Japan from the inside out

Japan’s political kaleidoscope

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 4, 2009

NOW THAT THE OPPOSITION Democratic Party of Japan has stuck a feather in former leader Ozawa Ichiro’s cap and called it macaroni instead of calling on Jack to hit the road, events in the world of Japanese politics are accelerating with a potentially historic lower house election just a few months away.

Here are some reflections from Japan’s ever-revolving political kaleidoscope while we wait to see how long it takes the mudboat of the ruling LDP’s zombie wing to dissolve, whether the party dumps Aso Taro and replaces him with Hatoyama Kunio to set up a brother-take-all election, and if the members of the DPJ will ever start acting their age instead of their (Western) shoe size.

Kato and Takenaka: Off with the gloves!

Former LDP Secretary-General Kato Koichi has just published a book critical of the Koizumi administration’s structural reforms. To borrow a term used to describe some members of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, Mr. Kato would be a “wet” in the LDP. He and the very dry Keio University Prof. Takenaka Heizo, the lead privateer of the Koizumian reforms, went toe-to-toe on a recent TV Asahi program.

Mr. Kato’s first punch:

“The reforms exceeded the limits of the weakened regional areas. Your ideas (were inconsiderate of) society.”

Countered Prof. Takenaka:

“(You’re) the man responsible for “ten lost years” (of sluggish economic growth). It’s odd that you would attack Mr. Koizumi, who ended all that, as if you were some cultural critic.”

Mr. Kato thinks the Koizumi administration’s approach of zero interest rates and what he saw as a focus on corporations, reduced personal assets and income, upsetting the public:

“All of society is now irritated!”

Prof. Takenaka pointed out that his antagonist held several important positions in the 1990s, including LDP secretary-general, after the collapse of the bubble economy.

“(You) failed to deal firmly with the non-performing debt, so we did. It’s a mistake to argue there’s a future in going backwards.”

Expect to see more of these arguments, particularly if the LDP falls apart after going into the opposition, thereby liberating its reform wing.

Going backwards

Speaking of retrograde movement, Finance Minister Yosano Kaoru continued his own backwards march into the future, slapping himself during a meeting of the lower house finance committee for daring to support the complete privatization of the Development Bank of Japan as scheduled:

“I’ve done some soul-searching over the shallowness of my thinking for failing to anticipate the current economic crisis. The DBJ should remain as an important tool of the government.”

Which shows that Mr. Yosano remains an important tool of the Finance Ministry, the Big Swinging Dick of the Japanese bureaucracy. The bureaucracy will do anything to maintain its stranglehold on government policy short of strangling babies in the crib. Prime Ministers Koizumi and Abe made some headway on blasting a path through the mountain, but their two successors let the Sisyphean rock roll back down the hill again.

Not only did the lower house committee agree with Mr. Yosano, they also voted to expand the range of assets the bank can buy. The media report said the bank was scheduled for full privatization in three years, but their website (right sidebar) says about five.

Failing to foresee a once-in-a-century economic crisis is forgivable. What is inexcusable, however, is failing to see that it originated in a meddlesome government’s interference with banking practices, and that partial government ownership of those banks to facilitate further meddling will be a cure worse than the disease.

All politics is local, #1

The news media got interested in the usually uninteresting mayoral election in Saitama City last month because it was the first local poll after Ozawa Ichiro resigned from the DPJ presidency. Politicos wanted to know whether his retreat from center stage to the control booth in the wings would boost the local DPJ candidate.

The local DPJ group supported newcomer Shimizu Hayato (47), who easily defeated the incumbent backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The café commentariat saw this as a win for the new Hatoyama-led LDP, especially as Hatoyama Yukio himself campaigned there.

They’d have a point if people always elected municipal chiefs based on the behavior of national political parties, but other factors confirmed the only coherent point former U.S. House Speaker Thomas O’Neill made in his career: “All politics is local”.

