichiro and begged for party support–on bended knee—and got it. He has been the devoted servant ever since.

It was also assumed that Yamaoka Kenji, the party’s Diet Affairs Committee Chairman, would leave his post in the event of an Ozawa departure. Mr. Yamaoka is Ozawa Ichiro’s lap pit bull, who came to the DPJ with him from the old Liberal Party. Were he also to step down, it might mean that the DPJ would become a little more cooperative when discussing LDP Diet proposals and drain off some of the bad blood that exists between the parties. (Mr. Yamaoka has a personality as repellent as that of Democratic Party hatchet man Paul Begala in the United States, though he is not the pencil-necked geek that the latter is.)

Here’s what Mr. Yamaoka said when he assumed the post in August 2007:

「私の国対で、両党協議など存在しない」
“Consultation between the two parties will not exist when I am (in that post).”

Now you know why there’s been government gridlock in the form of the “twisted Diet” since the DPJ’s victory in the 2007 upper house election. And why that will continue as long as Ozawa Ichiro has anything to say about it.

If Ozawa Ichiro continues to channel Tanaka Kakuei and pulls the levers from behind the curtain—a role he has always found much more to his liking—it won’t make a dime’s worth of difference if either Hatoyama Yukio or Okada Katsuya succeeds him. Under Mr. Ozawa, the party put its political manhood in a blind trust while they boarded a mudboat of their own. That they have morphed into their father’s LDP means that political machinations will always precede policy and principle. The only difference between them and the zombies back in charge of the LDP is that the latter have demonstrated a slight measure of competence in government.

Afterwords

* If there is anyone left who thinks the DPJ can still be taken at its word, they might consider this: The party is set to implement a policy of withholding support for candidates whose Diet seats have been handed down within the family as de facto hereditary positions, which is commonplace in Japan. It is yet another way they hope to contrast themselves with the LDP; one-third of the LDP’s MPs have parents who also served in the Diet, while the DPJ’s ratio is much lower at one-seventh.

The early indications are that Hatoyama Yukio—the man who was supposed to quit his party post—will be chosen as the new DPJ head in the Saturday election. He is the fourth generation of his family to serve in the Diet.

* Some DPJ cheerleaders are spinning the Ozawa retreat to the shadows as a step that clears the daylight for a DPJ victory in the next lower house election. It’s possible—anything is possible in Japanese politics—though the Nishinippon Shimbun, among many other sources, think the public’s response at this point is still a michisuu, or a mathematical unknown.

That is a rather sunny view of the current situation. To believe it, one would also have to believe that the public is ready to forgive and forget. They will have to forgive the putatively clean party for being just as dirty as the dirty party, forgive both the party leader and the party for blocking national traffic since the beginning of the year, forget that their own allies have called Mr. Ozawa a disgrace and the DPJ as a whole brain dead, and forget that the name of the only man outside the DPJ to publicly support him is synonymous with lying to the public about corruption.

Before they start counting the skins of the raccoons they haven’t caught (the Japanese version of counting the chickens before they’ve hatched), they might want to point their Internet browsers to Our Friend Google and search on the terms “Pangloss”, “Pollyanna”, and “Gerald Ford”. Those who prefer to search in Japanese might add the term “Hata Tsutomu”.

* It’s also been suggested that the DPJ could lead a coalition in partnership with the LDP reform group. Again, anything is possible, but if Ozawa Ichiro is still calling the shots, that coalition would likely have the functional lifespan of a mayfly. A breakaway LDP reform group would find Mr. Ozawa even less appealing than the younger members of his own party, and unlike the DPJ reformers, the LDP renegades would by then have shown they had the cojones to have actually bucked party leadership. The government could sell tickets to the meetings at which Yamaoka Kenji tried to give any LDP rebels their marching orders.

Additionally, the LDP reformers tend to be small-government budget hawks that won’t be giving the glad eye (or turning a blind one) to the labor unions backing the Ozawa wing of the DPJ, the phantasmic spending proposals in the party’s platform, or the anti-reformers Mr. Ozawa has chosen as allies.

* The lower house Diet members Okada Katsuya and independent Eda Kenji present an interesting contrast. Both men started their careers as bureaucrats in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, and both resigned to purse political careers. Mr. Eda has always been independent of parties and is one of the most outspoken leaders in the effort to break the stranglehold of the bureaucracy on Japanese politics and government. He is the foremost ally of LDP renegade Watanabe Yoshimi. Click on the tag below to read more.

The DPJ's point man for pensions

The DPJ's point man for pensions

Meanwhile, Mr. Okada started out in the LDP and passed through a couple of other parties before winding up in the DPJ. His primary responsibility for the past couple of years under Ozawa Ichiro’s leadership has been to organize and hold fund-raising galas to collect money from corporate contributors for the party. He was ordered to cease and desist after the arrest of Mr. Ozawa’s aide, but that was like closing the barn door after the horse had already galloped into the next county and sired a new foal.

* If there is a third rail in domestic Japanese politics, it is the national pension system. More politicians have gotten in trouble over that issue than any other. Yet, the party that considers itself a haven for policy wanks has given the portfolio for national pensions in the shadow cabinet to Ren Ho, a rookie member of the upper house with no demonstrated expertise in the field. She did, however, spend the better part of 15 years appearing on television in commercials and as a program host and news reader.

So much for the claim of policy wankery in the DPJ. The man who said that politics is show business for ugly people mustn’t have seen Ms. Ren.

Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Cannibalism and torture part of everyday life in North Korea

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 12, 2009

THE ASIA TIMES has a curious article about the book Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor, by Kim Yong as told to Kim Suk-Young.

From the descriptions, it would seem that North Korea is run like a concentration camp on a national scale. Mr. Kim’s personal experience shows:

“…just how drastically North Korea had regressed – to the point that unimaginable acts such as cannibalism and torture have become part of everyday life.”

He was once a member of the elite who drove imported automobiles, but wound up in a prison camp after being accused of treason. He worked underground at the camp and came to think of daylight as a luxury. After six years, he escaped with the help of old friends and made his way to the U.S. and agreed to be interviewed for the book to present the facts of North Korea to the world.

As the article points out, it is a North Korean version of Solzhenitsyn’s expose of the Soviet gulag. But the curiosity of the article is that the author, one David Wilson, spends almost as much time on Kim Suk-Young, the person who put the book together.

While Ms. Kim is to be commended for her work, readers would have benefited from a further description of the book’s content instead of a personality profile of the transcriber/interviewer.

The problem is compounded because Ms. Kim, a performing arts professor at the University of California, is a naive geopolitical lightweight:

“(She) describes the country as “strange”, noting that there is nothing you cannot buy if you have money despite the abiding power of communist ideology.”

There’s nothing strange about that–it’s a salient feature of every communist government that’s ever existed. What’s strange is Wilson’s use of the term “abiding power of communist ideology”. That ideology has no abiding power, and North Korea is obviously not run according to communist principles.

Ms. Kim also finds it noteworthy that North and South Korea are very much alike because they share the same sense of humor and respect family ties. Why shouldn’t they be culturally similar? They’re the same tribe!

Mr. Wilson calls this a “twist” for some reason.

“She is convinced that America is equally guilty of propaganda. Before making any uninformed assumptions about North Korea, the West should try to understand it, she said. Treat the country with respect is her message.”

Cannibalism and torture are everyday occurrences while the elite lives in luxury, and the country is always last in the World Press Freedom Index Rankings. It floods the world with date rape drugs and counterfeit currency, and adamantly refuses to end its unneeded nuclear weapons program. What “uninformed assumptions” from the “equally guilty” propagandist America could be worse? And why should a country such as this be treated with respect? Would she have also had us treat the apartheid regime of South Africa with respect?

But then what else would you expect from a UC drama professor?

