Japan from the inside out

This could be the start of something big

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 29, 2012

– Water conforms to the shape of the vessel; i.e., a ruler’s actions determine those of the people (Japanese proverb originating in China)

LAST week I presented the argument that Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, the so-called peace clause, was a misunderstood anachronism used as the means to stifle Japanese nationhood, and should be amended. I didn’t discuss the practical obstacles to that endeavor, however. (The post was long enough as it was.)

The primary obstacle to amendment is the same as that for any controversial issue: It would require a long, contentious debate to mobilize popular opinion, and inertia will always be the default position of the people absent a sense of urgency.

The support in Japan for maintaining the status quo is expressed in Japanese as “defending the Constitution”. Supporters of the status quo both in Japan and overseas often cite polls showing that a majority of the Japanese public opposes amending Article 9.

While that is correct as far as it goes, the flaw in the assertion is that it doesn’t go very far. The polling used to back their claim is shallow and two-dimensional. In his superb Yoron no Kyokkai (The Distortion of Public Opinion), University of Tokyo Prof. Sugawara Taku examines how the responses of the public to polling on this issue change depending on the questions asked.

For example, when asked for a straight yes/no response to a general question about amending the Constitution, the majority of participants answer yes. When asked for a straight yes/no response to a question about amending Article 9 of the Constitution that includes an explanation of the article’s contents, the majority of participants answer no.

But then Prof. Sugawara examines a poll that allowed five different answers, rather than a simple yes or no. Those five answers were:

1. No (i.e., keep Article 9 as is)
2. Can’t say for sure, but lean towards no
3. Don’t know
4. Can’t say for sure, but lean towards yes
5. Yes (i.e., amend Article 9)

The responses to this poll are revealing. The answers can be grouped into three categories of roughly the same size. Those are the people in the No group (1 and 2), the people in the Yes group (4 and 5), and the people in the Don’t Know group (3). In the survey Prof. Sugawara cites, all three groups were at the 30% level. Only one percentage point (well within the margin of error) separated the totals for the No group and the Yes group. The group with the highest percentage was the Don’t Know group.

Those results suggest public opinion on the issue remains fluid after all these years. It also suggests that a leader with conviction and with broad popular support in general could create a national consensus to amend the Constitution. As the proverb at the top indicates, it is the duty of the national leader to create the framework for any consensus.

Few politicians or leaders in any country, however, are capable of talking directly to the people over the heads of the political and commentariat classes, expressing themselves in accord with popular sentiment, and arousing the people in a positive way. Few anywhere even try. Japan hasn’t had a leader of that sort since Koizumi Jun’ichiro relinquished higher office in 2006 (though he kept his Diet seat for three more years). Mr. Koizumi, having several other rather large fish to fry, spent little or no time talking about Article 9. There hasn’t been a public figure capable of mobilizing public opinion on that or any other major issue since his withdrawal from politics.

Now there is.

In something of a surprise, Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru — the cynosure of politics in Japan today — addressed the issue last week. He started by reminding everyone of the obvious:

Japan’s national security is weak. That has an impact on everything…Nothing will be determined about national security, even with policy discussions, until we come to a conclusion about Article 9.

He then suggested holding a national debate for two years, followed by a national referendum on the issue. Constitutional amendments require passage in the Diet by a two-thirds vote as well as a majority vote in a national referendum. He would urge that national legislators vote for the amendment if that is the result of the referendum. In other words, he proposes to reverse what people would ordinarily consider the sequence of the process.

Once we see the results, the people can move in that direction. I will conform (to that direction) even if the result differs from my own opinion. That is democracy capable of making decisions.

What is Mr. Hashimoto’s opinion on Article 9?

It represents a sense of values in which a person says he won’t do something he dislikes to help another person in trouble. If there is to be no self-sacrifice, I think I might want to live in another country.

That first part is a bit elliptical, even for Japanese political debate, but it means he wants to either broadly amend or ditch Article 9 altogether. Take it for granted that he thinks he is just the man to drive the discussion. Considering his past electoral successes and approval ratings, it also may be taken for granted that he thinks he can bring about a result close to his own views. It would be a mistake to assume that he will be successful, but it would more of a mistake to assume that he has no chance of success.