Mr. Shimuzu was a newcomer nearly 20 years younger than his opponent, Aikawa Soichi (66). Mr. Aikawa was seeking a third straight term, or a sixth straight term if you count his time as mayor of Urawa before a municipal merger. Many people were looking for a change.

Some of them were in his own party. While Mr. Aikawa had official party backing, a third candidate in the race was Nakamori Fukuyo, who had been a former LDP lower house member with a proportional representative seat until March. The party didn’t support Mr. Nakamori, but former Secretary-General Ibuki Bunmei and former postal privatization rebelette and current Minister of Consumer Affairs Noda Seiko swung by to campaign for him. Intraparty vote-splitting is the royal road to an election loss.

Then again, Mr. Aikawa ran a mudboat campaign of his own. After winning the primary, he played up his LDP ties and had Hatoyama Kunio, the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications (and Yukio’s brother) campaign for him. Mr. Shimizu figured he had the election cinched at that point, because his strategy was to highlight party identification, and he knew he was running against a split opposition.

The LDP nameplate has negative cachet regardless of who’s running where, but it must take a brick wall to fall on some people before they get it. Just last month, Morita Kensaku was elected Governor of Chiba despite his LDP ties because he pretended they didn’t exist. But the law of natural selection is valid for politics too.

All politics is local, #2

When Hatoyama Yukio claims to be the champion of regional devolution, that has to mean it’s an idea whose time has come at last in Japan. Since his selection as DPJ head, he has proclaimed:

“What I want to do most after I become prime minister is to change the country into one of regional sovereignty.”

He also lifted a line from former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro:

“Leave to the regions what the regions can do.”

(Substitute “private sector” for “regions” and you have the Koizumi mantra. Combine the two and you’re cooking with gas.)

People knew this was a good idea a long time ago. From Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859):

“Municipal institutions are for liberty what primary schools are for science; they place it within reach of the people.”

But how does that translate into practical policy? And just how serious is Mr. Hatoyama? Here he is answering a reporter’s question:


“The DPJ claims in its party platform that it will reduce personnel costs for the central government’s civil service by 20%. But establishing regional authority and transferring that authority to local governments will require that (same) amount of personnel, and the national civil servants will probably become local civil servants. So, as for the reduction of personnel costs for local civil service…”


“I probably haven’t given any answer. I understand of course that (required) personnel are part of the central government’s public employees. I also think that with the emergence of regional sovereignty, the people working in the regional areas will be necessary. Therefore, I hope that many of the central government’s civil servants employees will become local civil servants and do that work.

“But, it’s natural that when local sovereignty emerges, it will be quite difficult to entrust a large amount of authority and funding resources to such places as small villages. That will have to be decided by the people in the regions, but it is inevitable, you know, that authority, if you devolve a great deal of authority, then municipalities will discuss mergers spontaneously on their own. That is a forward looking discussion. That’s not because they don’t have enough money; they’ll discuss it to perform their work.

“Of course the municipalities that exist will discuss mergers to become ‘basic local governments’. And if that happens, you see, they’ll be able to decrease the total number of public employees. That’s what I think. The national government’s role will decline. Therefore, we will be able to drastically cut the number of national civil servants. On the other hand, there will be an increase in the number of national civil servants becoming local civil servants. But it’s entirely possible that the total of local civil servants will decrease rather than increase.”

I read that three times and agree with Mr. Hatoyama. He probably hasn’t given any answer.

(Mr. Hatoyama’s use of “basic local government” here is confusing; municipalities already are the basic local government unit in Japan, even if they are technically classified as villages.)

To be fair to the nominal DPJ chief, the party policy wanks still haven’t been able to clear their ideas with Ozawa Ichiro, whom many suspect is still pulling the strings behind the scenes. The New Boss publicly supports the LDP state/province system of devolution and sub-national rearrangement, but heaven forbid that an opposition party would officially agree with one of the golden planks in the ruling party platform. The Old Boss favors a different plan, fortunately. The DPJ’s decision, whenever they get around to it, will provide some hints on the identity of The Real Boss.

