Japan from the inside out

The revolution in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 3, 2011

In short, the central power had taken to playing the part of an indefatigable mentor and keeping the nation in quasi-paternal tutelage.
– Alexis de Tocqueville on France’s pre-revolutionary Bourbon governments

Today we are in the midst of a cultural U-turn away from a Hamiltonian meritocratic-elitist, centralized-power society to a more Jeffersonian Main Street focus, with state and local governments as the primary powerbrokers.
– Salena Zito

This is a citizens’ revolution
– Kawamura Takashi

THE REVOLUTION that’s been smoldering for years at the grassroots level in Japan like a smoky mound of autumn leaves has finally blossomed into flame. Ever decorous, the Japanese are not heaving crates of tea into Tokyo Bay, nor have they stormed the Imperial Palace or the Diet Building. This civil war is being conducted with civility.

Yet after the votes were counted the so-called Triple Election held last month in the city of Nagoya and Aichi Prefecture, they were just as surely carrying the heads of the politicos on stakes through the streets as if they had used the French National Razor to detach and dump them in straw-lined baskets.

The editorialists of the Asahi Shimbun wrote that they were surprised by the results, but if they’re serious, it suggests a level of obtuseness remarkable even for an out-of-touch establishment. In every national election since 2005, the voters of this country have spelled out their preferences so clearly only a political illiterate could fail to have read the writing on the wall. Koizumi Jun’ichiro used the votes of local Liberal Democratic Party members to storm into office in 2001 on pledges of privatization, reform, and ending the collusion between the bureaucracy and his own party. He began with public approval ratings in the 80s and ended five years and five months later at 70%, one year after winning a two-thirds supermajority in the lower house in a 2005 election called specifically for a verdict on his plan to privatize Japan Post. After the LDP reverted to its wicked old ways, the voters finally took a flyer on the opposition Democratic Party and their promises of a bright new political order. But it was only a matter of weeks before the DPJ exposed themselves as sheep in wolves’ clothing, and now it’s their turn to be torched.

It’s easy to see why national politics causes Japanese observers to be distressed and the inexpert foreign journalists to be dismissive–when they bother to pay attention. The political class has been neutered in domestic affairs by a bureaucracy that actively competes for power, and in foreign affairs by the United States, which still treats the country as its fiefdom three generations after the end of the war. This arrested development is compounded by a Westminster system of government not conducive to developing executive abilities. The result is that governance is nominally in the hands of people whose only expertise is waging an ever-shifting and amorphous battle for political advantage through plots hatched in the private rooms of expensive traditional Japanese restaurants

The difference at the subnational level, however, is as stark as the contrast between the mud and the clouds, as the expression has it, and it’s no longer hidden. Here’s an excerpt from a roundtable discussion published last month by Gendai Business Online. Three of the participants were former Finance Ministry official and now professor/journalist Takahashi Yoichi, professor/blogger Ikeda Nobuo, and newspaper editor Hasegawa Yukihiro.

Takahashi: In an election now, parties other than the DPJ and LDP, such as Your Party, for example, would take votes. But that will be difficult unless they crush the big parties in some way.

Hasegawa: I want to point out one mechanism for smashing them: The revolt at the local level. (What’s happening in) Nagoya, Akune, or Osaka is at bottom the same. The frustration felt by the average citizen, the frustration at the public sector—that’s become a (form of) energy, and the impulse to destroy the current system is the backdrop to it.

Ikeda: The things being done by Nagoya Mayor Kawamura (Takashi) are rather disjointed, but I strongly sense the frustration at the regional level and the people’s expectations for them. That even someone like Hashimoto Toru (the governor of the Osaka Metro District), a strange person who has become so prominent, can be so enthusiastically supported, shows just how fed up the people are with the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy.

It’s become very difficult for one government to govern 130 million people. There are 300 million people in the United States, and while the federal government has a certain amount of authority, local governments have a lot of power. We’ve reached the limit for (the ability of) Kasumigaseki to completely rule 130 million people, as in Japan. To use what Mr. Hashimoto said as an example, it’s the Big Business Disease. It’s gotten so big that the mechanism is no longer mobile.

Ikeda: From the perspective of a person in the Kansai region, the center of culture is the Kansai. They probably wonder why Kasumigaseki has to have a say in everything. With that power, it would be interesting if they were to do something like declare their independence.

That discussion appeared days before the elections in Nagoya and Aichi, after which the more perceptive editorialists at the Mainichi Shimbun wrote: You could feel the earth move.

The election

The rumpled, folksy, and ambitious Kawamura Takashi resigned after five terms in the lower house of the Diet to become a candidate in the Nagoya mayoralty election of 2009. Mr. Kawamura was primed to channel the intense dissatisfaction with local government that has been building for years, predating the Tea Party movement in the United States. In addition to the universal arrogance and avoidance of accountability by the politicians, it was fueled by oversized legislatures, slush fund scandals, and research fund expense accounts spent on personal entertainment rather than the study of issues. Within the past decade the public has forced local legislators throughout the country to provide receipts for the use of their research fund allowances, and everyone saw how quickly and drastically expenditures declined—often by as much as 70%-80% compared to years when no receipts were required.

Kawamura Takashi on election night

Mr. Kawamura ran on a platform that he dubbed a citizen revolution. He won with a record number of votes in Nagoya elections by promising a permanent 10% reduction in local taxes and the formation of volunteer citizens’ groups with elected members, called neighborhood councils. These groups would have a say in determining the allocation of city funds in their districts. To this he later added halving the annual city council salaries of JPY 16 million (roughly $US 195,000)—a substantial amount individually as well as in the aggregate, considering that Nagoya, a city of 2.26 million, has 75 city council members. In contrast, the slightly larger city of Chicago has 50 aldermen, and the similar-sized city of Houston has to make do with 14 (soon to be 16). The mayor made a point of stating that politicians should be the first to suffer in bad economic times. He also went first—cutting his own salary to JPY eight million from more than 27.5 million.

