Japan from the inside out

The warring sandbox period in Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 20, 2009

You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.
– Larry Anderson

NO SOONER do I compare the behavior of Japanese politicians at the national level to that of the daimyo during the Warring States period than one of those prominent politicos uses a different historical reference that underscores the internal disarray which has turned the ruling Liberal Democratic Party into a Warring Sandbox. It also provides a disturbing glimpse of how some politicians might view their personal role in what everyone else views as a liberal democracy.

Hatoyama Kunio makes a political statement

Hatoyama Kunio makes a political statement

Kicking the sand this time was Hatoyama Kunio, a former Cabinet minister in three different governments. He most recently headed the Internal Affairs ministry in the Aso administration until he resigned over a dispute about the sale of a Japan Post-owned business. He’s also the younger brother of Hatoyama Yukio, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, of which Kunio was a founding member until he split as the result of a fraternal dispute.

Hatoyama the Younger and Aso Taro have been celebrated in the Japanese media for having a close friendship, and it’s easy to see why. The former represents district #6 in Fukuoka Prefecture, and the latter represents district #8 in the same prefecture. They are both well-to-do grandsons of former prime ministers, who themselves were members of the old postwar Liberal Party that merged with other right-of-center parties to become today’s LDP.

But Mr. Hatoyama appears to have some difficulty staying on good terms with the people closest to him. His conflict with his elder brother doesn’t seem to have been completely resolved–witness his recent reference to him as a “momma’s boy”, which, come to think of it, does jibe with the public personality of Hatoyama the Elder. It also might be an expression of chagrin over the amount of family money that some suggest momma has been funneling to Big Brother’s campaign war chest. In any event, however, petty family feuding is never conducive to good government at the best of times, and this is not the best of times.

Now he’s all upset with buddy Taro since his hissy fit and resignation. But Mr. Hatoyama caused some eyebrows to rise even further when he said that Prime Minister Aso was “the Northern Court” and that he was “the Southern Court”.

He’s referring to an ancient dispute over Imperial succession in Japan that led to two separate courts from 1337 to 1392. In brief, the Imperial house split into two lines created by brothers who both served as tenno (emperors). The Kamakura Shogunate cut a deal in which the two lines would alternate members on the Chrysanthemum throne. One tenno of the junior line wanted to keep the succession in his family, however, so he wound up creating the Southern Court. After a few decades of intrigue and military skirmishing, the Muromachi Shogunate brought them back to the original compromise involving the alternation of the two lines, but the Northern Court didn’t keep its promise and the Southern Court died out.

The dispute over the legitimacy of the two lines kept cropping up over the years, as some scholars claimed the Southern court had the bona fides because they maintained possession of the Imperial regalia. That argument continued until the early part of the 20th century, when the Meiji Tenno—himself a descendant of the Northern Court—officially recognized the legitimacy of the Southern Court. Thereafter, history textbooks have treated the Northern Court as the outlier.

But that brings up the question of why a politician who sees himself as a potential prime minister would compare his dispute with Mr. Aso to one more than half a millennium ago involving the Imperial household. Does this not suggest that Mr. Hatoyama’s background of wealth and heritage has created a sense of identity that causes him to believe he’s a member of the political nobility bestowed with the divine right to rule Japan?

And wasn’t the lad being clever when he chose for himself the identity of the Southern Court? Japan’s history books recognize that court as being the legitimate line of succession whose members were deprived of the opportunity to reign. Remember also that the Southern Court was founded by the younger brother, suggesting that Mr. Hatoyama sees himself as the rightful ruler even if Big Brother becomes the next prime minister.

Finally, there’s yet another factor that really brings this down to the sandbox level. Not long ago there was an informal group in the Diet called the Taro-kai (the Taro Association). The membership consisted of MPs from several LDP factions, and the group’s objective was to promote Aso Taro for the job of prime minister. After Fukuda Yasuo abruptly resigned last year, it swung into action and finally achieved its goal.

