Japan from the inside out

Akune revisited

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, January 18, 2011

PEOPLE interested in Japanese politics wonder when—or if–something resembling a Tea Party movement will coalesce in this country. The politicos of Nagata-cho and the bureaucrats of Kasumigaseki have behaved so badly for so long that in an earlier time in a different place, they might have found themselves tarred, feathered, and run out of town.

Those asking the question, however, could be overlooking a spontaneous and locally based ad hoc citizen pushback against what is known as kanson minpi (the treatment of people as inferior to the government), which predates the contemporary American Tea Partiers. It is not organized, nor does it have a name—yet—but the Japanese electorate is always ready to embrace those reformers who would cut government down to size. Former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, after all, left office following a term of five years and five months with an approval rating of 70%.

This pushback has intensified since the Democratic Party government shed their sheep’s clothing of populist rhetoric shortly after their 2009 lower house election victory and morphed into part of the problem rather than the solution.

Illustrations of the phenomenon abound throughout the archipelago, but the situation that perhaps distills both the positive and the negative aspects of the small government movement is that of Akune, Kagoshima, a city of 23,000 whose economy depends on agriculture and fishing. Here’s a previous post on affairs in Akune, written when the cement was still wet. Matters finally came to a head with an election last Sunday.

A quick review

Takehara Shin’ichi began his political career as a member of the Akune City Council with broad citizen backing; one supporter recalls that during his first election campaign for a council seat he was the only candidate to visit people door-to-door. He ran for mayor in a four-way race in 2008 and won with 36.67% of the vote.

Takehara Shin'ichi on Sunday night (Photo: Sankei Shimbun)

The theme of Mr. Takehara’s campaign and governance was “ameliorating the gap between the government and the people”. Kitami Masao wrote a book examining public sector remuneration in Japan, and he claims that government employees here can expect to receive salaries 40% higher than those in the private sector. (Sound familiar?) The new mayor revealed in 2009 that the aggregate salaries and bonuses of Akune’s 268 municipal employees were JPY 1.73 billion a year. It doesn’t leave much for municipal affairs after that amount is subtracted from the city’s annual tax revenues of JPY two billion.

He wanted to reduce the number of City Council seats from the current 16 and pay the delegates on a per diem basis instead of an annual salary of JPY four million. He also advocated large cuts in the bonuses for all municipal employees and reducing the fixed asset tax.

Of course the City Council members and Akune’s public sector employees were not amused. Twelve of the 16 council members became Takehara enemies, and they passed a no-confidence motion in the mayor in 2009, the year after his election. In the subsequent ballot Mr. Takehara ran against a single candidate and was reelected with 51.72% of the vote, for which 82.59% of the electorate turned out. That’s a narrow margin, but the people had spoken.

Even after two election victories, the mayor was still unable to pass his reforms through City Council, and that’s when events took a turn both dramatic and weird. Mr. Takehara refused to convene the council into session and began governing by decree. Those decrees included the switch to a per diem pay system for council members, which resulted in a 90% pay cut and the elimination of bonuses, the halving of bonuses to all other municipal employees (including those seconded from the prefecture), and a reduction in the fixed asset tax.

The worm turns

Despite his success at the polls, the mayor developed what can only be described as a bunker mentality, and that led to his downfall. He picked a fight with the mass media as well as City Hall, cutting back sharply on news conferences and media appearances and communicating with the public through a blog. He hung posters of municipal salaries at city offices and arbitrarily fired an employee who ripped them down. The mayor refused to rehire the employee after he won a lawsuit for reinstatement, and the court seized some of the city’s assets.

Mr. Takehara’s biggest mistake was to alienate the very people who had supported him. Last summer, he privatized the city’s nursery school and presented the act as a fait accompli. That upset parents because he took the step without prior notice and without consulting the community. The people seem not to have been upset over the privatization itself; the Japanese public more often than not supports efforts to shift public sector services to the private sector. They just want to be consulted and included in the process.

For example, two years ago this month, Hiwatashi Keisuke was reelected as the mayor of Takeo, Saga, a city of about 50,000, in a special election held to resolve a debate over privatizing the municipal hospital, which had aggregate debts of JPY 630 million. The local doctors’ association—a powerful interest group in Japanese politics—and some city council members opposed Mayor Hiwatashi’s plan to sell the hospital to private interests in Kitakyushu and launched a recall campaign. To save time and municipal turmoil, Mr. Hiwatashi resigned before the campaign had collected the required number of signatures and ran again specifically on that issue in the special election to determine his replacement. He received 54% of the vote.

A recall petition began circulating at the end of last summer in Akune, and the backers finally gathered the signatures of the required one-third of registered voters. That referendum was held on 5 December, and the recall motion passed by a mere 398 votes in an election with a 75.63% turnout.

