AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Japan’s latest political ephemeron

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Prime Minister Kan should cut his belly and apologize, not only to the people associated with the Democratic Party, but also to the people. But what is this? He is going to run again for party president without reflecting on his mistakes. Whose fault does he think the upper house election loss was? I want to tell him to take responsibility.
– Koizumi Toshiaki, DPJ Diet member and party official

There are 15 broods of cicada in the United States that lay eggs in the soil which remain dormant for periods of 16 or 17 years. They hatch in May, live for six weeks, lay the next generation of eggs, and die.

Think of that as a metaphor for Kan Naoto’s career as prime minister. He’s wanted to climb that greasy pole to the top since his early 20s, 40 years ago, and now it’s beginning to look as if his days at the Kantei will be as brief as the lifespan of a red-eyed cicada. Even if he were to win reelection as the Democratic Party president in the mid-September ballot—which is not a lock—few expect him to last much longer than next spring.

In short, Kan Naoto has become the latest irrelevancy in the greater scheme of Japanese politics, and he has no one to blame but himself. His administration was born dysfunctional, and the only reasons party members support his continuance in office have nothing to do with him—indeed, they’re mostly in spite of him. He resembles nothing so much as a hunched old man driving his car 20 mph below the speed limit on an expressway with both trembling hands gripped tightly to the wheel.

Chief among his problems is that he projects the personal and political strength of a red-eyed cicada with slightly less noise. His weakness since assuming office has astonished more than a few people. Former Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party watched him on election night last month and was reminded of a man waiting on his own death. Mr. Ishiba remarked:

I thought, you’re already dead. It makes me very uneasy that a husk of a man whose spirit has departed is the prime minister.

Those sentiments were not expressed as an opposition pol looking for political advantage, and he was not alone in wondering what had happened. Nakagawa Hidenao, an elder statesman of the LDP, was also taken aback at Mr. Kan’s state. He thought the Kan Naoto of the 1990s who served as Health Minister would have been a formidable opponent, but that Kan Naoto no longer exists.

Mr. Ishiba joined the growing chorus of those lamenting that he is not of prime ministerial caliber after all:

He’s very good at finding fault with others, but he seems to have absolutely no beliefs of his own.

Members of his own party are disgusted by his refusal (and that of Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito and DPJ Secretary-General Edano Yukio) to take responsibility for the upper house election defeat, as the quote at the top of the post illustrates. None of them resigned after failing to cement their hold on government and losing their chance to rule without a coalition. At the least, Mr. Edano, the man directly responsible for the election campaign, should have been replaced.

The prime minister also doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. Said LDP Diet member Hayashi Yoshimasa during the post-election Diet session:

It is difficult to sense the prime minister’s determination…I question whether Mr. Kan has the resolve or any leadership.

One observer summed up the current government as being “like a school play”. Complaints are growing that the prime minister is shirking his responsibilities. He’s sometimes refused to appear for the now-expected daily off-the-cuff press conferences, he’s put off the resolution of the Futenma base question—the issue that ended the term of his predecessor, Hatoyama Yukio—he cancelled an appearance at a Keidanren seminar at the last minute, he refused to meet a visiting youth group associated with the four Russian-occupied islands that Japan claims, and he’s sending Mr. Hatoyama abroad to chat up foreign leaders.

This is the classic behavior of a Japanese prime minister in his last days of office.

Doubts about a prime minister’s leadership would be fatal in normal times, but his party lacks a majority in the upper house, and few people think he has the ability to manage a divided Diet. Journalist Ito Atsuo quotes a Finance Ministry official as saying that the process of formulating next year’s budget will be “hell”. None of the ministries want their bloated budgets cut. Mr. Kan’s DPJ support comes mostly from the party’s left, and maintaining government spending is in their DNA.

Iijima Isao, former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s right-hand man, told the weekly Shukan Gendai that he thinks it’s 90% likely Mr. Kan will not survive the budget process next March, assuming he’s still the prime minister.

DPJ Vice-President Yamaoka Kenji, an Ozawa Ichiro ally of long standing, agrees:

Without a majority in the upper house, the enabling legislation for the budget won’t pass. We’ll have to (make a trade) with the opposition parties to pass the 2011 budget in exchange for dissolving the lower house (even if Mr. Kan is reelected.)