Meanwhile, last November Prime Minister Aso said:

“Our ultimate objective is a state/province system based on regional sovereignty in which national government offices are transferred to the regions.”

Whether he means it or not–and many in his party do–at least it has the advantage of being short, clear, and to the point.

Answer the phone, Yukio!

Constitutional reform in Japan means more than rewriting Article 9, the so-called peace clause. Some want to remove any obstacles to the innocent use of Shinto rituals in government-related activities, while others want to shift to a unicameral legislature. But since the Japanese have never amended the Constitution, they’re still working out how to go about it.

Both houses of the Diet have a Deliberative Council on the Constitution, but it lacks internal regulations on the number of members and its procedures due to opposition party foot dragging, including the DPJ.

Notable for his silence is new DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio, though he was once so hot for constitutional reform he published his own ideas on the subject in 2005 called A Proposal for A New Constitution (PHP). Given his interest in the issue, the LDP thought his election might signal a change in DPJ policy.

They should know better than to take a politician at his word. He isn’t returning their calls. Both the LDP and junior partner New Komeito have repeatedly asked the opposition to help to formulate regulations, and even submitted a proposal for their consideration. No answer.

Some LDP members are now irritated enough to consider passing their own regulations in the second half of the current Diet session while the party still has a supermajority in the lower house and can override a rejection from the DPJ-controlled upper house.

After pointedly mentioning Mr. Hatoyama’s interest in the issue, LDP Diet Affairs Committee Chair Oshima Tadamori said:

“We really want to reach a settlement (on these regulations) during this session because (the issue involves) the sovereignty of the people. Of course we should determine procedures for Constitutional amendments.”

Replied senior DPJ poobah Okada Katsuya at a press conference:

“This should be thoroughly discussed first. I’ve talked to Naoshima Masayuki (chair of the party’s Policy Research Council, member of the Hatoyama group, and the Chief Cabinet Secretary in the shadow cabinet), and I want to use the council first. It’s not something I should talk about over my head.”

Above his pay grade, eh?

The DPJ can’t use their own committee for constitutional research because they’ve left the chairmanship vacant since the upper house election in 2007.

The reason the party is covering its ears and pretending it can’t hear is because the plethora of tails wagging the dog is making too much noise. With the DPJ so close to taking power, that means there’ll be a whole lot of shaking going on. They’re still holding hands with the pacifist/green/anti-free market–nuclear power—automobile—common sense Social Democrats, who are just fine with the Constitution the way it is except for the positive references to the emperor.

More or less within the party is the notorious Japan Teacher’s Union (see right sidebar), which backs the DPJ in the same way that teachers’ unions everywhere back political parties on the left. In the past, they’ve been caught squeezing members to donate to the political campaigns of DPJ Acting President Koshi’ishi Azuma in Yamanashi and harassed a Hiroshima school principal to suicide. They think competitive tests are bad for education and singing the national anthem is bad for any reason at all.

While serving as Foreign Minister in 2005, the LDP’s largest faction leader Machimura Nobutaka claimed the reason the government did not want Japanese schools to focus more intensively on the country’s behavior in the early part of the 20th century was that too many JTU members were Marxist-Leninists. An excuse? Maybe, but he has a point.

Another favorite JTU technique is to mail razor blades to the people that displease them. Mr. Hatoyama apparently prefers to buy his at the store for the time being.

Kasumigaseki reform

Executives of the self-proclaimed reform kings DPJ and the anti-reform People’s New Party agreed to coordinate policy proposals in their respective platforms in the upcoming lower house election, particularly for postal privatization. In other words, they promise to stand athwart the course of reform and yell Stop! The two parties also called on the SPD to join them for some coordination-a-trois, and confirmed they would work together during the election.

One wonders how many words Hatoyama Yukio can use to avoid answering a question about this contradiction while folding back his forked tongue at the same time.