Is the third time the charm?

The mayor chose to run again, and he was opposed by Nishihira Yoshimasa, a 37-year-old chicken rancher with no political experience who decided to become a candidate while participating in the petition drive. His initial motivation was anger after reading a mayoral blog entry in December 2009 in which the mayor seemed to favor culling the disabled from society. Mr. Nishihira’s eldest son has a disability.

The Nishihira campaign demonstrated that the mayor had restaked the yardsticks of popular perception, however. The challenger admitted that reform was required and promised to reduce municipal salaries by 15% (in the next four years, thus showing that he is a quick study when it comes to political promises). He also pledged to consider eliminating the number of City Council seats and suggested a range of from two to six. Rather than ruling by decree, however, Mr. Nishihira said he would “conduct reform legally” and govern through dialogue rather than through confrontation. He accused the mayor of self-righteousness.

Akune’s third mayoralty election in two years was held last Sunday, and Mr. Nishihira won, picking up 8,509 votes to the mayor’s 7,645. The winner received 51.4% of the votes, just a whisker under the percentage won by Mr. Takehara in 2009. The turnout was 82.39%, also slightly less than the 82.59% for the previous election.

Events in Akune became national news, overshadowing discussion of Prime Minister Kan’s Cabinet reshuffle. (The new Cabinet was announced on Friday, but the lead story on Monday morning in both the national print and broadcast media was this municipal election in a small town in the Deep South.)

Here’s the critical information: Despite attacks by national and sub-national politicians–Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Katayama Yoshihiro said that rule by decree was illegal and invalid, though there was no legal way to overturn them—harsh coverage from the media, and behavior that veered uncomfortably close to that of Lieutenant Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, Mr. Takehara still commands the loyalty of nearly half of the electorate. The margin of victory for his opponent was razor-thin considering all that had transpired over the past two years.

It’s not that the Japanese are pining for a strong man on a horse—far from it. That a man so clearly over the top came so close to winning yet again indicates that many in Akune still support his small government position and just wanted the controversy to end. Their backing of a flawed advocate is yet more evidence that voters throughout the country are desperate for politicians who understand that the state is the servant of the people, and not the other way around.

No one realizes that more keenly than the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s newspaper of the left. I read two of the articles on the election they published on their Japanese-language website Sunday night, one of which ran to two screens. They were exultant that Mr. Takehara had been turned out of office and proclaimed it a victory for democracy. That it was, but the Asahi neglected to include in either of the articles information essential for reporting the results of any election—the number of votes the candidates received.

That cannot have been an oversight. Regardless of how often the Big Four national newspapers may criticize the government, they know that a large segment of the public considers them to be part of the same Ruling Class as the government and Kasumigaseki bureaucracy and just as much to blame. The Asahi did not want its readers to know the level of support Mr. Takehara received.

The next chapter

The story in Akune does not end here. On his first day in office, Mayor Nishihira said he would revisit the municipal salary cuts and the per diem salary structure because they were implemented illegally. He also removed the deputy mayor appointed by his predecessor. With so many people in his city demanding a downsizing of municipal government, Mr. Nishihira will have to find some real solutions or find himself on the business end of a popular revolt four years down the road.

Apart from the question of the legality of the decrees, surely another factor informing the new mayor’s position was the realization that he’ll have to work with the same City Council members, at least for the time being. How long that will last is an open question, however. Former Mayor Takehara and his backers had already set in motion a campaign to dissolve City Council through a recall, turnabout being fair play. That referendum will be held on 20 February.

We can expect to see a lot more of this behavior throughout the country in the future, regardless of what people call it. Indeed, it’s already happening in the Osaka Metro District and Nagoya, the country’s second- and third-largest cities. The weekly Sunday Mainichi suggested earlier this month that Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru and Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi could be the spearhead of a Japanese Tea Party operating from the regional level rather than the national legislative level. Mr. Kawamura wants to cut taxes and City Council salaries by half. (Sound familiar?)

As long as the mountebanks of the political class continue to be the venal, incompetent, and unresponsive time-servers that they are—and one need look no further than the current prime minister—this movement won’t be evaporating. Imagine what might happen if it can find an advocate without the liabilities of Takehara Shin’ichi.

It’s not a good idea to fight the law of the people. The law wins.

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9 Responses to “Akune revisited”

  1. toadold said

    This could be verry interesting. I wonder what form the demonizing of opponets by the left will take. Will alternative media in Japan actually grow after revolts in local politics? Right now in the US we are starting to see a “spite vote” phenomona. That is a voting preference for candidate who is not all that popular with questionable qualifications in themselves but that the hatred for that politician’s enemies is worse and people want them out of power.

  2. Fat Tony said

    Japan has a tea party. It’s called the Zaitokukai.
    FT: Thanks for the note.

