Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Higashikokubaru H.’

Wet cement

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I wonder about these people who would take advantage of Hashimoto Toru’s popularity to win a Diet seat (by joining his party, the Japan Restoration Party).
– Maehara Seiji, head of the Democratic Party’s Policy Research Committee

We’ll act in such a way that we don’t become what the Democratic Party is now.
– Matsui Ichiro, Osaka governor and secretary-generation of Japan Restoration, in reply
The key is when and to what extent Mr. Abe approaches the third forces (reform parties). I would really prefer that the electorate votes with that knowledge. But considering his position, it is probably to his advantage to keep that quiet for now.
– Yamazaki Hajime, journalist on economic matters and a fellow at the Rakuten Securities Economic Research Institute

THERE are eight million stories in the naked city, intones the narrator at the conclusion of both the film and television version of The Naked City, and this has been one of them. Shifting the dramatist’s eye to Japan’s lower house election scheduled for 16 December, there are what seems like several thousand stories, and the reform/regional parties that are fomenting revolution from the bottom up account for quite a few of them.

Telling some of those stories requires a list of the dramatis personae, however, and that’s where we’ll start.

* Hashimoto Toru, the mayor of Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, who became the nation’s most prominent regional politician to call for the devolution of government authority with stronger power given to local government. That has been an issue for more than two decades here, but he’s the man who achieved ignition and liftoff. He started a local party/movement called One Osaka that is now a national party known as the Japan Restoration Party.

* Watanabe Yoshimi, a former Liberal Democratic Party member and minister in the Abe and Fukuda cabinets with responsibility for governmental reform. A supporter of devolution and radical civil service reform to tame the Japanese bureaucracy and its political influence, he left the LDP when prime ministers Fukuda and Aso abandoned that course. He then created Your Party with independent Diet member and former MITI bureaucrat Eda Kenji.

* Kawamura Takashi, a former Democratic Party of Japan member and lower house MP. He ran in several elections for party president, which means he sees a prime minister when he looks in the mirror in the morning. He resigned from the DPJ to run for mayor of Nagoya on a platform of cutting municipal taxes and the remuneration of city council members by half. This is part of an ongoing movement for sub-national governments in Japan. He struggled to get his policy package passed by municipal legislators (natch), and stunned the political world and the country both when he resigned, ran again to make the election a referendum on his policies, and won in a walk. There’s more at this previous post.

He’s formed a local party called Tax Reduction Japan that is now a national party with six five members in the Diet. They want to reduce the number of lower house Diet members by 80 (to 400) and cut their salaries in half.

* Omura Hideaki, a former Liberal Democratic Party of Japan member and lower house MP. He forged an alliance with Kawamura Takashi during the latter’s second run for mayor of Nagoya. He was elected governor of Aichi, in which Nagoya is located, on the same day. He shares the same general political principles.

* Ishihara Shintaro, former upper house and lower house MP, and governor of the Tokyo Metro District. Everyone knows who he is.

The stupefying ineptitude of the Democratic Party government, the inability of the Liberal Democratic Party to reinvent itself as a coherent alternative during three years in opposition, the futility of seeking real reform from either of them, years of public dissatisfaction combined with a willingness to support anyone willing to take an axe to the waste and abuse in the public sector, and younger generations reaching middle age, have resulted in the national prominence of Hashimoto Toru. It soon became a question of when, not if, he would establish a national political organization. The answer was soon rather than late — less than a year after winning election as Osaka mayor, after spending three years as governor of Osaka Prefecture.

Here’s what he said at the time:

True reform for Osaka requires further amendments to (national) law. But even when we try to do something locally, we run into the wall of Nagata-cho (a metonym for the Diet) and Kasumigaseki (a metonym for the bureaucracy), who control the mechanism of Japan. We have to change Japan from the roots.

In addition to regional devolution, Mr. Hashimoto’s group also calls for the cutting the membership of the Diet’s lower house in half to 240, and cutting their salaries and publicly funded party subsidies by one-third.

At that point the narrative became one of wondering who would and would not become his political allies. Not only did they need to team with simpatico regional parties, Japan Restoration needed someone or some group with a national reputation. Eliminated right away were the establishment LDP and the labor union-backed DPJ, but everyone had discounted that because both were part of the problem and not part of this solution.

In an intriguing move, the Osaka mayor approached former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in August to ask whether he would be interested in switching from the LDP to Japan Restoration. Mr. Abe expressed a strong desire to form some sort of alliance, particularly because they share an interest in amending the Constitution. But Mr. Abe eventually chose to remain in the LDP and run for party president, a campaign that he won.

While both men would surely like to work together, the LDP is unlikely to support the long-standing Hashimoto proposal to convert the consumption tax into a funding source for local government, and end the current system in which the national government allocates public funds. The shape and nature of any alliance will probably be determined after the election. The results will determine who needs whom, and the extent of that need.

* Hashimoto and Your Party

Speculation on ties with Japan Restoration had always started with Your Party, the first real national reform party. Several of their most important positions meshed, including the creation of a new system of sub-national governments with greater authority and civil service reform. They both also came out for eliminating nuclear power (probably for populist reasons), though Mr. Hashimoto has since backed away from that one. Further, Your Party supported Mr. Hashimoto in the election for Osaka mayor, and they share some of the same advisors.

At one point not long ago, people assumed that there would be a formal alliance. Rumors circulated that they had cut a deal in which Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi would become the first prime minister if they won enough seats in the aggregate to form a government.

But that’s not how it worked out. The reason seems to have been a dispute over who was going to be the boss. Your Party held talks with the people from Osaka before Japan Restoration was formed, and they wanted them to join the existing party before they created their own. Knowing that his poll numbers are better Your Party’s (they can’t seem to hump it into double digits), Mr. Hashimoto refused and suggested that they disband and rearrange themselves.

Relations took a turn for the worse when three Your Party members, said to be unhappy with Watanabe Yoshimi’s leadership, quit and joined Japan Restoration. That caused more than a few unpleasantries to be hurled in the direction of Osaka.

But discussions resumed because an alliance remains in both their interests. They talked about cooperation to implement eight common policies, which at that time included opposition to the consumption tax increase, opposition to nuclear power, support for regional devolution and the state/province system, support for civil service reform, support for constitutional amendments, support for election system reform, economic growth policies, and foreign policy (they both favor participation in TPP).

The calls for a solid alliance seem to have come from Your Party, and Japan Restoration has turned down the offer for now. There was a meeting with Hashimoto Toru, Matsui Ichiro, and Watanabe Yoshimi at which blunt words were spoken.

Mr. Watanabe suggested they jointly offer an “east-west” slate of candidates for the lower house election, with Your Party covering the east (Tokyo and the Kanto region) and Japan Restoration covering the west (Osaka and the Kansai region). Mr. Matsui rejected it, and here was his explanation:

Their policies have not gained ground in the Diet, and they have become a group who can’t achieve them. Politics means taking responsibility for results. That requires a team that can create a decision-making approach.

Gov. Matsui also told Mr. Watanabe in so many words to come down off his high horse: “It was our idea to create a new type of political organization.” The Your Party boss responded that they’ve been calling for political reorganization from the day they formed the party (which is true). He asked again for an equal merger, and again he was rejected.

Mr. Matsui later said they will continue to talk to avoid running candidates in the same election districts, but it will be unavoidable, and they will try to minimize it.

Perhaps Japan Restoration has some foresight about Your Party’s fortunes. Mr. Watanabe campaigned several times for a Your Party candidate in a local election last weekend in his home district in Tochigi, but the candidate lost to one backed by the LDP and New Komeito.

Affairs are still in flux, however. Just yesterday Hashimoto Toru said Japan Restoration would probably be able to field only 100 candidates in time for the election. (One reason the major parties want an earlier election is to prevent the smaller parties from building a full candidate list.) He made a reference to working with Your Party if they also ran 100 candidates — in other words, supporting the east-west alliance he rejected a few weeks ago. Watanabe Yoshimi also gave a campaign speech today calling for the support of Japan Restoration.

Whatever is going on here, you won’t be able to read a reliable account of it in either the Yomiuri Shimbun or the Asahi Shimbun, the nation’s two largest newspapers. The Asahi is opposed to Mr. Hashimoto because they’re of the left, and the Yomiuri is opposed to him because he’s anti-establishment.

* Omura and Kawamura

As the story at the link above shows, Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi and Aichi Gov. Omura Hideaki formed a regional alliance for the Triple Election in February last year. Both also organized political seminars this year to train people who supported their ideas for elective office.

Mr. Kawamura was the first to create a political party: Tax Reduction Japan. Mr. Omura followed by creating the Aichi is Top of Japan Party. The trouble started when he converted that party into the Chukyo Ishin no Kai, or the Chukyo Restoration Group, in August. The name is intentionally modeled on that of the Japan Restoration Party. His group was formed specifically to align with the Hashimoto group and fulfill the conditions for becoming a national party.

That cheesed off Mr. Kawamura, who was on an overseas trip at the time. He was miffed because the Aichi governor told Mr. Hashimoto about his plans, but didn’t tell him. The Nagoya mayor flew off the handle, saying their relationship of trust was broken and they couldn’t work together any more.

