AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Japan’s political kaleidoscope (2): Aso edition

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, June 30, 2009

THE YEASTY FERMENT brewing in the world of Japanese politics is a heady blend with ingredients ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Anyone who thinks politics in this country is moribund either isn’t paying attention or their beverage of choice is Kool-Aid. Today’s draft is drawn primarily from the Aso Taro keg.

Politicians say the darndest things

Logorrhea is an occupational hazard for politicians, and all sorts of things come out of their mouths when they’ve switched on cruise control. This is from a recent speech by Prime Minister Aso Taro:

“(The current Japanese national soccer team) doesn’t have a superstar like Nakata Hidetoshi. Eleven people working together—that’s Japanese soccer. If Japan had a superstar, it would be His Majesty the Emperor.”

Do you ever wonder how Mrs. Aso would answer if someone asked her whether her husband talks like this when they’re relaxing together at home?

Then again, if the idea of Jesus Christ Superstar can sell millions of albums, launch productions on Broadway and the West End of London, generate two films with a third planned, and still be performed on stage 35 years later, it should be harmless for some Japanese to consider the tenno to be the local superstar.

Why people dislike journalists #4,937

Journalists defend themselves from the charge of pointlessly repeating the same question by saying it’s their job. Well, yes, for some people, working for a living does involve creating make-work projects designed to convince the boss you’ve got the situation well in hand. All they usually accomplish, however, is to waste the time of people with more productive things to do. Try this dialogue from a recent Aso Taro press conference:

Reporter: First, about the personnel for senior party positions and the Cabinet…

(Mr. Aso leans back and smiles)

Reporter: Last Saturday you had a discussion with Mr. Kuroda (LDP secretary general), and at that time you took a negative approach to making major personnel changes. You said, “I’ve never talked about it; it’s just outsiders making things up.” Could you tell us again what your thoughts are about the personnel issue?

PM: I haven’t thought about personnel.

Reporter: Does that mean you won’t think about personnel until the Diet is dissolved and there’s a general election?

PM: It means I’m not thinking about it now.

Reporter: Now.

PM: Now look, you’re jumping on everything I say as soon as I say it, and you also did it not long ago. This sort of thing…saying these needless things will just lead to a pointless conversation, so let’s drop the subject…well, that was a close call (laughs).

Reporter: I see.

PM: (Clear voice) I haven’t thought about it.

Reporter: OK. Next…

PM: Do you understand?

Reporter: You’re not thinking about it all?

PM: (Laughs, doesn’t answer)

Update: Well, it looks like this reporter knew more than I gave him credit for. The very next day, Mr. Aso said that he had been thinking for a while about “the most suitable people at the most suitable time”. Nevertheless, it should have been obvious he didn’t want to answer the question when he was asked. That’s no reason to bug the man.

Why would Mr. Aso double back on his word so quickly? Some television journalists speculated that former PM Abe Shinzo, a long-time Aso friend, had been urging him to reshuffle his Cabinet and had nearly convinced him. But then party bigwig Mori Yoshiro told Mr. Aso not to waste his time.

How typical: Mr. Aso’s lack of decisiveness and willingness to listen to either of those men for political advice are two of the reasons his popular support is negligible to begin with.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the latest teacup tempest in an administration known for them is that one of the TV journalists casually commented that “he lied” the first time before moving on to comment about subsequent developments.

That does not speak well of contemporary Japanese politics at the highest level, does it?

Grated Aso

A lower house election must be held within the next few months, and it looks very much like the LDP is going to be trounced, allowing the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to form a government for the first time. The ruling party no longer offers a coherent political philosophy, and their post-Koizumi prime ministers have been the politically clumsy manipulated by the terminal klutzes behind the scenes.

It’s no wonder then that some senior party members want to move up the September election for LDP party president (who would become prime minister) to find an alternative to going down with Mr. Aso and the rest of the mudboat crew before the lower house election.