The events that played out in Nagoya for more than a year contain enough drama for a film script, though the movie is a familiar one throughout Japan. The city council was not about to line up behind the new mayor’s program, but passed the tax cut only after a newly formed citizens’ group threatened a petition drive to recall them. When the group lost its focus a few months later, the council rescinded the permanent tax cut and limited it to one year. Mr. Kawamura reintroduced legislation to make the reduction permanent, but the council rejected it by a vote of 73-1, claiming they had already discussed the issue enough.

That’s when the cold war turned hot. The mayor launched a petition campaign to recall the city council against almost impossible odds—the signatures of one-third of Nagoya’s voters were required in one month—but defied expectations by succeeding after more unanticipated drama. When the recall election was officially announced, he resigned and declared his candidacy for reelection, in effect taking his case directly to the voters. Both elections were to be held on the same day as the regularly scheduled election for the governor of Aichi Prefecture, where Nagoya is located.

Employing savvy political instincts, Mr. Kawamura convinced the most popular local politician of the opposition LDP, Omura Hideaki, to resign his lower house Diet seat and run for governor. Mr. Omura was a former Agriculture Ministry bureaucrat who rose quickly in the party ranks after turning to politics, earning an appointment as deputy minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare. His campaign was based on another idea that is gathering momentum in Japan. That is a form of devolution and regionalism that involves the reorganization of territorial political units at the subnational level into larger entities with more authority. A large body of opinion nationwide favors the provision of greater power to the regions through the restructuring of the prefectural system into a province/state system. Mr. Omura calls his idea the Chukyo-to Concept, which would create a larger entity unifying Nagoya and Aichi with the neighboring prefectures of Mie and Gifu.

It’s important to know that both Nagoya and Aichi are a stronghold of the ruling Democratic Party. The area is the home of Toyota, and labor unions have a strong political influence. Aichi has 15 directly-elected seats in the Diet, and the DPJ won them all in their 2009 landslide. Mr. Omura lost his single-district seat in that election, but was returned to the Diet through proportional representation.

Both major parties recognized the Kawamura/Omura campaign as an existential threat. The DPJ was the more desperate of the two; their standard bearers have been pummeled in local elections throughout the country for the past year, and they were desperate for a victory before local elections are held throughout the country in April. The new allies ran on a program of tax reduction, while the DPJ at the national level is trying to convince people that a significant tax increase and record high budgets will be the salvation of the country.

Omura Hideaki on election night

Meanwhile, the LDP asked Mr. Omura to leave the party when he declared his candidacy and ran an officially sanctioned party candidate against him. The DPJ liked their chances in the governor’s race because their organization in Aichi, based on the Toyota unions, is the second largest local prefectural organization in the country after Tokyo. They also expected the two LDP candidates to split the vote.

The DPJ backed Ishida Shigehiro for Nagoya mayor, and he also received the official endorsement of the ruling party’s coalition partners, the People’s New Party, and their former coalition partners, the Social Democrats. He also had the unofficial support of the LDP.

The results of the Triple Election were obvious an hour after the polls closed, all the more remarkable because votes in Japan are counted by hand. Kawamura Takashi was reelected mayor with 73% of the vote in a field of four. He received three times as many votes as the runner-up. Exit polls showed he was the choice of 78% of DPJ supporters, compared to 21.1% for the official DPJ candidate. He also received votes from 78.9% of the independents, significant in a country where the most reliable poll suggests more than half of the electorate are non-aligned.

Omura Hideaki took a skoche under 50% of the vote for governor in field of five, but his was the second-highest total ever in absolute numbers. The DPJ was correct in assuming that the two LDP candidates would split the party’s vote, but that made the results even more difficult to digest—the official LDP candidate finished second, while the DPJ candidate finished third. In fact, exit polls showed that 46.1% of the LDP supporters backed their party’s designated candidate compared to 42.8% for the apostate Mr. Omura. In contrast, 53.9% of the DPJ supporters crossed party lines to vote for him, while only 27.7% stayed with the ticket. New Komeito, which is still informally allied with the LDP at the national level, backed Mr. Omura.

Finally, in a straight up or down vote, 71% of the voters chose to support the mayor and recall the city council. Nagoya is what is known as a specially designated city, which means it has authority similar to that of a prefecture. It was the first time the electorate of a specially designated city recalled their city council. The new election will be held on March 13, and already Mayor Kawamura has formed a local party to back his own slate of candidates.

The dismal swamp of local politics

Aikawa Toshihide, a journalist who specializes in local government, explains in Diamond Online why serious reform is required to resuscitate what is all too often government in name only at the subnational level:

“In Japan, the system of centralized authority in which the national government (the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy) butts into everything and controls all the money has long been the norm. It has therefore become customary for the chief municipal officers, employees, and legislators of local governments to conduct their work while looking in the direction of the national government (the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy), and not the people. Local government exists in form only, and the conduct of governmental affairs under national guidance is unchallenged. The tripartite structure of the executives, employees, and legislators has left the people behind.”

The executives and the legislatures of local governments are elected separately, unlike the parliamentary system used at the national level. Thus the ideal is for the two branches to operate in a system of checks and balances, such as the national government in the United States. In practice, however, Mr. Aikawa notes that the result more often is collusion between the two branches.

That’s illustrated by an Asahi Shimbun questionnaire survey conducted this January of 1,797 prefectural and municipal legislatures. The response rate was 100%. They found that in the four years from January 2007 to the present, 50% of the legislatures neither amended nor rejected a bill submitted by the executive. Further, 91% of the legislatures submitted no legislation of their own. Finally, 84% of the legislatures do not reveal the votes of individual legislators on bills. One-third of the legislatures fell into what the newspaper called the three noes category—they answered no to all three questions.