Within days after Mr. Hashimoto’s statement, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party revealed their own proposals for amending the Constitution. Fancy that coincidence. Their plan for Article 9 would maintain the language about renouncing war as an instrument of national policy. It would specifically permit military forces, which would be renamed the jieigun rather than the current jieitai. (Jieitai is translated as Self-Defense Forces. The change from tai to gun means they are unambiguously referring to military forces.) The role of the jieigun would be defined as protecting territorial land and waters. The new Article 9 would specifically permit collective self-defense. (The old LDP government’s interpretation was that the Constitution allowed collective self-defense, but that they would not exercise that right.) Finally, the party’s proposed amendment would establish a military court system.

Collective self-defense is authorized by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, for those people who take the UN seriously. It grants a country the right (but not the obligation) to come to the defense of another country when attacked, on the conditions that the threat is immediate and that the response is proportionate to the original attack or threat. There is no requirement for UN approval in advance.

Mr. Hashimoto does not care for the LDP proposal. His view is that it is a mistake to conduct the debate through the prism of political platforms and election programs. He thinks the process in the Diet should be the last step, rather than the first, and that the primary debate should be conducted in the nation at large rather than in the Diet. He also knows that the nation does not trust the national legislators, and he shares their mistrust.

We all know that if this debate gains momentum, overseas commentators, both in the West and in East Asia, will generate enough uninformed drivel, hysteria, intellectual incontinence, and geopolitical rent-seeking to dwarf the Tohoku tsunami. One would have to be a masochist to read or listen to it.

Whether or not the debate moves forward remains to be seen, but Mr. Hashimoto has brought it to the forefront of the nation’s attention at a moment when he knows the nation’s eyes are on him.

The Japanese electorate have made their political wishes as clear as Waterford. Their preference, loudly expressed over several elections, is for smaller government, lower taxes, and an end to the collusion between politicians, the bureaucracy, and Big Business. While they do not fill town hall meetings or occupy public parks, march on the Mall or threaten public health and public order, their voting behavior predates both the American Tea Party and Occupy movements by almost two decades. It should have been obvious to local politicos that it would be perilous to ignore them, but the flybait class is too stupid, too avaricious, too convinced of its superiority (and too afraid of offending the powerful bureaucratic class) to pay attention instead of lip service. For that, they have paid, and will continue to pay, with their political lives.

Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s support ratings during his five years in office started out higher than 80%, ended at 70%, and never fell below the high 40s. During his term, he dissolved the Diet to take to the people the issue of privatizing Japan Post, whose bank accounts and life insurance policies provide the money to purchase the bonds that fund Big Government spending without relying on overseas investors. He led his party to the second-highest majority in postwar Japanese history.

His successor Abe Shinzo also started with a 70% rating, but that lasted only until he allowed back into the LDP the paleo-cons Mr. Koizumi booted out for opposing his program. Two years later, the LDP had turned its back on the Koizumi path, and the public turned its back on them.

The opposition Democratic Party knew enough to run on a program of reform, though much of it wasn’t Koizumian. It is impossible to determine the relative weighting of seriousness and opportunism in their subject-to-revision-at-any-moment program, but the leadership showed signs they weren’t serious even before the election that swept them into office. That they were either charlatans with no intention of keeping their word, or cowards without the will to try, was apparent in fewer than two months after they formed a government. (Their first prime minister, Hatoyama Yukio, started with a public approval rating of about 70% in the fall of 2009. It was in the teens by the spring of 2010.) After the party’s betrayal of reform, their mishandling of the Senkakus incident, and their rank incompetence in dealing with the Tohoku disaster from the day it occurred, it is just as apparent that their brand is so disgraced the party may not survive in its present form after the next election.

Having seen that both the LDP and the DPJ are not to be trusted, the voting public supported with even greater enthusiasm those politicians running on reform platforms at the local level throughout the country. Some of those politicians are imperfect vessels, but the people are willing to overlook a lot to get what they want. The triple disaster in the Tohoku region last March seems to have kindled a quiet sense of urgency in everyone except the national political class.

That Hashimoto Toru is an imperfect vessel of reform is known to everyone, but after four years of superlative ratings as the governor of Osaka Prefecture and a cakewalk of an election for the mayor of Osaka last November in the face of establishment opposition, it should be obvious to even the most oblivious that The People don’t give a flying fut about that.

The American Horace Greely is well known for his exhortation to “Go West, young man” in the latter part of the 19th century. After Mr. Hashimoto’s victory, the call went out — literally — for young people eager to build a new Japan to head to Osaka. Among those heeding the call are the former bureaucrats and reformers Koga Shigeaki (subjected to gangsterish threats on the Diet floor by former DPJ Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito and forced out of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry) and Hara Eiji. Their numbers also include the leaders of the small Spirit of Japan Party, former Yokohama Mayor Nakata Hiroshi and former Suginami-ku head Yamada Hiroshi, as well as the former bureaucrat and non-fiction author, Osaka native Sakaiya Taichi.

