Japan from the inside out

The mysteries of Maehara Seiji

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

THE DENIAL of service attack on the servers hosting this web site last week caused only a brief absence, but the political opposition’s attempt to deny Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji the chance to replace Prime Minister Kan Naoto succeeded so easily it caught everyone by surprise. All it took was a question from Nishida Shoji, an LDP member of the upper house, last Friday during testimony in the Diet. The answer resulted in the foreign minister’s resignation from the Cabinet two days later.

Some people were disturbed that what seems at a glance to have been a minor and excusable infraction of the law has derailed Mr. Maehara’s promising political career, at least for the foreseeable future. Those taking a closer look, however—and there are more than a few in Japan—were disturbed to find that he might not have been the fair-haired boy he was advertised to be. The more one examines l’affaire Maehara, in fact, the more mysterious it becomes.

The facts as presented for official public consumption are simple. Mr. Nishida asked the foreign minister if he had received political donations from a certain foreigner. That’s a serious crime in Japan—the maximum penalty is three years in jail, and he could have been barred from serving in public office. Mr. Maehara quickly admitted that he had known the woman in question, a zainichi (Korean citizen born in Japan) now in her 70s, since his second year in junior high school, when she took a liking to him. He also admitted that she had contributed JPY 50,000 a year to his fund-raising committee for several years, totaling either JPY 200,000 or JPY 250,000, depending on the account. At most that’s just slightly more than $US 3,000 in all.

The trivial financial amount and the relationship between the contributor and the recipient meant that everyone knew this wasn’t the case of a foreign power trying to buy influence. Prime Minister Kan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Okada Katsuya, and other party leaders tried to convince him the matter would soon be forgotten if he sloughed it off as a clerical error. That would be a plausible explanation; 90% of the zainichi use Japanese names, so his staff wouldn’t have known that she wasn’t Japanese.

That explanation wouldn’t have satisfied other politicians, however. Mr. Maehara would surely have seen her name had he reviewed the list of contributors that he must legally provide. That means he either accepted the money knowing that it was illegal, or didn’t check the list. The suspicious politicos say they always check their list of contributors, if for no other reason than to thank them the next time they meet them in person. Also, a problem with improper donations is the type of scandal most likely to damage a Japanese politician. Therefore, the acceptance of the contribution demonstrated either a casual disregard of the law or a lack of attention to important details.

The quick exit

It’s curious that Mr. Maehara made up his mind to resign so rapidly and was impervious to the persuasion of other party leaders to tough it out. Most politicians would have tried to buy some time by promising to look into the details and explaining them later. In fact, the rapidity of that decision has so puzzled people that several different theories have arisen to explain it. Those who take the realpolitik perspective suspect that the foreign minister, an ambitious man, calculated that he is still young enough at 48 to bide his time and let memories fade before taking another shot at the top job. That time would presumably come during circumstances more favorable than those in which the Democratic Party administration is now mired. What self-respecting greasy pole climber would drink from that chalice after it’s been poisoned by the slobber of Hatoyama Yukio and Kan Naoto? Passing it to Maehara Seiji without holding an election would be too much of a handicap in this political climate.

Resigning quickly also forestalled the tabling of a censure motion by Watanabe Yoshimi’s Your Party. That motion would likely have passed the upper house and further tainted his prospects. His problems in Nagata-cho involved more than the opposition LDP and a Your Party-driven censure motion, however. The two parties to the DPJ’s left—the Communist Party and the Social Democrats—said they intended to continue pressing Mr. Maehara to explain to the Diet the circumstances surrounding the donation.

Meanwhile, another theory holds just the opposite—Mr. Maehara used the revelation as an excuse to bring down the Kan Cabinet because he and the rest of his faction in the DPJ no longer wanted to be associated with a loser. Though the faction is nominally led by Mr. Maehara and Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio, among its members is Mr. Edano’s predecessor Sengoku Yoshito, who is thought to be cementing his and his faction’s hold on the party behind the scenes.

That theory picked up momentum when it was revealed that Mr. Maehara sat for an interview in February with the monthly Bungei Shunju that is to be published this week. He told the interviewer that for Prime Minister Kan to dissolve the Diet and hold an election would “probably benefit Japan”—despite knowing that the result would be decimation and his party’s loss of control of the government. No stranger to the universal political practice of shifting the blame, the foreign minister also declared that it was the prime minister’s responsibility to take the lead when dealing with the most pressing issues in foreign affairs.