During the period surveyed, the executives submitted on average 414 bills to legislatures, and 82% of the legislatures either rejected or amended three or fewer of the bills.

Former Diet member and Yokohama Mayor Nakada Hiroshi speaks from experience:

“Most people probably look at the Diet and get the impression that discussion gets nowhere. When local chief municipal officers and legislatures have competing agendas, the stalemate in the assembly is 10 times worse. Conditions are now such that our only chance to pursue reform is for the executives to charge head first into the legislatures, as Mr. Kawamura has done.”

While Mr. Nakada does believe the system of checks and balances is important, he thinks the problem of the legislatures is greater than being unable to see the forest for the trees:

“It’s as if they’re talking about the shape of the knots and criticizing the way branches are cut.”

Yokohama has 92 city council members, the most of any Japanese city, and Mr. Nakada thinks that number could be slashed to 10. He also thinks that to conduct city business, there should be an increase in staff, a larger budget for research expenses, and a shift to the Westminster system for local governments of a certain size. Most municipal assemblies in Japan convene only four months out of the year.

Nagoya, meanwhile, has 75 city council delegates from 16 municipal election districts with from two to seven delegates representing each district. Winning elections requires a political organization and party support, so there are few independents. Many of the council members have emerged from labor unions or political families, while some were former aides to Diet MPs, a practice not uncommon in Japan. The key to remaining in office is party loyalty.

That explains a very low pre-Kawamura voting rate for elections in Nagoya and Aichi–usually near 40%. The turnout for the 2005 mayoralty election was 27.5%, while that for City Council in 2009, when Mr. Kawamura was at the top of the ticket, was still less than 40%. Post-Kawamura, the turnout for all those elections has been greater than 50%.

The Kawamura philosophy

Into this stagnant backwater stepped Kawamura Takashi, promising at first a tax cut and greater citizen control over budget expenditures, and then upping the ante to halving the salaries and eliminating the pensions of City Council members. He is no more an opportunist than any other professional politician, because his political objectives do have a philosophical foundation. He thinks people should be engaged in politics with a volunteer spirit, and he does not hide his disdain for the professionals who turn it into a life-long occupation:

“Legislators and government officials are public servants. I want to stress that as the starting point for politics.”

As for the remuneration received by the political class:

“Taxpayers really have to struggle. It is truly unacceptable for the people who live off of taxes to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle.”

As the Tea Partiers in the United States look to their national history for inspiration, Mr. Kawamura intends to revive an even older idea in Japan:

“I want to have a citizens’ revolution of the type created by Oda Nobunaga, who enabled the everyday person to engage in commerce through the policy of rakuichi rakuza.”

The latter term is usually translated as “free markets and open guilds”. It refers to the 16th century policy of eliminating market taxes and the monopolistic privileges of trade associations. That policy was implemented by regional warlords, or daimyo, to concentrate authority in castle towns and attract merchants and craftsmen to increase wealth and production.

The first recorded instance of the elimination of market taxes occurred in 1549 in what is now Shiga Prefecture. The first example of eliminating trade association monopolies, which had a greater impact, occurred in 1576 in what is now Fukui Prefecture. These measures were most closely associated with Oda Nobunaga, but they were continued and extended nationwide by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his successors. There were inconsistencies in application, as with any human endeavor, but the result was the creation of a market economy centered on castle towns rather than noble houses and religious establishments due to the granting of patronage.

Mr. Kawamura also wants to cut the municipal corporate tax to attract people and companies to Nagoya. He explained his reasoning in an interview in the 4 June 2010 edition of the weekly Shukan Asahi:

“Tax cuts are necessary because reform alone means that the leftover money is just redistributed within the government. Cutting taxes is the only way to make government more efficient. Lower taxes means that the budget will have to be cut, and that includes privatization of public services.”

He points out that city council members work only 80 days a year, and claims the tax revenue loss will amount to only 1.4% of the total budget. For this work, they receive a nominal salary of JPY 16 million, though others say the total is closer to JPY 35 million when all the benefits are added. Political parties also give each member five million more.

One City Council member claims that her take-home pay amounts to only JPY 390,000 a month after the deductions for income tax and contributions to three separate pensions. Legislators in other local governments have similar complaints, though none as extreme as hers (and she doesn’t explain why a third pension specifically for legislators is required). She complains that the salary Mr. Kawamura has in mind would be better suited for legislatures that meet in the evening, as in some European cities. Now there’s an idea!

On the ground

The disgruntled in the political class sometimes complain about voters that fail to grasp issues in the way they should be understood, but it would difficult to make that claim in Nagoya/Aichi. That battle was engaged for more than a year, so it should be obvious from the election results that the people want what Mr. Kawamura is offering. As support for the first Democratic Party government plummeted nationwide, falling from 70% to less than 20% in eight months–and faster and lower than that for the successor government of Kan Naoto–the mayor’s approval rating stood at 63.6% after six months in office and 61% after a year.

One reason is his demonstrated mastery of retail politics. In addition to cutting his own salary to the level he wants the council members to receive, the mayor gave up his official automobile and leases a minicar for JPY 14,700 a month. When traveling outside the city, he books a regular or reserved ticket on trains. He’s also more accessible than most Japanese politicians, showing up unannounced to civic events. After he attended a traditional festival last year and circulated among the crowd, one of the organizers marveled that it was the first time one of the mayors showed up in the 15 years he had been involved with the event.

He’s also found more ways to save money besides tax and salary cuts and the elimination of the JPY 42.2 million pension for council members. Slush funds are endemic at the subnational level of Japanese government, and the usual practice is for companies doing business with local government to submit phony bills. A percentage of the money used to pay those bills is funneled back to the government, and recent exposes have uncovered the use of those funds by civil servants for all sorts of fun and games, including drinking parties and softball team uniforms. The investigation into the Nagoya slush funds had been closed, but Mayor Kawamura reopened it in August 2009 and dug up JPY 39 million more.

