Japan from the inside out

Rocky road ahead

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 31, 2012

FOR a better understanding of the phenomenon Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru represents, the following anecdotes offer a clear and compelling window on the popular mood.

Rock target Ota Kazumi

The first story comes from the 9 February edition of the weekly Shukan Shincho and concerns DPJ lower house member Ota Kazumi, a second-term MP and member of the Ozawa group. She first won election in Chiba and then switched to a district in Fukushima (where her parents are from) for the lower house election in 2009.

Japanese politicians deliver street corner speeches more frequently than their counterparts in the United States, and Mr. Ozawa in particular likes to impress on his acolytes the importance of retail politicking and mingling with the public. Ms. Ota decided to speak outside a Shinto shrine on New Year’s Day, as a political journalist explained to the magazine.

That holiday is a rough analogue for Christmas in the West and has many secular and Shinto traditions. One of them is for families to visit three Shinto shrines in the first days of the new year. Some people still dress up for the visits, and it’s common to see younger women wearing kimono.

This year, no sooner had Ms. Ota began to speak when the crowd started to heckle and jeer. There were shouts of “liar” and other insults. Some even threw rocks at her, though the journalist didn’t specify how many people were throwing. She had planned to speak for two hours, but cut it off after 45 minutes.

Take a few seconds to let that sink in. On the most important holiday of the year, in a country known throughout the world for its manners and courtesy, standing outside of what is, in many senses, a religious institution, while people are participating in a traditional activity of the holiday season, they shout down and throw rocks at a politician…who is a woman.

There you see the Japanese equivalent of overturning and torching automobiles, or police and mobs throwing Molotov cocktails, tear gas, truncheons, and punches at each other. In Libya she might have wound up with a bloody backside.

But put any sympathy you might have for Ms. Ota on hold until you read the rest of the story.

One of the political controversies in 2008 during the Fukuda administration was the disposition of the soon-to-expire gasoline surtax, a “temporary” levy that had been maintained for more than 30 years. Some Democratic Party MPs organized a performance troupe they called the “Gasoline Price Cutting Squad”. They amused themselves by blocking hallways in the Diet chamber and temporarily confining the chairman of the lower house to his office. The idea was to publicize the DPJ’s pledge to eliminate the tax and cut gas prices. That pledge wound up in the party’s 2009 manifesto.

Yeah, it was as childish as it sounds.

Soon after their 2009 landslide and formation of a government, the party announced they would preserve (de facto) the gasoline surtax they had promised to eliminate immediately on taking office. Ms. Ota was asked about that and her activities as a member of the squad on a 22 December 2009 news program. Her answer:

“Oh, did I do that? Ha ha ha!”

On her official website, she explained that the party hadn’t failed to implement the manifesto pledge, but had only delayed its implementation. She also charged that the program was deliberately trying to manipulate public opinion against her.

The DPJ later officially removed the pledge to eliminate the tax from its manifesto.

If I were Japanese and saw her — or any other DPJ pol — giving a street corner speech, I’d be tempted to break off chunks of sidewalk or building cornices and hurl those.

The same journalist had another story for the Shukan Shincho:

“Innumerable DPJ diet members have stopped giving street corner speeches, because opposition to them is so great, it’s like pouring gas on a fire.”

An unnamed “mid-tier” DPJ Diet member lamented that all he can do when he visits groups in his district is bow his head and apologize.

That’s why people aren’t raising their eyebrows over reports that surfaced on the 26th of the results of a private poll conducted by the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. The survey found that Mr. Hashimoto’s One Osaka group would win about 60 of the 77 lower house seats in the Kinki region — roughly 80% — if an election were held today. The group wants to run 300 candidates nationwide.

And that’s why it’s no surprise that other reports say the DPJ wants to put an election off as long as possible (they have until the summer 2013) in the hope that Mr. Hashimoto’s star fades by then. Or that some in the LDP, particularly prominent party members projected to lose in the next election and those still affiliated with factions, want the polls to be held as soon as possible before Mr. Hashimoto and One Osaka select a slate of candidates from his political juku. Nevertheless, circumstances and the wild card of Ozawa Ichiro and whatever it is he’s planning to do this time could cause an election to be held as early as June. Even people in the other hemisphere will feel the earth move under their feet on that day.

It’s curious: Some Westerners who couldn’t distinguish a 6 from a 9 in contemporary Japanese affairs have convinced themselves that the country is an irrelevant non-player tumbling down the tubes of history. What they can’t see — and couldn’t, even if they were looking — is that Japan could well be the first of the world’s democracies to spear, if not gut, the belly of the beast.

They’re rumbling down in Indonesia too. Is that Shiva playing the drums?

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