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Posted in Books, North Korea | 9 Comments »

Matsuri da! (106): The Korean divinity at a Shinto shrine

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 11, 2009

SOLDIERS BRING HOME all sorts of souvenirs when they return from foreign battlefields—unusual rocks from uninhabited beaches, Luger pistols, hachimaki headbands, severed ears and other body parts, unpleasant diseases, and war brides speaking unfamiliar languages, to mention a few.

The <i>kachigarasu</i>

The kachigarasu

Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded the Korean Peninsula twice in the 1590s, and his staging area and jumping off point was located in what is now Chinzei-cho in Saga. He had the Nagoya Castle built there in just five months; after the Osaka Castle, it was the largest in Japan at the time. In those days, the area was part of the Nabeshima domain, ruled by Nabeshima Naoshige. A skilled military leader, Nabeshima’s epigrams and deeds were recorded in the classic samurai how-to manual Hagakure by Tsunetomo Yamamoto, an attendant of the daimyo’s grandson Mitsushige.

Nabeshima accompanied Toyotomi on his Korean excursions and brought back two unusual souvenirs. One was a type of black-and-white magpie known in Japanese as the kachigarasu, which is still found in Japan almost exclusively in Saga and Fukuoka.

Though the bird resembles the karasu, or the all-black crow that lives throughout Japan, it is of a different genus and species. The Koreans call it the kkachi, so the etymology is very clear. They like to nest in utility poles—there are probably some right now peering down on the street in my neighborhood—which gives the Kyushu Electric maintenance men a spring- and summer-long headache.

Nabeshima’s second war souvenir was a Korean ceramist named Lee Sam-pyeung, who arrived in 1598 and would later revolutionize ceramics production in Japan from his base in Arita, Saga. Because he couldn’t find the proper type of clay in the area to make the sophisticated Chinese/Korean type of porcelain already in demand in Southeast Asia and Europe, Lee initially worked with a group of 12 Korean ceramists to make what is known as Karatsu ware.

That changed in 1616, when Lee struck kaolin—the ceramist’s equivalent of gold—at Mt. Izumi in Arita. That’s where he built the first noborigama, or climbing kiln (sometimes called dragon kiln) in Japan required for firing fine porcelain. It was the first of two strokes of exceptional luck for the Japanese ceramics industry.

The second occurred when the Ming Dynasty in China collapsed in 1644. The European nobility and wealthy merchants were buying enormous quantities of Chinese porcelain, but the turmoil at dynasty’s end caused many kilns to shut down. Some were damaged in the battles between the dynasty and the Manchus. The succeeding Qing Dynasty government then stopped trade altogether from 1656 to 1684. The end of supply from China spurred the Dutch East India company to turn to Arita porcelain to fill the prodigious demand. The Dutch were the only foreigners allowed to maintain a presence in Japan at the time, and they had an office on Dejima, a small island off the city of Nagasaki. (Land reclamation operations later made it part of the city itself.) As a result, an enormous amount of porcelain was shipped from Arita to Europe from then until the mid-18th century.

Two factors drove this demand. The first was that in Europe in those days, porcelain was a beautiful and exotic rarity from distant places barely imaginable for most people. The first porcelain manufactured on the continent was in Meissen in 1709. The production techniques existed only in Asia, so porcelain items were considered treasures. Deliveries took several months over the Silk Road or in sailing ships. Some even thought porcelain had magical properties, and believed it would become discolored and crack if it came into contact with poison.

The second was that the only people who could afford to indulge themselves with porcelain purchases were the European and Ottoman Turkish nobility, and the wealthiest of the merchant class. The customer base may have been limited, but those customers had plenty of money to spend on whatever struck their fancy. Their passion for collecting became a mania that was almost degenerate in its profligacy. One German Elector traveled to the Amsterdam docks to buy immense quantities right off the ship. Their frenzy culminated in the creation of porcelain rooms, in which the entire chamber was filled with porcelain displays from floor to ceiling, and sometimes included the ceiling. The rooms often had mirrored walls to enhance the effect. A single room wasn’t enough for Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. He built the Japanisches Palais in Dresden, a palace for holding and displaying the more than 20,000 pieces of Chinese and Japanese porcelain in his collection. (It was never used for that, however, and became a library instead.)

Though the huge shipments to Europe ended in the mid-18th century, Arita is still one of the premier ceramics-producing areas of Japan. Every year during the Golden Week holidays, a period in which five public holidays fall from 28 April to 5 May, the town holds a ceramics fair in which the entire business of the residents is given over to selling ceramics and porcelain from their storefronts or stalls in the street. That includes barber shops and cafes as well as the ceramics merchants and producers who do it for a living.

arita lee festival

The 106th Arita ceramics fair ended last week, and this year 1.13 million visitors just as eager as the 17th century nobility to buy porcelain (for much cheaper prices) flocked to the town with a population of slightly more than 21,000 in an area of 27.09 square kilometers, 70% of which is wooded. It was the second-highest number of visitors in the history of the event, with the highest coming in 2003. It was also the seventh straight year that more than one million people came. The organizers thought the economic downturn and fears of influenza would depress attendance, but a special discount on expressway tolls during the holidays in conjunction with the introduction of a new electronic toll collection system seems to have encouraged people to make the trip.

Shinto festivals have long been held to coincide with commercial events, and vice-versa, so it’s not unusual that the Tozan Shinto shrine in Arita-cho would hold one of their festivals on the 4th. The tutelary deity of the shrine, which is said to have been founded in 1658, is the Korean ceramist Lee Sam-pyeung. There is also a monument to Lee at the top of the mountain behind the shrine, where the ceremonies are usually held, but rain forced it indoors this year. About 100 people from Japan and South Korea were in the procession and witnessed a performance of kagura (Shinto dance), as shown in the photo.

One of those watching from South Korea was Kim Gi-hyeong of the South Korean Ceramics Culture Association. He said:

“We pledge to keep alive the pioneering and creative spirit of Lee, and bring forth a more beautiful friendship between South Korea and Japan.”

It’s curious that some people are so anxious to claim that the Japanese are either ignorant of or loath to honor the Korean contribution to their culture, and that other people are so ready to believe it. That means one of the many positive aspects of Japan-Korean relations they overlook or ignore is this Shinto shrine and event honoring a Korean ceramist who lived 400 years ago and whose life’s work and lucky strike still enrich everyone in the area today—which the Japanese readily acknowledge.

Here are two brief YouTube clips showing the shrine, with Japanese voiceovers. (Number one and number two) It’s Sunday night, and I’m not up for doing a transcription/translation, but they’re worth viewing even if you don’t know Japanese. Both show the unique ceramic installations at the shrine, including the underglaze blue (sometsuke in Japanese) on the torii. The first also includes shots of the monument to Lee.

The entire range of Arita ware is offered for sale during the fair at reduced prices. Those prices get progressively lower every day, so some rather attractive pieces can be bought at dirt cheap prices on the last day. The items sold include both the finest quality porcelain as well as leftover odds and ends. My first year in Japan, in 1984, I visited the fair and purchased for pocket change a surplus tea mug specially produced to commemorate the anniversary of a small Shinto shrine elsewhere in Kyushu. It was sitting in a crate along with some other remainders. Now it’s sitting on my desk, and I still use it to drink tea.

Posted in Arts, China, Festivals, History, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, Traditions | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

An American view of a nuclear-armed Japan

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 9, 2009

RICHARDSON OF DPRK STUDIES does us all a favor in this post by bringing our attention to the Congressional Research Service report, Japan’s Nuclear Future: Policy Debate, Prospects, and U.S. Interests, (PDF, 16 pages), dated 19 February 2009.