Mr. Sengoku and Mr. Edano, Japan’s version of the postmodern left, are propping up Mr. Kan to keep the DPJ in power and avoid a lower house election for as long as possible. After decades in the political wilderness, they’re naturally loath to give up the opportunity to install their agenda. Some would have it that Mr. Sengoku is actually the man running the government, both out of personal ambition—he also wants to be prime minister—but also out of necessity. Mr. Kan is not popular within the party, as people dislike his short temper and tendency to hector those who displease him. There are also rumors that Mr. Sengoku has to assume more responsibility because Mr. Kan’s alcohol consumption (specifically sweet potato shochu) is out of control. One source even used the word “alcoholic”.

The following is a look at what has passed for policy in the Kan administration in its brief lifespan.

Fiscal policy

The government has begun receiving initial spending proposals for next year’s budget. Mr. Kan claims that politicians, and not the bureaucracy, formulated those proposals.

That’s not the story of Deputy Finance Minister Ikeda Motohisa, himself a member of the Kan group in the DPJ:

It was presented as being determined by politicians for form’s sake.

In other words, the politicians rewrote what the bureaucrats handed them.

Pity the fool who thinks the DPJ is serious about breaking up the administrative state and seizing control of the government from the civil servants at Kasumigaseki.

And pity the fool who thinks Mr. Kan has a clear-headed idea about the consumption tax. Consider:

1. He apologized to the DPJ MPs for his “careless” remarks about raising the consumption tax, which contributed to the party’s defeat in the upper house elections.

2. Shortly thereafter, he said that “discussing” a tax increase is inevitable because tax revenue is falling and social security costs are rising:

This must be discussed regardless of party affiliation.

3. Shortly after that, he said he wasn’t going to think about the consumption tax just yet. One panel in the government and another in the party is “discussing” the issue, so he’ll leave the decision up to them:

I presume there will be many opinions.

4. But shortly after that, he said he wants to start negotiations about the consumption tax with other parties “by the end of the year at the latest”.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kan is disposed toward another Keynesian stimulus package, though the government can’t make up its mind about that one, either.

Pity the taxpayers. He should rather be disposed toward avoiding a stimulus and taking the same path to economic recovery as the Germans.

More recently, it was reported that the prime minister told Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko “to keep a close eye on the markets”. Translation: One of the Finance Ministry’s men in the Kantei suggested that the Prime Minister’s office issue a press release to make it appear the two men knew what they were doing while leaving the market monitoring to the ministry.

Mr. Kan does act as if his eye is on the economic sparrow. With the Japanese economy battered by deflation, the Nikkei average on the Tokyo Stock Exchange this week slid below the 9,000 level for the first time since 18 May 2009. Meanwhile, the yen reached a 15-year high against the dollar and an eight-year, nine-month high against the Euro. Mr. Noda refused to comment about Japanese intervention to halt the rise, so the yen rose still more.

Mr. Kan took action. He called the Bank of Japan governor on the phone. They agreed to cooperate. No use jumping to conclusions before the Finance Ministry issues its instructions.

Here’s something to keep an eye on: How long will it be before someone gets the bright idea to suggest that Japan’s balance sheet be repaired with the JPY 120 trillion in the national pension fund? After all, that’s how they’ve cooked the budget books in the U.S. The government borrows and spends the accumulated Social Security surplus while counting it as revenue instead of debt.

National Strategy Bureau

One of the intractable problems of Japanese government is curbing the bureaucratic usurpation of political power. That problem was created during the long years of LDP rule, and when in opposition, the DPJ vowed to deal with it. To that end, they included the following in their platform for the 2009 lower house election:

“We will establish a National Strategy Bureau directly under the supervision of the prime minister. It will create a national vision for a new era and formulate the outlines of a budget under political control.”

They managed to create the entity once they formed a government, but downgraded it from a “bureau” to an “office”. The first director was current Prime Minister Kan Naoto, who complained he had too much time on his hands.

Nevertheless, the DPJ listed the office among its achievements in its platform for this year’s upper house election.

Since the election, however, it’s been downgraded yet again. Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku referred to it as a “think tank” for the prime minister.