After City Council backtracked and converted the permanent tax cut into a one-year only measure, Mr. Kawamura resubmitted legislation for the permanent cut the following month:

“Limiting it to one year is not a tax reduction, it’s a benefit payment…Many people say that tax reduction is “Kawamura Populism”, but that isn’t so. It is tax reduction that is politics.”

City Council Chairman Yokoi Toshiaki retorted that the city had floated JPY 45 billion in bonds to cover the revenue shortfall, and that council members’ were already the lowest of the nation’s five largest cities. The council rejected the bill 73-1.

At that point the combatants stopped taking prisoners. The mayor’s response was to create a political group called Tax Reduction Japan. They began to circulate petitions to recall City Council in August. It was surely no coincidence that the same month, the DPJ, LDP, and New Komeito council members concluded it would be a good idea to reduce their own salaries to JPY 13.93 million from 16.33 million.

Few thought the petition drive would succeed. The law required 366,124 valid signatures to be collected in one month. The legal definition of a signature for a petition in Japan includes a voter’s full name, address, date of birth, and seal. The list of signatures is disclosed to the public, which might cause some voters who support specific delegates to refrain from signing. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reports that 59 petitions have been filed to recall legislatures, which resulted in 33 referendums and 28 actual recalls. No recall election had ever been held in cities with more than 200,000 voters.

Declared an LDP member of the Nagoya City Council:

“They can’t possibly collect that many signatures. The local media is saying the same thing. They’ll just self-destruct.”

Had he read the poll numbers, he might have held his tongue. When the drive started, the mayor was supported by 83% of DPJ backers and 67% of independents.

Morokuma Shushin, the leader of the DPJ caucus in the Nagoya City Council asked the party to revoke its endorsement of the mayor:

“We’ve put up with one thing after another, but the mayor’s anti-party act was the last straw.”

The mayor fired back:

“What anti-party act? The DPJ’s council caucus was the one responsible for the anti-party act. I’ve been working to achieve the campaign promises that the party endorsed, but they joined with the LDP and New Komeito to oppose them. This is an impossible situation, so recall is the only option.”

Okamoto Yoshihiro, the leader of the LDP caucus, stepped up the rhetoric:

“I’ve consistently called for cooperation, but that’s not longer possible in this situation. The mayor’s methods are violent, and I’m concerned.”

Down and dirty

His concern was not misplaced. The petition drive ignited a fire among the city’s voters, and the group submitted 465,000 signatures early in October, well more than the amount required. The establishment was so concerned, in fact, they tried to prevent the election from happening. It took the Election Commission six weeks to review all the signatures, and they threw out more than 100,000 because they maintained the strict rules for collectors weren’t followed. Those rules require that signatures be collected by either an official representative of a group or a person named a delegate by a representative. Of the signatures submitted, roughly 110,000 did not have the name of a designated delegate as the collector, which meant they had to have been collected by a representative. The Election Commission decided it wasn’t possible for one person to successfully fish for that many signatures. They declared the signatures invalid, which meant that the petition no longer had the amount required.

Supporters of the recall immediately called foul and questioned the commission’s impartiality. Nagoya has 16 separate district commissions, one for each election district, and one commission overseeing the entire city. The City Council approves all the members, and the commission for the city has four members. Three of them are former City Council delegates, one each from the DPJ, the LDP, and New Komeito. (The fourth is a retired school principal who isn’t a politician.) They receive a salary of roughly JPY 35,000 a month and are required to attend a biweekly meeting.

The people who circulated the petitions insisted it was indeed possible for one person to collect that many signatures, as they set up stations at sites with heavy pedestrian traffic and often received more than 2,000 a day. Staffers in the Election Commission office itself told the media those signatures wouldn’t have been ruled invalid in the past, and the school principal, the only non-politician among the commissioners, agreed. The other three commissioners, led by the chairman—the New Komeito veteran—initially held firm. They even floated the possibility of asking each of the signers to identify the person who collected their signature—a time-consuming process that would permit other disqualification techniques–but after an appeal was filed, the signatures were ruled valid on 15 December.

Meanwhile, in mid-September the governor of Aichi announced he would not be a candidate for reelection. On 6 December Mr. Omura told a news conference he would resign his Diet seat and run on the Kawamura platform. Two days later, the LDP asked him to leave the party. The recall election was formally declared on 17 December. On 21 January Mr. Kawamura delivered his coup de théâtre by resigning with more than two years left in his term and declaring he would be a candidate to replace himself, thus setting up the Triple Election to be a popular referendum on his policies.

Nationalizing the election

Nagoya and Aichi became the political equivalent of California during the Gold Rush. The two major national parties dispatched their heaviest hitters to campaign for their own candidates against the Kawamura-Omura team. DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya, a native of neighboring Mie, visited frequently, though his presence had the opposite of the effect intended. Commented a DPJ MP from Aichi:

“More than half of Mr. Kawamura’s supporters are DPJ supporters. Every time Mr. Okada criticized Kawamura, they moved farther from the DPJ. The national party issued an order forbidding people from supporting him and kept party MPs from attending a function for him on the 24th. Not only that, but at the national level, Prime Minister Kan is calling for a tax increase. We can’t wage a campaign that way.”

The DPJ also sent three Cabinet ministers, to little effect: the photogenic Ren Ho, Justice Minister and former upper house president Eda Satsuki, and then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito. The appearance of Mr. Sengoku, however, was a typical error in party judgment. First, he is the symbol of the government’s mishandling of the incident in the Senkaku Islands with China. Second, it came as no surprise that a man of the left whose behavior was an insult to parliamentary courtesy every time he opened his mouth in the Diet would be the one to compare Mr. Kawamura to Adolph Hitler. Godwin’s Law is just as applicable in Japan as it is elsewhere, however. The public failed to see how a direct appeal to the people by resigning and running again and getting more votes than the other candidates made Mr. Kawamura Hitlerian.

