Japan from the inside out


Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, April 21, 2010

THE HATOYAMA ADMINISTRATION is now dead in the water. Oh, the prime minister will still bob in to news conferences like a rubber duck in a straw hat for a few more weeks, and his party will still grind some bologna through the Diet. Who knows–he might even pull a rabbit out of his hat and come up with a solution for the new location of the Futenma air base that won’t cause anyone to gnash his teeth. Then again, it’s not as if he has anything up his sleeve.

The only question is when he’s going to pack up and move out of the Kantei. Political punters are placing their bets at the window marked “End of May”, so the parlor game of Who’s Next has already begun.

Mo, owari da ne...

The news agency Jiji conducted a poll from 9-12 April showing that the rate of support for the Hatoyama Cabinet has pancaked to 23.7%, a 7.2 percentage-point plunge since the previous survey. Meanwhile, the percentage of respondents who said they didn’t support the cabinet jumped eight percentage points to 56.5%. A different poll from NNN conducted from the 9th to the 11th had the support rate at 28.6%.

When Japanese Cabinets have those numbers the night shift nurses in the political ward start the death watch—especially with an election looming.

Those polls aren’t outliers. The Asahi Shimbun ran a survey on the 17th and 18th that found his support at 25% and non-support at 61%. The reason most frequently cited by the Asahi respondents for pointing their thumbs south was the lack of ability to get things done, at 57%. In reference to Mr. Hatoyama, 53% said he did not meet expectations, and 31% said they never expected anything to begin with. Only 1% thought he exceeded expectations, and 13% said things turned out to be about what they thought. Those who said the party itself didn’t meet expectations totaled 51%.

No one likes the junior coalition partners very much, either—they could manage only 1% worth of positive feedback between them. Koizumi Shinjiro recently needled Kamei Shizuka for leading the People’s New Party that people don’t support, and the Asahi survey bears that out: They’re skunked at 0%.

Finally, the Shinhodo 2000 poll has the rates of Cabinet support/non-support at 28.6%/62.4%.

It didn’t take long for the public to catch on that Mr. Hatoyama and his party as presently constituted lack the temperament, judgment, and capacity to conduct the affairs of government. The news media usually points to the dirty money and the Futenma air base issue they went out of their way to step in, but it’s evident to even the casual observer that if anyone in a leadership position knows what they’re doing, they’re disguising it rather well.

Party supporters for years claimed that the DPJ was a haven for serious policy wanks who had all sorts of creative solutions for the country’s problems. Well, we’ve seen the old uncreative solution of throwing other people’s money around to buy off voting blocs for the past six months, so if they actually have devised any creative solutions, now would be the time to flash their wankery.

Say what you will about Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro—and I’d probably agree—but he is a keen observer. Here’s what he said about the younger members of the DPJ in the 15 April issue of the weekly Shukan Bunshun:

Watching the younger DPJ politicians on television, they all look like bureaucrats, despite being politicians. Their talk is filled with nothing but detailed arguments, but I have no sense at all of the spirit of what they want to do with the nation. Are those politics capable of moving the country?

Perhaps the most tasteful challenge to the government has come from the Citizens’ Council to Build a New Japan, a group that seems to be affiliated with Sentaku, an organization consisting of current and former politicians at the sub-national level working for reform from the bottom up.

Last week the council issued a “Declaration on the Issue of Political Reform in the Age of Political Choice”, and thoughtfully sent Mr. Hatoyama a copy. It contained this passage about his government:

One cannot fail to notice that the people have begun to doubt the prime minister’s leadership ability…there is a (political) climate that views the statements and debate of politicians as political leadership…While the aspect of the three primary figures of cabinet minister, vice-minister, and parliamentary secretary being involved with every issue in every ministry might appear to be “political leadership”, it is really “politician leadership”…The expression “political leadership” has taken on a life of its own, but your concept of political leadership, its content, and your use of it are extremely vague.

They politely reassure the prime minister that they understand a new government will be confronted by problems it did not anticipate. They therefore urge the government to amend its political platform and explain the reasons for the change to the voters.

To wit: Why not postpone your plans for family stipends from the government—to pick one of a dozen out of the hat blindfolded—and formulate a rational budget until you find the money to pay for your schemes without going deeper in debt?