Said Hara Eiji, a former bureaucrat and aide to Watanabe Yoshimi when the latter was the minister for reform in the Fukuda administration:

The National Strategy Office is a nuisance for the Finance Ministry. That it has been reduced in size and significance means that the Kan administration has become largely reliant on the Finance Ministry…It was supposed to achieve political control of the government…but it is an egregious turning back of the clock to an older system of the 90s in the Kaifu and Takeshita administrations before the Hashimoto reforms.

From Eda Kenji, secretary-general of Your Party:

It is a declaration that the creation of the budget will be under the direction of the Finance Ministry. They’ve always been opposed. For them, the creation of a National Strategy Bureau deprives them of the authority to put together a budget.

From Maehara Seiji, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport:

The question arises: Just where is this political led-government?

The Mainichi Shimbun reminded its readers that the National Strategy Bureau was the centerpiece concept of the DPJ government, trumpeted as the symbol of the disassociation with the bureaucracy and political control. They editorialized:

Thus ends one chapter in the Japanese democracy of the 21st century. We can almost hear the voices of those saying that if we’re going to choose politicians without a strategy, elections are pointless and we might as well draw names by lot.

Yayama Taro, a long-time commentator of the right, switched sides last year to support the DPJ in the election because he thought the LDP was incapable of change. He also observes that the absence of civil service reform and increasing revenue from the consumption tax is straight from the Finance Ministry playbook.

After the deluge of criticism, Mr. Kan said he might resubmit legislation to upgrade the office.

Pity the fool who waits for it.

Agriculture

Japan has fretted for years about the depopulation of rural areas and the younger generation’s aversion to the agrarian life and lack of interest in receiving family farms from their parents. Sixty percent of the farmers are aged 65 or older, and only 16% of farm households are engaged in agriculture as a full-time occupation.

The LDP under the Abe administration pursued a program of encouraging consolidated large-scale agribusiness, and they reduced subsidies to individual farmers. The DPJ opposition under Ozawa Ichiro’s leadership exploited that opening and promised to restore those subsidies to individual farmers as a legal vote-buying scheme. With most farmers past retirement age in a normal occupation, it amounts to a double-dip pension.

Having created the highest budget and largest deficit in Japanese history, DPJ officials now say they plan to expand the scope of their subsidy program in the 2011 budget. This year’s subsidies were paid to rice farmers. Next year they want to spread the pork to growers of wheat, soybeans, beets, and buckwheat (for soba).

They say they want this program of direct subsidies for “healthy farm management and raising self-sufficiency in food production”.

Pity the fool who swallows that line.

This brings to mind the advice of classical historian, political commentator, and former farmer Victor Davis Hanson:

Do not farm. There is only loss. To the degree that anyone makes money farming, it is a question of a vertically-integrated enterprise making more in shipping, marketing, selling, packing, and brokering than it loses on the other end in growing. No exceptions. Food prices stay high, commodity prices stay low. That is all you need to know. Try it and see.

The Futenma air base in Okinawa

The DPJ’s insistence on reworking the agreement with the Americans to move the Futenma air base and Hatoyama Yukio’s incompetence in dealing with the issue is one of the primary reasons Kan Naoto is prime minister today.

In May, the Hatoyama administration agreed to find a new location for the base and make a determination on the construction method by the end of August. Mr. Kan has assigned the task to a minor Cabinet official while he plots his reelection campaign.

Pity the fool who thinks anything will happen by the end of this month.

Civilian control of the military

Last week, Mr. Kan and Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi met with the uniformed leadership of the Self-Defense Forces. Before the meeting, the prime minister told Mr. Kitazawa:

I was reviewing for this meeting yesterday, (and found that) the (defense) minister is not an SDF official.

Here’s Article 66 (2) of the Japanese Constitution:

The Prime Minister and other Ministers of State must be civilians.

After 30 years in the Diet, he just found out?

Later on, during the meeting, he told the officers:

When I was reviewing the law yesterday, (I saw that) it reads, the prime minister has the ultimate authority over the Self-Defense Forces. So with that awareness, I want to hear your opinions and carry out that role.

During a news conference after the meeting, one of the officers tried to brush it off by suggesting Mr. Kan was just joking.

Self-Defense

Some wonder why Japan “punches below its weight” in international affairs. Kan Naoto has answered their question again.

