AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Aspirations

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 8, 2010

As Fukuzawa Yukichi said regarding an attitude of self-sufficiency and self-respect, a good nation, a good community, and superb people of ability cannot exist unless local governments and individuals support themselves by their own strength.
– Yamada Hiroshi

A CHART in Ito Atsuo’s Political Party Collapse: The 10 lost years of Nagata-Cho outlines the birth and death of political parties in Japan from 1992 to 1998. That chart covers two pages because 22 of those parties no longer exist, and even then I might have miscounted.

After a relatively quiescent decade, the politicos are starting to party hearty once again now that it’s apparent neither of the two major parties which emerged intact from the previous ferment—the Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party—will be viable over the long-term as presently constituted.

Left to right: Yamada Hiroshi, Nakamura Tokihiro, Nakada Hiroshi

The news media has focused this week on the new old party soon to be launched by Yosano Kaoru and Hiranuma Takeo, but they’ve been giving short shrift to the imminent birth of another party with the potential to have a more lasting–and more beneficial–impact. Unlike the granddads of the former group, the three amigos driving the latter venture have a shared, positive vision about the direction of the country and a sense of urgency about achieving their aims. Rather than spending their time in Tokyo television studios, they’re touring the country to take their case to the people.

The three are Nakada Hiroshi, Yamada Hiroshi, and Nakamura Tokihiro, all of whom are veterans of the new party movement of the 90s. They were involved with the Japan New Party headed by Hosokawa Morihiro, the country’s first non-LDP prime minister in nearly 40 years. The New Party was an intriguing mix of people that also included Koike Yuriko, now in the Koizumian wing of the LDP, and Maehara Seiji, the former DPJ head who is currently the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. All three served at least one term in the lower house of the Diet. Mr. Nakada and Mr. Yamada, the two Hiroshis, attended The Matsushita Institute of Government and Management.

What sets this trio apart is that all three turned their backs on national politics and continued their careers as chief executives in local government. Mr. Nakada served nearly two terms as the mayor of Yokohama, Mr. Nakamura is still the mayor of Matsuyama, a city of about 515,000 in Ehime, and Mr. Yamada is the chief municipal officer of Suginami Ward in Tokyo, which itself has a population of roughly 540,000.

They’re pitched a tent on a patch of land similar to that of Watanabe Yoshimi and Your Party, but they arrived from a different direction. They all stand for governmental reform and regional devolution, but as a lower house MP since 1996, Mr. Watanabe is working in the context of national politics. In contrast, these three men are trying to build a national base outside the capital to accomplish similar objectives from the bottom up. Says Mr. Nakada:

What is required is a reorganization to change the approach of the country and the regions. The (people in the) regions understand conditions on the ground, and the reorganization won’t happen unless they apply pressure to the central government.

They call their group 日本志民会議, or the Nihon Shimin Kaigi. The second word is their own creation and literally means people with aspirations. A good English translation is impossible because the word is also a homonym for citizen.

Another difference from Your Party is that the trio comes from a non-LDP background, whereas Mr. Watanabe and his father were prominent members of that party. They say their objective is not to confront the DPJ or the LDP, but to form an all-Japan party and create a core group to rescue Japan from its crisis. An interview conducted with Mr. Nakada last year illustrates their sense of mission and urgency. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m very concerned about the country, and I don’t think there’s much time left. The national budgets contain more debt than tax revenue. The principle behind my approach as mayor is that the regions won’t survive if the country crumbles. I’ll conduct a (national) citizens’ movement from the citizens’ perspective. What I want to do is not the question. The country will crumble unless we do everything we can in the time remaining. I want to do anything and everything.

– Won’t you be active in a political party?

There’s no time to rebuild Japan. I’ll do anything. Doing anything includes starting a new party. As a citizen of this country, I’ll keep building on what I’m already involved with. Part of that might include starting a party.

Japan is in a serious phase. Unless we apply fundamental remedies within five years, the country will be eaten up from within and without. I want to devote all my energy to this full-time, and that includes convening citizens’ conferences and the Alliance of Local Government Executives.

As their past association with both Ms. Koike and Mr. Maehara suggests, they also support a strong defense and a pride in country that would be unremarkable outside of Japan or contemporary left wing groupings incapable of distinguishing between nationalism and patriotism. Yamada Hiroshi wrote an article in the March issue of Voice arguing against the DPJ proposal to allow non-Japanese to participate in local elections. As this previous post based on a blog entry by Nakada Hiroshi demonstrates, they also support individualism and self sufficiency.

The record

They’ve yet to generate top-of-the-fold headlines, but some journalists are aware of them. Sakurai Yoshiko profiled them in a feature article for the July 2009 edition of Voice that presented some of their accomplishments in local government.