That theory is plausible if only because the Kan Cabinet’s poll numbers continue to fall as the DPJ collapses from the inside. Indeed, Yamaguchi Natsuo, the head of New Komeito, observed last week that the Kan Cabinet was in “an endless state of collapse”. It is also widely reported in Japan that Mr. Sengoku is contemptuous of Kan Naoto’s political abilities.

Yes, they are all part of the same political party.

Standing in the shadows

As if these explanations weren’t troubling enough, more sinister stories have bubbled to the surface. Nishida Shoji spoke at a news conference on the 4th after his question caused Mr. Maehara to ‘fess up. He offered hints that some serious skeletons lurk in the Maehara closet:

“Mr. Maehara’s resignation is unavoidable. He’s the foreign minister, and he received money from a foreigner, and there are other factors, such as his relationship with Chongryun. That disqualifies him from holding a Diet seat, too.”

It was that unexplained relationship with Chongryun–the North Korean-affiliated General Association of Korean Residents in Japan–as well as the unmentioned other factors, that some suspect was the real reason Mr. Maehara folded so quickly. Mr. Nishida did him a favor by tossing out the least damaging revelation first, and he snapped at the bait.

A seldom-discussed phenomenon of Japanese politics is the gap between a politician’s image and his reality, and Maehara Seiji is cited as one example. It’s been suggested that he camouflaged himself in the garb of uncommon ideas for a member of a party of the left to facilitate his ambitions of becoming prime minister. Those duds include a hard line against China, support for a strong national defense, and amending the Peace Clause of the Japanese Constitution forbidding the maintenance of military forces.

The closer Mr. Maehara got to the Kantei, however, the closer people started to examine his background. For example:

* He’s visited North Korea twice. The first time was as an unknown delegate in the Kyoto Metro District legislature in 1992, and the second time was as a relatively unknown MP in the Diet in 1999. Here’s how he explained his visits:

“I’m a specialist in foreign relations and security issues. I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn about circumstances in the North.”

During his second visit he met four members of the Japanese Red Army Faction of the Communist League. That group hijacked a Japanese domestic airliner in 1970 and had it flown to North Korea. He said he just unexpectedly bumped into them at his hotel.

For that explanation to hold, however, one has to swallow some questionable assertions. First, he recognized the faces of terrorists who disappeared from public view almost 30 years before that, though age must have altered their appearance in the interim, and he was a primary school student when the incident occurred. Second, after almost 30 years in North Korea, the bravos of the Red Army Faction recognized someone who at that time was an unknown Diet member when they just happened to be visiting as a group the Hotel Koryo, which passes for a luxury hotel in Pyeongyang.

* When then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo asked the Diet to approve economic sanctions on North Korea, Maehara the Hawk opposed them and asked for oil to be shipped to the country instead.

* A labor union magazine quoted Mr. Maehara directly in its March 2003 issue:

“The source of my questions in the Diet is basically what I’ve heard from the zainichi.”

* When outlining his planned initiatives for the coming year on 4 January, he said:

“The major theme this year will be bilateral discussions between Japan and North Korea. It is important to create circumstances in which the two countries can directly and properly hold discussions on such issues as the abductions, missiles, and nuclear weapons.”

This was a few months after North Korea had shelled South Korean territory and the governments of South Korea, the United States, and Japan were cooperating to apply more pressure on the Kim Family Regime. It took the North Korean news agency only four days to respond:

“If the Japanese authorities take a significant first step toward improving relations, it will contribute to the development of peace on the Korean Peninsula and East Asia.”

* During a subsequent visit to the United States, Mr. Maehara reportedly told both Vice-President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton that he had connections in North Korea and was willing to act as a go-between. This unexpected revelation is said to have so concerned his listeners that it prompted the Americans to check into his background.

* Now for the miscellany: (1) Both the zainichi woman and Mr. Maehara claim that he didn’t know about her financial contributions, but just before announcing his resignation at a news conference Sunday night, he called her at her restaurant to tell her that he was quitting. (2) The woman and her husband have South Korean citizenship and have been active in the affairs of Mindan (the South Korean equivalent of Chongryun) but her husband has also actively worked for Chongryun. (3) Reporters were surprised at the foreign minister’s high-pitched voice and nervous mannerisms when answering Mr. Nishida’s question—even though he found out the day before that the question was coming.