Richardson has a different perspective than ours because he uses his site to follow North Korean affairs, which means that he also closely follows South Korea. Still, he offers these two quotes:

The previous taboo within the Japanese political community of discussing a nuclear weapons capability appears to have been broken, as several officials and opinion leaders have urged an open debate on the topic. Despite these factors, a strong consensus—both in Japan and among Japan watchers—remains that Japan will not pursue the nuclear option in the short-to medium term.

And:

Any eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula could further induce Japan to reconsider its nuclear stance. If the two Koreas unify while North Korea still holds nuclear weapons and the new state opts to keep a nuclear arsenal, Japan may face a different calculation.

The report was written specifically to provide background information to members of the U.S. House and Senate. There are two authors; the first is Emma Chanlett-Avery, identified as a Specialist in Asian Affairs, and the second is Mary Beth Nikitin, cited as an “Analyst in Nonproliferation”. Ms. Chanlett-Avery has written several Congressional reports on Asian issues, though it’s not clear what territory is covered by Asia. (One of her reports was on Southeast Asia.) Ms. Nikitin also has written Congressional reports on non-proliferation.

Despite turgid prose, poor organization, and one serious flaw, the report is worth reading because it provides a basic overview of the many aspects involved, including:

  • Japan’s civilian nuclear power program
  • The historical background of Japan’s non-nuclear stance and governmental studies for creating a nuclear deterrent.
  • What Japan would need (and not need) to develop a nuclear arsenal
  • The difficulties in dealing with the substantial bloc of domestic public opinion opposed to nuclear weapons
  • The legal restrictions and obstacles to a nuclear program
  • The growing sense of nationhood among younger people
  • The possible effect on the U.S-Japan alliance, regional security, and Japan’s standing in the world

While most of the report is straightforward, here are some passages that raised my eyebrows:

Regionally, Japan “going nuclear” could set off an arms race with China, South Korea, and Taiwan.

I doubt that Taiwan would think it necessary to bulk up its military capabilities because Japan had nuclear weapons. China, yes; Japan, no.

Bilaterally, assuming that Japan made the decision without U.S. support, the move could indicate a lack of trust in the U.S. commitment to defend Japan.

The Japanese acquisition of nuclear weapons would almost certainly be due to a lack of trust in the U.S. committment to defend Japan.

An ascendant hawkish, conservative movement—some of whom openly advocate for Japan to develop an independent nuclear arsenal—has gained more traction in Japanese politics, moving from the margins to a more influential position.

Japan is as likely to start an aggressive war as shrimp are to learn how to whistle, regardless of the definition the authors choose for the word “conservative”. Therefore, the acquisition of the atomic bomb would be strictly as a deterrent, or in only the most dire threat to national security.

The description of this approach as “hawkish” in this context is curious.

…(F)ew dispute that Japan could make nuclear weapons if Tokyo were to invest the necessary financial and other resources.

“Few”? Does anyone dispute it at all?

…(I)f Japan manufactured nuclear warheads, then it would need to at the minimum perform one nuclear test—but where this could be carried out on the island nation is far from clear.

If there was a consensus on pursuing a nuclear program–a very big if–testing might–and that’s a very big might–be performed at an underground location at one of the remote islands to the south. Hatoma, for example, has a population of only 60 people that a determined government could relocate with the approval of an alarmed citizenry. There are other uninhabited islands scattered throughout the archipelago. This is very speculative, of course.

Japan’s nuclear materials and facilities are under IAEA safeguards, making a clandestine nuclear weapons program difficult to conceal.

If Japan felt threatened enough by North Korea or China to build a bomb, why would they want to conceal the program? And in the face of what such a threat would entail, why would they feel constrained by either the IAEA or the need for secrecy? I think the report would have been improved had the authors considered in greater depth the environment required to produce the events they suggest might occur.

Many observers have recognized a trend of growing nationalism in Japan, particularly among the younger generation. Some Japanese commentators have suggested that this increasing patriotism could jeopardize closer cooperation with the United States…

Subtract points for credibility due to the false equivalence of “nationalism” and “patriotism”.

Realist-minded security observers cite the danger of threatening China…

A nuclear deterrent is not a threat to China. Japanese actions in this regard would depend on Chinese behavior, and the leaders of China know it. The leaders of China also think it’s in their best interests to feed their public a different story, however. (Let’s not bring up the North Korean threat; if the Chinese were serious about stopping North Korean nuclear ambitions, Pyeongyang’s program would have ended long ago.)

Perhaps the “realist-minded security observers” might give greater consideration to the more realistic threat of Chinese nuclear weapons and ever-growing armed forces to Japanese security.

If Japan withdrew from the NPT, it would likely be subject to UN Security Council-imposed sanctions and economic and diplomatic isolation.

The only reason Japan would withdraw from the NPT would be due to a serious external threat that it was convinced the UN and the U.S., among others, were incapable of dealing with. Under that scenario, if the UN were to impose sanctions and economic and diplomatic isolation–which haven’t worked so well with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea–global security conditions would have become so perilous that Japan would probably need nuclear weapons.

Acquiring nuclear weapons could also hurt Japan’s long-term goal of permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council.

Japan isn’t going to become a permanent member until the South Korean state reaches diplomatic adulthood, which means not in the foreseeable future.

Some in Japan are nervous that if the United States develops a closer relationship with China, the gap between Tokyo’s and Washington’s security perspectives will grow and further weaken the U.S. commitment.

As well they should be.

To many security experts, the most alarming possible consequence of a Japanese decision to develop nuclear weapons would be the development of a regional arms race. The fear is based on the belief that a nuclear-armed Japan could compel South Korea to develop its own program.

It wouldn’t “compel” South Korea to develop its own program, but the current state of South Korean nationalism–not patriotism–would demand it. Just because Japan did it.

The counter-argument, made by some security experts, is that nuclear deterrence was stabilizing during the Cold War, and a similar nuclear balance could be achieved in Asia. However, most observers maintain that the risks outweigh potential stabilizing factors.

“Most observers”? Did they count the observers? Whom do they consider to be “observers”, and why? The authors tend to be vague throughout with their use of expressions such as these, despite what appears to be some lightness in the footnoted material.

Japan’s development of its own nuclear arsenal could also have (a) damaging impact on U.S. nonproliferation policy. It would be more difficult for the United States to convince non-nuclear weapon states to keep their non-nuclear status or to persuade countries such as North Korea to give up their weapons programs.

The United States and its European allies haven’t been very successful in convincing states with malevolent intent to remain non-nuclear. If it isn’t clear to the authors by now that nothing the Americans do (short of total warfare) will convince North Korea to give up its weapons programs, it never will be.

The first justification, by the way, is one cited by the Obama Administration for its sophomoric efforts to outlaw nuclear weapons. As George Jonas points out here, that is potentially more dangerous than anything a hawkish, conservative nationalist would do: “The genie is out of the bottle; good luck to anyone trying to stuff it back.”

The serious flaw of this report is that it assumes the existence of a marvelous policy control panel with hundreds of switches, and the operation in question is to turn only that switch marked “Japanese nuclear weapons” to the ON position. But that switch will not be turned on unless the current position of many other switches in the imaginary control panel also change; that much should be obvious. What, therefore, is the point of examining a single switch in isolation? One would have hoped the authors of Congressional reports were more imaginative when examining hypothetical scenarios.

The full report is here.

Posted in China, International relations, Military affairs, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan | Tagged: , | 25 Comments »

The Watanabe-Eda platform for reform in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, May 8, 2009

THE MOST COMPELLING STORY in Japanese politics today is the struggle to eliminate the control of politics and policy determination by largely anonymous civil servants in the bureaucracy rather than elected representatives. Many of those who seek to put the bureaucracy at Kasumigaseki in its place also advocate small, decentralized government. If that movement has a firebrand, it is surely the now-independent Diet member Watanabe Yoshimi, who has already been the subject of several posts here. (Click on the tag at the end of this post for more.)