Yamada Hiroshi seems to have achieved a stunning success in resuscitating Suginami Ward’s finances. When he took office in 1999, the ward was JPY 95 billion in debt (about $US 1.012 billion) and had just JPY 1.9 billion in the bank. Mr. Yamada’s first step was to cut his own salary by 10%, his bonus by 50%, and the ward budget by 15%. As a symbol of his budget-cutting efforts, he eliminated the free manju distributed to senior citizens’ associations. That may seem like a trivial step, but it illustrates a greater problem whose solution seems beyond the capability or willpower of politicians in free market democracies nowadays. Distributing free confections is not why governments are devised, but people have gotten so used to these handouts that the old folks in Suginami initially complained about the loss of their taxpayer-funded sweets.

Under his leadership, the ward has cut its debt in 10 years to JPY 20 billion and has JPY 23 billion in the bank; in other words, they’re solvent again. He’s also managed to reduce the ward’s workforce from 4,700 to 3,700.

In the 2007 Nikkei Shimbun evaluation of local governments nationwide, Suginami Ward had risen to 3rd from 33rd in the category of government reform, and to 12th from 105th in the category of government services.

Mr. Yamada plans to retire the ward’s debt in two years, and they recently passed a measure to create a fund for reducing taxes starting in ten years, with cuts coming every year.

In Matsuyama

Meanwhile, Matsuyama Mayor Nakamura managed to pull off a merger of three cities that won the approval of most residents in the new metropolis. That was no mean feat; the period from April 1999 to April 2006 was dubbed the Heisei no Dai-gappei (平成の大合併) (Great Heisei Era Mergers), during which the number of municipalities in Japan was reduced from 3,232 (670 cities, 1,994 towns, and 568 villages) to 1,820 (779 cities, 844 towns, and 197 villages). The objectives of the consolidation were to promote the decentralization and the downsizing of government, and to deal with the problems of declining tax revenues and reduced central government subsidies caused by the low birthrate.

Not all of these municipal marriages were love matches, and many had to navigate some rough patches. To cite one example, the new city of Matsuyama would have wound up with 80 city council members had all the delegates from the three municipalities kept their jobs. Some cities involved in the mergers did expand the chambers to include all the delegates, which sparked recall efforts by angry citizens. Mr. Nakamura, however, successfully reduced the number of councilmen from 80 to 45—reportedly by persuasion alone.

All politics is local

The triumvirate has conducted most of the spadework for their new party outside of the national spotlight. They first came to the notice of the public around this time last year, when devolution became a major issue in the lower house election campaign. Attention then focused on Miyazaki Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo and Osaka Governor Hashimoto Toru, both outspoken supporters of devolution, but whose reputations and popularity were based on their prior careers in television and a proclivity to say whatever popped into their heads.

These five formed a loose alliance, but the three municipal executives sidestepped a proposal by Mr. Hashimoto to turn the Local Chief Executive Alliance into a national party. It’s likely they were already planning to create their own party and wanted to keep the drama queens at arm’s length. They also declined the Osaka governor’s suggestion to endorse one of the national parties in the lower house election. Said Mr. Nakada, “It might mislead the people.” Added Mr. Nakamura, “We won’t attract supporters if we increase the risk.” There are no hard feelings, however–Mr. Hashimoto sent them a congratulatory message when they held a conference announcing their intention to start a new party:

The time has come to take action in earnest for all the people filled with the aspiration to change the country.

The Yokohama mayor

Nakada Hiroshi has perhaps the highest national profile of the three. He announced on 28 July last year that he would resign his position as Yokohama mayor with seven months remaining in his second term. Some thought he was getting ready to take a second run at the Diet, but he had other plans. His explained that he had finished the important business of his second term, the city would save money by holding a mayoralty election on the same day as the lower house voting, and the new mayor could get a head start on the new budget and personnel decisions:

The mayor’s election costs JPY 1.1 billion in city funds. By holding it at the same time as the national election, we can save JPY one billion. Considering our harsh financial circumstances, that’s extremely important.

In retrospect, he was surely starting to build the foundation for the new party. They formed a working group at the end of October, when Mr. Nakada would still have been in office in Yokohama had he not resigned. Their vision calls for a low-tax, high-vitality country whose foreign relations are based on the keynote of freedom, responsibility, and mutual respect. At that first conference, they said:

The Diet is just terrible. It’s just pulled along by parties that either want to take power or want to maintain power.

And:

Promoting regional devolution is necessary for a country with a narrowing fiscal base.

Mr. Nakada went into more detail:

There are different views on the population totals that should be required for the classification of local government jurisdictions. The problem, however, is not one of population alone. What is improper is that the national government sets the principles for local government rules, including such details as the number of people in local assemblies and the amount of space required for nursery schools. Each community has different cultures and customs.

On proposals for a province/state system, which would create nine to 14 subnational jurisdictions to eventually replace the prefectures:

If each local government were to decide on the construction of its own roads, harbors, and airports, this would be a very inefficient country, and it would lead to the deterioration of international competitiveness. I support the state/province system because decisions on these matters would be more efficient at that level.

