AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

On the way down

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 2, 2012

Tush!
Fear not, my lord, we will not stand to prate;
Talkers are no good doers: be assured
We come to use our hands and not our tongues.
– Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King Richard III

THE soaring support for reform-minded local political parties and groups in Japan, personified by Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru, is paralleled by a sharp slide in backing for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. They too talked the reform talk, but were incapable of walking the walk without pratfalls and belly flops. Any prominent party member could be selected at random to represent their failure, but Maehara Seiji, former Foreign Minister and current DPJ Policy Research Chair would be an excellent candidate for poster boy as any.

The Iu Dake Bancho

Mr. Maehara became prominent as a relative foreign policy hawk and domestic moderate in a party infused with a large element of ex-Socialists, teacher unionistas, and other variegated leftists. After the DPJ was steamrolled in the 2005 lower house election by the Koizumi-led Liberal Democratic Party, they chose Mr. Maehara to replace Okada Katsuya as party president. They just as quickly dumped him the following year after he attempted to manufacture a political crisis based on an e-mail that was found to be bogus.

A harsh critic of then-party President Ozawa Ichiro, he was viewed by some in the LDP as a man they could work with. He showed up for meetings of a short-lived study group created by former Prime Minister Koizumi, who cited him as a potential PM. Though people wondered whether he might form an alliance with disaffected LDP reformers, it never materialized. He knew the DPJ was his shortest route to power and a prominent place on the public stage.

When the DPJ took control of government in 2009, Mr. Maehara was named the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. To demonstrate that the party would end the old LDP practice of turning on the money spigot for legal vote buying with pork barrel construction projects, he announced the suspension of work on the Yanba Dam, a controversial project in Gunma. That suspension was controversial itself, however, because many people in the region actually wanted the dam built, and he didn’t waste any time consulting with them before making up his mind. (Among the dam’s intended uses is supplying water to the Tokyo megalopolis.) The final approval to resume construction was recently announced by a successor at MLIT, but not after a substantial amount of time, money (such as penalties for cancelling construction contracts), and party credibility was squandered. Mr. Maehara was loudly against restarting construction until he was for it just before the resumption order was issued.

That and several other incidents marked him a talker instead of a doer. Exhibiting their wicked talent for wordplay, some in the Japanese news media, most notably the Sankei Shimbun, began referring to him as the Iu Dake Bancho (言うだけ番長). In fact, the newspaper coined the term just for him, but played the journo game by pretending that other, unidentified people were saying it. Before long, other identified people were doing just that.

To explain: Bancho was a term for a minor government official centuries ago, but in the 20th century it came to be used to refer to the leader of juvenile delinquent gangs of junior high or high school age. Iu means to speak or to say, and dake means “only”. The phrase was inspired by a comic book series that ran from 1967–1971 called Yuyake Bancho (Sunset Bancho) created by Kajiwara Ikki.

After the moniker appeared again in the paper’s 22 February edition, Maehara Seiji lost the plot. He prohibited Sankei reporters from attending his twice-weekly news conferences and covering in person the party affairs for which he has responsibility.

The Sankei published their side of the story earlier this week. Here it is.

*****
The Sankei Shimbun has used the expression Iu Dake Bancho to refer to the behavior of DPJ Policy Research Committee Chair Maehara Seiji. The phrase is modeled after the comic Yuyake Bancho. We also had in mind the incident with the fake e-mail that occurred in 2006 when he was the DPJ president.

There have been 16 articles in the final editions of this newspaper using that phrase in regard to Mr. Maehara. The first was on 15 September 2011. The passage read, “In the background, there is distrust of Mr. Maehara, who has been referred to as the Iu Dake Bancho. Soon after his appointment (to his current post), he proposed during a visit to the United States a reexamination of the three principles for the export of weapons. That led to criticism within the party that he shouldn’t be allowed to act arbitrarily on his own authority.”

In an article on 30 September, when Mr. Maehara proposed to increase by an additional JPY two trillion the amount in the government’s plan for non-tax-derived income to fund the Tohoku recovery, we wrote “It is possible that if the target amount is not achieved, the inglorious term of Iu Dake Bancho will become permanent.”