Ishihara Nobuteru speaks

LDP official Ishihara Nobuteru spoke truth to power regarding the DPJ and Ozawa Ichiro during a recent television interview:

“If he were a member of the LDP, he would have resigned his Diet seat…Mr. Ozawa did not resign his Diet seat, he resigned the party presidency and became acting president without reflecting on his errors and without an explanation. This reveals the nature of the Democratic Party of Japan today.”

In your heart, you know he’s right.

A Kan junket?

DPJ Acting President and former leader Kan Naoto will be jetting to England for a four-day stay starting on the 6th. He says he wants to observe how the country’s Cabinet operates because both Great Britain and Japan have a parliamentary cabinet system.

Mr. Kan has been sitting in the Diet since 1980 and was in the Cabinet as Health and Welfare Minister in 1996. And he needs to go to England for four days to see how Cabinets and Parliaments work?

They say London is nice this time of year.

More fad Diets

The Asahi Shimbun enjoyed running an article describing how the LDP is trying to work out its preference among various internal plans to downsize the lower house of the Diet—ranging from cuts of 50-180 seats—while pacifying junior coalition partner New Komeito. If they cut only proportional representation districts, New Komeito would lose 23 of its 31 MPs. That party, widely seen as the political arm of the lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, provides the campaign foot soldiers for the LDP in the same way the unions back the DPJ.

A recent meeting of a parliamentarian’s group formed to slash 180 of the seats and bring the total to 300 drew LDP Election Strategy Council Chair Koga Makoto, the keeper of the Koizumian flame Nakagawa Hidenao, and Sato Yukari and some other Koizumi children (figurative, not literal).

They discussed three plans:

  1. 300 winner-take-all districts
  2. 200 winner-take-all districts and 100 proportional representation districts
  3. A 50-50 split.

But the Asahi, the print wing of Japan’s leftist media voice, didn’t mention that the DPJ, their horse in the race, faces the same problem. Party boss Hatoyama Yukio wants to shed 80 seats, but the survival of the DPJ’s small party allies depends on proportional representation too.

Just an oversight, I guess.

Padding the bill

Governments at the prefectural level are mad as hell about the money they’re forced to fork over to maintain the local agencies of central government ministries, and they’re not going to take it anymore. (See this post for plenty of details.) Every year the national government just hands them a bill and tells them to pay up. The local governors demanded the bills be itemized, and the government finally complied. Now it probably wishes it hadn’t.

Saga Prefecture discovered that personnel costs, including pensions and the operating costs for agency buildings and employee dormitories, accounted for 10% of their financial liability to the central government. In addition to being seriously displeased at the discovery, they claimed the standards for determining payment were vague and demanded further disclosure.

This is a critical issue for some prefectures. Saga Governor Furukawa Yasushi has warned the prefectural government will be bankrupt by 2011 unless present conditions change.

In fact, prefectural governments are being billed for the mutual aid association liabilities of national civil servants for their retirement benefits and annuity reserves. The national government’s justification was that the local regions are the ones to benefit from the work of the national bureaucracy, so they should be the ones to pay.

The governors didn’t buy that for a second. Wondered noted devolutionist Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo of Miyazaki:

I’m having a hard time understanding why these benefits are included in the bill.

But here’s some good news for those who think you can’t fight the central government and win: Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Kaneko Kazuyoshi said the government will probably not bill local governments this year for those retirement benefits.

Here I go again: devolution could be a reform whose time has come.

Chips off the old block

The DPJ successfully created a new wrinkle in the political numbers game by claiming they will nail into their election platform a plank denying official party support to new candidates with family members who’ve served in the Diet in the past three generations. They insist this has something to do with “reform”.

What it really has to do with is making the retiring Koizumi Jun’ichiro look bad for trying to pass his Kanagawa Diet seat off to his number two son. Former Justice Minister Usui Hideo planned on handing over the family business to his son in Chiba this year, too.