The trio announced their plans to form a party at a meeting in Hiroshima on 20 March this year and in Osaka the next day. Without utilizing an organization to mobilize turnout, they drew 250 to the first meeting and, to the second, 750 at hall that seats 500. They hope to create a support group of 10,000 people, and they already claim 4,000. They also plan to run at least 10 candidates in the upper house election this summer. Mr. Yamada, the group’s primary spokesman, said the upper house election was a prime opportunity to demonstrate their ideas. He explained this opportunity couldn’t be overlooked because the next national election isn’t required for another three years.

Last weekend they visited Takamatsu, Kagawa, to drum up support and attracted an audience of 300. Accompanying them was the leader of their support group, Joko Akira, the former head of the Matsushita Institute. Mr. Joko, who has written books discussing the importance of aspirations, said at the Takamatsu meeting:

It’s impossible to have any expectations for today’s politicians. We want to gather 10,000 supporters and create a new party with the help of citizens with aspiration.

From Mr. Yamada:

Both the LDP and the DPJ have reached a dead end. If citizens rise up individually, Japan will change.

Now for the bad news

There are skeletons in every politician’s closet that will cause some to recoil, and these men are no exception. At one time, Messrs. Yamada and Nakada were part of a group that wanted to boost the idea of Hatoyama Kunio for prime minister. It’s not clear what possessed them to back that goofy plan, unless it was access to the Hatoyama family fortune for political funds.

Also, some people suspect Mr. Nakada stepped down as Yokohama mayor to avoid the blowback from the failure of an expo commemorating the 150th anniversary of that city’s opening as a port. The expo attracted less than one-fourth the expected turnout and wound up JPY 2.4 billion in the red. There were problems with leftover tickets, talk of a possible lawsuit, and suggestions that Yokohama public funds were used to paper over the problems.

Mr. Nakada claims the failures were the responsibility of the organizing committee and not the city, which just provided financial support. He is also involved in an unresolved lawsuit by a former lover, a bar hostess, for the payment of consolation money after he ended their relationship. Perhaps that’s the reason Mr. Yamada seems to be acting as the chief spokesman for the group.

Those issues notwithstanding, Japanese politics would be the better for the contribution from these men who combine experience as national legislators with real accomplishments as local government executives, and who understand the importance of working from the bottom up rather than the top down. As Mr. Yamada wrote on his website, theirs would be a party:

…created from the aspirations and wishes of the citizens, not a party like those in the past formed to suit the convenience of the politicians.

In other words, they’re not going anywhere near the political group that Yosano Kaoru and Hiranuma Takeo are now gluing together.

This week the People’s New Party, one of the junior members of the ruling coalition led by Kamei Shizuka, announced they would sponsor professional wrestler Nishimura Osamu for an upper house seat in this summer’s election. Using celebrity candidates as puppets in the upper house is not uncommon in Japan, and it’s a good bet that’s happening in this case too.

If you were a voter interested in responsible government and fed up with the two major national parties, and were presented with the option of voting for Mr. Nishimura or a candidate backed by the new party of aspirations, whose name would you write on the ballot?

Is it even necessary to ask?

Afterwords:

If I may make so bold as to spin a political fantasy, Japan could do a lot worse than a loose coalition between this group working with Your Party, the remaining LDP reformers, and potentially simpatico members of the DPJ, such as the Maehara Seiji group. They already are doing a lot worse now.

Speaking of Your Party, Mr. Nakada held the Kanagawa seat in the Diet that’s now represented by Eda Kenji. Mr. Eda challenged him in his first run for a Diet seat, but lost. He gained the seat after Mr. Nakada left to run for Yokohama mayor.

Mr. Yamada was defeated in his bid for a second term in the Diet by the LDP’s Ishihara Nobuteru. Mr. Ishihara later became the minister for governmental reform in Prime Minister Koizumi’s first Cabinet, and still is viewed as a reformer despite sticking it out with the LDP. Nevertheless, Mr. Yamada is said to be on good terms with Mr. Ishihara and his father Shintaro, the Tokyo governor and the co-author of The Japan That Can Say No.

Mr. Nakada thinks Masuzoe Yoichi, the former Health Minister who tops most opinion polls as the person people would like to see as prime minister, will not form a new party but is rather angling for a leadership position in the LDP.

I’ll get around to the Tachiagare Nihon Party of Messrs. Yosano and Hiranuma as soon as they formally agree on which lies they’ll tell each other to create a vehicle for Mr. Yosano to act as a front man for go-playing buddy Ozawa Ichiro if the latter decides to realign Japanese politics by breaking up the DPJ after a poor showing in the upper house election.

UPDATE:

Prime Minister Hatoyama was asked what he thought about the new party. Here’s what he said:

I think they are people who have worked hard for regional devolution, but we’re running ahead of them. Perhaps there are some similiarities in our thinking, but each politician acts based on his own convictions.

Mr. Hatoyama did not explain why he thought his party, which is incapable of coming up with an internal consensus on devolution, is “running ahead of them”, nor did he specify the similarities in their thinking. I sure don’t see any.

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