Mr. Kan said that he has no plans to change Japan’s official constitutional interpretation prohibiting the country from exercising the right of collective self-defense. He added that the government will maintain the principles of not possessing, producing, or allowing nuclear weapons on Japanese territory.

In his annual Peace Declaration earlier this month, Hiroshima Mayor Akiba Tadatoshi used his annual two-day window of opportunity while in the media spotlight to call on Japan to reject the American nuclear umbrella and work for worldwide nuclear disarmament. But Mr. Kan said that Japan required nuclear deterrence:

I think that nuclear deterrence continues to be necessary for our nation at a time when there are unclear and uncertain factors…We share strong hopes for nuclear disarmament but there is reality that nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction are spreading.

In fact, Mr. Kan issued a statement:

Japan, the only country to have suffered an atomic bombing, has a moral responsibility to take the lead in achieving a world without nuclear weapons. We will stress the importance of nuclear weapons reduction and nonproliferation to the heads of state of all governments, including those with nuclear weapons. We will uphold the Japanese constitution and maintain the three non-nuclear principles to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons and eternal world peace.

As long as Japan refuses to engage global thuggery and cringes under the American nuclear umbrella as if it were a geopolitical hemophiliac, strikes the moral pose of nuclear disarmament to nag the man holding the umbrella, and talks about a nuclear-free world and eternal peace as serious options despite having Russia, China, and North Korea as neighbors, it will always punch below its weight in world affairs. Those who think otherwise are recommended to try some books on evolutionary biology. Only the powerless think soft power is effective.

At least some in the LDP, including former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, hinted that Japan should consider having nuclear weapons of its own, if only as self-protection. If that step were ever taken, watch how quickly the country would start punching its weight in world affairs.

The National Anthem

Hirosawa Katsuei of the LDP challenged Mr. Kan in the Diet over a report that the prime minister didn’t want to sing the national anthem during a radio program. The program in question was the 31 May 2002 broadcast of the late-night Mikki Yasukawa no Asa Made Shobu on RF radio. Mr. Hirosawa himself often appeared on the show.

Yasukawa, who died in January, stood and sang it with all the guests at the start of the broadcast. His son told Mr. Hirosawa that other people on that particular episode told him Mr. Kan refused to sing it or to even stand up when he was a guest. Former diplomat and current pundit Sato Masaru later claimed he heard the same story from Yasukawa himself. A male staffer working for the program at the time came forward to state that Mr. Kan didn’t even want to stand until Yasukawa suggested it, but he finally did without singing.

Mr. Hirazawa now says he has a copy of a tape recorded on 31 January 2003 in which Yasukawa tells a guest:

Mr. Kan was on this program. When I said, ‘OK, let’s sing’, he answered, ‘What? Sing the national anthem? I don’t want to.’

Since the radio station saves tapes for only three months, the story is impossible to confirm. When confronted in the Diet, Mr. Kan denied it and demanded proof.

It belongs to the category of stories that people would tend to believe regardless of its veracity. Mr. Kan’s background is as a left-wing activist, and they usually don’t have time for things like national anthems. Because Mr. Kan is almost certainly a republican and doesn’t want to publicly admit it, he uses the excuse that the anthem was associated with the Imperial house when that was made a matter of state for a dark period of several decades that ended 65 years ago.

Entertaining terrorists

Kim Hyeon-hui was one of two North Korean agents responsible for blowing up Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987 and killing 115 people. Ms. Kim was apprehended, sentenced to death, pardoned by President Roh Tae-woo, atoned for her sins, and is now living in South Korea. She said that the order to destroy the plane came directly from the “Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong-Il. Handwritten, that is…”

Ms. Kim came to Japan for a four-day visit last month to meet with family members of those Japanese abducted by North Korean agents. While in training in North Korea, she studied Japanese under Taguchi Yaeko, one of the abductees. The North Korean government claims Taguchi died in 1986, but Ms. Kim told one of Taguchi’s sons during his visit to Seoul that she thinks she’s still alive. She also met with the family of Yokota Megumi, who was abducted when she was a junior high student and whom the Pyeongyang government also claims is dead. Yokota’s mother was disappointed to find out only that her daughter liked cats.