The chairman of the Taro-kai was Hatoyama Kunio.

Now where’s the mass media when you really need them? One thing they do quite well is to cut people down to size when they get too full of themselves. Yet the media seems content to use the childish bickering as a way to provide entertainment without having to pay fees to show business performers rather than an opportunity to do something useful. Does not their enabling behavior make them a willing accomplice?

The quarreling brings to mind a passage from the ironically titled book, Jiminto ha Naze Tsuburenai no ka? (Why doesn’t the LDP Fall Apart?). That consists of the edited transcripts of a series of roundtable political discussions between Murakami Masakuni, a former Labor Minister and head of the LDP delegation in the upper house of the Diet, and current jailbird sentenced to the pen for influence-peddling; Hirano Sadao, a former DPJ upper house member and close associate of Ozawa Ichiro; and Fudesaka Hideyo, a former Communist Party member of the upper house who resigned after an accusation of sexual harassment.

Here’s a quick translation of the relevant part:

Hirano: When I was in the New Frontier Party, we discussed the subject of a possible conservative coalition with some members of the LDP. (Then-party leader) Ozawa Ichiro asked me to meet with Aso Taro and tell him that he (Ozawa) would support him if he left the LDP and formed a new “Aso Taro Party”. Mr. Aso is (former Prime Minister) Yoshida Shigeru’s grandson, and Mr. Ozawa’s father Ozawa Saeki was a very close associate of Yoshida Shigeru. Prime Minister Yoshida entrusted him with some important tasks. It was Yoshida Shigeru who talked me out of joining the Communist Party when I was about to become a member. So knowing that background, that’s why he sent me to talk (to Mr. Aso).

Mr. Aso’s political thinking in those days was just like that of a child. To me it looked as if he didn’t really care about principles, policies, or human relations. I thought it couldn’t be possible that he was related to Yoshida Shigeru.

Fudesaka: Not all second- and third-generation politicians are like that, but when I look at Mr. Aso…I get the impression that he’s playing.

Murakami: He’s (like some) chairman of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. In the end, he’s just the young master who’s never had to deal with any hardships.

Hirano: An Akihabara otaku, eh? He’s the captain of the otaku.

Fudesaka: Hatoyama Kunio is the same type (of person). They don’t seem as if they’re seriously concerned about the country’s direction.

In addition to captain of the otaku and head of the Junior Jaycees, a third description of Aso Taro might be the best one of all. After observing Mr. Aso in action years ago, the late former Prime Minister Takeshita Noboru remarked:

“He’s like a man on stilts.”

Please don’t get the impression, by the way, that I’m singling out the aged bon-bons of Japan. People of this type can be found in politics the world over, and two who come immediately to mind are Al Gore, who grew up in the Washington D.C. hotel rooms of his Senator father, and Ted Kennedy.

To the credit of the Japanese, at least the LDP mudboaters didn’t throw a tantrum that threw their country into turmoil as Al Gore did when he lost an election in Florida—several times, in fact—after first trying to steal it. Nor did it cause them to go so far off the deep end that they morphed into the political equivalent of a Bible Belt evangelist darkly warning that global warming meant the end of the world was nigh. And just as some of those preachers are revealed as hypocrites when their sexual liaisons come to light, so too does Mr. Gore show his true colors by purchasing offsets for his immense carbon footprint from a company in which he has an ownership stake.

Nor did any of the Japanese politicians–as far as we know—get drunk and drive off a bridge with a staffer/girlfriend in the car, leave her to die trapped underwater, and spend the better part of a day trying to find a fall guy and getting his story straight before calling the police. How lucky for him that his money and family name eliminated the possibility of a jail term for criminally negligent homicide.

And lest the DPJ supporters start indulging in schadenfreude over the rapidly imploding LDP, a word of caution is in order that their time will come too.