Breakdown in classroom discipline

Kamei Shizuka, the head of junior coalition partner People’s New Party, has now made it perfectly clear his party will never support a measure to allow permanent resident non-citizens the right to participate in local elections, which is backed by leading members of the DPJ.

The Social Democratic Party of Japan, the other junior coalition partner, also has the vapors. They’ve already threatened to walk unless the government moves the Futenma air base out of the country, so that sound you hear is their grunting as they bend over to lace their designer sports shoes. Futenma is the issue they’ve chosen as their national identity, and since the party’s single-digit membership in the Diet consists of the usual champagne socialists nursing a grudge, walking out is the one thing they can be counted on to do.

Now they’re carping about other parts of the government’s agenda and its methods for adopting them. The DPJ wants to pass bills on political and Diet reform sometime in May, and they’ve threatened to use their lower house majority to push them through. Not so fast, says the SDPJ, as reported in the Mainichi. “These bills should not be forced through when the support rate for the Cabinet is plummeting.”

In one of the party’s occasional periods of lucidity from their normal disassociative fugue, party Secretary-General Shigeno Masuyasa waxed philosophical at a news conference:

The Diet is the seat for debate, so it is basic that complete and thorough deliberations be conducted.

The collapse has also spread within the ruling party itself. Rather than speaking with one voice and holding their tongues when they disagree, the Cabinet members are quarreling with each other in public.

Last week the government announced plans for new expressway tolls that met with immediate and widespread opposition. The DPJ election platform promised to remove expressway tolls entirely, so naturally once they took charge of government they created a new toll system that makes expressways more expensive than they already are.

DPJ member Kawauchi Hiroshi, the chair of the lower house’s Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Committee, spoke out publicly against the new highway tolls last week. It’s rare for a lower house committee chair to oppose a measure from the government of which he is a part—mostly because in the past the bureaucrats wrote the measures—but he says it contradicts the party’s political platform, dadgum it, and he won’t back down.

The Pollyanna prime minister, Hatoyama Yukio commented:

They’re calling it a collapse of classroom discipline, but I think it’s healthy to have debate.

The man sounds as if he’s been eating too much sun for breakfast.

Dietary habits notwithstanding, Mr. Hatoyama’s goose is cooked, and it’s only a question of when, not if, the dish is served. Rumor has it that one of the national dailies conducted an informal poll for the upper house election in July. The DPJ’s goal is to win an outright majority in that house, which would enable it to rule without coalition partners. They need to win 60 seats to achieve that, but the newspaper pegged their total at 45+.

Next man up

While finding someone to fill Mr. Hatoyama’s shoes won’t be difficult—the Japanese take theirs off indoors—the problem is that the party has an embarrassment of a lack of riches for people to step into the job.

The default candidate is deputy prime minister/faux finance minister Kan Naoto, if only because his turn is next. That was the philosophy that governed the LDP’s choices when it ruled for so many years, and since the DPJ is dead set on turning back the political clock, he’s probably the next duck in the row. Mr. Kan might have been an interesting choice 15 years ago, but the times have moved on, and he hasn’t. Besides, what nation wants to be led by a man who chooses to wear a diaper on his head?

Pro-DPJ/anti-Ozawa Ichiro journalist Ito Atsuo thinks he will be the man if Mr. Ozawa retains his influence within the party. Mr. Kan has apparently chosen to cast his lot with Japan’s version of Boss Tweed, and he’s also starting to behave as if he thinks the brass ring is within his grasp at last. He’s recently stopped talking off the record to reporters, who have begun calling him The Hands-Off Minister (nobanashi daijin) behind his back.

A Japanese-language report this weekend had Mr. Kan making arrangements to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery during a visit to Washington to attend the G20 summit of finance ministers and central bank heads. Can you remember the last time a Cabinet member of a foreign government did anything like that? No one else does. It’s clearly intended as a gesture to placate an increasingly impatient American government that wonders if the DPJ is going to come up with someone even loopier to replace the present prime minister.

It’s a tossup, however, as to which is the loopier notion—that Mr. Kan thinks the Americans would take this gesture seriously, or that the Obama Administration actually takes Japan seriously to begin with. It’s not as if they take any of the other traditional American allies seriously.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan recently, the Finance Minister displayed his grasp of Finance Ministry briefing papers.

Bringing about the second Keynesian revolution will enable us to break free of the economic stagnation of the past 20 years. It is important for us to circulate money.