    If you think the Zaitokukai is a “tea party”, you know nothing about tea parties.

    Sorry for the harsh words, but that’s the fact. Calling them a tea party is something I’d expect from Debito or that ilk.


    – A.

  3. Tony said

    @Toadold, I doubt that the “real” left will demonize opponents like that here because that “left” is almost decimated and their main newspaper has the smallest circulation in Japan. They can shout all they want but nobody hears. In fact, they may be doing that now but I wouldn’t know because nobody listens to them. As for the DPJ, they’re not left, they’re a kaleidoscope of political ideologies held together by ambition.
    1. The editorial position of the Asahi is almost identical to that of the New York Times and the Guardian. (Their journalistic “practices” are similiar too.) It has the second highest circulation in the country.

    2. The “kaleidoscope of views held together by ambition” is old news. The most recent Cabinet reshuffle represents yet another shift left for the DPJ. They are purging the party of non-left elements (i.e., Ozawa). Sengoku, who now controls the party (de facto) was originally in the Socialist Party. His nickname in some quarters is the “Red Gotoda”, and it’s not because of his ruddy complexion. Kan was originally in a group called the Socialist Democrats. Their first Justice Minister was a Socialist and the new one started in the same group with Kan. Sengoku’s replacement Edano is another lawyer with ties to radicals and labor unions. The non-Ozawa elements of the party are almost entirely left in the proper sense of the term, and DPJ version of Blue Dog Democrats are fading away. When these are the primary elements of the party, it’s not in the center. I’ll discuss this more in my next post, but not in the comments.

    3. For examples of how Sengoku and Kan demonize their opponents, spend some more time with the Japanese print media. That was Sengoku’s chief political weapon.

    – A.

  4. PaxAmericana said


    I’m looking forward to your upcoming post that will disabuse me of the notion that the current DPJ is basically a collection of opportunists sucking up to powerful interests, such as Keidanren and the US-Japan military-industrial nexus. If anything, they seem to be outLDPing the LDP – and left is not necessarily the word for the phenomenon. Off the top of my head, Kan wants to join the TPP, lower the corporate tax, raise the consumption tax, and promote and revive the America First approach to diplomacy. Do leftists support any of these?
    PA: Thanks for the note.

    You forgot to mention increasing the consumption tax specifically to pay for central government social welfare programs (without even considering such reforms as personal accounts), increasing the income tax, particularly on those with higher incomes, increasing the inheritance tax, removing deductions for dependent family members to force women into the workforce, removing deductions for children and replacing them with an unaffordable government dole child allowance (whose only purpose is to create dependency), and justifying it by saying that all of “society” is responsible for child-rearing (and which Kan praised this week as “epochal”), renationalizing Japan Post, renationalizing the highway system, refusing to cut government spending or sell off government assets at all despite campaign promises to do so, implementing the highest budget in Japanese history and putting together one that might be even higher next year, thus increasing further the national debt, ditching plans to privatize the Mint, running a dog-and-pony policy review with no legal standing that snips programs from one ministry and slips them back into the budget in a different ministry a couple of months later, or has its recommendations nixed by public sector labor unions, and a manifesto that, among other things, calls for taxing international financial transactions and establishing a “Human Rights Commission” on the model of Canada’s that would allow searches and seizures of private homes without a court warrant. Oh yes, and replacing the concept of GDP with a “national happiness” metric. Sengoku recently gave a speech in which he favored creating yet another Cabinet ministry specifically for nationalized pre-school day care.

    People interested in small government would do none of these things, and would find a way to keep the DPJ promise of cutting national governmental personnel costs by 20%, which this government has said it will not do. (And if it ever does, will consist primarily of shifting the responsibility for regional and local branch offices to local government, which will produce no downsizing or cutback in government expenditures for the taxpayer.)

    They might also put a freeze on public sector hiring and pay increases for five years, which the DPJ won’t.

    Meanwhile, we’re supposed to believe what Kan says. In January last year testifying before the Diet as Finance Minister, he said the DPJ government wouldn’t raise the consumption tax. He vaguely wants to join TPP, but I’ll bet cash money any such proposal will come with Japanese government subsidies to local farmers to buy them off.

    Speaking of buying farmers off, the DPJ government already instituted a payoff to individual farm households. Also, the collusion of Big Government and Big Business (in this case, Keidanren) smacks of corporative fascism, which is another phenomenon of the left.

    If you don’t want to use the word “left”, use “statism” instead. Some have taken to calling it “fascialism”.

    The sucking up you describe is precisely that, but those are deals they discovered they had to cut when they found out their government didn’t exist in a vacuum. Mr. Obama in the US suddenly did not become a non-leftist opportunist when he signed the tax bill this month. He’s still the same guy he always was, and so are the DPJ. The situations are similar.