LDP faction leader Yamasaki Hiraku (AKA Taku) has submitted a petition to LDP MPs and other party members specifically calling for an early election. He also set up a special area on his website for citizens to provide their input.

Said Mr. Yamasaki:

“It’s not (designed) to bring down the Aso Cabinet”.

It is to laugh. No one believes that, particularly because the special area materialized on his website the day after the LDP candidate was defeated in the election for Chiba City mayor. A former Cabinet minister also admitted off the record that the idea is to create a popular consensus to replace Mr. Aso.

Indeed, Mr. Yamasaki later quit beating around the bush. A week ago, he claimed he had 108 signatures from lower house LDP members, though he wasn’t showing them to anyone. That’s about halfway to his goal of signing up an outright majority of LDP MPs in the lower house. He says that would prevent Mr. Aso from calling a snap election out of petulant frustration.

Then came the release of the following poll:

  • People intending to vote for the LDP: 16.4%
  • People intending to vote for the DPJ: 40.4%

A 24-point differential causes alarm bells to ring so loudly even those with earplugs can hear them. It also tends to shake up senior party leaders with heretofore safe seats because an electoral tsunami that large could just as easily wipe them out as it would the small fry in marginal districts.

The secretaries-general

Said Kato Koichi at a press conference:

In my 37 years as a diet member, I have never seen the reputation of the LDP sink as low as it has now. It’s the lowest it’s ever been. Calling an election now would be an act of suicide…Some MPs say we can take only 165 seats, but I think that outlook is too optimistic.

Said Takebe Tsutomu to reporters at party headquarters:

“We (Diet members) will work hard until the end of the term on 10 September, (but) we should have a showdown in the election with new policies promoted by a new leader.”

Ibuki Bunmei was slightly more optimistic, if optimistic is the word to describe a prediction of the loss of the party’s lower house majority:

“The cabinet support rate has fallen. We could have taken 241 seats with New Komeito, but now that will only be 220 to 230.”

All four of these gentlemen have served as LDP secretary-general, the top position in the party apparatus, so they know when electoral defeat is staring them in the face. Another former SG, Nakagawa Hidenao, has been saying the same thing every day for months now.

The names that arise most frequently as possible replacements are the Acting Secretary-General (i.e., representative) Ishihara Nobuteru, the son of Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro; Health, Labor, and Welfare Minister Masuzoe Yoichi, a former University of Tokyo professor who won public favor as a TV commentator slamming bureaucrats for their handling of public pensions; and former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko, a favorite of the Koizumian wing of the party, but disliked by some for a perceived shallowness of loyalty to the LDP. The problem with all three is that none of them are strong enough on their own to serve in that role without substantial help from the old boys in the backroom, most of whom have been out of touch for a generation.

Not everyone has jumped on the dump Aso bandwagon, however. Those who think they can swim–or cling to the flotsam and jetsam–when the ship sinks include former postal rebel Noda Yumiko and former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. Mr. Abe may be a man of principle and party loyalty, but he is sorely deficient in the third P of political acumen.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Kawamura Takeo is also opposed to a change:

“Party unity is of the utmost importance before the lower house election. Turmoil in the party will cause its own downfall. Would the people really understand if we only changed the leader? How would we answer the criticism that holding a party leadership election before the general election was done only with the general election in mind?”

Yes, the people would understand if you removed a leader they don’t support who lacks a firm political touch. They’d probably sympathize with you, in fact. To answer the carpers, you could always point out that the parties sitting in the opposition rows don’t get to make policy.

New Komeito, the LDP’s coalition partners, also want to stick with the loser. Said a senior official:

“It will have a negative impact on the election for governor in Shizuoka and the Tokyo Metropolitan District council. It’s also possible the voters would not support (the coalition) in the lower house election.”

You mean the same voters who already favor the opposition over the coalition by a 24-point margin? Those voters?

