Japan from the inside out

An interview with Watanabe Kozo

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 22, 2011

READER Marellus recently asked if I would handicap the field for the Democratic Party election to replace Kan Naoto as president, and therefore prime minister. I demurred, because (1) I avoid predictions as a rule (the rule being that predictions are usually journalistic space filler), (2) Most predictions are wrong, (3) Most people can’t get the past or the present right, especially about Japan, and (4) Even veteran Japanese politicians and pundits hesitate to make such predictions.

DPJ Supreme Advisor Watanabe Kozo gave an interview to Linda Seig of Reuters on Friday which elucidates not only that problem, but a few others as well, albeit unwittingly. The interview is also worth examining as a snapshot of conditions within the DPJ, but the poohbahs at Reuters used only about 5% of the information for the weekend appearance of this bagatelle, which few outlets picked up. A much longer version appeared in Japanese. Here’s most of that version in English. (Note: Most, but not all, of the ellipses were in the original.)

Q: It seems that Finance Minister Noda is the favorite in the DPJ presidential election.
W: Now Kano (Michihiko, Agriculture Minister) has gotten the upper hand.

Q: Why?
W: It’s extremely regrettable, but Noda is the Finance Minister, so he can no longer oppose a tax increase….With the aging of society, we need to create funding sources for social welfare. There’s also the reconstruction of the Tohoku area after the earthquake and the nuclear accident. It’s common sense that there has to be a tax increase. Embarrassingly enough, many Diet members in the party are opposed to a tax increase (thinking of the election). The Finance Minister is not in an advantageous position.

Q: It seems as if Mr. Noda is toning down his remarks, saying that he would think about the timing of a tax increase.
W: We don’t know yet. It’s not a question of whether a person is unacceptable or acceptable. At first, the atmosphere was such that there was little opposition to Mr. Noda, but that has dissipated. It might be because they are irresponsible, but politicians are a jealous lot. The people who have served more terms than Noda aren’t interesting. But the older veteran MPs have started to support Kano.

Q: What is former party President Ozawa Ichiro up to?
W: Ozawa has about 50-70 votes. He still hasn’t made up his mind. Kaieda, who quarreled with Prime Minister Kan, is actively trying to curry favor with Ozawa and run in the election.

Q: Former Foreign Minister Maehara hasn’t made a definitive statement.
W: He is the most popular among the people. He’d win if there was a direct national election, but he’s still unsure because of problems with financial donations and other issues…Maehara and Noda won’t run against each other. Just one of them will run.

Q: Maehara has a cautious approach to a tax increase and a forward looking approach to ending deflation….In policy terms, he seems to be closer to Mr. Ozawa than Mr. Noda.
W: That doesn’t make any difference. Ozawa isn’t motivated by policy. He’s always looking to protect his authority and grow stronger. He can’t be bothered with people who won’t serve as his retainers. I’m the only person who can get along with him without becoming his retainer, and that’s why the mass media comes to me….Maehara has a philosophy and he’s not the simple sort that will become a retainer. Kano won’t either. He’s sober and subdued, but a fine man. He isn’t motivated merely by personal interest.

L-R: Kan Naoto, Watanabe Kozo, and Ozawa Ichiro pretending that they like each other. Note the amount of liquid remaining in Mr. Kan's glass and the expression on his face.

Q: From the people’s perspective, Mr. Kano is the exact opposite of Mr. Maehara. He’s understated, older, and people don’t understand his policies. I wonder if the party will select a person like that.
W: It’s not the party. Politics is a world of jealousy. He’s less conspicuous than Noda or Maehara, he’s older, and he’s served more than 10 terms, so people won’t get jealous.

Q: Noda and Maehara say a grand coalition is necessary.
W: That’s a misunderstanding. The mass media uses the term grand coalition, but in that sort of arrangement, both parties provide an equal number of ministers and deputy ministers to the Cabinet. What they’re talking about now is cooperation on common areas of policy…There are more than 100 LDP members who lost the last election and who think that a dissolution of the Diet can’t come a moment too soon. A grand coalition won’t emerge from the discussions of party leadership alone.

Q: Will whoever wins the DPJ election stay in office until September 2012?
W: The lower house term has two years left, but the party members will officially take part in an election in September 2012. The idea that’s gained strength is to give the job to Kano, elect a popular politician in September 2012, have them serve a year, and then dissolve the Diet.

Q: Japan will face many problems in the next year. Isn’t it impossible to obtain the cooperation of the LDP, which is seeking a Diet dissolution, without a coalition?
W: Everyone agreed on the second supplementary budget for reconstruction, including the Communist Party. Since then, the LDP has also agreed on Diet legislation for dealing with the destruction. But behavior unrelated to partisan interests is limited to those recovery measures. There will probably be no cooperation for reforming taxes or unifying them with social welfare.

Q: Will conditions for the DPJ election remain fluid?
W: We won’t know until the very end. At this point today, even I don’t know who it will be. But to boil it down, the main candidates are Kano, Noda, and Maehara.

Q: Who of those three…
W: I don’t know….it could turn out to be a two-man race between Kano and Noda or Maehara.

Q: Will there be a political reorganization after the next election?
W: They say the split is anti-Ozawa and pro-Ozawa, but Ozawa doesn’t have any power now. That’s why I don’t think there’ll be a reorganization.

Q: Will the next DPJ president’s administration be a short one?
W: Another election will be held in the fall of 2012. If he (the party president) implements good policies, he could win reelection and continue.

(end interview)


* Since that interview, Maehara Seiji has moved closer to declaring his candidacy. It was reported elsewhere last week that his group/faction within the party was pushing him to run because he is “popular”, and he could therefore dissolve the Diet and win a general election.