    – A.

  5. Tony said

    A, I admire the consistency you have in dismissing reality and facts that oppose your view and only point out the ones that do support it. Your aptitude for cognitive dissonance is not merely amazing, it is almost commendable.
    T: Thanks for the comment.

    I note with interest that your response to a detailed and accurate list that negates your point is the intellectual equivalent of ankle biting.


    – A.

  6. toadold said

  7. Tony said

    That high! I’m improving then. lol!

  8. PaxAmericana said


    Statism is not leftism, at least not to most of us. Corporate fascism is what Japan had ever since the 1955 System was set up, right? How much of a left was there in government? It’s obvious that Kan et al. are not for privatization or cutting spending in any real way, but it comes across to me as not being based on any principle. It’s just that they don’t have the heart for a fight over anything like that. They do have the heart to do what Keidanren or the US-Japan nexus wants, so they can press for that.

    By the way, I assume you support joining the TPP. If so, isn’t it logical to buy off the farmers? Dealmaking is what parliaments are all about.

    Statism is not leftism, at least not to most of us. Corporate fascism is what Japan had ever since the 1955 System was set up, right?

    Corporative fascism is leftism, if the contrast is state over individual vs. individual over state. It certainly isn’t rightism by any stretch of the imagination, if that is seen as minimizing the range of government and allowing markets to function properly. No one on the right thinks economies can be planned. It was FDR and Mussolini who had the mutual admiration society, after all. The paper trail for this is too extensive to hide. For example:

    “If classical liberalism spells individualism, fascism spells government.”
    – Benito Mussolini, Fascism: Doctrines and Institutions, p. 10

    I’m not in favor of buying off anybody to cut any deal. The DPJ individual farmer subsidies came about because the LDP reformers realized that individual farming is becoming untenable and tried to rework some of the restrictions that hinder land use by agribusiness. With the excessive weight given to rural areas in the Diet elections, the DPJ saw their chance and took it. Some people think agribusiness in Japan would be competitive even in an internationally open market. (I am interested in this subject but need to read more.) JR Kyushu, for example, recently leased some farmland in Kyushu to grow vegetables specifically for use in the restaurants they’re opening up in China. They’re profitable.

    – A.

  9. PaxAmericana said


    Nothing personal here, as I’m a Jeffersonian sympathizer, and like your blog.

    Do you agree that Japan has had corporate fascism since 1955? If so, by your definition, Japan has been leftist since 1955. Very few folks see it this way.

    “No one on the right thinks economies can be planned.” They sure plan long and hard to help their buddies in big corporations and banks. Raising the consumption tax and lowering the corporate tax is a plan. Promoting private retirement accounts is a plan. For that matter, just about all taxes and spending involve plans. Perhaps you mean “no one on the right thinks the government can do a good job of picking winners”.

    I think your arguments are getting a bit metaphysical – somewhat along the line of what you see the right meaning in an ideal world. Marx’s ideal world had no state, right? In the mundane world, what are called right-wing governments are in bed with big business. They may not call it planning, they may prefer other words, such as “efficiency” or “for the good of the nation” or even “fairness”. In the current world, more right-leaning governments like big business than left-leaning ones. Not denying the history of FDR or the LDP – just pointing out what is fairly clear.

    Also, the main purpose of a legislature is to work out differences. This requires compromises and “buying off” folks. The alternative is an all-or-nothing approach, which will radicalize politics. Do you really want that?
    PA: Thanks for the note

    Do you agree that Japan has had corporate fascism since 1955? If so, by your definition, Japan has been leftist since 1955. Very few folks see it this way.

    It is what it is. Japan is not alone, of course. The same is true of the United States and others. In his essay, “Why I am not a conservative”, Hayek cited as one of his reasons that conservatives were always too anxious to make cause with the statists. He included both Marxians and fascists in the latter category. The New Dealers and Mussolini held many of the same ideas about the role of the government and the individual in society, and they recognized it at the time. Perhaps other people should reexamine their casual assumptions.

    In the mundane world, what are called right-wing governments are in bed with big business.

    This is one of the reasons I bend over backwards to avoid the word “right” on this site. (We all know that it is a convenient shorthand, though.) But Big Business is always in bed with Big Government, regardless of that government’s social positions. That was originally a fascisto-progressive idea. The Democrats in the U.S. get more money from Wall Street than the Republicans do.

    Also, the main purpose of a legislature is to work out differences. This requires compromises and “buying off” folks. The alternative is an all-or-nothing approach, which will radicalize politics. Do you really want that?

    In other words, you’re in favor of legalizing prostitution (g).

    Are not compromises possible without descending to the level of the payoffs required to pass Obamacare in the US Senate?


    – A.

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