The official dropped hints the party would withhold support from LDP Diet members who tried to oust Mr. Aso.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that candidates running behind a party leader promoting regional devolution, delinking from the mandarins of the civil service, putting the nation’s finances in order before raising taxes, continued privatization, and a resolute foreign policy probably wouldn’t need New Komeito support to win.

Naturalists speak of the cornered prey summoning all its energy for a desperate counterattack. Some hunters, however, know that cornered prey tracked for a long time often become too tired and dispirited to continue, and willingly surrender. What else could be the explanation for those people who are ready to fight an election campaign led by Mr. Aso—a man who has demonstrated no leadership ability, is not amenable to the reforms the public knows are needed, and who thinks that promising a large tax increase will earn the party public favor?

Mr. Aso might even be among those willing to surrender to the hunter. He’s dropping hints that he’ll hold the lower house election in August. Was this done to forestall a putsch? Was it his idea, or did someone put him up to it?

Why is it that the dimmest bulbs invariably think they’re the brightest?

Taro and the pirates

But let’s be fair: Mr. Aso does have his moments. The Diet recently passed a bill that allows Japanese self-defense forces (i.e., the military) to be sent overseas with the authority to fire on pirate vessels overseas if they do not respond to an order to cease and desist their attacks—even on non-Japanese ships—and allows Japan to participate in joint international anti-piracy operations. It also criminalizes piracy, which permits the offenders to be apprehended and punished in Japan.

Yet the DPJ chose to potentially sacrifice Japanese lives and ships by refusing to pass the bill in the upper house. They and the other opposition parties delayed the measure for two months and forced the LDP to use its supermajority in the lower house to get it through.

Said the prime minister:

“Naturally you’d protect yourself if you were attacked by thieves. I don’t understand (their opposition to the use of weapons). What are they thinking about when it comes to the safety of the Self-Defense Forces and the Coast Guard?”

There have been about 150 pirate attacks on shipping off Somalia this year, already exceeding the 111 attacks in 2008. What was the opposition “thinking”? For starters, the DPJ and the Social Democrats were concerned that the bill allows the Cabinet to send the SDF overseas without Diet approval.

Well, their two-month foot-dragging and gamesmanship while piracy continues unabated demonstrates why waiting for the approval of more than 700 people in both houses of the legislature, many of whom are all too willing to create artificial political crises to delay bills on any pretext, is unwise and possibly fatal when real world circumstances demand prompt action.

Meanwhile, the SDP and the Communists think the Coast Guard should be the only military forces involved against the pirates, and called into action only in Japanese territorial waters. They were also opposed to the relaxed rules on the use of weapons. What do they think works against Third World pirates looking for a multi-million dollar payday? Moral suasion? Do they expect the Somalians to start raiding along the Seto Inland Sea?

Let’s be clear: Many in the DPJ supported this bill as it was. That meant it could have sailed through the upper house with little or no problem, but the party leadership felt compelled to object. That’s partly because they lack the political sophistication to understand that for critical areas of national interest, it really is OK to agree with the government and not to oppose something merely because they’re the opposition. It’s also because they chose again to ignore the national interest by playing a numbers game for their own political ends and ally with the SPD solely to bring down the government.

What this demonstrates:

  1. The SPD hold their countrymen in such contempt that they believe Japanese are still too irresponsible to be trusted with lethal weapons overseas in matters of self-defense. (It’s also possible that the wool in their heads has grown so thick they’re no longer capable of coherent thought.) That, combined with their other positions, past associations with North Korea, their socialist/Marxist background (which includes circumstantial evidence linking a leading party figure to the Japanese Red Army terrorist group of yesteryear) reveals serious character flaws.
  2. That the DPJ would put to risk Japanese lives, commercial interests critical for an island nation with limited natural resources, and nascent efforts to show that the country is a responsible international partner willing to help enforce the basic concepts of right and wrong, solely to feed the fantasies of miniscule fringe parties for the sake of gaining power, is another sign that they are too immature to successfully lead a government.
  3. Communists always behave like Communists.