That wish-upon-a-star faith in Mr. Maehara’s popularity is an excellent illustration of the vapidity of the generic DPJ pol. His popularity is entirely superficial at this point, akin to picking out the best-looking guy from among a group of PR photos scattered on a table. His performance as party president when the DPJ was in the opposition and in two Cabinet posts suggests that he lacks the gravitas for the two roles he must fulfill: one as national leader and the other as leader of a party that is in a philosophical shambles. (Maehara/Edano group member Sengoku Yoshito will try to hold it together for him, but that was beyond Mr. Sengoku’s abilities for the Kan Cabinet.) His public support could evaporate just as quickly as that of Hatoyama Yukio and Kan Naoto.

* The Western media will describe Mr. Maehara as a “defense hawk”, which he is — in regard to China. In regard to North Korea, his hawkdom quotient is roughly at Jimmy Carter levels. His past dealings with that country might come back to bite him. The nature of those dealings is still unclear, but the opposition is sure to make the effort to clear things up.

* Another excellent example of DPJ party members living in a room full of mirrors is the idea that they could go with the boring Mr. Kano for a year, replace him with someone “popular”, and then win an election. Really, are these people still in short pants?

Sensible policies clearly explained and forthrightly implemented by people who act confidently win elections.

* Mr. Kano was also the agriculture minister in an LDP Cabinet when he was a member of that party, long ago and far away. He is widely considered to be in the pocket of the Agriculture Ministry (a zokugiin, for those familiar with the Japanese term). He is opposed to joining discussions for the TPP, which was one of Kan Naoto’s flavor-of-the-month initiatives.

Despite knowing of that opposition, Mr. Kan retained him in a Cabinet reshuffle that occurred after he made the TPP proposal. The DPJ a reform party? Ha ha ha ha ha!

* A veteran Japanese journalist wrote an opinion piece last week speculating that Ozawa Ichiro might support Sengoku Yoshito (based on vague remarks made by Mr. Ozawa at a fund-raising party).

* Yet again, a politician says that he thinks a tax increase is “common sense”. In the real world, common sense would demand that politicians CUT SPENDING before raising taxes, but we’re as likely to find a politician with common sense living in the real world as was Diogenes to illuminate an honest man with his lantern in broad daylight.

The members of Your Party certainly have a flair for analogy. Describing the prospective field of candidates for the DPJ election, Secretary-General Eda Kenji compared them to a mop-up pitcher in baseball sent in to eat innings and finish up the game after his team no longer had a realistic chance of winning.

Upper house member Eguchi Katsuhiko of the same party compared the election to a battle for promotion among company section chiefs. “Whoever wins will not have the ability to be of use to the people.”

The shared ambition of the DPJ Diet members, with an emphasis on the verb phrase:

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5 Responses to “An interview with Watanabe Kozo”

  1. Marellus said


    In the backrooms of Japanese politics : Who or what is the most powerful ? MITI ? Unionized Govt employees ? The Army ? The Kasumigaseki, and if so, which department ? And who is their opponents ? Can these opponents gather enough allies to thwart them ?

    On another topic, I thought this might pique your interest : This is a tweet from Hiroko Tabuchi who accordoing to her twitter profile is a :

    New York Times reporter based in Tokyo. Fan of cutting-edge tech, food, art. Native of Kobe, Japan. LSE class of ’00. Formerly at WSJ, AP.

    And this is one of her tweets :

    So ironic that Japan voters, who support Kan’s nuclear phaseout, wallop him w/ low approval ratings, paving way for pro-nuke successor..

    Her twitter profile is here.
    M: The army is not a factor at all. METI (formerly MITI) is part of Kasumigaseki. They are powerful, but the most powerful is the Finance Ministry. Unionized govt. employees have a voice only with the DPJ.

    From the accounts of people in the Koizumi/Abe administrations, thwarting them would require 10 years of bureaucratic guerrilla warfare. That is the exact term they used. I have on my desk a monthly magazine with an article in which they describe what they had to go through, which I really should get around to translating!

    So, the NYT has another reporter covering Japan who doesn’t know squat about what’s going on? And you can scratch the “covering Japan” part.

    – A

  2. Marellus said


    Thanks for the info. I’ve heard that rural areas are over-represented in the Diet. This was instituted by the American after WWII. Has this changed ? And if not, how is this affecting Japanese politics?
    Dude! Answering that last question would require an article-length submission to a scholarly journal.

    Rural areas are still over-represented. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled that the divergence in the number of citizens represented per MP from seat to seat was so large as to be unconstitutional. Redistricting is required, but nobody seems to be in a hurry to do anything about it.

    If the rural areas weren’t overrepresented, the DPJ might not have put in their manifesto a promise to roll back the LDP initiatives to promote agribusiness and replace them with subsidies for individual farming households, which they did.

    – A

  3. Marellus said


    If the Finance Ministry is this powerful, do they exert a lot influence on the Japanese Central Bank?
    M: The extent of influence is not easy to determine, but the appointment of Finance Ministry officials to executive positions at the bank is an issue (as it is in other countries).

    – A.

  4. […] An interview with Watanabe Kozo ( […]

  5. Marellus said


    Ultimately it’s only the Japanese Reserve Bank that can stand up to the Finance Ministry. (The Fed had a spat with the Treasury in the early 50’s and the Fed ultimately won.) They are the buyers of last resort for JGB’s. But will they ? And how ? And why ? Their prime reason have to be to devalue the Yen. That means raising interest rates, monetizing bonds, and taking the Finance Ministry to task for not stimulating growth. They must adopt a pro-supply-side-economics doctrine. But I don’t see how. This is a flight of fancy on my part. And while I muse, the gold price keeps on climbing …

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