Some people saw it as a deliberate snub by Mr. Omura to break off ties with Mr. Kawamura. The former (at the left in the photo) is the straight-arrow policy type, while the latter (at the right) is the unkempt populist with a desire to be a major player. For example, he wondered if the Chukyo region would be relegated to being the subcontractor for Osaka.

Hashimoto Toru encouraged both of them to patch up their differences, because working together is would benefit everyone, and the policies were more similar than different.

And that’s just what the two men seem to have done while the media spotlight was pointed in a different direction. They announced an agreement to work together for the coming election after discussions that lasted late into the night of the 19th.

* Hashimoto and Omura and Kawamura

During the Triple Election campaign in Nagoya and Aichi, volunteers from the Osaka group went to the region to help both candidates because of their general agreement on devolution. Since then, however, it’s been a long strange trip that keeps getting stranger.

When Omura Hideaki created the Chukyo Restoration Group, Hashimoto Toru said that despite the name, they were unrelated to the Osaka group. They were independent and they hadn’t thought about an alliance for the national election. He added that Aichi support for their positions would be the condition for any alliance.

But then in October, a group from Osaka went to Aichi for a conference with letter from Hashimoto Toru asking Mr. Omura to form an Aichi Restoration Party. The alliance seemed like a natural: Not only are their policies similar, but they share policy advisors in journalist Tahara Soichiro, former Finance Ministry bureaucrat Takahashi Yoichi, and Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s jack of all trades, Takenaka Heizo.

The Aichi governor said that an alliance would take time, however, because he was still working with Kawamura Takashi. A blurb of two or three sentences appeared in one newspaper earlier this week announcing that Aichi and Osaka had worked out an agreement. In fact, Mr. Omura would be given the leeway to choose the candidate for one of the Aichi Diet districts in the election.

But just this morning, Mr. Omura announced that he would resign his position as advisor to the Osaka party to focus on his ties with Kawamura Takashi.

Your guess is as good as mine about this one. The best I can come up with is that working with Mr. Kawahara is a better way to solidify his position in Aichi.

Meanwhile, Kawahara Takashi’s attitude toward an agreement with Hashimoto Toru was 180° in the opposite direction. He was so anxious to create an alliance that a hand was coming out of his throat, as an old Japanese expression has it.

He’s long been friendly with Ozawa Ichiro, but when he spoke at a political seminar for the People First Party, the new Ozawa Ichiro vehicle, he said his priority was working with Hashimoto Toru and former Tokyo Metro Governor Ishihara Shintaro. (That might also have been a function of his assessment of the extent of Ozawa Ichiro’s political influence in the future; i.e., not very much.)

The problem, however, is that both Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Matsui have been giving the Nagoya mayor their cold shoulders. Mr. Kawamura thought a merger with Japan Restoration was going to happen when he reached an agreement to do just that with Ishihara Shintaro and his Sun Party, but no one else thought so. Mr. Ishimura thought it might be a problem with the tax reduction name in his party, and Mr. Kawamura obligingly offered to change it.

But Hashimoto Toru said the name had nothing to do with it: it was all content. He also said, however, that “In today’s circumstances, tax reduction is the wrong message.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the Osaka mayor is a tax hiker; rather, his position has always been that there should be a public debate and a consensus formed about what public services people want to receive. After reaching that consensus, it will then be time to figure out how to pay for them.

Mr. Kawamura, on the other hand, seems to favor the Starve the Beast approach: Don’t give the public sector the money to begin with. It isn’t widely known, but he also favors establishing neighborhood citizens’ councils to determine how public funds will be spent. In other words, his approach is the reverse of Mr. Hashimoto’s.

The Nagoya mayor is also opposed to TPP participation, while the Osaka mayor favors it. They were both anti-nuclear power, but Mr. Hashimoto has since modified that stance. Also, two of the five Diet members in Mr. Kawamura’s national party, which was formed at end of October, were LDP postal privatization rebels that former Prime Minister Koizumi threw out of the party. Hashimoto Toru supports the privatization of Japan Post.

Another reason Mr. Hashimoto cited for being unwilling to work with Tax Cut Japan is that another one of their Diet members, Kumada Atsushi, a lower house MP from Osaka, switched his party affiliation from the DPJ, but not before he accepted JPY 3 million to offset his campaign expenses. That’s not the sort of person he wants to work with.

Matsui Ichiro offered a blander rationale:

It’s not possible as of now. We haven’t had any policy discussions. There’s not enough time.

But wait!

After weeks of letting his tongue hang out in the national media, insisting that it would be easy to overcome the differences with Japan Reform, Mr. Kawamura announced today that he — he! — was rejecting an alliance with them. He’ll work with Aichi Gov. Omura instead.

But wait again!

Lower House MP Kobayashi Koki, Tax Reduction Japan’s acting president, said the whole point of the party going national was to work with people like Japan Restoration. After Mr. Kawamura’s announcement, he said he wanted to leave the party and join Japan Restoration. He got approval for both of his requests.

* Hashimoto and Ishihara

That brings us to strangest story of them all — the merger of Japan Restoration with Ishihara Shintaro’s four-day-old Sun Party and the appointment of Mr. Ishihara as the head of the party.

It was strange because Hashimoto Toru insisted that it wouldn’t happen, for several reasons. The first was policy differences — Mr. Ishihara and the Sun Party support nuclear power and oppose participation in TPP. Those positions are the opposite of those of Japan Restoration. The second was outlook. Mr. Hashimoto said an alliance was out of the question if the members of the Sunrise Japan party, the group that the Tokyo governor formed two years ago, joined the Sun Party. He explained that there would be no union with “pure conservatives”. (By that he means paleo-cultural conservatives.)

Another factor is that Your Party wants no part of Ishihara Shintaro at all. An alliance would threaten any cooperation with them.

The Osaka mayor said talks would get nowhere unless they changed their policies. What happened is that he changed his, even after Sunrise Japan joined the Sun Party. Here’s the list of common policies they agreed on:

1. Convert the consumption tax to a regional tax and cap the rate at 11%.

Making the consumption tax a regional tax will make a close relationship with the LDP difficult.

2. Begin discussions to achieve a state/province system

3. Implement measures to support SMBEs and microenterprises.

4. Social welfare funding sources: Eliminate the portion of central government tax revenues allocated to local governments, optimize social insurance premiums, reexamine benefit levels, and supplement the funding with revenues from the income tax and asset tax.

5. Take a positive attitude toward TPP negotiations but will oppose them if they’re not in national interest.

This is a compromise for both men.

6. Create rules and other safety standards for nuclear power.

Not only has is that a reversal of the Hashimoto position, it just might end opposition to nuclear power as a political issue. An NHK poll taken this week found that only 9% of the electorate considers it to be their most important issue.

7. Urge China to take Senkakus dispute to ICJ.

8. Prohibit corporate and group donations to politics.

[[UPDATE: Yankdownunder sent in this link showing #8 is now inoperable.]]

Mr. Ishihara suggested that he and Mr. Hashimoto share the party presidency, but the younger man declined and took the de facto number two position. His thinking was that he still has a job to do in Osaka, and Osakans would be displeased if he gave up his position a year into his term for a Diet seat.

Said Mr. Ishihara after the deal was cut:

The popular will is filled with fluffy ideas, such as ‘nuclear power is frightening’. Populism is flattering those ideas….The largest, most definite segment of the popular will, however, is ‘This country is in trouble. Do something!’ We must change the structure of governance by the central bureaucracy…

…People talk about a ‘third force’, but we have to become the second force. We have to discard our minor disagreements in favor of our greater agreements and fight together. I’ll be the one to die first, so I’ll pass on the baton later to Mr. Hashimoto. There’s no other politician who acts as if his life depends on it.

Putting aside the question of whether this merger pays off in votes and Diet seats, there are advantages for both parties. Don’t forget that Ishihara Shintaro was the co-author of the Japan That Can Say No. He now is allied with a popular and adroit younger politician who can create the environment in which public figures will stand up for Japan, rather than truckle to other countries. He’s also popular enough to drive the issue of Constitutional reform — and several other previously taboo issues besides.

For example, this week Ishihara Shintaro said this week that Japan should conduct a simulation of the use of a nuclear weapon as a deterrent. He added that he was not calling for a public discussion of whether Japan should now make nuclear weapons, but that it was only his personal opinion.

It might be only his personal opinion, but it has now been broached for public discussion. He added:

Saying that you won’t have nuclear weapons means that your voice in world affairs carries absolutely no weight. Even the US gets all wobbly when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear program.

There will also be no sucking air through the teeth and saying so sorry to China:

It would be desirable if Japan-China relations were friendly, but it would not be desirable at all if Japan became a second Tibet due to Chinese hegemonism.

For his part, Mr. Hashimoto is now allied with someone who has a power base in Tokyo/Kanto, giving the party a real east-west presence. That ally also has a national presence, which Mr. Hashimoto is still developing. It should not be overlooked that the most popular politicians in the country’s two largest cities are now allies working to reduce the power of the central government. (And Nagoya is the third-largest city; even without a formal alliance, Kawamura Takashi is likely to work with them more often than not.)