The fall guy?

There’s more to come. Another report circulating is that he took the fall to prevent revelations of hefty financial contributions to the Democratic Party of Japan from Mindan. The leaders of the DPJ favor giving foreigners in Japan who are permanent residents the right to “participate” in local elections–even though that is clearly in violation of the Japanese Constitution. Most of the foreigners with that status are zainichi. Mindan is actively campaigning for the right to “participate”.

Does Hatoyama Yukio’s assertion that the Japanese archipelago is not exclusively for Japanese people make more sense now?

Mindan holds regular national meetings of its local branches in Tokyo, and Kan Naoto appeared on stage at their meeting in 2009 before the lower house election. According to this story, the two-hour meeting between Maehara, Kan, and Okada on Sunday night wasn’t to convince Mr. Maehara to change his mind, but rather to get their stories straight to keep the lid on revelations about the many other DPJ MPs who’ve received Mindan money.

Most Japanese have no patience with this movement because most of the zainichi are Japan-born, and the naturalization process is not difficult. There’s a large body of opinion even in the DPJ that believes the zainichi should become naturalized if they want to vote. That’s all the more understandable when one realizes that apart from recent relatives who came from the Korean Peninsula, and whatever doctrination they receive at home or in Korean schools, they’re as Japanese as the Japanese.

There’s even an alternate version of this explanation, too. Messrs. Kan and Okada tried to talk him out of quitting because so many of the DPJ have received Mindan contributions, and his departure for that reason would put them all at risk.

The other factors

This man’s just full of secrets. The current issue of the weekly Shukan Bunshun contains a story stating that Mr. Maehara also received donations from a company with yakuza ties. It’s now beginning to look as if he had plenty of reasons for taking a powder and lowering his profile as soon as possible.

Any one of those explanations is believable, but no one knows the real story—now. If the past is a guide, the truth will slip out unobtrusively within two or three years when people no longer care, usually as a parenthetical note to the discussion of a different issue.

But all of those stories might explain the responses of national political reporters to a survey conducted by Gendai Business Online that appeared last week. They asked 32 journalists from both the print and broadcast media whether they thought Maehara Seiji would become prime minister. Only 11 answered in the affirmative. Most (though not all) of the reporters who said yes cited as their reason political or party circumstances, and not Mr. Maehara’s fitness for the job. In contrast, those who answered no most frequently cited problems with the man’s character or personality.

Speaking of the media, another story emerged in relation to the events of last week that illustrates the reason mainstream journalists the world over are sinking into their guild’s version of the La Brea tar pits. A story is circulating that one of the major national dailies dug up incriminating evidence about Mr. Maehara that became the source of a heated in-house battle. On one side were those who didn’t want to publish that evidence because it would “destroy the career of a promising politician”. On the other side were those who insisted their job wasn’t to pick winners and losers, but to expose the malfeasance of politicians regardless of their personal preferences.

All you have to do is look

The accompanying photo of Kan Naoto at a news conference on Sunday night tells everything you need to know about the man and the reason his government was doomed to be a short-lived, titanic failure from the start. A more telling photograph ran in the Monday edition of the Nishinippon Shimbun’s print edition. It caught Mr. Kan in the pose of an upset and angry beta male spoiling for a fistfight he knew he would lose.

The caption in the latter newspaper explained that it was a photo of Mr. Kan’s harsh expression as he refused to answer a question concerning Maehara Seiji. You read that right—“refused to answer”, as if the string of blunders firing off like Chinese firecrackers since he took office were the fault of the media rather than his lack of competence, judgment, political insight, and character. His own party, on the verge of breaking up into pro- and anti-Ozawa Ichiro elements, has been desperate to find somebody—anybody—credible to replace him for months. Their search intensified after the party’s clobbering in the local elections in Nagoya and Aichi last month. Some in the overseas media wonder if the Maehara resignation will be the death blow for the Kan Cabinet, but they’re late to the party again. The Kan Cabinet was terminally ill after last July’s upper house election and dead after the Nagoya/Aichi elections, but then the overseas media are like the junior high dorks who are the last to know who’s dating whom and who’s broken up with whom.