It is difficult to characterize Mr. Hashimoto’s political beliefs in brief, other than that they tend toward empowering the people and disempowering the elites, and toward smaller government that is stronger at the subnational level. For example, he intends to privatize the municipal public transport systems of Osaka and eliminate the subsidy for the symphony orchestra. (He does support some social democrat-type welfare schemes, however.) He is what most people would consider patriotic, and what the left would (and increasingly will) disparage as nationalistic.

It is impossible to know what will happen with or to Mr. Hashimoto in the future. He might become the national leader the nation seeks, spearhead the reforms that the nation wants while allowing others to serve in a national role, or he might just as easily fall victim to hubris. As I noted above, however, he knows that the people listen when he speaks to them directly. It will be hard to lose if that’s the stuff he’s going to use.

He’s already been subjected to fierce criticism and low blows, and transcended some spectacular disclosures. Just before the November election in Osaka, several national publications revealed that his father and uncle were members of a now disbanded yakuza gang associated with the gambling business. (His father committed suicide when Mr. Hashimoto was in the second grade, though his parents were not living together at the time.) It is also possible that his father was a burakumin, a member of the Japan’s former untouchable class. (His gravestone is in a burakumin cemetery.)

It cannot be stressed enough, however, that the public is so desperate for real reform, they don’t care about the man’s background. He keeps winning elections, after all. That Mr. Hashimoto has now chosen to address Article 9 suggests he has the confidence to overcome whatever’s thrown at him. He’s already dodged the kitchen sink.

But regardless of what happens to Hashimoto Toru the man, the public will not be denied. It might require many more years, and many more flushes of the electoral toilet, but the public will get what it wants in the end. They might even get a new Constitution — and a new nation — in the bargain.


Books have already been written about (and by) Mr. Hashimoto, and he is such a distinctive figure that a fortnight’s worth of website posts would be insufficient to describe him or the phenomenon he represents.

For example, he thinks special districts for casinos and the sex industry are a good idea. Also, though his father’s family might have been burakumin (his uncle says they were, but his mother says they weren’t), he favors ending local governmental subsidies to organizations that support them.

It should also be remembered that Mr. Hashimoto’s first career was as an attorney. That would not be remarkable of itself in the West, but admission to the bar in Japan requires a high level of both intelligence and commitment to serious study. Style points notwithstanding, the man is not a lightweight.

That few Japanese are bothered about his father’s background indicates the Japanese aren’t as prejudiced as some outside observers would like to think. Some of the naturalized zainichi (Japanese residents of Korean ancestry) in the Democratic Party — such as Maehara Seiji — should take the hint and come out of the closet.

No, I haven’t seen Mr. Maehara’s family register. Yes, I do have it “on good authority”.

This could be the start of something big.

2 Responses to “This could be the start of something big”

  1. Tony said

    You forgot to mention his second occupation and the one that first provided him with a recognizable face for the public was as a legal “talent” on variety of T.V. programs. This allowed him to build the public persona of someone who is witty, intelligent, well spoken (particularly for someone speaking Kansai ben) and yet has a bit of the common man touch (he has about a gazillion kids). All of this can only help him not be weighed down with a “burakumin” collar. I’m not suggesting he is the Japanese version of Will Rogers but he is someone who seems to be able to easily bridge the divide between the common citizen and the elite. And while he may be an imperfect vessel, for a frustrated electorate he does appear to hold something.

    One of the biggest dangers and challenges politicians face is to avoid pandering to the populist “vote” when the public is discontented (unfortunately a challenge failed by all the GOP candidates in the U.S. thus far) and instead provide ideas and inspiration that are meant to alleviate the discontent. Hashimoto’s political career has been successful skating on the razor’s edge between the two. It will take a very smart and disciplined individual to not fall on the populist side and it will be interesting to see if he is actually that smart and disciplined.
    T: Thanks for this. Didn’t forget to mention it, just the problem of what to include and not to include each time. Seven children, by the way, and he’s joked that the time he’s spent with them with his wife not around amounts to about “30 minutes” (joke or truth, who knows). I agree completely with the last sentence.

    – A.

  2. Andrew in Ezo said

    I remember when he was a regular on TBS’s “Sunday Japon” program. It was a much better program back then, a bit more substantive than it is now, relatively speaking.

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