The drawback is that this merger creates a political party with as much internal incompatibility as the Democratic Party of Japan. One of Hashimoto Toru’s most prominent advisors and supporters is Takenaka Heizo, the Koizumi privatization guru. Also in the party by way of Sunrise Japan is that most paleo of paleo-conservatives, Hiranuma Takeo. Here’s what Mr. Hiranuma thinks of the Koizumi/Takenaka policies.

Perhaps it is the hope of the folks in Osaka that they’ll have outlived the paleos when the time comes they are no longer of use to each other.

I’m no psephologist, and I have no desire to become one, so there will be no predictions from me about this election. You can hear all sorts of wildly varying predictions now anyway. The weekly Sunday Mainichi thinks the LDP and New Komeito combined will win 280 seats, giving them a lower house majority. They project the DPJ will win only 90 seats. The weekly Shukan Gendai, however, wonders if the LDP and New Komeito can reach 200 seats, and they think 75 is a real possibility for Japan Restoration.

The polls are all over the place, and as of this week, close to half the electorate is still undecided. A recent NHK poll found public interest in the election to be very high, and turnout could soar. That means anything in this election is possible, and all sorts of possibilities are flying around. There are now 14 political parties qualified to take part in the election, many of which will not exist at this time next year. One of them is a two-man party formed by a DPJ renegade and ex-People’s New Party head (and before that, ex-LDP honcho) Kamei Shizuka. Mr. Kamei formed his old party as a receptacle for the vested interests of Japan Post after he was dumped from the LDP for opposing privatization. He was a junior coalition partner of the DPJ for the specific purpose of allowing the DPJ to pass legislation in the upper house, and his reward was a Cabinet ministry. The party name for this dynamic duo is The Anti-TPP, Anti-Nuclear Power, Achieve a Freeze of the Consumption Tax Party. (Oh, yes it is!)

The cement in Japanese politics is now wet. The political realignment that people have been waiting for has arrived, or at least the first phase of it. The Big Bang election that just as many people have been waiting for has also arrived, or at least the first in a series of large bangs. If nothing else, the political class will finally learn what they can expect from the voters for betraying their trust and expectations after three years with the DPJ in charge. If they don’t now, they never will.


* Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko said this week:

I will not participate in a competition to lean rightward.

This is the self-described conservative speaking.

On the other hand, he has no choice, whatever it is he really believes.

Roughly 40% of the current DPJ MPs have close labor union ties, and the party’s largest source of organizational support is labor unions.

* During a 15 November TV broadcast, DPJ lower house MP and member of the Noda faction/group, said: “Noda’s attitude changed after he made the deal with Abe. He dissolved the Diet because Abe could put him in the Cabinet — particularly because the Finance Ministry wants him to see the consumption tax through.”

Sitting next to him was former agriculture minister, former DPJ member, and for another month anyway, lower house MP Yamada Masahiko. He heard this and marveled, “Oh, of course that’s what must have happened!” The announcer changed the subject.

Some people expect an LDP-DPJ-New Komeito coalition based on the consumption tax increase passage. Perhaps this has all been a chaban geki designed to stifle the local parties while the stifling’s still possible.

* Said LDP Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru:

The LDP’s biggest foe is the LDP from three years ago, not the DPJ.

He’s right.

* Prime Minister Noda is demanding that all candidates sign a loyalty oath to the party’s policies. That was the excuse Hatoyama Yukio was looking for to retire from politics. It will save him the embarrassment of losing his Hokkaido seat outright, which was a real possibility.

* Former TV comedian and popular Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, who palled around a lot with Hashimoto Toru in 2008, is mulling a run as a PR representative for Japan Restoration in either the Tokyo or Kyushu bloc.

He considered running again for Tokyo Metro District governor — he lost to Ishihara Shintaro last year — but decided against it.

But that was earlier this week. Today he said he was still thinking about which he would do.

* Only the old-line journalists are talking much about Ozawa Ichiro in this election. I suspect he is a man whose time has come and gone, and people see him as holding a losing hand. Both Hashimoto Toru and Matsui Ichiro have said they weren’t interested in any arrangement with him. One reason is that his unpopularity would wound Mr. Hashimoto in the same way that Abe Shinzo’s decision to readmit the Japan Post rebels to the LDP wounded him.

* There are other local Restoration parties in addition to the ones discussed here. Three of them are in Ehime: One for the prefecture itself, with four prefecture council members, one for the city of Matsuyama, with 13 city council members (29% of the council), and one for the city of Seiyo, with seven council members (one-third of the total). They’re all working together.

Everybody needs to go to the same karaoke box and belt this out:

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Wabbit season! Duck season! Kan season!

Posted by ampontan on Monday, April 18, 2011

The Kan DPJ has three principles when someone asks who will take responsibility for the election defeats: We will not apologize, we will not accept responsibility, and we will assume a defiant attitude. No one’s going to accept responsibility.
– A politician described as a “veteran Diet member”, speaking to a reporter off the record

IN ADDITION to determining the chief executives of local governments and the composition of prefectural and municipal assemblies, the first round of sub-national elections held throughout the country a week ago last Sunday ended the moratorium on political warfare that began with the Tohoku earthquake on 11 March. Hunting season on Prime Minister Kan Naoto and his Cabinet has resumed. Unlike the wascally wabbits and the ducks, however, the prey painted the targets on themselves.

The Democratic Party of Japan was desperate to bag some big game of its own in the balloting. The party has always had weak organizations at the local level, and they viewed the election as a means to strengthen their presence. The national party had hoped to win an outright majority in last summer’s upper house election, eliminating the need for coalition partners, but they lost seats instead. They’ve been smacked around in local elections since then, and were humiliated in the Nagoya/Aichi elections of February, an area where they traditionally do well. Had it not been for the political ceasefire called after the earthquake, Mr. Kan would already have been a dead duck rather than a lame one.

Prime Minister Kan in camouflage clothing at Ishinomaki

The prime minister tried to play his part. He demonstrated his familiarity with the concept of Western-style photo ops by paying a third visit to the distressed region on Election Day, and the news media cooperated by treating his trip as if it were an important story. Few of them reported that he spent all of 10 minutes at a shelter in Ishinomaki, Miyagi, and talked to two of the 15 people staying there. His inspiring message? Gambatte kudasai, please do your best. One resident later offered a rhetorical question to a reporter: Is that all he can say? Mr. Kan spent the rest of his time on the ground meeting with local pols, making a quick trip to survey the fishing port, and giving an impromptu radio broadcast. One wonders how many people bothered to tune in.

He might as well have sent a decoy instead. Japan has 47 prefectures, corresponding to states or provinces, and 41 held elections for their local assemblies. The DPJ failed to become the majority party in any of them. The Asahi Shimbun reported that the percentage of victory for party-backed candidates in the prefectural assembly elections was 60% for the DPJ and 90% for the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. LDP- and DPJ-backed candidates went head-to-head in three gubernatorial elections, and the DPJ lost all three.

In short, the people have given the DPJ government in general, and the Kan government in particular, a second vote of no confidence. The Mainichi Shimbun noted that the results were not only a reflection of Mr. Kan’s unpopularity. They were also, the newspaper said, a reflection of the party’s general weakness as a political group, their inadequacy at conducting the day-to-day business of retail politics, and their inability to coordinate candidates.

Here’s one example: The party wanted to find 21 candidates for the Nara prefectural assembly to run under the party banner (rather than the other options of “recommendation” or “support”). They canvassed several districts for interest, but got no takers. Said the local party chairman, “The confusion in the Diet has spread and created a sense of disappointment in the party itself.” Some of the people who agreed to run as official DPJ candidates later changed their minds and withdrew. The party wound up backing 15 candidates in all. It was the first try for public office for six of them, and five of them lost.

The Nishinippon Shimbun wrote that the election shows the voters are continuing to desert the established parties, particularly the DPJ, and shift to local parties. They called it another step towards devolution and the kind of tax reform that isn’t a euphemism for a tax increase. While they have a point, the local parties did not perform as well as they had hoped, as we shall see.


None of the gubernatorial candidates in the Tokyo Metro District election ran with the official backing of the DPJ or LDP at the national level, though the local LDP and New Komeito backed 78-year-old incumbent Ishihara Shintaro, and the local DPJ supported businessman Watanabe Miki.

That the ruling party of national government was unable to recruit a candidate for the most visible sub-national office in the country is evidence of their problems. They tried to convince Ren Ho to leave her upper house seat to run, but she demurred. The polls did not look good for her even before Mr. Ishihara changed his mind and decided to seek another term. Besides, having to take real executive responsibility instead of serving as one of more than 700 legislators and Cabinet window dressing would be too much like real work.

Mr. Ishihara was reelected to a fourth term with 43.40% of the vote in a multi-candidate field. Mr. Watanabe finished a poor third with 16.81%. In between was former Miyazaki governor and show business personality Higashikokubaru Hideo, who ran without party support, official or unofficial, and received 28.06% of the vote.