When Mr. Maehara was the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, he froze construction on the Yanba dam in Gunma. When the decision to resume construction was announced on 24 December, we wrote, “It is unlikely he will be able to refute being mocked as the Iu Dake Bancho, after finally agreeing to the resumption after opposing it until just before it was announced.”

The Yukan Fuji, some weekly magazines, and some regional newspapers have also used the expression in addition to the Sankei Shimbun.

*****
The Sankei didn’t mention that they publish the Yukan Fuji, but they also didn’t mention the phrase had been picked up by the competing Yomiuri Shimbun, nor did they specify Shukan Shincho as one of the weekly magazines.

The newspaper also used the phrase in the headline for an 8 November article that began like this:

“Policy Research Committee Chair Maehara Seiji was not present during the conference of the secretaries-general of the DPJ, LDP, and New Komeito, though he had worked to coordinate policy with the opposition parties until then. The discussion among the three policy chiefs about the period of redemption for reconstruction bonds was difficult, and DPJ Secretary-General Koshiishi Azuma lost his patience and assumed the leading role in the talks. There was a marked difference in negotiating skills between the LDP and New Komeito on the one hand, and Maehara Seiji on the other, who quickly accepted their proposals with little debate. He worked very hard in the three-party conference to rebound from his reputation as the Iu Dake Bancho, but the situation was such that the authority for other ruling party/opposition party discussions in the future, including that for increasing the consumption tax, had to be taken from him.”

The last straw article in the Sankei on the 22nd quoted a senior LDP official as saying, “He will not lose the stigma of being known as the Iu Dake Bancho.” The next day, Mr. Maehara confronted a Sankei Shimbun reporter in the Diet building, said “I want to talk to you,” and escorted him to his office. Here’s the Sankei’s version of that talk:

“Why do you always write Iu Dake Bancho whenever something happens? I want a formal written answer from your newspaper in the name of the chairman. Without that answer, I will not recognize your coverage of the policy discussion meetings…I get a dark feeling just from reading your articles. This is on the level of childish bullying and the ‘violence of the pen’. I won’t recognize you at news conferences or permit your coverage until I get an answer.”

After reporting to his superior, the journalist returned to ask Mr. Maehara to specify in writing what sort of answer he wanted. “I’ll think about it,” was the answer.

If Mr. Maehara thought he was going to get any sympathy, he was mistaken. What little support he received in his own party was subdued. The Asahi Shimbun — whose political views are the polar opposite of the Sankei — wrote:

“All news companies, the Asahi Shimbun included, oppose excluding specific news organizations and demand an explanation. Mr. Maehara avoided a clear statement by refraining from discussing the specific content of reporting.”

One reason for the lack of sympathy was that a lot of people thought the shoe fit. Said a journalist:

“There have been innumerable occasions when Mr. Maehara made a statement that was just talk, such as his suspension of construction for the Yanba Dam. There’s really nothing to be said if people call him Iu Dake Bancho, but to get upset at that heckling isn’t very mature.”

Eguchi Katsuhiko, an upper house member from Your Party, knows Maehara Seiji well because the DPJ policy chief graduated from the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, which Mr. Eguchi was instrumental in organizing and operating. He said:

“It’s extremely unfortunate. Mr. Maehara looked up to Mr. Matsushita as a teacher, but that’s not how he would have done it. Instead, he would have invited the critic in and listened to him….If he wants to become prime minister, he shouldn’t get so concerned about every bit of criticism.”

LDP Diet member Fukaya Takashi wasn’t sympathetic either:

“False and childish reporting is unforgivable, but it’s not really in error for Mr. Maehara, who has a habit of saying all sorts of things and then finishing in a fog…If you think about citing examples, they’re too numerous to count.”

Mr. Maehara has been interested in exploring an alliance with Hashimoto Toru’s One Osaka party, but his petulance made that less likely to happen. Said new Osaka Gov. Matsui Ichiro:

“Well, he goes back on his word in an instant, so what do you expect people to say? He probably gets angry, but a complete refusal to allow coverage is excessive and unbecoming…If you’re going to say something, it’s a good idea to do it. It’s best not to say things you aren’t going to do.…If he’s got something to say, he should fight back on Twitter, like Mr. Hashimoto.”