Dropping by from the opposition LDP was party head Tanigaki Sadakazu, MP Kono Taro, a high-profile member who is the Minister of Reform in the party’s Shadow Cabinet, and former Koizumi ally Katayama Satsuki.

The Osaka Ishin no Kai campaign in Nagoya

The election also attracted allies to the cause. The shoot-from-the-lip and wildly popular enfant terrible Hashimoto Toru, governor of the Osaka Metro District, led a group of 100 people to Nagoya to campaign for Mr. Kawamura. Mr. Hashimoto, perhaps the most visible politician outside of Tokyo supporting regionalism, was returning a favor. The Nagoya mayor visited Osaka in April to campaign for Hashimoto backers in the Metro District’s legislative election.

The blowback

The DPJ was appalled by the result. Internal Affairs Minister Katayama Yoshihiro was the point man leading the party’s attack squad:

“To resign as mayor and run again in the subsequent election just to create interest is perverse.”


“The idea of forming a ruling party that agrees with everything the executive submits is different from the system envisaged (with checks and balances). There are undeniable concerns it could lead to dictatorial politics.”

He had plenty of ideas about what he would have done instead:

“Mr. Kawamura climbed out of the ring, joined the spectators, and criticized the people in the ring. If it were me, I would have persuaded the City Council instead of working for its recall”


“If I were the head of a local government, I would do everything in my power to reform government to direct the savings into reducing the enormous debt that local governments carry. Reducing taxes in spite of this debt is dubious from the perspective of long-term fiscal operations.”

He also suggested in a roundabout way that the popular movement was really a contagious disease.

The chairman of the DPJ’s Election Campaign Committee, Ishii Hajime, took a different tack:

“It was an election in one area, and rather than a battle between parties was something that occurred in Nagoya, a unique place. The result is not a decisive blow…it was a bit like a typhoon that’s hard to understand…it was a wonderful performance in the Kawamura Theater.”

The new DPJ Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio tried to a leaf from the failed Obama playbook:

“We haven’t sufficiently communicated to the public what we’ve done since the Hatoyama administration.”

He refused further comment on the matter.

The losers in the race were just as bitter. After seeing the results, Yokoi Toshiaki said he would accept the people’s verdict, but refused to say any more: “I am no longer a council member.” He had worked in the campaign asking people not to sign the recall petition. Mr. Yokoi left with this parting shot:

“Can we call it democracy when a mayor has the authority to make final decisions?”

The losing DPJ mayoralty candidate, Ishida Yoshihiro, cried at his post election news conference and claimed he had been made to play the heel for the city council.

Others with less directly at stake had a clearer picture of what had happened. Here’s Shimoji Mikio, the secretary-general of the People’s New Party, part of the ruling national coalition:

“This result is more serious than simply being defeated in an election. We share the harsh recognition that it is a rejection of the coalition government of the DPJ and the PNP, and that we should rework our strategy.”

Even more to the point was Osaka Mayor Hiramatsu Kunio:

“It calls into question the raison d’être of the existing political parties.”

Your Party

Of more interest than the sour grapes of the DPJ and the LDP deadheads, however, is the approach of Your Party. These reformers would seem to be soulmates of Mr. Kawamura and Mr. Omura, as their platform is based on cutting government expenditures and devolution. The party was formed and is led by the outspoken LDP renegade Watanabe Yoshimi and the cool and cerebral Eda Kenji. Mr. Watanabe was initially interested in forming an alliance with Osaka Gov. Hashimoto in 2009. Mr. Eda, however, counseled against it. The governor is unpredictable, follows his own agenda, and does not fit the image of sober responsibility the party wants to present.

Mr. Watanabe actively supported the Nagoya recall, however, and visited several times to help collect signatures in the petition drive. He dropped broad hints that if the recall were successful, his party would run candidates in the City Council election allied with Mr. Kawamura. He also made it clear that he hoped they would support the Your Party candidate for Aichi governor, Yakushiji Michiyo. Ms. Yakushiji ran on a platform of cutting the governor’s and delegates’ salaries by 30%, bonuses by 50%, and personnel expenses by 20%, and the party leader visited Aichi seven times to campaign for her. She did not, however, support the call for a tax reduction.

Once Mr. Kawamura recruited Mr. Omura of the LDP to run for governor, however, Your Party has been less enthusiastic. Mr. Eda had always kept his distance; he thought it was irresponsible to call for a tax cut while ignoring the city’s debt and its reliance on subsidies from the national government to meet its budget. After the election, Mr. Watanabe said he thought the Kawamura-Omura alliance would be short-lived, as they came from different political backgrounds.

Kawahara the man

What of the man who pulled off what the media immediately dubbed a hat trick? He’s a natural politician with a knack for connecting directly with the people. Mr. Kawahara campaigned in Nagoya on a bicycle wearing the cap of the local Chunichi Dragons baseball team to cover his perpetually unkempt hair. City officials say he’s appeared at public events three times as often as his predecessors. He understands instinctively the advice former Alabama Gov. George Wallace gave Jesse Jackson when the latter ran for president in 1988: “You’ve got to keep the grass down where the goats can get at it.”

Before turning to politics, Mr. Kawamura worked in the family business, a small enterprise dealing with used paper. He has attributed his ideas about public finance to the experience gained in a business sector where price competition is fierce.

He’s also a regionalist who makes a point of using the Nagoya dialect in public interviews, though that’s not what he calls it. He asked the quasi-public national broadcaster NHK to replace the word “dialect” with the word “language” when referring to Japan’s many regional linguistic variations. “It’s discrimination against the regions and a mistake to call a region’s language a dialect. The language of Tokyo is not the standard language (標準語), it is the language of common use(共通語). They should call it the Nagoya language instead of the Nagoya dialect.”