A more detailed look at the results reveals some fascinating information. Mr. Higashikokubaru finished first among voters in their 20s, with 42.2%. He was less popular among voters aged 40 and older, however. He also appealed to the independent bloc—they gave 34.8% of their votes to Mr. Ishihara, but 32.1% to Mr. Higashikokubaru. (That’s more bad news for the DPJ—independents account for roughly half of all voters, and the DPJ-backed candidate received an even lower percentage of the independent votes than he did overall.)

Most people attribute Mr. Ishihara’s victory to the support of local LDP voters and the perception that he would be the most capable person to take charge in the event of a Tohoku-like crisis.


A more painful result for the DPJ, and the one that might cost Secretary-General Okada Katsuya his job, was the gubernatorial election in Mie. It was the first time in 16 years this election had been directly contested by both the ruling and opposition parties in national government. In addition, the DPJ does well in Mie—the party holds four of the prefecture’s five seats in the lower house of the Diet, and two in the upper house. The officially endorsed or recommended DPJ candidate had won five straight prefecture-wide elections since 2000, including the last election for governor. Finally, it is also Mr. Okada’s home prefecture.

The two primary candidates were Suzuki Eikei, an ex-bureaucrat in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, and Matsuda Naohisa, the former mayor of Tsu. Mr. Suzuki was recommended by the LDP and Your Party and supported by New Komeito. Mr. Matsuda was recommended by the DPJ.

The national opposition parties devoted particular attention to this election. Abe Shinzo and Aso Taro, two former LDP prime ministers, stumped for Mr. Suzuki, as did Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi.

Mr. Suzuki won.


If anyone in Japanese politics today can be said to roll their own, it would be Osaka Prefecture Gov. Hashimoto Toru. No one, including the governor himself, can anticipate what he’ll say or do next, but that doesn’t bother the people of Osaka. They still give him 70%+ support in polls in the last year of his first term.

Gov. Hashimoto and his party came this close

His eccentric orbit notwithstanding, he has always piloted his spacecraft in the galaxy of regionalism. His consistent position has been that local governments should have more authority and the national government less. Over the course of his first term, he developed what he calls the Osaka-to Concept. By that he means reorganizing the prefectural government into a structure administratively similar to that of Tokyo’s. The Tokyo Metro District government has the primary responsibility for the municipal administration of the core 23 wards of the “city” of Tokyo, but the city of Osaka and its 24 wards are now governed independently of Osaka Prefecture. The governor’s idea is to incorporate the governance of that city and the city of Sakai with that of the prefecture, and to give Osaka’s wards more authority than those of Tokyo’s 23 wards.

Mr. Hashimoto created the Osaka Ishin no Kai, a de facto political party, to achieve that goal. His group backed candidates in the elections for the Osaka Prefecture Assembly and the assemblies of the city of Osaka and Sakai. The latter is a substantial city in its own right, with a population of 840,000.

The results of the election were mixed. Mr. Hashimoto’s party won 57 of 109 seats in Osaka Prefecture—the first outright majority in that chamber by any political party since the end of the war. They also won 33 of 86 seats in the city of Osaka (having backed 44 candidates) and 13 of 52 seats in Sakai, to become the largest party in both chambers.

But because the party failed to win an outright majority in the two cities, Mr. Hashimoto declared the election to have been a failure. He said he would go back to the drawing board for his Osaka-to Concept, even though the day before the election he declared that a majority wouldn’t be necessary if he received cooperation from other delegates.

A few days later, he announced that he and his group will hold discussions with the other parties in the two cities to reach a consensus by September. If an agreement is impossible, he will resign in November, four months before his term is scheduled to end, and run in a double election in December when the city of Osaka selects its mayor. That is an imitation of the successful strategy employed by Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi in February. Speaking of Nagoya and Aichi…


Nagoya Mayor Kawamura Takashi and Aichi Governor Omura Hideaki continued the alliance that won them election in February on a program to cut local taxes by 10%. Their objective was to capture an outright majority for their political groups in the Aichi prefectural assembly.

They did pick up seats, but not as many as they wanted, and not a majority. Their total went from one to 18 members in a 103-seat chamber, and 45 if the candidates they recommended are included. The LDP lost its outright majority, but they are still the largest party with 49 seats.

Most observers think the earthquake/tsunami dimmed the appeal of their tax-cutting program. Mr. Kawamura attributed the defeat to “the mistaken theory that a tax increase was unavoidable”, but he stuck to his guns at a post-election news conference: “In difficult times, you have to stimulate the economy with a tax cut.”

Mr. Omura thought the general mood of self-restraint resulted in a subdued campaign. The turnout was disappointing after the interest generated by the triple elections two months ago. Just 42.01% of the voters went to the polls. 1.09 percentage points down from the previous election, and the lowest percentage ever.


Located next door to Aichi, Shizuoka was another battleground for the fight between the Tax Reduction Japan of Kawamura Takashi in Nagoya and the established parties. The former mayor of Shizuoka City stepped down after 16 years in office, clearing the field for new candidates. The LDP recommended Tanabe Nobuhiro, while Unno Toru, who lost the same election four years ago by 1,303 votes, ran under the Tax Reduction Japan banner. Mr. Tanabe also received the endorsement of several influential local DPJ politicians.

Thus the two largest national parties created an ad hoc, de facto alliance of forces to take on the insurgents. Both Maehara Seiji, who recently resigned as defense minister in the DPJ government, and LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru campaigned in Shizuoka for Mr. Tanabe. He cannily used the post-earthquake mood and the year-long political turmoil in Nagoya to good effect against an opponent with greater name recognition. His speeches always presented this choice: “The election during this crisis is (the choice of) selecting either a stable city government or a city government in turmoil.” He stressed unity and contrasted that with the combative attitude of his tax-cutting neighbors. He made a point to always appear on stage with politicians from both the LDP and DPJ, and declare in his speeches: “Now is the time for us to become one. Men, women, people in their 20s, people in their 80s, the DPJ, the LDP…I have plenty of colleagues”

In contrast, Mr. Unno’s campaign slogan was “true government reform begins with tax reduction.”

Mr. Tanabe won the election with 45% of the vote. Mr. Unno received 42%, and a third candidate received the rest.

Meanwhile, the DPJ suffered large losses in the prefectural assembly, and the LDP won an outright majority.

The earth quakes in Nagata-cho

The many people who would like to see Mr. Kan gone were dismayed immediately after the earthquake/tsunami because they thought the disaster might prolong his occupancy in the Kantei by up to a year. Wrote former journalist, author, and commentator Shioda Maruo:

“Though (the earthquake) was a bitter event that left many people saddened, one person gained from it—Prime Minister Kan Naoto. The Kan administration had lost all support and become a mudboat that seemed to be on the verge of sinking at any moment. The emergency left the opposition, which was about to corner the government, no choice but to call a cease fire. Prime Minister Kan himself must have thought he had been saved. When I look at him, behaving as if his mudboat has been made seaworthy again, it makes my blood boil.”

Caution: Kan at Work

A less-than-inspirational figure under normal circumstances, Mr. Kan staggered rather than rose to the occasion. He nearly broke down at a news conference and did not hold another for three weeks. He finally showed up on the day after a national newspaper called him the hikikomori prime minister. (Hikikomori is the word used to describe those young people who hole up in a bedroom of their parents’ homes rather than conduct normal lives.) His behavior left the impression that uppermost in his mind was converting the disaster to political capital, thereby extending his term.

In addition, his administration made the conscious decision to shut out the bureaucracy from decision-making to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. While the political class does need to put the Kasumigaseki bureaucrats in their place, they could also utilize the machinery of government and the expertise of its operators in this situation. Mr. Kan chose instead to show everyone that the DPJ government could do it themselves. Less than competent under normal circumstances, they again staggered rather than rose to the occasion and showed everyone that they can’t.

Mr. Kan is often criticized for his tendency to do whatever pops into his head at the moment. That tendency became manifest again when he made an out-of-the-blue telephone call to LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu with the demand that the latter immediately agree to join a coalition government. He hadn’t bothered to discuss the possibility with anyone in his party or government beforehand, and insisted that Mr. Tanigaki decide without talking it over with his own party. When the LDP chief asked him for time to take the proposal to his colleagues, the prime minister said he took that as a refusal and would describe it that way to the news media—which he did. (Are the reasons people dislike Mr. Kan becoming clearer?)

Another frequent criticism of Mr. Kan and his Cabinet is for their seeming preference to form new committees and hold meetings without actually doing anything. A recent Asahi TV program presented a large chart showing they had created 10 new organizations (that I could count) for dealing with the disaster. Who could blame the announcers for speculating on the amount of wasted and duplicated effort? And as if on cue, the prime minister’s semi-regular e-mail message arrived as I was writing this post. The title is, “Launch of the Reconstruction Design Council”. The council held its first meeting yesterday.


Once people realized that the one-two combination of earthquake and tsunami had staggered the country, but not put it on the mat, the DPJ shellacking in the local elections crystallized dissatisfaction with the prime minister, both among his own party and the opposition.

Tokyo Gov. Ishihara Shintaro said what a lot of people were thinking:

“The DPJ was thrashed in both gubernatorial and assembly elections. Will the policies of a government that has lost the trust of the people serve the people?”