Want more? DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio was asked if he would roll back the decision if they gained a lower house majority and formed a government later this year. You know, if you’re opposed, you’re opposed, right? His answer:

“We will not make a hasty decision to do an immediate about-face.”

Bless their pointed little heads, but aren’t they dependable? The DPJ can always be counted on to choose expediency over principle.

Some claim the DPJ maintains its alliance with the SPD because it “needs them” in the upper house.

“Needs them” for what? It’s not as if the SPD is going to start voting with the LDP if the DPJ tells them to bugger off.

The Democratic Party of Japan—still shameless after all these years.

Getting real

During the same discussion, Mr. Aso continued:

“It’s the same with North Korea. At a minimum, we must fight when we should fight. If we aren’t prepared to do that, we won’t be able to defend the nation’s safety.”

Added current LDP Secretary-General Hosoda Haruyuki in a Yurakucho speech:

“Who knows what North Korea, which has nonchalantly abducted hundreds of people, will do if they develop nuclear weapons? We must apply more pressure to North Korea. Our ultimate objective is to bring about a collapse of the current regime and have the country be reborn as a peaceful state. The DPJ’s response to (this issue) is extremely soft.”

And why not? Who better than the Japanese to understand that a malevolent regime can become a peaceful state?

Messrs. Aso and Hosoda aren’t the only ones tired of the international pussyfooting. The aforementioned Koike Yuriko resigned last week from the chairmanship of a special LDP committee studying the question of enemy military bases. A party council submitted a statement to Prime Minister Aso on whether Japan should maintain the capability of conducting an attack on enemy military installations. The council adopted a policy of ruling out preemptive defensive attacks, which caused Ms. Koike to walk.

Instrumental in adopting that policy was Yamasaki Hiraku (also mentioned above), who said:

“We must not cause misunderstandings overseas”.

Retorted Ms. Koike:

“A policy exclusively oriented to defense is too restrictive, and a defensive preemptive attack policy is even more restrictive. All we talk about is limiting what we can do. Is it such a good idea to continue to limit Japan’s policies for defense? People say it’s done out of consideration for neighboring countries, but they don’t show any consideration for us at all.”

Bingo. And give that last sentence bonus points.

Duh

The people overseas who might misunderstand could be divided into two groups. The first consists of those in the region who would choose to purposely misunderstand. That would allow them to use Japanese policy as both a diplomatic weapon in bilateral relations, and as a domestic weapon to stir up anti-Japanese sentiment at home. Their feigned ignorance would enable them to continue painting the country as a false enemy, thereby strengthening their base of support.

North Korea threatens Japan with military action every day and has the hardware to make those threats very real. The Chinese are not going to stop until they have made themselves the East Asian hegemon (at least). Russia seized Japan’s Northern Territories after Japan surrendered in 1945 and refuses to return them. South Korea used military force to seize Takeshima in 1954, still illegally occupies the islets, and still refuses international mediation (which Japan says it would accept).

The second group of people who would misunderstand is in the West and principally consists of politicians, academics, and journalists, most of whom can’t be bothered to do the research to get it right to begin with. Perhaps that’s because a real understanding would conflict with their preconceptions.

Japanese diplomatic and military behavior has been the gold standard in Northeast Asia since 1945. Ms. Koike, Mr. Aso, and Mr. Hosoda are right: Japan should choose to defend its legitimate interests as a sovereign nation. The decision-makers in neighboring countries will understand perfectly, regardless of what they say in public for the gullible or the Barnumesque suckers who want to be deceived. As for the people on the other side of the Pacific, there’s a Japanese expression that covers them: Baka ni tsukeru kusuri wa nai. There’s no medicine to cure a fool.

Some people in this country pretended they didn’t understand what Abe Shinzo meant when he said he wanted Japan to move beyond the postwar regime. Well, here you are.

But of course they always knew exactly what he was driving at—they just didn’t want to face the implications. It’s not always easy for adolescents to embrace responsibility and take charge of their lives.

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