He cites his approach as the reason for his success:

“People have at a minimum understood that I’m working from a citizens’ perspective. The awareness of the citizens is steadily changing. I think it’s important in itself that they’ve become more interested in municipal government.”

The mayor has been a reformer from the start of his career, winning election to the Diet as a member of Hosokawa Morihiro’s New Party. Mr. Hosokawa later became prime minister in the early 90s at the head of an eight party coalition that was the first non-LDP government since 1955. After the New Party folded, Mr. Kawamura finally came to ground in the DPJ. His popularity transcends party, however, as he easily kept his seat in the 2005 Koizumi LDP landslide. He’s always had designs on the executive branch, becoming something of a joke in DPJ circles by his attempts to run for party president. He tried to become a candidate in three separate DPJ elections, but couldn’t round up the minimum of 20 members needed for a formal recommendation.

He says he’s still interested in becoming prime minister, though the Asahi Shimbun is openly skeptical of that claim—he’d have to resign again and run for the Diet—but it might be for the best that he’ll probably never get the job. In an international context, his views on other issues would overshadow his vision for domestic affairs. For example, he was a member of a committee to verify the facts of the comfort woman issue and the Nanjing massacre. He “tends to deny”, as it some have it, the responsibility of the Japanese government.

His name appeared on the full page ad in the 14 June 2007 edition of the Washington Post protesting the US lower house resolution about the comfort women and demanded its withdrawal. In 2006, as a member of the opposition, he submitted a formal request to the government to reinvestigate and verify the “so-called Nanjing Massacre”. He asked the government to rectify its views about the grounds for the assertion in school textbooks that Japanese troops killed citizens and prisoners. His position is diametrically opposed to the sleep-on-a-bed-of-nails types in the left wing of his party.

In answer to a question in the Nagoya City Council on 15 September 2009, he said “It (Nanjing) occurred during the general conduct of hostilities. I have a sense that a mistaken impression was conveyed (by the government). The government must properly verify and correct that impression for the sake of Japanese-Sino friendship.” His stand was all the more remarkable because Nagoya and Nanjing have a formal sister city relationship that almost ruptured because of his views.

He is opposes voting rights for permanent residents and supports amending Article 9 of the Constitution, the so-called Peace Clause. Yet unlike most people in that philosophical camp, he was opposed to the adoption of the law for the national anthem and flag in the late 90s.

The future

When asked by the media what happens next, Mr. Kawamura said: “The operation for the Normandy Landing starts now.” His Tax Reduction Japan group hopes to run about 40 candidates for the 75 seats at stake in the City Council election. He also plans to campaign for them, which bothers some people who think it’s improper behavior for an elected official to play politics on the public’s time. One has to admit that sense of indignation is a refreshing contrast to the American attitude, to cite one example. Few complain when the President gasses up Air Force One and flies around the country to stump for his favored candidates in local elections.

Mr. Omura wanted to step right up and start cutting taxes, but Mr. Kawamura says the timing of the City Council election and the start of a new fiscal year will prevent real action until 2012. The Aichi governor now agrees, saying that the earliest his administration will be able to get that measure through the prefectural council is December, with the reduction to take effect in 2012.

The Nagoya mayor might have to spend more time promoting his idea of local committees with elected citizen volunteers to review tax expenditures. So far, only 8.7% of the electorate has voted in these elections, leading one observer to suggest that the program is suffering from incomplete combustion. Others point to the greater citizen interest in the recent elections, and think the past year has been the first step in a process that will flower over the long term as more people realize just how much political power they have.

There are signs that’s already happening. The city recently held a seminar for potential City Council candidates to explain the election procedures, and 150 people showed up to listen. Four years ago, 98 attended.

Mr. Kawamura wants to create alliances with other like-minded chief execs of the type he’s already formed with Osaka Gov. Hashimoto. The latter was so excited by Mr. Kawahara’s victory that he immediately proposed a 30% cut in the salaries of Osaka Metro District legislators. Some local opponents who still don’t understand the concept of popular will derided this as an imitative performance. One Metro District delegate from New Komeito said he wanted to oppose the measure but couldn’t because of the upcoming election in April.

The mayor also told the Asahi Shimbun he was looking for suitable candidates to support for governor in neighboring Mie Prefecture and a by-election for the lower house Diet seat in Aichi district #6.


This was already a national movement before the Nagoya/Aichi elections. Five municipal executive officers in Saitama Prefecture, including the mayor of Saitama City, have formed a group called Saitama Kaientai also calling for devolution and smaller government. A group of city council members in Matsuyama created the Matsuyama Ishin no Kai. The leader says they’ll hold off on formally making it a political party until they see what happens with legislation at the national level designed to facilitate greater local autonomy. The Kyoto Party was formed in that Metro District last August on the principles of shrinking the legislature and the delegates’ benefits, and reducing bond issues by 10% a year to eliminate them entirely in 10 years. They’re upset that the Kyoto City Council unanimously rejected a bill on 31 January to eliminate some seats. The Chiiki Seito Iwate is taking devolution a step further, asking that Iwate Prefecture cede authority to individual municipalities.

The Japanese public nationwide does appreciate the potential abuses of local parties. A Yomiuri Shimbun poll taken at the end of January found that 53% of the respondents were opposed to parties created by local executives, with 31% in favor. However, 64% of the respondents also said that local legislatures did not reflect the will of the people, and 57% said they were not functioning as a check on the executive branch.

In Tokyo, the DPJ-led national government last week proposed eliminating the JPY 6,000 yen per diem allowance for special officers of both houses of the diet when it is in session, such as the vice-president of both chambers. Their idea has been approved by the other parties. This is seen as a concession to the results of the Nagoya/Aichi election and to the nationwide local elections next month.