More than one serious Japanese journalist thinks former DPJ (and Liberal Party, and New Frontier party) boss Ozawa Ichiro’s eventual aim is to use Hatoyama Yukio as a vehicle to take power, break up the DPJ, and realign Japanese politics more in accordance with his own tastes.

Even if that scenario is a flight of fancy or never comes to pass, the LDP’s incipient collapse and shift to the opposition gives it a head start on rearranging itself into more workable groups–something the DPJ is also going to have to do, soon or late, willing or not.

But let’s be fair–Hatoyama Kunio does have his movements of lucidity. He’s been recently quoted as saying that it would be hell to leave the LDP and hell to stay in the party.

He should have extended his analogy. It will be hell if the LDP retains power and hell if it doesn’t. But since a trip through Hades is both inevitable and necessary, getting through the flames as quickly as possible means that the first step should be taken as quickly as possible.

6 Responses to “The warring sandbox period in Japanese politics”

  1. St John said

    Though I totally agree with your views about the Kennedy clan it’s strange that another name didn’t ‘spring to mind’, that of George W Bush…

    My Japanese wife Ryoko is leaning towards voting DPJ, not because she thinks they’re any different from the LDP but just for a change. The more I learn from your very informative posts the more I’m glad I don’t have to make a choice!

  2. ampontan said

    SJ: Though I would have more than a few bones to pick with GWB, and he is a third-generation politician (his grandfather was a Senator), his upbringing seems to have been quite different than the other two, as was his personal behavior.

    He did have a drinking problem as a younger man, but overcame it by himself. Unlike the two I mentioned, and the Japanese politicians in the article, he also had a real career in the real world before deciding to enter politics later in life.

    And regardless of one’s views about his policies, he never conducted his personal life, or his approach to work, in the way that the other two did/do.

    In fact, he should be credited with bringing a semblance of dignity back to the White House after the Clinton Administration, Lewinsky, rapes, actively selling overnights in the Lincoln bedroom, actively selling presidential pardons.

    In short, unlike the other people I do mention, he had character.

  3. St John said

    Well, the problem I would have about George W’s ‘career’ is that it was pretty much a disaster and only his family wealth and privilege bailed him out. The thing I don’t understand is that his brother seemed to me a much more serious politician and would have made a better candidate for president. He couldn’t have been any worse!

    As an Englishman with an interest in American politics I’ve never understood the Kennedy myth. But it is a huge industry. Rather like the one which demonises Richard Nixon. I suppose people on all sides of the political spectrum will always believe what they want to believe.

    Sorry to sidetrack you as we’re really here for Japanese politics, of which your site is teaching me a great deal. Arigato!

  4. ampontan said

    SJ: Thanks!

    As an Englishman with an interest in American politics I’ve never understood the Kennedy myth.

    It is very much a media creation that started in the days the media could get away with it unchallenged. Though JFK probably would have been reelected in 64, his first term was a failure that the media spun the other way.

    The big success of the Cuban missile crisis is a case in point. It started because Khruschev sized him up at their Vienna summit (which JFK doped up extra for) and thought he was a lightweight. So he put the missiles in Cuba. He removed them after receiving the promise that the US would remove its Polaris nuclear warhead submarines from Turkey. Which it did, six months later. In the end, the Soviets got what they wanted.

    Are you familiar with Christopher Hitchens’s remark about the Kennedys?

    “It’s conventional to refer to the Kennedys as America’s royal family, and they are indeed almost dysfunctional enough to deserve the title.”

  5. St John said

    Please don’t get me started on the royal family!

  6. PaxAmerican said


    You are an optimist regarding W. Being a DC boy, I have few illusions that could be shattered about his late, great administration. Not that Clinton wasn’t a disaster, but restoring dignity is not high on my list of what happened. I’m afraid we are approaching the stage of the Roman Empire where each emperor is worse than the one before. Maybe it isn’t that bad yet, but, at least to me, the idea of America is already gone.

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