About the election results, he said:

“What else could you expect? They’re a group of immature people to start with. It’s inconceivable that they never convened a meeting of the administrative vice-ministers. They talk about saving electricity, but why haven’t they issued a cabinet order?

Mr. Kan might find it easy to dismiss this as an opposition attack, but he will not find it so easy to dismiss the attacks from within his own party.

Here’s DPJ member Ishihara Yosaburo, who represents Fukushima District #1 in the lower house:

“Prime Minister Kan Naoto said he understood (Fukushima) would be a long-term issue and he would deal with it in that manner, but this threatens the lives of the people of Fukushima and Japan. If he thinks this is a long-term issue, I hope he resigns immediately and is replaced by a new regime that can resolve the situation more quickly.”

Haraguchi Kazuhiro, a member of the Hatoyama Cabinet, said the following on the government’s response to Fukushima at a news conference sponsored by the Free Press Association of Japan:

“What should be done to prevent the release of highly concentrated radiation into the sea? If they are incapable of making that decision, the entire Cabinet should resign.”

Tarutoko Shinji, who has run for the DPJ presidency, left no doubt about his intentions despite the circumlocutory language:

“I have an extremely strong feeling that (this government) will not benefit the people in these circumstances.”

The revolt is close to the boiling point. Speaking to party members about the elections, DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya admitted that the leadership’s lack of ability was an acceptable subject for criticism and apologized. Someone shouted from the floor:

“How long are you going to sit there?” (i.e. stay in your current position)

Okada: “Who spoke just now? Raise your hand and say that.”

No one did just then, but that didn’t last long.

Mr. Kan refuses to step down from a job he’s coveted his entire adult life, which has finally led to bipartisan cooperation. Executives from the two major parties are discussing ways to yank him down. JNN reported that senior members of the DPJ and LDP met to devise a strategy for dumping him.

One meeting was attended by Mr. Kan’s predecessor Hatoyama Yukio, Mr. Hatoyama’s chief cabinet secretary Hirano Hirofumi, current LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru, and former LDP Secretary-General Ibuki Bunmei. The LDP is planning to submit a no-confidence motion in the lower house and a censure motion in the upper house, and it is becoming increasingly likely that some in the DPJ will vote for them. The meeting was to determine the timing of the submissions. Mr. Hatoyama thinks it’s too early, but Mr. Hirano said the limits of cooperation have been reached.

Ozawa Ichiro ally Yamaoka Kenji, one of the DPJ party vice-presidents, met with New Komeito Secretary-General Inoue Yoshihisa to discuss avenues of cooperation for removing Mr. Kan and governing post-Kan. Others attending included Hatoyama associate Nakayama Yoshikatsu and former Foreign Minister Tanaka Makiko. Mr. Yamaoka said the situation demanded the creation of a new coalition. Ms. Tanaka, still as blunt as her father after all these years, simply said, “This administration is really bad.”

That brings up the destroyer-of-worlds Ozawa Ichiro, who ostensibly controls the largest single bloc in the party. Not only does he agree that something must be done, he now seems ready to do something about it himself.

Last September Mr. Kan defeated Mr. Ozawa in an election for the post of party president and tried to use that as a wedge to drive him from the party. Now the shoe is on the proverbial other foot. Speaking with uncharacteristic urgency on an Internet TV program, Mr. Ozawa criticized the government’s response to Fukushima:

“We have no idea who (within the government) is responsible, nor what it is they’re supposed to do. This makes less sense than when everything was left to the bureaucrats.”

Speaking to 20 younger Diet members at a party at his home, he said:

“I won’t be forming a (new) party. We are the real DPJ. They are the ones who changed, so shouldn’t they be the ones to leave?”

Depending on the report, Mr. Ozawa is either mulling the possibility of calling for a recall vote within the party or supporting a no-confidence motion in the lower house. The media thinks there are roughly 90 people in Ozawa’s group in the lower house, and 80 DPJ votes are needed to pass that motion. Some wonder if the threat of a no-confidence motion is one way to force Mr. Kan to step down. Mr. Ozawa himself noted that the motion’s passage would require a new lower house election, and there are no suitable places to vote in some parts of the Tohoku region after the destruction.

A further complication is that Sengoku Yoshito is reported to be working behind the scenes in the DPJ to unseat the prime minister and replace him with Okada Katsuya, just as party members are calling for Mr. Okada’s head to pay for the election results. Though Mr. Sengoku served as Kan Naoto’s chief cabinet secretary until an upper house censure forced him to resign, he seems to share everyone else’s low opinion of Mr. Kan’s competence. Indeed, some theorized the reason the prime minister kept his phone call to the LDP chief a secret is that he didn’t want Mr. Sengoku to know.

Popular will

After the DPJ became the largest party in the upper house in the 2007 elections, they tried to force the LDP government to dissolve the lower house and call for new elections. They had a logical reason: The results for the upper house were the most recent expression of popular will.

Once in government, however, that logic has slipped the collective DPJ mind. Though they lost seats in the upper house last year and have performed poorly in local elections since then, culminating in the balloting on the 10th, they aren’t interested in the most recent expression of popular will now. Said Okada Katsuya at a post-election news conference:

“They were local elections. If someone calls for resignations because of them, it would be a mistake.”

He tried to put lipstick on the pig at a meeting of party committee chairmen:

“Even though a defeat is a defeat, we should create standards for counting official recognition and recommendations.”

In other words, the results wouldn’t look so bad if the successful campaigns of non-DPJ pols the party recommended were added to their victory total. That excuse quickly evaporated; one commentator noted: “Changing the method of calculating victories doesn’t change the fact that this was a defeat.”

Asked at a news conference about the possibility that the election performance would cause the prime minister to step down, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio answered:

“The prime minister was given his duties based on the rule of democracy. The true path is the have the Cabinet exert every effort to fulfill those duties.”

Doesn’t that first sentence make you wish dunking stools could be brought back as a means to discipline the political class?

The agenda

Since Kan Naoto’s continued presence is detrimental to his party and the DPJ government, and he is the primary obstacle to discussions about legislation and policy between the ruling and opposition parties, people wonder why he’s staying put.

Here’s one possibility: The leftist elements of the DPJ realize this will be their last chance in government for the foreseeable future and want to make hay before the downpour. Last Wednesday, the DPJ’s project team to examine the establishment of a human rights commission held its first meeting with former Education Minister (and labor union activist) Kawabata Tatsuo as chairman. The Canadian experience with commissions of this sort indicates they are vermin magnets more likely to infringe human rights than to uphold them, but the rest of the world gave up on trying to understand the logic of the left long ago.

Mr. Kawabata and the DPJ want to establish a similar commission affiliated with the Cabinet Office. His team intends to reach a consensus within the party by early May and submit legislation to the current session of the Diet. That will be difficult; some proposals circulating in the party have included giving the commission the authority to search premises and seize documents without a court order. Some in the DPJ don’t care for the whole idea to begin with, and they’re well aware of the potential abuses of the right to free speech.

Explained Mr. Kawabata:

“We can’t put this off for a moment. We achieved a change in government, so I want to take this major step.”

Last month, Sengoku Yoshito told a meeting:

“It is an obligation of the DPJ government to establish this.”

By obligation, he means the establishment of a commission was hidden in the small print of the 2009 party manifesto, though even the DPJ knows that or similar planks in the platform weren’t the reason the electorate voted for them. It’s unlikely that most of the electorate were even aware of them.

One would think the Kan Cabinet has more pressing matters at hand to deal with, but that’s not how the thought process works in his wing of the party.

Speaking of Mr. Kawabata, by the way, more than JPY one million in political funds from his office were once found to have been paid to cabaret clubs for undisclosed reasons. He said it was all legal and didn’t want to discuss it. He also didn’t want to discuss irregularities with his office expenses similar to those that caused problems for later-stage LDP Cabinet ministers.

How lucky for Japan to have a clean party in government for a change!

Up next

And speaking of luck, last week’s events suggest the Kan Cabinet will be lucky to make it through the current Diet session, much less the rest of the year. That will call into question the DPJ government’s continued existence absent a lower house election. But then, a lower house election would highlight what might be a terminal illness.

They’ve never been particularly coherent, but their behavior is increasingly erratic. Discussing the DPJ’s electile dysfunction at a news conference last week, Okada Katsuya seemed oddly detached:

“Because we’re the ruling party, I wanted us to be more aggressive.”

This is the man with direct responsibility for the party’s election campaigns speaking.

The DPJ has been having trouble finding people willing to run as party candidates in elections, and they were incapable of fielding an official candidate in the Tokyo Metro District governor’s election. Now they’ve decided not to run an official candidate for the lower house by-election in Aichi’s District #6 to replace Ishida Yoshihiro, who resigned to run for mayor of Nagoya. (He lost.) Candidacy declarations were made on the 12th for the election to be held on the 24th, coinciding with the second round of sub-national elections. Five people declared, including people from the LDP and Tax Reduction Japan. None were from the DPJ.

It is telling that party executives said they decided not to run a candidate because of persistent criticism of the government and their recent dismal electoral performance.

In other words, the ruling party of government is not defending a seat it holds in a prefecture that is traditionally one of their strongholds because they know people don’t like them.