The Democratic Party of Japan under Kan Naoto is now on board the same mudboat that sank under the Liberal Democratic Party government during its latter days with Aso Taro as skipper. A sense of responsibility to the nation demands that a new lower house election be called, but a sense of responsibility doesn’t seem to be part of the Kan character. After nearly a half century of dreaming the impossible dream of bringing a left-of-center government to Japan, it must be difficult for some of the leaders to admit to themselves that they have destroyed their credibility as individual politicians and as a party before their first term in office was half over.

Just as disturbing as some of the Maehara Seiji rumors are the stories that Kan Naoto is losing control of the senses he does have. They started after the Kan-Ozawa meeting of a couple of weeks ago, when Mr. Kan unsuccessfully tried to talk The Destroyer into destroying himself for a change by leaving the party, testifying before the Diet, or both. Rather than getting angry with Mr. Kan, the reports say Mr. Ozawa told associates after the meeting that he was concerned about the prime minister. He said that his eyes seemed to be “swimming”, and that he was unable to either focus them or look directly at him.

Still more rumors emerged in Gendai Business Online this week. Aides have more than once rushed into Mr. Kan’s private office when they heard shouting inside, knowing he was alone at the time. It turns out that the prime minister was ranting at the television: “That TV commentator’s explanation is weird.” “What is the problem with this program?”

LDP chief Tanigaki Sadakazu is threatening to introduce a no-confidence motion in the lower house in the next few weeks. One can only hope that Ozawa Ichiro decides to make good on the threats of his own and vote for it, and convince enough of his acolytes in the DPJ to go along with him. It’s not as if anyone in Japan has any confidence in Kan Naoto.

Mick knows all about the surprises standing in the shadows.

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7 Responses to “The mysteries of Maehara Seiji”

  1. PeterDownUnder said

    Your mention of that the naturalisation process is simple is a relatively new policy. Immediately after and for a long time after WWII it was very difficult to naturalise for Korean residents. Now generations later the hardships these people have had is an identity issue for them. Like Tadanari Lee most zainichi consider themselves neither Korean nor Japanese but zainichi as much as many diasporas all over the world have become unique in culture and identity.

    I think its wrong of you to state that they are “as Japanese as Japanese”…
    PDU: Thanks for the note.

    Immediately after and for a long time after WWII it was very difficult to naturalise for Korean residents.

    Whereas for 35 years before the war they were already Japanese. The question is not of the past, it a question of the present for people who were born and have spent their entire lives in Japan.

    …many diasporas all over the world have become unique in culture and identity

    Some in this diaspora, however, choose voluntarily to remain citizens of countries they’ve never been to.

    Speaking as the grandchildren of immigrants to the US, whose native language wasn’t English, and as an American who’s lived half his life in Japan, I’m convinced that cultural identity is mostly a matter of conditioning (in the psychological sense) and self-hypnosis. The zainichi are a prime example of that phenomenon.

    I think its wrong of you to state that they are “as Japanese as Japanese”…

    And I think it’s just as wrong of you to take that phrase out of context by ignoring the preceding clause.


    – A.

  2. toadold said

    Too often I look for parallels and comparison in what is happening in the US to try to understand what is happening in Japan. However it looks like the appeal of foreign money used to influence domestic politics even when illegal is similar. I kind of wonder who the equivalent of George Soros is in Japan? It looks like Internet memory is something politicians haven’t come to grips with yet. Something suspicious pops up and people start digging and correlating. Actually I think it would take a 4 dimensional interactive chart to get a grip on what is going on in politics today?

  3. 21st Century Schizoid Man said
    Thanks for this. Makes the Maehara case all the more suspicious. If he had done this, he might have skated.

    – A.

  4. Andrew in Ezo said

    Another doozy for the DPJ and Kan administration:

    I heard this fellow is an ex-socialist. Figures…
    AIE: Thanks. This is getting ugly.

    – A.

  5. toadold said

    Whoa, 8.8 on the scale. Everybody OK?
    One advantage of living where I do is that it is off fault lines. Was doing paying work at the computer while listening to music and didn’t know that anything happened.

    – A.

  6. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    People walking in center of Tokyo trying to walk home or to get a taxi or bus… anyway, I am living close to the center so I walked back home. Real status would be known by morning time but this is the largest quake in history here, it is said. around 70 people confirmed dead, missing so many, mainly in northern eastern area.

  7. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    death toll quickly reveals to excess 700….mostly drown, unconfirmed but we have to be prepared to face devastating result as time passes.

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