Working with his political partner and fellow lower house MP Eda Kenji—himself a former bureaucrat—Mr. Watanabe is determined to ignite a citizens’ movement for a drastic change in the face of Japanese government.

On 20 April, the two men presented their political philosophy and objective with the publication of a book-length dialogue titled Datsu Kanryo Seiken, or very roughly, Eliminating the Political Power of the Bureaucracy.

At the end of the book, the authors conveniently provide a summarization and condensation of their objectives in a ten-point program that should serve as the basis for all discussion about governmental reform in this country. Perfection is not an achievable goal for any political system, but Japan is unlikely to find a better action plan for reform than this.

Students of government might find the resemblance of aspects of the program to the American conception of federalism to be striking.

The following is my quick and dirty translation of their platform.

*****
Ten Issues for the Citizens’ Movement, Eliminating Bureaucratic Control, and Regional Autonomy

There are steps that should be taken before taxes are increased! Diet members and the bureaucrats should be the first to sacrifice.

1. The complete prohibition of amakudari (The source of wasted tax money)
(Note: Amakudari is the practice of giving senior bureaucrats important jobs in government-affiliated organizations and private companies when they retire.)

  • Immediately and completely prohibit watari recommendations and individual ministry and agency recommendations. (Further note: Watari is the name for the ministries’ arrangement of successive jobs for retired bureaucrats at government-affiliated corporations, with the former civil servants getting retirement money each time.)
  • Eliminate personnel banks on a timed schedule. (Specifically mentioned is a center under the jurisdiction of the Cabinet Office that handles employment recommendations for bureaucrats in one organization rather than allowing individual ministries and agencies to make those recommendations.)
  • Eliminate the practice of encouraging early retirement, and establish a personnel system based on working until retirement age.
  • Revise the seniority-based salary system by overhauling the laws regarding remuneration, and reduce all personnel expenses.
  • Conduct a private sector-type restructuring of government by loosening the restraints on the basic right to work for public employees.
  • Establish oversight organizations operated by third parties. (Establish punitive provisions for violators and strictly enforce those provisions.)

2. Completely uncover the hidden funds in special accounts (30-50 trillion yen)

  • Conduct a complete and thorough accounting of the differential between assets and liabilities in the special accounts, starting with the surplus and reserve funds for the three largest sources of those accounts: government investment and loans, labor insurance, and the special account for foreign reserves.
  • Sell state-owned assets and stock held by the government.

3. Sharply reduce the number of Diet members and bureaucrats, as well as their salaries

  • Reduce the number of lower house members to 300 (by eliminating the 180 proportional representation delegates) and the number of upper house members to 100 (by eliminating the 142 proportional representation delegates).
  • Eliminate the jobs of 100,000 national civil servants (Introduce the state/province system and eliminate the central government’s organizations in regional blocs. There are now 330,000 national civil servants.)
  • Cut the salaries of Diet members by 30% and their bonuses by 50%. Cut the salaries of civil servants by 10%-20%.

4. In principle, abolish or privatize independent administrative agencies, and drastically reform public interest corporations.

  • The independent administrative agencies and public interest corporations are hotbeds for amakudari. These should, in principle, be abolished. Those independent administrative agencies that cannot be abolished should be privatized. The need for public interest corporations should be reevaluated on the premise of a zero-based review.

5. Eradicate collusive bidding at the initiative of public officials, and eliminate and conduct more rigorous oversight of the single tendering of contracts and designated competitive bidding

  • Beef up the law to prevent collusive bidding at the initiative of public officials, thus preventing collusion with the organizations where amakudari is a problem (by expanding the application to former bureaucrats). Strengthen the Fair Trade Commission’s authority in regard to this collusive bidding.
  • In principle, replace single tendering and designated competitive bidding with general competitive bidding. When such practices are unavoidable, require the reason for their need and the public disclosure of information on current amakudari-based employment at the contracting partner.

6. Integrate the management of senior personnel decisions through a Cabinet Personnel Bureau under the prime minister’s office, and hire general personnel simultaneously

  • Put senior personnel decisions under the control of the prime minister’s office to ensure the primacy of political appointments.
  • Foster a bureaucracy whose personnel are aware that they serve the nation rather than individual ministries or agencies. Eliminate vertical administration (of the ministries and agencies).
  • Hire private sector personnel experts and place private sector personnel from outside the government in leadership positions.
  • Require the provisional resignation of all senior personnel in the bureaucracy at the level of department head and above. Rehire some of those personnel in special positions for limited times only. Employ both politicians and private sector personnel as a state strategy staff and political appointees (political appointments).
  • Create a mechanism for identifying the responsibility of bureaucrats for policy failures.

7. Maintain the authority to formulate budgets by a Cabinet Budget Bureau under the prime minister’s office

  • Put budget formulation under political control by removing the work for budget assessments, government investment and loans, and tax planning and proposals from the Ministry of Finance and establishing a Cabinet Budget Bureau under the prime minister’s office. Zero-based budgeting will be the general operating principle.
  • Disband the Social Insurance Agency and combine its functions with the Tax Administration Agency. In the future, create a public taxation and collection agency and integrate the work for collecting local taxes. This would kill two birds with one stone by improving the collection rate for taxes and social insurance premiums, as well as reducing the number of government personnel.

8. Completely prohibit contributions by corporations and other groups to individual politicians (the source of political corruption)

  • Completely eliminate the branch offices of political parties. Allow corporate and group donations only to a party headquarters. (Implement the pledge made to the people when political party subsidies from public funds were created during the Hosokawa Administration.) Crush the connection between politicians and their vested interests on the one hand, and pressure groups on the other.

9. Establish local autonomy and adopt the state/province system to improve the lives of the people and a focus on the regional areas.

  • Transfer “the three ‘gen’” (kengen, or authority; zaigen, or revenue sources; and ningen, or people) to the basic local government units: municipalities.
  • Establish local autonomy and residential self rule for laws, taxation, and other measures.
  • Abolish the system of “subsidies with strings attached” provided by central government ministries and agencies, and national taxes distributed to local governments. Introduce a new mechanism for allocating financial resources among local governments.
  • Move to a state/prefecture system based on local autonomy in 10 years.
  • Limit the authority of the national government.

10. Use all of the foregoing to dismantle Kasumigaseki (the ministries and agencies of the central government)

  • Reorganize the ministries and agencies of the central government (Kasumigaseki) again to leave only the “national minimum” required for diplomacy, the maintenance of safety (including food and energy), public finances, monetary issues, and social insurance. Rid the country of governmental authority concentrated at the national level.

This agenda is ultimately a basis for discussion when forming groups (for political action). It is adaptable, and items can be added, subtracted, or amended in the future through activities in which citizens have the lead role.

Afterwords:

By the numbers:

1. Some people go no further than amakudari when discussing the abuses of the Japanese bureaucracy, but as this list demonstrates, the problems go much deeper than that. The personnel bank to which the two men refer was, ironically, established to reduce the impact of amakudari.

3. Reducing the number of national legislators is another step that would kill two birds with one stone. In addition to cutting the cost of government, a new (presumably) winner-take-all system in electoral districts would result in a real two-party system that sharply curtails the influence of the smaller parties. Even the non-reformers in both the LDP and the DPJ have been discussing this step as a way to eliminate their pesky coalition partners.

This measure would reduce the strength of New Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partners in government, from 31 seats to eight in the lower house and from nine to two in the upper house. The Communist Party would lose all of its seats in both houses—nine in the lower house and three in the upper house, and the Social Democrats would lose six of their seven seats in the lower house and both its upper house seats.

That’s fine by me. While I understand the argument that it shuts out minority views from the process, too often in parliamentary systems those minority parties wind up to be the tail wagging the dog. One of the problems of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan is that too many puppies are trying to wag the big dog’s tail, both internally and among the smaller parties aligned with it. The party can function efficiently only when kennel meister Ozawa Ichiro dictates party policy.