Commented Ishihara Nobuteru:

“That’s extremely unusual. It’s a by-election to replace a DPJ MP who ran for mayor. I thought the DPJ would be the first to decide on a candidate to defend their seat.”

Japan’s Democratic Party was incapable of winning national elections until they allowed Ozawa Ichiro to join and teach them. He’s no longer willing to serve as tutor, however–earlier this year, the DPJ suspended Mr. Ozawa from party activities because of his legal difficulties. Their clumsy bungling once in office put them behind the electoral eight ball even with Mr. Ozawa on side, but now he’s outside the tent pissing in, to use former US President Lyndon Johnson’s phrase. Maybe there’s something to the karma idea after all.

The real question is not how long the Kan Cabinet survives, but how long the Democratic Party of Japan survives in its present form.

Which one of these characters reminds you of Kan Naoto?

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The sick man of Northeast Asia

Posted by ampontan on Monday, January 11, 2010

It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged.
– G.K. Chesterton

THE SICK MAN OF EUROPE was a phrase applied to the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century after it had lost most of its territory and fallen under the financial control of the European powers. The description was so apt that it permanently entered the political lexicon. It was later employed to describe Great Britain in the late 1970s, a time of long, unexplained power blackouts, uncollected garbage in the streets, and governments that seemed to have less real power than labor unions.

Journalists and political commentators have recently put the expression to use for Germany, Greece, and Italy. The Economist of Great Britain thought it was a fitting way to characterize business and governmental conditions in Italy in 2005, even while emphasizing that the country still appeared to be quite a pleasant place to live.

Japan hasn’t succumbed to illness yet, but the venality, incompetence, and disregard of the public interest by the government (including the new “reformers”), the bureaucracy, and big business have so weakened the national constitution that it seems the only medicine effective to prevent the country from becoming the Sick Man of Northeast Asia would be large and repeated doses of electoral antibiotics by the public.

The story of last week’s resignation of Fujii Hirohisa from his post as Finance Minister contains the elements of all these bacilli as if they had been cultured in a single Petri dish.

The sick man of the Cabinet

Mr. Fujii said that he resigned his position barely four months after being sworn in because of his health. He is 77 years old and had already retired from politics once in 2005 after losing his lower house seat in the September election that year, though he said at the time his retirement was due to age. Mr. Fujii returned to the Diet as a replacement in 2007 for a proportional representation seat.

Fujii Hirohisa

No one in the country believes for a minute the story about his health. The conventional wisdom is that he was forced out by Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro, who it is now clear has the ultimate authority in government. The breaking point, say the pundits, came when Mr. Fujii supported Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio’s plan to cut the “temporary” surtax on gasoline, which the DPJ had tried to use as a wedge issue against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party when the former were still in the opposition. A veteran of the Finance Ministry, Mr. Fujii might have been inclined to keep the tax to help pay for the promises in the DPJ platform, but he chose to back the prime minister instead.

Mr. Ozawa, as party head, insisted that the tax be maintained despite the platform pledge to eliminate it, and his word is about to become law. Mr. Hatoyama looked every inch the humiliated schoolboy at a press conference last month when he told the public he was reneging on his promise, though he tried to save face by saying the tax would be converted to a different form. At that point, Mr. Fujii threw in the spoon, which is what the Japanese toss instead of towels when they give up.

The background

The real story may be even more disturbing. Before we get to that, however, here’s the background information critical for a clearer view of the picture.

* Mr. Fujii started his career in the Ministry of Finance. He retired after reaching the post of Budget Examiner in the MOF’s Budget Bureau in 1976. The MOF is the most powerful of the Japanese bureaucracies in the country’s government-within-a-government. The Budget Bureau was the entity that oversaw the dog-and-pony show that was billed as the new DPJ government’s review of unnecessary government programs conducted to great media hoopla last fall in a Tokyo gym. (The Budget Bureau chose the programs to be reviewed and issued recommendations to all the participants on the steps to be taken.)

* After leaving the MOF, he joined the LDP and was elected to the upper house. He later switched to the lower house.

* Leaving the LDP in 1993, he helped Ozawa Ichiro form the Japan Renewal Party that same year. Most of his subsequent political activity has been in partnership with Mr. Ozawa. He has been described as one of the latter’s closest advisors and confidantes.

* He served as Finance Minister in the short-lived Hosokawa and Hata governments in 1994, which were also puppetized behind the scenes by an ill-concealed Mr. Ozawa.

* He has since moved through several other parties with Mr. Ozawa, including the Liberal Party, which was part of the ruling coalition in the late 1990s. Mr. Fujii served as the secretary-general of the Liberal Party, as well as that of the DPJ when current Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya was party head.

* When Mr. Ozawa’s chief aide was arrested for a fund-raising scandal last year, eventually forcing his boss’s resignation as party leader, Mr. Fujii was initially one of his comrade’s most ardent defenders. It soon became clear, however, that keeping Mr. Ozawa as party leader would jeopardize the DPJ’s success in the election that had to be held by October. But Mr. Ozawa’s positions on personal loyalty and party discipline closely resemble those of Genghis Khan, and that meant the younger party members who wanted him gone were fearful of speaking out. Finally, Mr. Fujii decided to take the heat on himself and spoke in their place by calling for the party leader to resign. As far as Mr. Ozawa was concerned, that ended their close political alliance of the past two decades.

What really happened?

Political journalist and commentator Itagaki Eiken tells an entirely different story about the Fujii resignation. It is important to know that Mr. Itagaki does not hide his support for the DPJ.

First, claims Mr. Itagaki, the finance minister did have some health problems, but the primary one was not the official story of fatigue and high blood pressure. Rather, it was that Mr. Fujii drinks too much. He is known to have a taste for liquor, and Mr. Itagaki passed along the information that the minister carried a personal stash on his official government car for an occasional snort of Sneakin’ Pete to help him make it through the day. Apparently his consumption rose as the pressure mounted to come up with a workable budget for a heavily indebted country ruled by a new, redistributionist left-wing government under the thumb of Ozawa Ichiro, whose only policy principle is the lavish distribution of pork to achieve and keep political power.

Mr. Itagaki is unsympathetic and thinks that if Mr. Fujii has any health problems, he got what was coming to him.

The point of contention

In an effort to smash the ties between MPs who have long acted as de facto lobbyists for the bureaucracy, Ozawa Ichiro last year created a new organization under the office of the DPJ Secretary-General—in other words, under his control. The organization has become the sole body for receiving and evaluating budgetary requests of the national government from industry groups and sub-national governments. Requests made through the bureaucracy or through national legislators will no longer be honored, at least in theory. In other words, the people who want government money will have to ask the party and not the government.

Mr. Ozawa also made it known that support of the groups or local governments for the DPJ will be an important factor in the determination of whether those requests will be granted.

Here’s an example of what that means. Miyazaki Prefecture Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo (and his predecessors) have long complained that economic development in his prefecture has been hobbled by the government’s failure to build a local expressway system. Transportation access to the largely rural Miyazaki is difficult. The governor even held a public debate with DPJ heavyweight Kan Naoto (who replaced Mr. Fujii as finance minister) about government public works projects when the DPJ was in the opposition, and the condition of the debate was that Mr. Kan visit Miyazaki to see for himself. He did, and he agreed that Miyazaki needed an expressway. He said it was the LDP’s fault. The debate was later held in Tokyo. Of all the media outlets, only the Sankei Shimbun saw fit to publish a verbatim record of the debate in its entirety on its website.

But Mr. Higashikokubaru nearly ran for the Diet himself last year as part of the LDP’s reform wing before choosing to finish his first term as governor.

As a result, the construction of an expressway to promote economic development in Miyazaki will have to wait a while longer.

Reversion to type?

On 9 December last year, Mr. Fujii met at a Tokyo hotel with Mitarai Fujio, the chairman of Keidanren, or the Japanese Business Federation. Its membership consists largely of companies listed on the First Section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Mr. Mitarai himself is a past president of Canon. The federation is known as one the three most important groups in the country that represent the interests of Big Business with Big Government.

During the meeting, Mr. Mitarai asked Mr. Fujii that certain preferential tax breaks for business be maintained, and the finance minister agreed. When Mr. Ozawa heard about the agreement, he hit the roof.

Mr. Itagaki refers to the agreement as “careless stupidity” that “benefitted the enemy”. He asserts that Mr. Fujii should have known better because of his long and close association with Mr. Ozawa. Was Mr. Fujii reverting to the bad old days to maintain the ties between the Finance Ministry and Big Business, he asked. Did age and fatigue impair his judgment? Did he have one too many in the back seat on the ride over to the Tokyo hotel?

Mr. Itagaki is just as livid as Mr. Ozawa. He believes that Mr. Fujii has irreparably stained his entire career in government by this one act. He is also contemptuous of Keidanren for not building closer ties with the DPJ, not donating more money to them, and for not falling into line and taking their marching orders from the New Shogun.

Given the journalist’s close ties to the DPJ, it is entirely possible that sources close to Mr. Ozawa fed him this dirt. Mr. Ozawa seems more than capable of splattering mud on the reputation of a long and reliable ally who in the end put principle above personal loyalty. Indeed, he’s even capable of spreading false rumors to gain his measure of childish revenge. But while Mr. Itagaki left in his text the smallest of escape clauses for the alcohol insinuation, he described the meeting between the finance minister and the Keidanren boss with no qualifiers whatsoever.