The circumstances of Ms. Kim’s visit to Japan are unusual. After her pardon, she seems to have operated a restaurant that went bankrupt and is reportedly still in debt. Some claim the Kan government paid her from JPY 20-30 million to come to Japan. She was flown in on a chartered aircraft and stayed at Hatoyama Yukio’s villa in Karuizawa. The South Korean government asked that she be given some recreational time, according to National Public Safety Commission Chairman Nakai Hiroshi, so the government gave her a helicopter tour of Tokyo.

Allowing a convicted terrorist to enter Japan is technically against the law, but the DPJ overlooked that. One critic likened the gaffe to the American government allowing an al Qaeda terrorist to visit Camp David and get a helicopter tour of Washington.

Moveable holidays

Casting about for some policy that would boost consumption, the DPJ now wants to overhaul the national holiday schedule and stagger holidays by region. It would reduce by four the number of three-day weekends, specifically created to wean people from their workaholic ways. The government would mark off five different regions and give them five-day holiday periods in the spring and fall at different times.

The idea is to boost tourism and allow greater access to the national transport system during the holidays. For example, one expressway had a traffic jam about 50 kilometers long during the mid-August holiday period.

Nakata Akita, executive director of Tokyo Shoko Research, warned this could cause bankruptcies for small businesses if banks are closed on different days throughout the country:

Small-business owners often cut their finances close, so a day can make a big difference.

That doesn’t begin to address what would happen to independent business people—such as me. I live in Kyushu, and my primary clients are in Tokyo and Osaka. The five-day holiday periods would be different for all three regions.

Yes, it does seem this government will do anything to avoid reducing public sector expenditures, doesn’t it.

The DPJ presidential election

Two years ago, the DPJ taunted their LDP opponents by saying the party was sailing in a mudboat that would fall apart before it could cross the river. But it only took them 11 months in power to launch a mudboat of their own. They’ve already had one spectacularly inept administration fail and replaced it with a pickled has-been staggering from one issue to another on the shoulder of his chief cabinet secretary. They know he’s a loser they’ll have to replace before he starts to get really embarrassing, but installing another prime minister so soon will make it difficult to produce excuses for failing to call a new lower house election.

Mr. Kan is so far the only declared candidate in the upcoming party presidential election, and some seem to think he’s got it in the bag. Perhaps he does, but a whole mess of chickens are going to have to hatch before the counting starts, and no one will be happy to write his name on their ballot. Since the end of May, he’s botched an election, dithered over decisions, confused everyone about his positions du jour, and brought his party–again–to the verge of a civil war that could cause it to splinter. It’s almost as if he and his other allies on the left in the party were determined to conduct an old-fashioned purge of Ozawa Ichiro, whom they’ve never cared for and only tolerated because he taught them how to win elections.

Just three months ago, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio and party Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro resigned over the public’s revulsion at their conduct of the nation’s business and the stench of their money scandals. Now the latter is poised to challenge Mr. Kan in the DPJ election while the former is trying to play the role of party kingmaker.

Pity the Japanese public. They can’t both lose. One of those two has to win.

Afterwords:

Many people have been surprised to see the Kan Cabinet’s approval rating climb from 35% post election to 45% despite the lack of postive factors. That’s caused some to wonder what’s up with the polling techniques, and others to wonder what’s up with the Japanese people. Perhaps there’s a simple answer—It’s summer vacation and few are paying close attention. Otherwise inexplicable poll rises sometimes occur in similar situations in other countries during lulls in the news cycle.

It’s not as if Prime Minister Kan did anything to recover that level of support.

Here’s Watanabe Yoshimi on the phenomenon:

It’s because there’s no one to take his place. He is supported for none other than the negative reason that the continual change (of prime ministers) is, in fact, Japan’s shame.

Here’s an idea from former DPJ lower house member and current Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi, one of the wild and crazy guys of Japanese politics: Reduce the consumption tax by one percentage point. He insists it’s the only way to downsize the national government. A post about Mr. Kawamura’s behavior in Nagoya is another one I need to get around to soon.

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4 Responses to “Japan’s latest political ephemeron”

  1. Roual Deetlefs said

    … here in Africa we can’t get rid of our leaders … and in Japan it seems you can’t keep them …

  2. Robert said

    Potential for great import/export business!

  3. Roual Deetlefs said

    🙂

  4. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    to achieve the elimination of …..eternal world peace? dreadful.

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