AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Collision course

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 24, 2012

THE political and social forces in Japan are now arrayed and moving on a course that makes a noisy electoral collision inevitable. How the forces sort out post-collision isn’t possible to determine, but one thing is certain — the collision will be just one of the major engagements in an ongoing war.

Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi in Tokyo

That much is clear now that we’ve seen the evisceration of the work of Koizumi Jun’ichiro after he steered Japan to the course of reform. The reactionary Politburocrats included the old guard of his own party, the bureaucratic establishment at Kasumigaseki seeking to reclaim sovereignty over policy, and the chancers of the Democratic Party snouting around for any excuse to rise to the level of Politburocrat Nouveau. They accomplished their work in less time than the five years Mr. Koizumi spent in office.

Last week, the Men of System demonstrated again how they operate. The ruling Democratic Party lacks an upper house majority, so it was unable to prevent the opposition from censuring two Cabinet ministers: Maeda Takeshi of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport (for political misbehavior) and Tanaka Naoki of Defense (for being a doofus on the job).

Upper house censures are non-binding, so the two men can technically stay, but the opposition parties are refusing to participate in negotiations until they’re removed. Said LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu:

“As long as those two stay in office, there will be no progress on the bill to combine social security and the tax system.”

Added New Komeito chief Yamaguchi Natsuo:

“We cannot respond to any parliamentary proceedings in which they have jurisdiction.”

Everyone understands that it’s a chabangeki farce staged to gain political advantage. Mr. Tanigaki and most of his party already back a consumption tax increase, and the ruling Democratic Party intends to use only 20% of the revenue from the increase for social security. A larger amount will be allocated for public works projects. Just like the old LDP.

The DPJ understands the farce better than anyone because upper house censure was a weapon they created to gain political leverage after they and their allies took control of that chamber in 2007. They censured then-Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo in 2008 for reasons that were trivial then and which no one can remember now.

But when the plastic sword was used to smack them around, Prime Minister Noda and DPJ Secretary-General Koshi’ishi Azuma decided they didn’t like the idea after all. Both men are protecting the censured miscreants, and Mr. Noda won’t remove them from office. Said Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura Osamu last Friday:

“The prime minister’s policy is clear. He wants them to fulfill the responsibilities of their job.”

Both men of course realize that’s beyond the capabilities of Mr. Tanaka, but they have appearances to maintain and the Ozawa wing of the party to mollify.

Their display of plastic backbone has caused some consternation in Japan’s real ruling class, however. That spurred one of their agents in the DPJ to give the prime minister his marching orders.

That would be Fujii Hirohisa, the former head the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau — Dirigiste Central — also the former secretary-general in Ozawa Ichiro’s old Liberal Party, the first finance minister in the DPJ government (for all of three months), the head of the Tax Commission in the Cabinet Office, one of the DPJ’s Supreme Advisors, and (if the rumors are to be believed) a daytime drinker.

Mr. Fujii and his comrades worry this will delay their objective of raising the consumption tax to European social democrat levels. Therefore, Mr. Fujii called on the prime minister to “remove the thorns”, because:

“The two of them have definitely done something wrong.”

But he quickly added the real reason:

“Whenever the prime minister makes a decision on what to do, the basis for everything is to pass the consumption tax increase by any means necessary.”

Now what is Mr. Noda to decide to do? He wants to project himself as a man of vision with the unwavering resolve to gouge the public and maintain the system do what is best for Japan. He also reportedly hates being called a Finance Ministry puppet.

On the other hand, Mr. Fujii has been molding Mr. Noda since the DPJ formed its first government, when the latter was the deputy finance minister in both the Hatoyama and Kan administrations. The prime minister is also aware that the Finance Ministry is capable of using the various means it has developed for staging de facto internal coups d’etat.

In other words, look for Messrs. Maeda and Tanaka to start cleaning out their desk drawers, soon rather than late.

Weapons

Kasumigaseki in general and the Finance Ministry in particular have developed a substantial armory over the years to maintain their citadel. For example, all the national dailies have now published several editorials supporting a consumption tax increase. Most of them used nearly identical phrases, probably because they all received the nearly identical Finance Ministry briefing. The most enthusiastic member of the print media has been the Asahi Shimbun. They ran an editorial on 31 March titled “A consumption tax increase is necessary,” which included this content:

“With the rapid aging of society, we must provide even a small amount of stability to the social security system and rebuild the finances that are the worst among the developed countries. The first step requires that we increase the consumption tax. That is what we think.”

And the next day:

“It is important to come to a prompt decision without evading a tax increase.”

Another column appeared on 6 April with the title: “Politics and the consumption tax increase – stop the excuses”. It contained this passage:

“While you’re saying “first”—such as first reduce government waste, or first let’s end deflation, or first dissolve the lower house for an election — Japan will become insolvent.”

The Asahi insists the voters can have their say after the tax increase has been safely passed. That’s the same strategy foreseen months ago by ex-ministry official and current reformer Takahashi Yoichi.

As a newspaper of the left, the Asahi might be expected to favor higher taxes and stronger central government, but perhaps they have a more compelling reason. That would be explained by another news report that the Asahi tried to hide in an overlooked part of the paper, but which the rival Yomiuri Shimbun gave more prominent coverage on 30 March.

It seems that a tax audit revealed the Asahi failed to report JPY 251 million in corporate income over a five-year period that ended 31 March 2011. They were required to pay substantial penalties.

Golly, what a coincidence!

On the other hand, the bureaucrats are not picking on just the Asahi. All the newspapers and their reporters are being audited, which is a process that can take from several weeks to several months. The reporters treat their sources, anonymous or otherwise, to food and drink, and we all know that expense accounts are there to be padded. Tax officials are even said to be visiting the eating and drinking places listed on the returns for confirmation. Both the Asahi and the Yomiuri already had to refile their taxes in 2009.

The Asahi insists their editorials are unrelated to the audits, and they might have a point. There are about 20 people on the paper’s editorial committee, and all of them support a tax increase. Most of them once covered the Finance Ministry as members of the ministry’s kisha club, a system that combines short leashes with exclusive access. And many of them are also graduates of the University of Tokyo, which is the institution of choice for the Finance Ministry’s recruitment.

It’s natural to assume that the members of the old boys’ club would think alike, but a tax audit certainly helps to focus their thinking.

Not a rhetorical question

Fortunately, irresistible forces are headed straight for these immovable objects. Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi, one of the squad leaders in those forces, launched his political juku in Tokyo on Saturday. He told his 200 students:

“I want to change the mechanism of this country, in which taxes are not reduced by even one yen.”

Mr. Kawamura is screening and preparing candidates for the next lower house election by using the same juku mechanism employed by Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru and Aichi Gov. Omura Hideaki. There will likely be an alliance of some sort between those local parties and Your Party at the national level. Their message is the largely the same.

Delivering that message on Saturday as the first lecturer was former METI official turned bureaucratic reformer Koga Shigeaki. Mr. Koga rebuffed requests to run for governor of two prefectures to serve as Mr. Hashimoto’s senior advisor, and he also has connections with Your Party. He told the juku students something that everyone in Japan apart from the Politburocratchiks understand: The current system of governance is dead, and the creation of a new system starts with civil service reform.

Part of the problem

The experience of Koga Shigeaki illustrates one of the many reasons that Japan’s Democratic Party has become part of the problem instead of the solution. He was selected as an aide to then-Reform Minister Sengoku Yoshito in the Hatoyama Cabinet, but that appointment lasted only a few days. Kasumigaseki wouldn’t stand for it, and Mr. Sengoku is not one to stand on principle when his place in the power structure is at stake. Indeed, the former lawyer confronted Mr. Koga with a semi-gangsterish threat (likely picked up from his former clients) during the latter’s Diet testimony on reform at the request of Your Party.

Try this for a thought experiment: Imagine that the cities of Chicago and Los Angeles, and their respective states of Illinois and California, are governed by local parties calling for radical governmental reform. One of the primary planks of that reform is putting a leash on the public sector. Three of those four chief executives were once members of the two major parties. The deputy mayor of New York is a colleague, and the mayor is a sympathizer.

Need I mention that this would be topics #1, #2, and #3 in the American mass media 24/7, and that the Journolist-coordinated efforts to slime them all would be rank even by their standards?

(Of course, this is only a thought experiment. California is actually heading 180° in the other direction.)

Japan has the oldest and most dynamic of the modern anti-elitist reform movements of the world’s major democracies. It’s the one with the greatest chance of success, and it’s also possible to make the case that it is the most positive in outlook. (The French just gave 18% of the vote to Marine LePen, though in their defense the Eurabia concept was idiotic even by Eurocrat standards.)