Some LDP members realized the media would froth it up to make them look even worse, so they called for the institution of a similar rule. But local party officials in Mr. Koizumi’s district objected because they had settled on Jun’s boy last November, and there isn’t enough time to find a new candidate. So the party said they would apply a hereditary seat restriction rule for the election after next. They also said they wouldn’t back the two lads as independents and have them sign up for the party after the election. That would be cheating.

Aha, shouted the DPJ, you’re not reformers after all! Asahi TV helped whip up the media froth with some predictable tut-tutting and cluck-clucking on their morning roundtable discussion program.

Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?

If the DPJ were serious about real reform that served the people, they would knock off the political otaku games and spend more of their time involved with the real affairs of government.

If they thought inherited seats were such a bad idea, they could apply the rule to everyone TODAY instead of making it a grandfather clause. But that would erase from the rolls the party’s standard bearer, Hatoyama Yukio, whose patriarchal line of Diet members stretches back to great-grandfather Kazuo. He started the family business during the Meiji period.

You know–the 19th century.

It would also have disqualified in his time Koizumi Jun’ichiro, who managed to accomplish or initiate more reforms in his five years as prime minister than are dreamt of in the DPJ philosophy.

Instead of running numbers in a numbers game and pandering to those who think politics is a spectator sport for the public rather than the means for the public to directly participate in self-rule, the DPJ policy wanks—as well as the LDP mudboaters—should give the power to the people and let them decide who is best qualified to serve in a district through a primary system. If the well-connected kids win, so be it.

You know–make yourselves accountable to the voters. Respect the popular will. Behave like bona fide reformers instead of the mandarins you really are.

Maybe someone will explain it to Kan Naoto during his London junket.


I just ran across this in The Guardian, Britain’s premier newspaper of the Left:

Political reform can no longer be put aside as an abstract idea, of appeal to dreamers but not to voters who face the harder realities of life. The public is calling furiously for a better system. People want an honest parliament. They want leaders who are prepared to act. They loathe the old system, and many of the people who are part of it.

The subject is the British political crisis, but that same tune works with Japanese lyrics as well.

That’s a story well worth following, but it’s curious that people are overlooking the several intertwined stories in Japan, which in many ways are even more compelling.

4 Responses to “Japan’s political kaleidoscope”

  1. John G. said

    Re: Takenaka and Kato. There’s probably zero chance of it happening, but I have this wishful idea that the “reform wing” will split off from the LDP before the lower house election, and that Heizo will come off the sidelines to lead it. I actually saw him give a talk recently which sounded very much like a campaign stump speech (he offered up a platform which included a proposal for lowering the corp. tax rate to 17%). But even if he’s not running in the next election, I hope he stays on the offensive against K. Hatoyama, Kato, and others who are trying to walk back the Japan Post reforms.

  2. ampontan said

    JG: He actually held an upper house seat toward the end of the Koizumi administration, when there was no need for him to do so. People assumed it was because prime ministers must be chosen from among Diet members. But he resigned before finishing out his term, and I’ve never really seen a good explanation why. (Anybody know?) He caught a lot of flak from other Diet members for this because they thought it was irresponsible.

    It would seem that he thought being PM was not for him.

    The Nakagawa Hidenao circle of Koizumians are trying to take a page out of the master’s book and put a woman out front, in this case Koike Yuriko. She hasn’t gotten much traction in the LDP, but after the election who knows.

  3. RMilner said

    >>They say London is nice this time of year.

    London normally is nice this time of the year however the weather forecast for this weekend is dismal. Also, there is a big and growing political crisis as mentioned in your The Guardian report.

    If a Japanese pol wants to study the cabinet and parliamentary system he may find a good example of disfunction.

  4. bender said

    Japanese politics…it’s the reflection of the people. People in big cities are too busy to care about politics causing their communities to be dysfunctional and they just let things slip, while people in the countryside who has nothing to do but to play pachinko in the weekends want to have pork barrel “dango” projects coming in using city folk’s money to spoon-feed them for eternity.

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