The replacement

Mr. Hatoyama spent a day trying to convince Mr. Fujii to stay on before giving up. Perhaps the latter decided that discretion was the better part of valor and a better opportunity to stay at home and have a quiet drink in peace. The new finance minister is Kan Naoto, one of the founding members of the DPJ and the man touted as most likely to replace the prime minister sometime this year. (Some people have said as early as this month, but the more sober types think it will be in May.) Mr. Kan is not known as a closet drinker, though it does sometimes seem as if he is nursing a hangover when he speaks in public.

The Economics Whiz

It is a long tradition in Japanese politics for prospective prime ministers to serve as finance ministers for at least a few months to give them a perfunctory idea of how an economy is supposed to function. This is doubly important for Mr. Kan, who as a de facto socialist/left-leaning social democrat is hazy on these matters.

He first became involved in electoral politics with the Socialist Democratic Federation, a group that existed from 1978 to 1994, when its membership split up to join other parties that eventually became part of the DPJ. The SDF was founded under the leadership of Eda Saburo as a splinter group from the old Socialist Party. His son, Eda Satsuki, was the head of a socialist organization in his youth, later joined the DPJ, and is now the president of the upper house, a position that required him to nominally resign his party affiliation.

College professor, author, and blogger Ikeda Nobuo points out that Mr. Kan’s political thinking is colored by a reddish hue and that his ideas have changed little since his university days. He characterized this philosophy as class warfare based on the concept that “Capitalists exploit the workers.” Prof. Ikeda also wrote of Mr. Kan: “His incomprehensible slogan of ‘From the supply side to the demand side’ is easily understood if read as ‘From the capitalists to the workers’.” He notes that Mr. Kan has never offered anything resembling a growth policy in his life; his interest is in income redistribution.

Mr. Kan, however, thinks he has an excellent grasp of economics, and has been holding public debates with Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s former Finance Minister and privatization guru Takenaka Heizo. On his website, Mr. Kan boasts that most economists agree that he comes out on top in those contests.

First day on the job

Unfortunately, Mr. Kan’s knowledge did not include the reticence of finance ministers the world over from making specific statements about exchange rates. People with his worldview still haven’t grasped the principle that the value of any object, including money, is determined by what people are willing to pay for it and not what the government thinks it should be worth. During a press conference on his first day on the job, Mr. Kan said he thought the yen needed to depreciate further against the dollar and helpfully suggested a range in the mid-90s. He added:

“I will consider the impact of exchange rates on the economy, cooperate with the Bank of Japan, and strive to (bring the yen) to an appropriate level.”

This comes from the same party that insisted on a strict segregation of monetary and fiscal policy when they were in the opposition, and absolutely refused to allow ex-MOF officials to be appointed to positions of authority in the BOJ.

His comments so roiled international currency markets that Prime Minister Hatoyama had to reassure them the next morning that exchange rate levels should be left to the markets:

“Basically, as the government, I, at the least, should not refer to exchange rates (sic). The idea is that basically, those statements should be made by business and financial circles…it is desirable for exchange rates to be stable. Extreme volatility is not desirable.”

He magically got Mr. Kan to change his mind on this question within 24 hours, though Mr. Kan also grumbled the government should be specific about the exchange rates it prefers during periods of emergency.

Few people share Mr. Kan’s view of himself as having a solid grasp of money matters. Commenting on his policies to combat deflation, the weekly Shukan Bunshun in its 10 December 2009 issue said he was “tone deaf in economics”. The Economist magazine called him “shallow”, while some Japanese economists described his statements as “rash”. Commenting by Twitter, former Defense Minister Koike Yuriko of the LDP wrote:

“I hope the new finance minister doesn’t misread the word macroeconomics as microeconomics.”

Said the head of one bank, who chose to remain anonymous:

“Mr. Kan understands nothing about the economy.”

The gathering darkness

It has become obvious by now that the new regime and its leaders will be every bit as bad—if not worse—than the one it replaced. The only real step to reform they’ve taken is to funnel all budgetary requests through the party instead of through legislators with ties to the civil service. It may be a bad idea to leave policy in the hands of a bureaucratic elite unaccountable to the electorate, but current conditions in the United States, to cite just one example, show that it’s just as bad an idea to put it in the hands of third-rate hacks inebriate of power and money who pretend to be progressives automatic for the people.

The basic convictions informing the worldview of the most influential members of the present government and its allies have been shown repeatedly everywhere they’ve been tried to have a tenuous connection to everyday reality. Those ideas have become such a part of their identity over the years, however, that even the most dismal of failures will not force them to face the facts and reconsider their positions.

The only common thread among the overall membership of the ruling party itself is that they are a common receptacle for anyone Not of the LDP. In practice, that makes them a congeries that includes leftists, middle-class seekers of the main chance, and people who think Tojo Hideki was misunderstood. This most motley of crews would never have gained control of the government without blind obedience to Ozawa Ichiro, whose political instincts more closely resemble those of a dictator in a single-party state than a political leader in one of the world’s leading democracies.

As one Japanese journalist wrote on his blog:

“The prime minister is just a decoration. In truth, the government is controlled by the party’s General Secretary (shokicho, the term the Japanese Socialist Party used for its leader). This was the political style of the Soviet Communist Party in the past. Is not Japan in the same circumstance today?”

Watanabe Kozo, another former Ozawa ally and friend, former senior advisor to the DPJ, and former deputy speaker of the lower house, had a different way of putting it. He said in Fukushima on the 8th that he thought Mr. Fujii had been “bullied by a ‘mother-in-law’. Speaking of the political weakness of Prime Minister Hatoyama, he said:

“There’s a frightening ‘mother-in-law’ behind him. He’s become something of a pitiful daughter-in-law who doesn’t quite know what’s going on.”

Mr. Hatoyama’s inability to demonstrate even a minimum of leadership skills either domestically or internationally, combined with the puerile and laughable excuses for his own funding scandals, make it a real possibility that his term in office will be shorter than that of Abe Shinzo, Fukuda Yasuo, or Aso Taro. The financial scandals are becoming even more serious for Ozawa Ichiro, but he has vowed to fight the prosecutors while maintaining an iron grip on the party. As a television commentator put it yesterday, any party that permits someone like Ozawa to retain power is “unhealthy”.

A sick party in charge of governance cannot manage the affairs of a healthy nation that is sound in mind and body. The Japanese voted in desperation for change, and wound up the prisoners of incompetents who will demand more of their money in taxes, tokens who’ll vote however Ozawa Ichiro tells them to vote, and preening political egos thrilled with finally having received the opportunity to prove that socialism works. The sickness extends to treating Big Business as “the enemy” and expecting them to pay financial and political fealty even after their favored candidates lost the election, rather than dealing with them as a powerful group lobbying for its own interests. There is little, if any, awareness that “the enemy” is the group most responsible for generating the national wealth they’re so anxious to redistribute.

Absent a breakup of the DPJ or a conviction of Mr. Ozawa, the party is unlikely to have the nerve—or the integrity—to call another lower house election before they’re legally required to do so in 2013. That could be changed by losses in the upper house election this summer, but the opposition LDP is still down for the count after their losses in last summer’s lower house election.

That means the new bosses will follow the old LDP practice of “passing around the washtub” of the premiership to those waiting in line for it, including Mr. Kan, Okada Katsuya, and perhaps even coalition partner Kamei Shizuka.

The danger is that a largely rudderless ship of state will become so encumbered with left-wing bilge that it will drift into a Sargasso Sea of irrelevance, hallucinatory introspection, and hypocritical paternalism, abandoned by the United States and vampired by the Chinese. Unless they find a way to administer electoral shock therapy, the Japanese might be shocked to find they have become the sick man of Northeast Asia.

It is sobering to contemplate what might happen over the course of this decade.

Afterwords: Japanese political parties receive financial assistance from the public treasury based on their number of elected representatives. Parties that dissolve are required to return those funds to the treasury.

As I explained above, the Liberal Party merged with the Democratic Party, and they disbanded to effect that merger. Mr. Fujii was the secretary-general of the party when it disbanded. The party was supposed to return more than $US one million in public funds, but that never happened. Mr. Fujii is widely thought to have been the man responsible for disbursing those funds to the soon-to-be-ex-Liberal Party members, though the money was never accounted for.

Posted in Business, finance and the economy, Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Japan’s bureaucrats bite back

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 13, 2009

NO GROUP ANYWHERE has been on the receiving end of as many brickbats in recent years as the Japanese national civil service. Reformers nationwide are calling for the gutting of Kasumigaseki, the generic term for the bureaucracy taken from the Tokyo district where many of their offices are located. The platform of firebrand Watanabe Yoshimi’s newly formed Your Party has a plank that would cut civil service personnel expenditures by 30% and eliminate 100,000 positions altogether. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan, on the verge of taking power and forming a new government, has vowed to separate Kasumigaseki from the political process.