Predictions are usually a waste of time, but here’s one you can hold me to: The English-language media in general, and the FCCJ lackwits in particular, won’t bother to notice what’s happening in Japan until they find themselves ankle-deep in the muck after the bloodletting of the next general election, and some well-coiffed and -dyed heads will be adorning the tops of pointed stakes. The media will then be “surprised”.

And then they’ll launch a slimeball fusillade. Take it to the bank.

Kasumigaura

Yes, this is a national phenomenon. It’s happening again, this time in the city of Kasumigaura, a largely agricultural town of 43,600 in Ibaraki Prefecture.

After the city was created in 2005 through the merger of two smaller municipalities, the residents expected to benefit from the economies of scale. They really should have known better. Instead of one unified municipal office, the new city officials created two, one in each of the constituent entities. One of them required the construction of a new building. They also separately maintained their former methods of collusion for deal-cutting: one controlled by the civil service, the other organized by private sector industry.

It got worse after the new city’s second mayor took office in 2007, when he was unopposed in the election. Opposition quickly materialized after the city council voted themselves a 40% pay raise. A citizens’ group was organized, and they ran Miyajima Mitsuaki for mayor in the next election. He upset the incumbent by a 276 vote margin.

The problem, however, was that there was little turnover in city council members. Four are reformers, 11 are in the flybait class, and one is a fence-sitter. In one year and eight months, City Council has rejected 32 of the mayor’s initiatives, including the rollback of the salary increase, other salary cuts, and a bill to provide free medical care for children through the third year of junior high school. (That last is an idea common to many of the reformers in local government. There are several possible explanations for this mixture of welfare statism into what is primarily a small government philosophy, but it does suggest they are not ideologues.)

The mayor therefore announced last week that he and the citizens’ group will start a petition drive to recall City Council. They’ll have a month to come up with 15,000 signatures. It won’t be easy, but Mr. Kawamura overcame the same hurdle in Nagoya, and his hurdle was much higher because of that city’s larger population. I wouldn’t bet against them.

*****
It bears repeating that the next lower house election will not be the last battle of the war, regardless of the result. The reformers at the regional level have found their voice and their allies are not going to go away. Meanwhile, the Politburocrats are stocking the moat with as many alligators as they can breed.

The current system of governance requires that the bureaucracy oversee the process as the Cabinet formulates a bill and the ruling party examines it before it’s submitted to the Diet. Defying the wishes of Kasumigaseki requires a thorough knowledge of policy and some serious spine, neither of which is a hallmark of the political class anywhere. The civil servants devote a lot of time to anticipating objections to their favored policies and formulating arguments against those objections to feed to the politicians.

One advantage of the reformers is that people such Your Party’s Watanabe Yoshimi and Eda Kenji, Hashimoto advisors Koga, Sakaiya Taiichi, and Hara Eiji, as well as advisor to both Takahashi Yoichi, have extensive knowledge of policy and Politburocrat tactics, and took a clear public stand long ago.

Another man who combines both is Takenaka Heizo, a Cabinet member throughout Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s entire term of office, and the man responsible for producing the Japan Post privatization package. Mr. Takenaka has said that victory will require 10 years of continuous guerilla warfare.

In short: Japan is in the midst of the most civil Civil War a modern democracy has ever seen.

Drunken sailor watch

The Prime Minister’s Office unveiled its new website earlier this month, which they created as a portal site to provide comprehensive information on policy. That’s a fine idea, but the Jiji news agency reported the redesign of the old site required an expenditure of JPY 45.5 million (almost $US 560,000 on the nose).

What? You didn’t hear the detonation on the Internet?

A lot of people thought it could have been done for 10% of that amount, and some said they would have been happy to take the job at that price. They also said they wouldn’t have created a site with text that was unreadable for those using Apple’s Safari browser and without the kanji errors on the page for children.

Prodigy

Piano prodigy Okuda Gen appeared on television again Sunday night. Now ten years old, Gen has been playing piano since the age of four and giving concerts since the age of seven. He’s composed 50 pieces of his own. He likes all sorts of styles and plays classical music well, but is a particular fan of jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. On Sunday, he performed as an equal with an adult drummer and bassist.

The boy is remarkably self-assured for his age, even without his musical ability. It seems unlikely at this point that he’ll acquire the problems that usually attend children such as these when they enter The Jungle of Puberty.

But the most astonishing part of Gen’s story is that he started playing because he thought he would like it. Neither parent is involved with music, and they say he’s never taken a music lesson.

Here he is at age eight. Pull your socks up.

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One Response to “Collision course”

  1. toadold said

    The question in my mind is do we have ten years?

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