That’s no way to run a political party.

4. Yes indeed! These hotbeds of amakudari include:

The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, the National Agricultural Research Organization, the National Institute of Animal Health, the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention, the National Traffic Safety and Environment Laboratory, the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency, the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, the National Institute for Japanese Language, the National Institutes for Cultural Heritage, the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo, the National Hospital Organization Kyushu Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Kyoto Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Hokkaido Cancer Center, the National Hospital Organization Nagoya Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Kure Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Osaka National Hospital, the National Hospital Organization Yokohama Medical Center, the National Hospital Organization Fukuyama Medical Center, the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, the National Museum of Western Art, the Fukui National College of Technology, the Japan Foundation Japanese-Language Institute, Urawa, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the National Livestock Breeding Center, the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, the National Agency for the Advancement of Sports and Health, the Commemorative Organization for the Japan World Exposition ’70, the Japan Student Services Organization, the National Research Institute of Fisheries Science, Fisheries Research Agency, the National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries, Fisheries Research Agency, the Japan Water Agency, the National Research Institute of Fire and Disaster, the Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation, the Welfare And Medical Service Agency, the National Center for Seeds and Seedlings, the National Statistics Center, the National Institute for Sea Training, the National Institute of Technology and Evaluation, the Center for Food Quality, Labeling and Consumer Services, Livestock Industries Corporation, the Kansai Advanced Research Center, Communications Research Laboratory, the Urban Renaissance Agency, the National Research Institute of Brewing, the Japan Railway Construction, Transport and Technology Agency, the Japan Organization for Employment of the Elderly and Persons with Disabilities, and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization.

Just imagine all the comfortable sinecures these organizations offer those bureaucrats who descend from Kasumigaseki heaven. They all have English websites paid for by Japanese taxpayers—pop any of them into Google and see if you think any of them really need to be spared elimination or privatization.

6. It is not easy for people outside of Japan to appreciate how a system of “political appointees”–a phrase that makes most Americans cringe–would be an improvement, but that again demonstrates the excessive influence and power of the Japanese bureaucracy in politics and government.

7. This is designed to eliminate the control exerted by the Ministry of Finance on the budget. The Finance Ministry is considered to be the Big Swinging Dick of all the ministries.

8. One can sympathize with the efforts to eliminate the influence of big business on politics through campaign contributions, but it’s probably impossible to do so. Similar reforms in the United States have failed miserably. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Candidate Obama refused public financing, and his website accepting credit card contributions intentionally had the address verification function turned off (which has to be done manually). That allowed people to donate under fictitious names to skirt contribution limits and the law preventing donations from foreigners. A lot of money (just how much will never be known) was collected for Mr. Obama in Africa. His campaign raised a record amount of nearly 750 million dollars, and included website contributions from Adolf Hitler, Mickey Mouse and all sorts of goofy fictitious people that the donors and the campaign, in their contempt for the law, didn’t bother to disguise.

After his election, Mr. Obama appointed Eric Holder as Attorney General. When he served as Deputy Attorney General, Mr. Holder facilitated outgoing President Bill Clinton’s scheme to sell presidential pardons for cash.

Senior Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod said that all fraudulent contributions would be returned, and my eyes rolled while typing that sentence just as much as yours did when reading it.

Nobody is going to be prosecuted for the obvious fraud. And corporate contributors in Japan will find a way to skirt the law, too.

9. I’ve wanted to do a piece on the proposed state/province system for a long time, but that really deserves a magazine-length article. This system would create anywhere from nine to 12 states or provinces that would eventually supplant the current 47 prefectures. The result would be a three-tiered structure of central government, state/province government, and municipal government, each with clearly defined functions and the power to levy and collect taxes.

The reorganization of government at the sub-national level is currently the subject of intense debate among the political class in Japan, and some hold that the introduction of such a system would be a powerful weapon to nullify the bureaucratic stranglehold on government.

This one’s fine by me, too. Anything that removes authority from the central government and puts it closer to the people is always fine by me. Power to the people, don’t you know.

10. Hallelujah!

Who would have thought that two decades after the unquestioned successes of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain that the working politicians most passionately devoted to small government, devolution of authority, and budget hawking would be in Japan?

As a Japanese taxpayer and permanent resident of Japan, I’d love to see all 10 of these platform planks implemented immediately–especially before any tax increase, most of which is likely to be wasted. Will they all come to pass? Probably not. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear the howls of protest from the smaller parties, particularly the ones on the left, that it is undemocratic and unfair to allow only those people who actually win elections to hold Diet seats. Yes, it’s beyond parody, but it also doesn’t take much imagination to know that the mass media will give them as much megaphone as they want.

Nevertheless, Mr. Watanabe and Mr. Eda do everyone a service by presenting these ideas in a coherent program, thereby redrawing the boundaries of the debate. The most successful politicians are the ones who drag the center in their direction.

Posted in Books, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Fatsos = fast eaters?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, May 6, 2009

AFTER MOVING TO JAPAN in 1984, my first trip back to the United States was a two-week stay three years later. I discovered that the only thing that had changed significantly during those three years was me. Very few observable changes had occurred in the U.S. in that three-year period, but I did have one recurring thought throughout those two weeks: Where did all those fat people come from?

They had been there all the time, of course, but I didn’t notice them until my perceptions had been recalibrated by living in Japan.

Those memories floated to the surface again after seeing this blog post by the New York Times Economics Editor, Catherine Rampell. She includes a graph in the post for this reason:

I’ve plotted out the relationship between time the average person in a given country spends eating and that country’s obesity rate (as measured by the percentage of the national population with a body mass index higher than 30).

It wasn’t surprising to see that Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates in the developed world (Korea’s is slightly lower) and one of the highest rates for minutes spent eating per day.

Guess which country is at the peak of the obesity axis and at the low extreme of the eating time axis.

Ms. Rampell is quick to point out that correlation does not equal correlation, and her graph bears this out. The French spend more time with their food, but their obesity rate is triple that of Japan’s; the New Zealanders also take more time for meals than the Japanese, but have an obesity rate roughly five times that of Japan.

Here’s a thought: It’s possible to obtain a different perspective for that same graph by substituting native language for time spent eating. Notice that the primary language is the same in those countries with the highest obesity rates. In contrast, the countries shown with the lowest obesity rates are Japan and Korea.

Yes, I know that linguists classify the Japanese and Korean languages into two different groups, but anyone familiar with those languages also knows just how closely related they are.

Here’s another thought: Despite the relatively low percentage of blubberbutts in Japan, obesity is much more common here than it was when I first arrived 25 years ago. If the statistics for a quarter of a century ago exist, would anyone be surprised if they showed that the Japanese spend less time per day eating now than they did in the past?

As is the case with most other broad surveys, I don’t fit into any of the categorizations here. I’m an American whose time spent on meals is much closer to other Americans than to Japanese, but I’m not even close to being obese. That’s probably due to dietary habits that closely resemble the Japanese of 40 years ago, as well as regular daily exercise. (In fact, the time I spend on eating and exercise combined is slightly more than the time the Japanese spend on eating alone.)

One final thought: I assume by Korea they mean South Korea. What would be the point of including North Korea with the other countries when comparing obesity statistics? Is there more than one fatso in that country to begin with?

Posted in Food | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

Wetting your whistle the Okinawan way

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, May 5, 2009

FOLKS WITH A THIRST TO QUENCH in Okinawa can choose among many unique local products that produce a wide range of effects. Several new beverages recently released on the market have widened that range of choice even further.

awamori-liqueur

Those who are parched and looking for something stiff could try the liqueurs created by local distillers using awamori, the Okinawan form of the alcoholic beverage shochu. Awamori actually has a separate legal classification in Japan because it is made with a different kind of yeast, and some varieties still use rice from Thailand, where shochu is said to have originated. Of the many shochu distillers in the Okinawan islands, only one produces what is legally called shochu. The rest make awamori.