That will be much too little, much too late for the Kan administration, however. The DPJ party organization of Aichi adopted a resolution asking Mr. Kan to get lost. Everyone in the country knows DPJ party affiliation will be the fast track to oblivion in those elections if Mr. Kan is still in office. They’re already having problems finding people willing to run as DPJ candidates. Party Secretary-General Okada Katsuya was recently rejected by the man he wooed to run for governor of Mie—Mr. Okada’s home prefecture, which shares a border with Aichi.

Unpleasant omens

The Triple Election’s revelation that lower taxes, devolution, and smaller government are a winning formula in Japan has also generated some ominous developments.

Lower house MP and Former Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Haraguchi Kazuhiro convened a new policy group in the Diet dedicated to more regional autonomy and ties with local chief executives. He filed the papers to create a group called the Nihon Ishin no Kai, intending it to become a political organization of local government chief executives and legislators modeled after Mr. Hashimoto’s group in Osaka. He also blatantly ripped off their name, which in turn was a deliberate imitation of the Meiji Ishin (known in English as the Meiji restoration), a period in Japanese history that connotes national rebirth and renewal. At the same time, Mr. Haraguchi created the Saga Ishin no Kai for his home prefecture. He told reporters: “The central government’s doctrine of fiscal supremacy must not be permitted to place the onus of deficits on the regions.”

Nothing good will come of this

This is ominous because nobody thinks Mr. Haraguchi is clever enough to have come up with the idea on his own. He is seen as a cat’s paw for the Shiva of Japanese politics, Ozawa Ichiro, the destroyer of worlds who will not go gently into that good night. One of Mr. Ozawa’s journalistic mouthpieces, Itagaki Eiken, is now conveying the threat that Mr. Ozawa might convince his allies to vote for a no-confidence motion against Kan Naoto within the next month or so. The passage of such a motion would require a new lower house election. The Ozawa strategy seems to be to co-opt the popular movement in Japan by reinventing himself as a tax-cutting proponent of small government and ride that pony to control of the government. He is well known for his Japanese-language pun that the advantage of campaign promises is that they can be replastered.

The Japanese are taking this threat seriously, even though Mr. Ozawa personally voted to pass the DPJ budget this week. (Sixteen legislators associated with him were absent for the roll call, however.) Mr. Haraguchi is a metrosexual of the type he’s always preferred to use as a front man (cf. Hosokawa Morihiro and Hatoyama Yukio) to offset his own charmless personality and unpopularity with the public.

The most unsettling omen, however, may be that Kawamura Takashi took Mr. Omura to Tokyo to pay a courtesy call on Mr. Ozawa the day after the Nagoya/Aichi election. It has since emerged that Ozawa ally and lower house MP Matsuki Shizuhiro was a frequent visitor to Nagoya during the campaign to help Mr. Kawamura with strategy. An Ozawa-Kawamura alliance is not what the people of Nagoya voted for—indeed, more than half of the public wants Mr. Ozawa out of the Diet altogether. If Mr. Kawamura or Mr. Hashimoto of Osaka were to openly join hands with Ozawa Ichiro, it would seriously dent their popularity. (The Nagoya mayor is already pushing it–his political group has endorsed 10 candidates in the Tokyo municipal elections, all of whom are associated with Mr. Ozawa.) Further, the only guaranteed accomplishment of a government in which Mr. Ozawa has a prominent role would be another year of political turmoil followed by an ugly demise. Rule without the consent of the governed is not a winning proposition in Japan either.

It’s also starting to look as if an alliance with Ozawa Ichiro isn’t a winning proposition even in his local power base. In the election for mayor last month in Rikuzentakata, Iwate—Mr. Ozawa’s home prefecture—the candidate backed by Mr. Ozawa lost, though Mr. Ozawa personally campaigned for him

A revolution whose time has come

The current leaders of this revolution may reveal themselves to be flawed vessels, but the people will no longer allow their voice to be ignored. Theirs is a genuinely spontaneous and popular movement driven by years of anger and disgust at the politicians’ performance and a growing understanding that elections have consequences. If the electorate is betrayed by one champion, they have already shown they will discard him and find another. The voters ditched the LDP when they turned their back on reform, and they’ve done the same with the DPJ when they found out that party wasn’t what it claimed to be. What they demand now is real governmental reform, devolution, and lower taxes, and they are no longer in the mood to settle for less.

There is no clearer proof than the election last month in Akune, Kagoshima. We’ve seen before that circumstances in Akune were remarkably similar to those in Nagoya. Upset that administrative expenses ate up most of the city’s budget, Mayor Takehara Shin’ichi wanted to put City Council on a per diem allowance and reduce other public expenditures. The people backed him through two elections, until he unwisely chose ignore the council and act as a dictator. He created so much turmoil they finally recalled him and voted him out of office by a narrow margin. Had he followed Mr. Kawamura’s strategy of simultaneous elections, however, he might still be in office today. Mr. Takehara’s backers finally succeeded in bringing council recall to a vote last month, and the voters chose to throw out them out too. The referendum on recall passed with 55% approval, four percentage points higher than the margin by which Mr. Takehara was defeated. He and his supporters plan to run nine candidates in the new election next month for 16 seats. One reason the recall succeeded is that the new mayor restored the council members’ salaries and took them off the per diem allowance initiated by former Mayor Takehara.

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come, and the idea whose time has arrived in Japan is the revolt against the elitist political class in government and the bureaucracy, and the support of decentralization and smaller government. In all of those elections, the voters were lectured for months about the reasons they shouldn’t support the insurgents, but the voters chose to ignore the advice.

We live in an age of revolution. Two leaders have been toppled in the Middle East, a third is about to go, and none of the rest sleep soundly at night. Americans have been marching in the streets for nearly a year, and they continue to do so after the pivotal election of November. There is even talk of a jasmine revolution in China, which has so upset leaders in that country that they’ve forbidden foreign journalists to cover demonstrations in Shanghai and Beijing that haven’t happened yet.