That was the signal to bump up the threat level for the national finances to Code Orange.

The rest of the pack

Sengoku Yoshito is getting attention as a possible replacement, if only because he’s one of the few Cabinet ministers that talks as if he has a lick of sense. He was particularly insistent about the government’s irresponsible budget before he played the good soldier and caved in. Some wonder if he is physically up to the job, however, as his stomach’s been completely removed due to cancer.

Maehara Seiji’s stock rose immediately after the government came to power. He even received praise from Koizumian Takenaka Heizo for his plan to turn Tokyo’s Haneda airport into a 24-hour hub facility. (Mr. Takenaka said the Koizumi administration wanted to do the same thing, but couldn’t overcome the alliance between the bureaucracy and their LDP chums.) Some think the moment has passed him by, some think he seems too boyish and lacks gravitas, while others think Ozawa Ichiro wouldn’t stand for giving the job to someone who refuses to kiss his ring.

Here’s the PNP’s Kamei Shizuka on those two men:

I thought Sengoku and Maehara were politicians capable of more, but they’re not what I expected.

Mr. Kamei is a veteran of the National Police Agency, so he’s used to sizing up men at a glance.

Internal Affairs and Communication Minister Haraguchi Kazuhiro is mentioned as a dark horse candidate because he’s become an Ozawa acolyte, and he has that soft look women appreciate in a politician and Mr. Ozawa appreciates in a front man, but he’s also viewed as a lightweight. Particularly whenever he opens his mouth.

Mr. Ito suggests Okada Katsuya could take the job if Ozawa Ichiro has lost influence, but then the journalist has been a long-time Okada supporter. He thinks Mr. Okada is unsuited for the job of foreign minister, but could be just the man to present and explain policy options to the public. The journalist suggests that he’d be a safe choice because he doesn’t come from the party’s yoghurt-weaving left, but also admits that his straight arrow image and refusal to be a backslapper are handicaps.

One final note: Rumors are also flying that Ozawa Ichiro might resign from his position as party secretary-general at the same time Mr. Hatoyama steps down. The party wouldn’t suffer, because he’s already put together the machine for the July election. It would also allow him to say he’s taken responsibility for the political funding scandals and thereby give his party a boost going into the polling.

Baseball megastar Oh Sadaharu had the same operation as Mr. Sengoku in which his stomach was removed. I was surprised at the time to learn that it was now possible for people to survive such procedures. In fact, it was minimally invasive—the entire surgery is performed through an incision only a few centimeters long.

I asked my family doctor about it, and he was nonchalant. “There are a lot of people,” he said, “walking around without their stomachs.”

3 Responses to “Collapsed”

  1. […] begins Ampontan’s latest article, declaring the Hatoyama Administration ‘Collapsed’. It’s hard to argue, with […]

  2. PaxAmericana said

    re: Ishihara’s comments

    There’s an element of truth in what he said. By the way, are you in favor of the effort to transfer power from the bureaucracy to politicians? It is widely said that this has been Ozawa’s crusade over the last couple of decades – and it would help to explain the type of candidate Ozawa would have recruited.

    For what it’s worth, I think it’s good to have debate, which has been sorely lacking in Japan since, say, the 1970’s. The problem is more that one gets the feeling that there isn’t a way to make a decision once the debate has been held.

  3. ampontan said

    …are you in favor of the effort to transfer power from the bureaucracy to politicians

    PA: Thanks for the note.

    Yes, which is why I write about it and the other politicians working for that so much. I disagree that it’s been lacking in Japan since the 1970’s–that’s what Koizumi was doing, and a large part of what Abe Shinzo was doing. Koizumi was the first PM to have economic policy positions put together by people other than Finance Ministry bureaucrats.

    If that’s Ozawa’s crusade, he has a funny way of going about it. I think that’s probably what he wants to do, but he brings a lot of other problems to the table. For example, having all budget requests come to one centralized place outside of the bureaucracy was a good idea (some think about half the ones that come from local governments are really from national ministries working indirectly), but he had them come to his office in the party (not the government/cabinet). He’s set up a spoils system.

    That’s the problem with politician-led government everywhere, but it’s preferable to the bureaucratic-led government because the latter are unaccountable for their decisions, they inevitably tend toward larger government, and you have the governmental civil war between politicians and bureaucrats that’s going on now.

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