The Okinawa Awamori Distillers’ Association is getting antsy about declining alcohol consumption among young people, so they came up with the idea of combining the awamori with locally grown fruit and brown sugar to create the liqueurs. That not only fills up their own coffers, it also provides a fillip to agriculture in the islands. They’ve also lowered the alcohol content to make it more drinkable and appeal to the health conscious. The drinks are a relatively low 10% alcohol by volume, which means they are 20 proof by American standards and 17.5 proof by British standards. The target demographic is younger women, and the distillers hope to get the girls started on the habit of downing a glass or two as if it were a cocktail. The new liqueurs cost about 1.5 to 3 times more than awamori itself, but many customers are happy to fork over the extra cash because they like the distinctive flavors.

One example is the awamori coffee liqueur launched by the Kumesen Distillery of Naha last October. They started selling the drink exclusively in gift shops, but when they saw that initial sales were double their projections, the distillers decided to offer it through mass merchandisers and make some real money.

Zuisen Distilleries, also of Naha, have produced an awamori ume liqueur with brown sugar, and more recently developed a liqueur made with local mangoes. They’re searching for sales outlets now. Meanwhile, the Seifuku Distillery in Ishigaki makes a tropical fruit-flavored variety.

The distilleries association recommends that the liqueurs be drunk before meals or, for those posing as worldly sophisticates, at a bar. But they also suggest that serious drinkers stick with the regular awamori. It’s their bread and butter, after all.

Those looking for something more healthful might prefer Ucchin Soda, which the originator Origami promotes as the King of Okinawa Soda. It’s a carbonated soft drink made with turmeric and the shiikwasa citrus fruit and sells for 500 yen a 330-milliliter can. The Soda King has been on the Ryukyu throne since March.

The King of Okinawan Soda

The king of Okinawan soda

Turmeric, called ukon in Japanese, has become increasingly popular in various forms in this country. One of its uses in Okinawa is as a tonic, and the commercial beverage Ukon no Chikara (The Strength of Turmeric) is sold in convenience stores and supermarkets nationwide as a hangover preventive/remedy. Turmeric thrives in areas with tropical temperatures and buckets of rainfall, and that description fits Okinawa to a T. It’s used for dozens of food applications, is said to be good for the liver, solves digestive problems, and is rubbed on the skin as an antiseptic. The critical ingredient is curcumin, which is also used in sealants to stop car radiator leaks. There’s got to be a common connection there somewhere.

The beverage is made with both spring and autumn ukon from Miyakojima and the main Okinawa island. The local shiikwasa citrus fruit was added for sweetness as a contrast with the bitterness of turmeric. It incorporates both the juice and the pulp from the squeezed rinds, which means it has plenty of vegetable fiber. Where else but Okinawa could you get roughage from soda pop?

Ucchin is sold mostly in a Naha market frequented by local shoppers and tourists, and Origami projects sales of 30,000 cans or bottles this year. The company plans to market the beverage as a product for those with discriminating palates who appreciate off-the-wall refreshments in the hope it creates passionate fans and long-term sales.

They also suggest it can be used at bars as a mixer for cocktails. After that, the next question comes naturally: How well would it blend with awamori?

There’s nothing quite like those Okinawan drinks—they build you up and tear you down all at the same time!

Posted in Food, New products | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

An explosive A-bomb justification

Posted by ampontan on Monday, May 4, 2009

EARLIER THIS WEEK, American comedian/news commentator Jon Stewart was discussing the use of torture (and what exactly constitutes torture) with journalist Cliff May, when May brought up the subject of the atomic bombings in World War II.

He asked Stewart whether he thought U.S. President Harry S Truman was a war criminal for ordering the bombings. Stewart paused for a second and answered in the affirmative.

I’ve never seen Jon Stewart, but he seems to be one of those divisive types that people either think is wonderful or roll their eyes dismissively at the mention of his name. His reputation and the popularity of his television program made it inevitable that a rebuttal would be forthcoming. A group of bloggers who have formed an outfit called Pajamas TV quickly filmed a presentation of the justification for Hiroshima and Nagasaki in an intense, information-packed 17-minute segment. Needless to say, the creators of the piece do not care much for Mr. Stewart.

You can view that video here.

The man introducing the segment is Roger Simon, the CEO and co-founder of Pajamas Media, an affiliation of weblogs that has grown into something akin to a news agency for op-eds on the Internet offering original material. He is a published novelist and screenwriter whose philosophical drift away from the left was cemented by 9/11.

Though the video is quite detailed, it is also oddly concise. It would be difficult to find a more cogent statement of this position that presents so much information in such a short amount of time. For that reason alone, it is well worth watching.

Posted in World War II | Tagged: | 60 Comments »

The Hashimoto – Inose dialogue

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, May 3, 2009

A CIVIL WAR is raging within Japan’s political class pitting the insurgency of reformers at the national and local level against the entrenched interests and stranglehold on policy of the bureaucracies, known collectively as Kasumigaseki for the Tokyo district where many of their offices are located, and their allies in the Diet and the executive branch of government.

It is no exaggeration to call this conflict—perhaps the domestic political issue most closely followed by the Japanese public—a war. The reformers use that word themselves and assert that those are the tactics they need to adopt. For its part, Kasumigaseki has already adopted them. They hammered the final nail into the coffin of the Abe Administration when the Social Insurance Agency, which Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party intended to privatize, fought back by revealing the massive mishandling of pension accounts dating back a decade that they had kept hidden until then. Mr. Abe was unable to deal with the severe political fallout from the revelation.

Hashimoto Toru

Hashimoto Toru

Indeed, the election platform of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan also called for elimination of the agency, but party leader Ozawa Ichiro, perhaps sensing that discretion was the better part of valor, said that he favored merging the agency with other government entities. (In other words, the name would disappear, but the bureaucrats wouldn’t.)

Not that Mr. Ozawa was able to escape their machinations. Several Japanese political observers think Kasumigaseki was behind the revelations that led to the arrest of Mr. Ozawa’s aide in a political contribution scandal and placed the DPJ leader in a pot of boiling water up to his neck.

There are many theaters in this war, and one of them is the division of of the obligations and responsibilities of the central and local governments. The call for the devolution of power and transfer of tax collection authority to local governments is part of the effort by reformers to limit the authority of Kasumigaseki.

The February issue of Chuo Koron featured a dialogue between Hashimoto Toru, the controversial and outspoken reformer and governor of Osaka Prefecture, and Inose Naoki. Mr. Inose is an award-winning non-fiction author who served on the Committee for Promoting the Privatization of the Four Public Corporations for Highways. He is also the Vice-Governor of the Tokyo Metropolitan District. His most recent book is Kasumigaseki Kaitai Senso (The War to Break Up Kasumgaseki).

Their discussion centered on efforts to reform the system governing the local agencies of central government ministries. These agencies are under the direct control of the ministries at the national level and have the sole authority to initiate and conduct operations in their area of jurisdiction. Yet local governments—specifically, prefectures and specially designated cities—are financially liable for one-third of the construction costs and 45% of the maintenance and management expenses for those operations, including public works related to national highways and Class One rivers. The agencies submit financial statements to the local governments showing the amount of money that must be remitted to the central government. Even though these are de facto bills, none of the expenses are itemized.

The two men also discuss those local governments that are part of the problem rather than the solution.

I’ve translated and abridged the interview here. Please note that in some cases I paraphrased to facilitate reading.