What emerges from any of those revolutions is unlikely to be better than what they had before they started. Democracy in the Middle East will mean the choice of governments that are no one’s definition of liberal. The stark ethnocentric nationalism of the Chinese ensures that country will not be a positive force in international relations regardless of the leadership, perhaps for decades. And there is nothing at all liberal about the illiberal ugliness of the American “liberals”, as we’ve seen from their behavior in Congress last year and at the state level in Wisconsin and Indiana right now. The American left will never change.

In Japan, however, the electorate has now taken matters out of the politicians’ hands and set the parameters for debate. Theirs is now the national political agenda. They are beginning to realize that they have the handle and the politicians have the blade. When their revolution comes to fruition, it is likely to be the most successful, and the most peaceful, of our age.


* The Asahi Shimbun ran an English-language article worth reading about the possibility that the inevitable earthquake of a political realignment might occur before the cherries finish blooming. Though it is informative, it still requires several grains of salt to digest. The Asahi is a newspaper of the left, so holding up conservative boogeymen for their readers is one element in their narrative. It remains to be seen how many MPs will willingly follow the toxic Ozawa Ichiro or the fossilized Kamei Shizuka, either from the LDP or the DPJ. Your Party might have made a wise choice in keeping their distance from Mr. Kawamura, and they would stand to benefit from the public’s revulsion with an Ozawa New Party.

(Update: A few hours after writing the above I read Itagaki Eiken’s latest blog post, and perhaps the Asahi wasn’t exaggerating after all. He’s threatening a government of Ozawa Ichiro, Kamei Shizuka, and Hiranuma Takeo, with the support of Ishihara Shintaro. That’s not conservative, that’s Pleistoscene. He also says that Mr. Haraguchi is a “jewel” to be shown the ropes and saved for later. Jayzus whippin’ goldfishes! Uglier still, all but Mr. Ishihara are Diet members, so they might be able to arrange it without a general election. That would be an old coot coup d’etat within the Diet, and it just might bring people out on the streets.)

* Lower house member Sato Yuko, once an aide to Kawamura Takashi before she ran for and won a Diet seat, told the DPJ on the 3rd she will leave the party to join the mayor’s local group. She gave several reasons for her decision, one of them being Prime Minister Kan’s lack of leadership. Unfortunately, she also cited the DPJ’s suspension of Ozawa Ichiro’s party privileges.

* One has to wonder about the IQ and job qualifications of some people in the news media. The vernacular Nishinippon Shimbun thought the voters in Akune who chose to recall the City Council were “confused”. One of the headline writers among the boys and girls who play newspaper at the Japan Times topped off the Kyodo feed on the Akune election with the declaration that the voters were “wishy-washy”. It should be obvious even to those of less than median intelligence and an attention span longer than the average TV commercial that the voters in the city know what they want and aren’t afraid to express it.

* Last month, 65 local governments told the Kan administration they will not financially contribute to the national government’s child allowance scheme. That’s an expensive and ill-advised bit of pork whose liability the DPJ wants to partially shift to local governments because the country can’t afford it. In other words, the regions are no longer lying down for the central government.

* Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio became the first member of the Kan government to hold an open news conference whose participation was not limited to the kisha club reporters. This is being hailed as the beginning of the end of the kisha club system, a back-scratching affair in which the government was allowed to partially control the news flow by allowing some media outlets a partial monopoly. While that was a positive step, it also comes about 30 years too late—no one in the Internet age thinks limiting the flow of news to the professional journalists’ guild will result in significantly greater openness. There has always been a de facto samizdat press in Japanese weekly magazines, and no one in the Anglosphere pretends any longer that the supposedly mainstream media is either open or evenhanded.

This is the Year of the Rabbit in the Oriental zodiac, but it will be the Year of Political Fireworks in Japan. Nobody does fireworks better than the Japanese.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

4 Responses to “The revolution in Japan”

  1. toadold said

    Interesting article, that implies the Russians are raising a fuss about the Kuriles as a negotiating ploy to increase it power with an alliance against China due to their fears of China increasing possibly making a move into Siberia for resources, but for a supposed specialist on Japan he seems to be ignoring the reactions that a lot of Japanese will have over the actions of the Russians. I’m interested in your take on this considering the political turmoil in Japan. I suspect anger at the current government could also translate as anger at the Russians as much as the US current clueless acts with the Japanese relationship.????

  2. Marellus said


    But will this revolution last ???
    M: Thanks for the note.

    Does any revolution last?

    The thing about this one is that it’s been going on for a long time. In a general sense, the voters in Japan keep saying the same thing.

    – A.

  3. toadold said

    I saw an interesting video by Bill Whittle on his “Firewall” on YouTube.
    His thesis is that government structure went from the needs of primarily agricultural societies and tended to be spread out, horizontal in structure with a lot of local control, to the vertical integration that the industrial age brought, mimicking the vertical integration of set up by the “robber barons” as a counterpoise. Now with the “electronic” age government is tending back to a more horizontal structure with more local control.
    Things do seem to be moving faster than the monolith centralized government can react too.

  4. PaxAmericana said

    Can you hope to bring down the current power structure without the power of Shiva? This is the Kali-yuga, after all. And, on a less metaphysical note, one has to deal with the reality that democratic politics is largely about coalition building and ideological compromise. As an example, the Your Party may choose to fight Kawamura’s party, but then the chances of victory in an ideological sense are less. As another example, a Japanese relative of mine considers the father of Your Party’s Watanabe to have been the personification of darkness and evil, but he might consider voting for the Your Party out of desperation. You just have to take the risk that the son is fronting for similar rotten interests, and there aren’t too many clean hands in politics.

    PA: That’s an interesting observation about the elder Watanabe, though there’s a lot of competition for the title of the personification of darkness and evil. When Hosokawa Morihiro threw in the towel almost 20 years ago, Ozawa wanted Michio to leave the LDP and become prime minister. He thought seriously about it, but turned him down.

    See the next post about the difference between image and reality.

    – A.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: