AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Consistency

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, October 7, 2012

PRIME MINISTER Noda Yoshihiko’s personnel reassignments for his Cabinet and party last Monday were the picture of consistency. First, his Democratic Party government remains consistent in keeping the revolving door of Cabinet positions spinning at a frequency that prevents them from performing any role other than as press secretary for the ministries they represent. Second, Mr. Noda remains consistent in his distribution of ministerial portfolios to people unqualified to receive them. Finally, an unqualified English-language news media remains consistent in its incapacity to understand and present useful explanations of the events.

Writing in Gendai Business Online, Isoyama Yukihiro reminds his readers that when Hatoyama Yukio, the first DPJ prime minister, assumed his duties three years ago, he said he wanted to maintain one intact Cabinet per administration. The law provides for as many as 14 ministers in addition to the prime minister, and Mr. Hatoyama did keep the reshuffling to a minimum. He appointed only 19 ministers, but then he lasted only nine months in office. His first finance minister, Fujii Hirohisa, lasted fewer than four months before resigning — and he was the only one qualified to serve that the party has assigned to that position. (In 1976, he was the head of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau, the control tower of the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy.)

Mr. Isoyama notes there was dissatisfaction within the DPJ because not all of the victors were receiving the spoils. As a result, Mr. Hatoyama’s successor, Kan Naoto, used Cabinet appointments as the front end of a quid pro quo before the party’s presidential election. He went through 35 people in 15 months. Meanwhile, Mr. Noda has already tapped 38 different people in his year in office, partly because his power base in the party is weak. He also has to use the posts as gold stars and cookies to stem the flow of MPs leaving the DPJ for other parties. Altogether, 68 separate people have served as DPJ Cabinet ministers, and the overall total of appointments, reappointments, and reassignments within their Cabinets now total 152.

Your Party chief Watanabe Yoshimi compared the Noda Cabinet V.3 to an “inventory clearance sale for people seeing Cabinet posts”. Azuma Shozo of the People’s Life First party (the Ozawa group) called it the “Making Memories Cabinet.”

This might be excusable to an extent if competent people were being appointed, but that isn’t the case. Mr. Noda keeps putting people with no experience or sector-specific expertise in Cabinet positions, a tacit admission that the bureaucracy still exercises real control. Once again, he appointed as finance minister someone who knows nothing about government finance, and who has never held a Cabinet position before. Yet some in the news media still do not understand what’s happening. Here’s this from the AFP just before the changes:

Another highlight of the reshuffle is who will replace Finance Minister Jun Azumi, who is being propelled into a top party post.

Although Azumi has not been universally popular in financial circles, there have been concerns of a policy gap now that he is departing, although the minister has assured there will be no “political vacuum”.

And here’s what Reuters said after Mr. Noda made his decision:

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda plans to name senior lawmaker Koriki Jojima as the country’s new finance minister in a cabinet shake-up due later on Monday, Japanese media reported.

Jojima, who has served as parliamentary affairs chief in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), would replace Jun Azumi and take charge of the world’s third largest economy as it teeters on the brink of recession in the face of a global slowdown and strong yen.

Jojima would likely stick to a fiscal reform drive pursued by fiscal hawk Noda, as he has worked closely with the premier in designing Noda’s signature plan to double the sales tax to 10 percent by October 2015.

But little is known about Jojima’s view on monetary and currency policies.

But a lot is known about how little is known about Japanese politics by the AFP and Reuters sausage grinders. There were no real concerns of a “policy gap”, because Mr. Azumi, a former TV presenter, knows nothing about fiscal policy other than what his Finance Ministry tutors spoonfed him after his appointment. Little is known about Jojima’s view on monetary and currency policies because he doesn’t have any. He majored in animal husbandry at university, was hired by Ajinomoto after graduation, and decided that labor union activities were preferable to working for a living.

“Fiscal reform” in Reuters-speak means tax increases, especially of the progressive variety. The media applies the term “fiscal hawk” to Mr. Noda, as they did to Kan Naoto, because they’re parroting, either directly or indirectly, the Finance Ministry’s talking points. Mr. Kan couldn’t even explain the multiplier effect during his first Question Time session in the Diet after his appointment.

What they don’t say is what everyone in Japan who pays attention knows. Here’s more from a different column in Gendai Business Online. It explains who really designed the DPJ tax increase plan:

Vice-Minister Katsu Eijiro resigned in mid-August, and it is reported that negotiations are underway to replace him with Manago Yasushi, head of the Finance Ministry’s Budget Bureau (N.B.: He got the job.) …The climate at the Finance Ministry is that achieving a tax increase (as Katsu did) is a medal for services rendered and a meritorious deed. Increases in tax revenue do not determine the evaluations of the Finance Ministry bureaucracy. That happens naturally when the economy improves. But increases in the tax rate are easily understood accomplishments. Those require amendments in the tax law, and are also proof that they twisted the “idiot politicians” around their little finger. Bureaucrats such as these are the real “kings of the Finance Ministry”, because they have shown themselves to be of higher caliber than the politicians.