Regional oversight of the central government’s local agencies

Hashimoto: The Decentralization Reform Committee, of which you are a member, compiled its second report whose centerpiece is the elimination or merger of the central government’s local agencies and submitted it to Prime Minister Aso on 8 December last year. I followed this process with close attention and think this is a good direction to take. That’s the reorganization of six agencies in regional areas through elimination or merger, including the Regional Development Bureaus of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, their Hokkaido Development Bureau, and the Regional Agricultural Administration Offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. They would be combined into either Regional Promotion Bureaus or Regional Engineering Bureaus. And–this is very important–it also included a proposal to establish councils composed of prefectural governors and others as a mechanism for the reconciliation of policy with local government. The latter would then have some degree of oversight for the work these agencies perform.

Even though these bureaus established offices in local areas, they are not subject to (local) oversight because they are central government agencies. These operations aren’t even subject to debate in the Diet. They are an immense black box. It would be a ground-breaking step if the regions were able to take an active hand in their operation.

Inose: Even though they’re called local agencies, they are very large. The central government has 330,000 civil servants, and the local agencies employ 210,000 of them. One matter that recently came up at the Decentralization Reform Committee was the plan to build a combined-use 20-story building in Sendai, the primary city of the Tohoku region. It would be right across the street from the 18-story office building for Miyaki Prefecture. It’s a waste of 100 billion yen (US$ 1.101 billion) annually to build boxes for these 210,000 people.

The most recent subject of debate was the 100,000 employees of 15 agencies. There is 10 trillion yen budgeted for them alone.

The councils we proposed would not be mere oversight organizations. They would also discuss the planned operations of those local agencies for the following year and their budget proposals. The councils and their members would be able to submit opinions on those subjects. In other words, even if you (Gov. Hashimoto) lost all your support (laughs), you could submit an opinion in the council on matters you thought were important. We inserted a clause in our report that the local agencies would respect those opinions. The local governors and others would not be forced to obey just because the national government made a statement.

Inose Naoki

Inose Naoki

Hashimoto: I like the idea of the councils, because I agree that local agencies should be put under the control of the chief executives of local government. They’ll also form ties with other prefectures, so they also can be used as a platform for integrated discussions on a broader scale. I think our involvement, backed by public support, will enable us to eliminate needless public works projects.

There was a serious reversal in the committee just before the recommendation was submitted to Prime Minister Aso, wasn’t there?

Inose: That’s right. The transfer for the authority for Class One rivers and national highways from those local agencies will naturally eliminate the jobs of many employees, because there won’t be work for them. We suggested that about 35,000 out of 100,000 employees be eliminated.

There was a real danger our proposal would be crushed unless we handled it carefully, because the related ministries were strongly opposed. That’s why we held a committee meeting a few hours after submitting the report to the prime minister and incorporated this idea as a proposal by the committee chair. The Kasumigaseki bureaucrats said that an accurate estimate (for the elimination of employees) was impossible, but I successfully urged that a proper estimate be made.

Even with this report, we were unable to completely reevaluate all of the work that the local agencies conduct. If the transfer of authority to local governments is stalled, then the danger remains that the Regional Promotion Bureaus and Regional Engineering Bureaus could grow too large and become the same sort of problem as their predecessors. That’s why we included the reduction of 35,000 positions as a numerical target. That will force authority to be transferred.

Hashimoto: The newspapers have been reporting there’s no downsizing of the work of these local agencies and you’d be merely changing one sign on the building for another, but there’s no way all these agencies will disappear all at once. I’d be thankful for councils that will enable organizational oversight. It’s the first wave for the initial breakup, so I think it’s a welcome step.

Inose: The report has also been thrashed by the zokugiin within the LDP. (Note: Zokugiin are Diet members affiliated with specific ministries.) After we submitted the report, the chairman was called before the LDP’s Special Committee for Promoting Regional Devolution and Reform to provide an explanation. There were plenty of complaints. Some objected there is no overlap in administration when the roles of the central and local governments are clearly divided. Others said our committee should be abolished, that they should act after repudiating our report, and that Mr. Inose should spend his time focusing on his primary job as vice governor of Tokyo. (laughs)

You can’t skip any steps if you want to change how government operates. It has to be done step by step.

The local governments that don’t support the committee

Hashimoto: I was really shocked to see that some people in local governments did not support the committee’s work. While the report proposed the transfer of authority to local governments and the downsizing of the local agencies, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport designated a mere 110 highways for the transfer of authority to local governments, with a total length of just 3,800 kilometers (2,361 miles). That’s only 18% of all the national highways directly managed by the national government.

Inose: It’s the same with rivers. In our first report, the committee sought to have the authority transferred for 65 of the 109 Class One river systems. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport designated only 20, however. That accounts for only 7% of the area for Class One rivers directly managed by the government. The reason for the small numbers is because they got no responses from other local government offices asking for recommendations.

Hashimoto: When these are being aggregated, the Ministry consults individually with each prefecture and counts only those answers in which the prefecture says they’ll accept the management of the river. If the prefecture refuses, of course they won’t be added to the total. We in Osaka had our own negotiations with the Ministry, and I thought they did something rather clever for their part. Most local government officials will object that they lack financial resources or personnel, so they’d be hard pressed to handle the work if the responsibility were transferred. Therefore, they can’t accept it.

It’s important to attract public opinion through a political message, so in the end I have them say they will accept it. If the personnel or the money doesn’t come later, then I can raise a big fuss. I asked other governors in the Kinki region to go along with me in accepting responsibility, but…

Inose: I think that’s leadership. The bureaucrats always start by talking about the personnel or the money. Only a few of the prefectures said they’d accept responsibility for operations other than those designated by the Ministry, Tokyo and Osaka among them.
Kasumigaseki is really amazing. The reality is that most of the department heads for construction and civil engineering that manage the roads and rivers in the prefectures have been sent there by the Ministry.

Hashimoto: The reason the aggregate number was 18% was because it was determined within the Ministry through discussions between superiors and subordinates. There was just a discussion between the central government and the prefectural governments. No wonder the numbers were so small.

Inose: Yes, that’s right. The Ministry doesn’t intend to transfer much authority, and even the prefectural governors say they can’t accept responsibility. That’s because they’re given advice inside their bureaucracy from bureaucrats most familiar with the Civil Engineering Division, who say it will be next to impossible for the prefecture to accept.

Hashimoto: What was missing from those individual conferences to aggregate the totals was that none of the prefectures asking to be relieved of responsibility said they’d therefore ask the central government to handle the work. Even if the individual prefectures don’t accept responsibility, several local governments working together should be able to accept it.

But the central government reports that the prefectures say they won’t accept responsibility. They say they’ll handle it at the national level, and that’s how the national government contrives to keep the local agencies alive.

Local governments obstructing the battle with the central government

Inose: Sometimes the local bureaucrats just have to bend to the opinions of the central government. If they’ve been able to survive by doing that and receive subsidies, they’ve managed to get by without any major slipups…We’ve made it a requirement for a Ministry’s Regional Development Bureau to listen to the opinions of prefectural governors when they draw up plans, but there’s no legal binding force. But if all the governors involved join together and firmly reject those plans, it should be impossible for the central government to ignore them.

…I’d really like to see local governments band together to do battle with the ever-expanding Kasumigaseki. That would result in the steady progression of regional authority. I am convinced these councils would enable them to do quite a bit.

The dark side of the financial liability toward the national government

Inose: For some time now, I’ve pointed out the problem of the funds that local governments are required to pay to the national government—one-third of the expenses for building national highways or riparian works. Specifically, the central government does not itemize what it does with the tens of billions of yen it requires in payments….You’ve said that you won’t pay money that doesn’t need to be paid.