Speaking of Hashimoto Toru:

“I don’t understand the reason for it, but if it were me, I’d have the reporter come in and we’d run each other down. If he said something bad about me, I’d give it back to him…I think there’s a certain line (for the content of reporting), but being critical is their job, and without it people in authority would become dangerous.”

A similar incident with Mr. Hashimoto presents a revealing contrast, both in how they dealt with media members who displeased them, and also in how people respond in different ways to the same behavior from different people depending on their perceptions of those people.

On 9 February 2008, then-Osaka Gov. Hashimoto was invited to appear on a live local NHK broadcast with the mayor of Osaka, the former governor of Tottori, and a university professor. He told NHK when he accepted the invitation that he had official business that day in Tokyo, and would be late for the start of the program. He confirmed that they understood more than once. When he showed up 30 minutes after the program started, announcer Fujii Ayako commented, “Well, he’s a little late, he arrived about 30 minutes late.”

In Japan, late is rude unless you have a good reason and let people know in advance. Mr. Hashimoto didn’t care for the comment because he made sure to tell them ahead of time. At a post-program news conference, he also revealed that NHK badgered him to change his work schedule for their benefit. He announced that henceforth, he would no longer appear on NHK programs, though he would respond to their reporters’ questions. Ms. Fujii was reassigned to Tokyo. The incident remains largely unknown.

*****
Some observers think Mr. Maehara is wobbling under the pressure because Noda Yoshihiko may not last much longer as prime minister, and he’s one of few remaining people the party can put forward as a plausible successor. That’s assuming the party stays in power much longer and has the authority to put forward any successor. It’s no longer a secret that Mr. Noda and LDP chief Tanigaki Sadakazu held a secret meeting Saturday, like two mudboats passing in the night. The news media assumes they discussed a deal for a Diet dissolution and lower house election in exchange for an LDP promise to pass the DPJ’s consumption tax increase. Mr. Noda would not survive that election. There’s also speculation the DPJ would use the poll as an excuse to ditch Ozawa Ichiro. The bargain Mr. Sadakazu might be offering is: Get rid of Ozawa, and then we’ll form a tax-increase coalition government with what’s left of the two parties.

I suspect the problem lies elsewhere, however. Maehara Seiji’s ambition to become prime minister is not a new phenomenon, so if his knees were to get wobbly by approaching the throne, they already would have done so. The Sankei isn’t the only target of his petulance, either. He also bounced a reporter from the Hokkaido Shimbun from a recent news conference by telling him, “What you wrote differed from the facts. Please leave at once.”

After the 2009 lower house election, everything was coming up roses for the DPJ. Mr. Maehara was expected to play a prominent role in national politics. That role was likely to include a spell as prime minister. Now, fewer than three years and multiple malfunctions later, the roses are blighted and the public is ready to dig up the bushes. Indeed, former DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro met with some of his younger supporters in the party last week and told them that Hashimoto Toru had stolen their reform thunder. He added, incorrectly, that it was not too late for them to snatch it back.

Maehara Seiji knows he is on the way down without having reached the top. He also knows it might be quite some time before he gets that close to the top again.

Afterwords:

* You can almost smell the DPJ flop sweat. This week they announced they’d be doling out JPY three million apiece to their first term Diet members for “activity money”. Most of them are associated with Ozawa Ichiro’s group, which is opposed to the party’s plan to increase the consumption tax. They’re calling it activity money, but it’s really a bribe to keep them from bolting.

The funds will be distributed to 108 MPs, for an aggregate amount of JPY 324 million yen (almost $US four million).

One wonders how much of that money is derived from the public subsidies to political parties, or, if it isn’t, whether the party would be willing to spend that kind of cash if they hadn’t received the subsidies to begin with.

Americans have a system, by the way, in which people can check a box on their income tax forms to voluntarily contribute $3.00 (from the government) for generic political campaigns, without adding to their taxes. More than 90% leave the box unchecked.

* Former LDP Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro is very anxious to negotiate an election with the DPJ in exchange for a tax increase. Stupid is as stupid does.

*****
Here’s the Yuyake Bancho himself!

The same people you misused on your way up
You might meet up
On your way down.

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