Here’s a report a few days after the appointment:

New Finance Minister Koriki Jojima said the government must “carefully consider” whether to extend the currency swap agreement with South Korea but refused to be drawn out on whether Tokyo will propose an extension.

In other words, the Finance Ministry hasn’t decided yet.

But the biggest name in the new Cabinet is former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko:

Noda may tap Beijing-friendly Makiko Tanaka, 68, as a new addition to the cabinet, the Asahi Shimbun daily reported on Sunday.

Tanaka, daughter of former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka who normalised diplomatic ties with Beijing 40 years ago, has warm links with China which has been jousting with Japan over disputed East China Sea islands.

Noda is considering appointing Tanaka to a ministerial post to signal to Beijing Tokyo’s intention of repairing the damaged relationship, the Asahi said.

Commentator Ikeda Nobuo had only one word when he read that: “Stupid”. It is stupid, for at least two reasons.

One is that the Chinese will interpret it as weakness and as a prelude to a modern form of tribute paid to a vassal. The other is that Tanaka Makiko is temperamentally unfit for any executive position in general, and a Cabinet portfolio in particular. We found that out from her spin as a daytime drama queen when she was Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s Foreign Minister.

For some reason, Ms. Tanaka wound up as Education Secretary, a position for which she has shown no particular interest or aptitude. As everyone expected, she immediately demonstrated that she still doesn’t know when to keep her mouth shut. One of her first bon mots was that “There are deficiencies in Japan’s history education,” though she didn’t specify what they were.

The Chinese took it and ran with it. Here’s Li Wen from the Chinese academy of Social Sciences:

“Tanaka Makiko is the daughter of former PM Tanaka Kakuei, and for her to make this statement after her appointment is significant in that it would correct the rightward tendency in Japanese society to an extent, improve Sino-Japanese relations, and ameliorate Japan’s relations with its neighbors…We hope that it will expand, without ceasing, the progressive capacity to limit the rightward tendency of Japanese society, and improve its ability to act for peace in the Asia-Pacific region and the world.”

“The progressive capacity to limit Japan’s rightwing tendency and act for world peace?” Yeah, they’ve still got Reds in China. You hadn’t noticed?

The Tanaka comment is the product of mixing someone who favors tilting foreign policy toward China and away from the West with the need to satisfy the “progressive” teachers’ unions, one of the party’s principal power bases. It might help relax the immediate tensions with China, but only in the sense that it will lead the Chinese to think that the Japanese leadership is finally showing some sense and starting to deal with those crazy rightwingers.

It won’t help. Absent the arrival of a gargantuan black swan, she won’t be Education Minister this time next year, the DPJ won’t be in power, and there will be little change, if any, in the history curriculum.

Then there are the problems on the domestic side. She already criticized the government’s nuclear energy policy when she said she doesn’t think ending nuclear power by 2030 is feasible. She’s right, but that’s what you get when you roll a loose cannon into the Cabinet. You never know when it will go off and where the muzzle will be pointing when it does.

Makiko is also being Makiko. Another report just a day after her appointment claimed that she summoned one of the aides assigned from the Education Ministry bureaucracy into the women’s restroom to give him lengthy, detailed instructions on a particular matter. The report didn’t specify what she was doing in the women’s restroom at the time.

Japanese pundits saw other reasons for her selection. One suggested her current strength is roughly at the level required to snatch the focus from the opposition Liberal Democrats and the up-and-coming Japan Restoration Party on the daytime TV talk/gossip shows. (Those programs juggle politics, show business, and human interest stories.)

Another thought she might have been chosen because she’s one of the few politicians in the country who wouldn’t flinch from doing verbal battle with Osaka Mayor Hashimoto, the head of the Japan Restoration Party. Mr. Hashimoto has thrashed the teachers unions in both the city and prefecture of Osaka, and the theory goes that the DPJ wants someone in the Education Ministry capable of standing up to him.

Unfortunately for them, however, is that Ms. Tanaka verbal skills are due primarily to her “poison tongue”, as the saying goes in Japan. She’s quite entertaining when she runs people down, which is another reason she’s popular daytime television fare. (She once referred to former Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro as “Old Man Pomade”.)

She is less successful when it comes to the give and take of debate, or persuading an audience through the power of logic and persuasion.

If Mr. Noda’s intent was to have some imagined Tanaka star power refloat his Cabinet, he was mistaken. Here’s one of the questions and the answer received when the Kyodo news agency polled the public from 1-2 October.

Q: How do you evaluate the selection of Tanaka Makiko to the Cabinet?

Good idea: 34.6%
Bad idea: 53.8%
No answer: 11.6%

The Kyodo poll

Speaking of the Kyodo Poll, it might be useful as a rough guide to the mood of the electorate, despite being conducted by random digit dialing (RDD).