Mr. Hashimoto goes to Tokyo

Mr. Hashimoto goes to Tokyo

Hashimoto: To begin with, there are 84 independent administrative agencies under the authority of the central government in my prefecture, and we pay about 21.7 billion yen in subsidies and other liabilities to them. We have indicated that, as a rule, we will not include this money in the budget starting in FY 2009. Also, the liabilities that we owe to agencies directly operated by the national government is expected to skyrocket to 42.5 billion yen in FY 2009. We’ve decided not to budget low-priority items.

Of course, agreement was reached for many of these projects conducted by the local agencies in discussions between the Regional Development Bureaus and Osaka Prefecture. There are more than a few cases in which we say that roads are needed in a specific place, and the government will build them. But the prefectural government does not have the financial resources to pay for all these projects.

Osaka Prefecture has a severe budget deficit. Our forecasts show that even if the citizens work together to improve the balance of payments by 110 billion yen, the savings from the cutbacks in expenditures will be negated by declining tax revenue. That’s why we also have to cut prefectural employee salaries, including those of the police officers who put their lives on the line. We were also the first prefecture in the country to reduce retirement benefits, and we’ve reduced aid to private schools. We’re even going to have to reduce subsidies for medical expenses. But when we’re being pressed to reduce services to the citizens, it’s abnormal that the only items we can’t touch are the fixed expenses for payment to these government agencies. It’s also unnatural that only the national highways look great and they keep building new ones non-stop.

Inose: If this were the private sector, there would be very heated discussions between the large companies and their subcontractors.

Hashimoto: The department heads tell me that’s a legal requirement and ask what we’re supposed to do, but you can’t spend money you don’t have. Our upper level people turn pale when negotiating with the central government, but I’m ready to negotiate directly if something can’t be worked out.

Inose: It’s important to send the clear message that Osaka has restructured its finances and it doesn’t have the money.

The small business mentality is a weapon

Hashimoto: It takes a lot of energy to get a government office to move. There’s an incredible vertical compartmentalization even in the Osaka Prefecture government, not to mention Kasumigaseki. Each bureau thinks only of its own circumstances. They demand a budget that is simply not feasible from the perspective of the overall financial condition of the prefecture. In other words, very few people have the big picture view. That’s why I go over the entire budget myself.

Inose: The larger an organization grows, the more likely that governance of that sort becomes impossible. The other day, I was told that it would cost 15 billion yen to renovate the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, which was built in 1933. If the incredibly beautiful National Art Center in Roppongi cost 30 billion yen to build new, why does a renovation cost 15 billion? I went to see for myself, and the facility didn’t need much work. All that’s needed is to replace some tiles and pipes and make it accessible to the disabled, which would cost only 10% of the amount requested. That’s what happens.

Hashimoto: But (going to see it yourself) is like some old guy who’s the president of a small company. That’s not the work of a governor or vice governor.

Inose: But it’s just the instincts of a person running a microenterprise that are needed in government offices now…they’ve had to survive by being exposed to the market, so their instincts are different from those of a bureaucrat. They’re more vigilant. Even an employee at a very large, private-sector company is not that different from a bureaucrat. Only small businesses and microenterprises are exposed to the market.

Hashimoto: When will the councils in your committee’s proposal be created?

Inose: This is also related to the rate of support for the Aso administration. Regional devolution is one of Prime Minister Aso’s major initiatives, so if he can pull that off, his support should rise…

Hashimoto: If the prime minister shows the way to devolution, I will give him my full support. I can only think that the series of news reports that his support has fallen because the LDP and Kasumigaseki are unable to reach a consensus is due to skillful leaks by bureaucrats. The people will not be happy if the prime minister is hobbled—only Kasumigaseki will be happy. They’ll also be the only ones left.

Inose: Tokyo and Osaka are major metropolitan areas, so they’re better positioned than regional areas to send a clear message to the country. That’s why I say to you that we should use that resolve to send a message, even if it’s only the two of us. That’s how we can attack Kasumigaseki from both flanks, and if we do that, there is no question that the country will gradually begin to change.

(End translation of dialogue)

Bonus Update #1: Mr. Hashimoto Goes to Tokyo

Osaka Gov. Hashimoto recently debuted at the Diet when he was asked with two other governors to testify at a lower house committee discussing the system of local government payments to central government operations.

Mr. Hashimoto was the first to speak, and he argued for a policy of transferring tax resources to local government. He said elections were the way to change the system, and that the only method was to select MPs who would promote devolution. He added:

“I get thoroughly disgusted when I wonder if Kasumigaseki will continue to run every part of the country. Japan will have no future.”

The Diet members were quick to point out some of the contradictions in the governors’ arguments. Legislators from the Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito, the Communist Party, and the Social Democratic Party let loose a series of volleys chiding the prefecture governors for their slowness to take action. One asked, “Why haven’t you done anything about this until now?”

Yamaguchi Gov. Nii Sekinari, who also testified, admitted that the governors as a group needed to do some soul-searching about their own behavior.

Some of the MPs grew irritated, saying that the governors were the ones who wanted these projects to begin with. LDP lower house member Noda Takeshi (Yamasaki faction) said at a special LDP committee meeting on the same day:

Quite a few of these projects under central government control were specifically requested to be handled that way by local governments. Maybe we should eliminate the ones in Osaka.

Mr. Hashimoto, who has been in office slightly more than a year, is well aware of the problem. He noted that the national governors’ conference had raised the problem 50 years ago.

“It’s unbelievable that they would pay tens of billions of yen based on those sort of (non-itemized statements). I’m surprised they let (the government) get away with it.”

He also reminded the legislators:

“Diet members are supposed to audit the statements for the liability amounts submitted by the Regional Development Bureaus.”

Bonus Update #2: A Hashimoto-Inose disagreement

The Asahi Shimbun, a frequent Hashimoto antagonist, reported that a day before his Diet appearance, Gov. Hashimoto asked Chief Cabinet Secretary Kawamura Takeo and Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Kaneko Kazuyoshi to expedite construction of the new Meishin Expressway (Meishin Expressway #2). He even visited the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry offices to press his case.

The highway would link Nagoya and Kobe. The construction of 36 kilometers of the highway was shelved in 2006.

Hashimoto comrade Inose Naoki has opposed the construction of the highway since the Koizumi Administration. Mr. Inose said: “I have the feeling that Gov. Hashimoto is not familiar with the circumstances surrounding the issue in those days.”

Inose says the highway is unnecessary because it will run parallel to existing highways.

“It was my understanding at the time that the Keiji Bypass was the de facto Meishin Expressway #2 and that it wasn’t necessary to build a Meishin Expressway #3.”

Gov. Hashimoto said that he would try to convince both his reformer ally and a Diet committee of the need for the highway.

I know nothing about the region’s highways at all, but I suspect Mr. Inose is probably right. That project sounds like just the sort of thing local business interests would boost, and Osaka is a hotbed of regional boosterism.

Bonus update #3: The DPJ sticks its toe into the water

The Democratic Party of Japan, the country’s primary opposition group, finally came up with a proposal for reorganizing these same local agencies with the intent of incorporating the proposal in their election platform. One significant hurdle, however, is that party sources say the entire devolution issue in combination with government reorganization at the sub-national level is the single most divisive issue within the party. DPJ Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio, for example, favors the LDP proposal to create larger state/provinces that would eventually eliminate the prefectures.

Though the DPJ and its acolytes consider it to be a haven for policy wanks, they can’t make the recommendation part of the platform until party boss Ozawa Ichiro makes a decision. Mr. Ozawa’s decision-making on this and other matters has slowed to a crawl, however, as he tries to deal with the fallout from his aide’s arrest.

Bonus update #4: Everbody’s getting into the act

Just yesterday Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Hatoyama Kunio, Yukio’s younger brother, says he wants to eliminate from next year’s budget the requirement that local governments shoulder 45% of the expenditures for maintenance and management of local agency operations. He plans to discuss the issue with MLIT Minister Kaneko.

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