Here are some of the other questions and answers. The numbers in parentheses are the totals from the previous month:

* Do you support the Noda Cabinet?
Yes: 29.2% (26.3%)
No: 55.3% (59.4%)
Don’t know: 15.5% (14.3%)

The Yomiuri Shimbun poll had the support rate for the Noda Cabinet a few points higher, but it’s not enough to make a difference. The increase was normal for a Cabinet reshuffle, and absent other factors, it will have subsided in the next month or two.

* Which party do you support?
Democratic Party of Japan (ruling party): 12.3% (12.9%)
Liberal Democratic Party (primary opposition): 30.4% (19.3%)
Japan Restoration Party (Hashimoto group): 10.7%
Putting People First (Ozawa Ichiro group): 1.9% (2.1%)

Note that the LDP supporters are more than double those of the DPJ, which in turn is barely ahead of Mr. Hashimoto’s party. Note also that the voters finally seem to be getting ready to flush the toilet with Ozawa Ichiro.

* Do you approve of the DPJ leadership changes?
Yes: 23.8%
No: 69.5%

* Do you approve of the LDP leadership changes?
Yes: 42.6%
No: 52.4%

* How do you evaluate the Japan Restoration Party?
Positive: 50.6% (60.2%)
Negative: 43.0% (34.7%)

* For which party will you cast your vote in the proportional representation phase of the election?
DPJ: 12.3% (12.4%)
LDP: 31.3% (22.2%)
Japan Restoration Party: 13.9% (17.6%)
Putting People First: 2.7% (4.9%)
Sunrise Japan: 0.3% (1.2%)

This is important for several reasons. First, it shows that the public has written off the DPJ, which are now beyond political redemption (perhaps for good). Second, this poll was taken after the LDP selected former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo as party head. Note the month-to-month increase from last month to this. Those numbers are giving the Japanese left (and the residential foreigner left) gas pains.

These results for Putting People First again show that Mr. Ozawa is fading away. He is a man out of time, and a man out of his time.

Perhaps you’ve read the commentary that the Senkakus spat with China is all the fault of Tokyo Metro District Gov. Ishihara Shinto, the “fiery rightwing nationalist”. Some people desperately want to believe that his influence on the relative Japanese hardline in the Senkakus is proof that he’s leading the country to the right.

Lunchmeat. Sunrise Japan is the party that Mr. Ishihara was instrumental in creating. There you see in black and pale blue (on this website) the influence of his party on national politics.

The correlation of his views and that of many members of the public on a specific issue does not indicate he is at the forefront of a greater national trend. This seems to be beyond the capacity of some drive-by commentators or pundettes with an agenda (sometimes the same people) to see.

The Hashimoto slide

Further, the numbers in this and other national polls show the first significant drop in support for Hashimoto Toru since his rise to national prominence. Some attribute that to the rough patch he’s had coordinating affairs with the Diet MPs who recently joined his party, or with some vagaries in the party’s statement of principles.

I disagree, just as I disagree with the LDP’s claim that their jump from the previous month came solely from the election of Abe Shinzo. What I think is happening is something that isn’t showing up in the polls, because the news media polls are too generalized to elicit certain answers.

This was the first round of polls taken after the Chinese ran amok in their September riots, implicitly encouraged by the modern Mandarins. The Japanese public is coming to see China as an existential threat. The shift to the LDP, I suspect, is due to the public’s choice of the political group they think is most capable of protecting them from that existential threat.

After being appalled by how the Kan Cabinet handled the previous episode in the fall of 2010, they know that’s beyond the DPJ’s capabilities. Mr. Hashimoto’s deportment in the past month was not so bad (or so different) to cause the public to sour on him. Had not China and South Korea behaved as they have over the past two months, his numbers probably wouldn’t have changed. The public, in general, still wants reforms of the type he is promoting. His problem is that they’ve already seen how one set of amateurs deals with the Chinese, and they aren’t willing to entrust foreign policy now to a new group of beginners.

Finally, lower house MP Sugimoto Kazumi, a first-termer from Aichi, left the DPJ and is considering membership in Your Party. That reduced the DPJ lower house delegation to 247, down from an original total higher than 300. They also have three members from the People’s New Party in their coalition, making 250. Subtracting Mr. Sugimoto and the three DPJ members who announced their intention to join the Japan Restoration Party, the DPJ’s magic number for losing the outright majority is eight, as one newspaper put it.

Noda Yoshihiko’s objective seems to be to put off a lower house election until the last possible minute, which is next summer. If the leakage from the DPJ continues, that decision might be taken out of his and his party’s hands altogether.

UPDATE:

Political correctness might have been a factor in the selection of Tanaka Makiko. The weekly Shukan Asahi quotes a source “close to the prime minister” as saying, “We searched for a woman to put in the Cabinet, but couldn’t find a suitable candidate. Still, we had to have at least one.”

They also cite a few other of the nicknames given to the new lineup: “The clean out the inventory Cabinet”, and one that’s not easy to translate concisely, but means “Put something good on their resume to dress them up for the election”.

Mr. Noda also dismissed the idea that she was appointed to ease the strained relations with China. He said, “It’s not as if I appointed her as Foreign Minister.”

*****
Maybe not tomorrow, but not too much longer

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