While most of the opinions of the bureaucrats themselves about this trend are likely to be unprintable, the weekly magazine Shukan Asahi sent Yokota Yumiko to conduct a roundtable discussion with a group of them and find out what the civil servants were willing to say with a civil tongue. The discussion with Ms. Yokota, a journalist who often covers the Japanese bureaucracy, appeared in the magazine’s 24 July issue. The bureaucrats are privy to a lot of information, and they are sharp observers, so it’s worth reading in English. I translated most of it here, though I omitted some sections where there was a bit too much inside baseball. Those participating in the discussion were identified as follows:

Assistants to division heads in the following ministries

Ministry of Finance (MOF)
Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI)
Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare (MHLW)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA)
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT)
Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport (MLIT)

We’ll start with the discussion already in progress:


MOF: The LDP really should hold a presidential election and change their leadership. Since they’re going to lose the lower house election, they could position themselves for the next one by putting such structural reformers as Ishihara Nobuteru and Koike Yuriko (both former Cabinet ministers) in prominent positions. At this rate, they’ll be in the opposition forever.

METI: On 10 July, the prime minister’s closest aides (from the bureaucracy) stayed at the official residence to attend a party given in appreciation for their services. They used the opportunity to begin developing a scenario for dealing with the DPJ, enabling them to deal with the transfer of power whenever it occurred. They didn’t go into much detail, however. It mostly involved creating in each department an A team of bureaucrats for the ruling party and a B team of bureaucrats for the opposition party.

MOFA: Come to think of it, one LDP Diet member lamented that the frequency of attendance of bureaucrats at briefings had fallen to 70%. Are 30% of the human resources now being devoted to the DPJ?

METI: There might have been an increase in the percentage assigned to the DPJ. Many of the party’s younger MPs are ex-METI employees, so they’re often sent to METI offices to call on former colleagues and subordinates.

MOF: There’ve been some rumors the MOFA has frantically been destroying important documents in anticipation of a change in government. A former high-ranking MOFA official recently testified about the existence of documents related to a secret agreement about American nuclear weapons on Japanese territory when the security treaty was revised in 1960, and that officials destroyed those documents.

MOFA: That’s because the DPJ says they’ll look into the problems with those treaties. It’s true that some politicians were told about this, including prime ministers and foreign ministers, such as Hashimoto Ryutaro and Obuchi Keizo. They were selected for their reliability.

MLIT: I’ve heard that the Foreign Ministry submits documents with slight differences to the ruling party and to the opposition party.

MOFA: There are two types of documents created, and some that were checked by superiors and had language changed or omitted have been submitted to the DPJ. They contain less information than those submitted to the (ruling) Liberal Democratic Party. Still, this is great progress, considering that the ministry never used to respond to DPJ requests for information.

MOF: Documents are being saved thanks to requests for the disclosure of information. There’s been a considerable decline in the ability of government offices to gather information. In the past, they would take notes on what was discussed with politicians in informal situations as if they were reporters, and share it with people in their bureau. Now, however, if they make poor judgments about what to keep, they’ll have to destroy the information. It would create serious problems if the information became public.

– Before the summit, it was unfortunate that Prime Minister Aso didn’t make any important personnel changes in LDP party officials, nor did he have a major Cabinet reshuffle.

MHLW: We’ve calculated that the DPJ will win an outright majority. It’s not another case of the “10 lost years”, but it certainly has been “several lost years”. It would have been better to name Masuzoe Yoichi (HLW Minister) party secretary-general and Higashikokubaru Hideo (Miyazaki governor) as the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications. Mr. Masuzoe is a good minister, though he has a poor reputation in the department responsible for handling policy for those suffering from illnesses due to the atomic bombing.

MOF: He is a good minister. He worked with former MHLW Minister Otsuji on the Robust Policy 2009 to eliminate the gap caused by the ceiling of annual growth in social welfare expenditures to 220 billion yen (about $US 2.23 billion) as set forth in the 2006 policy. That caused a lot of trouble for the MOF.

METI: To be honest, the bureaucracy has it the easiest during an election period. Everyone wants the election to come so they can take a break. Even if the DPJ forms a government, we’ll be worried about the Cabinet they put together. It’s possible that Hatoyama Yukio’s problem with campaign contributions will prevent him from sliding into the prime minister’s job so easily. Each of the ministries has had to rework their initial forecasts for the ministers to be selected. That’s caused us a lot of trouble.

MOFA worried about Makiko and Muneo

MOF: And here we thought (DPJ Secretary-General) Okada Katsuya was going to be Finance Minister. If something happens to Mr. Hatoyama, he’ll probably become prime minister. The person holding the finance ministry portfolio in the DPJ shadow cabinet is Nakagawa Masaharu, and he’s incompetent, so the best he can hope for is Vice-Minister. The economist Sakakibara Eisuke would really like the job, but his personality makes that difficult. A lot of his ex-colleagues in the Finance Ministry dislike him.

MOFA: Some people have suggested (former party head and current Vice-President) Maehara Seiji as Foreign Minister, but that would complicate things with China, so he’d probably be better off as the Defense Minister. The worst-case scenario is the rumor of Tanaka Makiko as Foreign Minister, Suzuki Muneo as Vice-Minister, and Sato Masaru as parliamentary aide. Muneo has already asked Mr. Ozawa to put him in a Foreign Ministry post. There are also rumors that a non-politician will be appointed.

(Other rumors about more obscure people omitted)

– The DPJ has a policy of Kasumigaseki reform, including statements that they’ll have everyone at the bureau chief-level and above resign.

MLIT: The senior officials certainly seem to be fretting over it.

MHLW: There’s been a lot of higher-ranked officials drowning their sorrows in Shinbashi bars and grumbling, “What the heck, I’m going to get fired, too.” They’re working hard to get all the information they can, and they say things like, “I hope the LDP government lasts as long as it can,” or “I hope the political realignment hurries up and gets here.”

MOFA: But the DPJ lacks the personnel, so they can’t very well fire some 130 senior officials all at once. They’ll probably wind up keeping about 70%-80% of them.

(A discussion of which bureaucrats in the various ministries would be asked to go follows. One name mentioned was that of Tango Yasutake in the MOF, a former aide to Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro. Mr. Tango was a key person in implementing structural reform and stepped on a lot of toes in the bureaucracy. The MOF representative says that for the DPJ, he is “a Class A war criminal”.)

– Do your ministries have any key people for dealing with the DPJ?

MOF: We have Kagawa Shunsuke…who’s handling that by himself. It’s unusual to have a person like him (a former aide to Ozawa Ichiro).

MLIT: Mr. Kagawa wrote the rough draft for Mr. Ozawa’s 1993 book, Blueprint for a New Japan. I’ve heard that Mr. Ozawa praised him for being “the most accomplished civil servant”. We’re jealous, considering that we have so few connections with the DPJ.

(Further discussion of personnel omitted.)

– Are you making any progress in your response to the DPJ platform?

METI: That platform underwent some editing, and now it’s a lot more realistic. The younger (bureaucrats) are optimistic. They’re relieved, thinking, “At any rate, they won’t be able to achieve any reforms.” There’ll be more people coming over from the new government, but when so many Diet members and private sector personnel who don’t know anything about Kasumigaseki suddenly show up, they won’t know what to do or how to do it. A Cabinet minister can’t handle policy by himself. The vice-ministers and parliamentary aides Mr. Ozawa will bring over won’t be doing any work.

MHLW: Realistically, it will be too late to deal with one measure after the platform is finalized. That’s the idea of merging the Social Insurance Agency with the National Tax Agency. If they’re serious, the shortest amount of time in which it can be accomplished is six months. The DPJ wants to eliminate the citizen payment of insurance premiums and switch to a tax-based system, but there just aren’t any funding sources. Until now, the funding source has been half from taxes and the other half from the insurance premiums paid by citizens. In the end, raising the consumption tax is the only choice.

MEXT: At any rate, the Social Insurance Agency is supposed to be transferred to a new organization next year.

– The DPJ is seen has having a close relationship with labor unions.

MOF: The biggest concern about a change of government is in fact the problem of labor unions. Many of the DPJ Diet members are backed by the Japan Teachers’ Union, the Federation of Electric Power-Related Industry Workers’ Unions of Japan, and the All-Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers’ Union. If the power of the unions increases, there’ll also be an increase in featherbedding, civil servants who don’t do any work. Forget about Kasumigaseki reform. Their slogan of Separation from the Bureaucracy and the facts on the ground don’t match.

MEXT: If Koshi’ishi Azuma becomes the next Minister of Education, that will probably make the JTU more powerful.

MLIT: Government offices won’t be broken up, and you won’t be able to fire civil servants; the problem will just persist.

MOFA: Every organization (in the bureaucracy) has civil servants from labor unions who are really just professional agitators that don’t do any work. That’s particularly true for the non-career types. They can’t be fired, so some departments have even created “lucky charm” positions for them. If you’re looking for wasted money, there’s a good place to find it. I think they should eliminate amakudari (the practice of giving senior bureaucrats important jobs in government-affiliated organizations and private companies when they retire) and institute a system in which at least 10% of the senior positions are replaced. They should demote those in management who are incapable of working. I wonder if the DPJ is capable of that.

MLIT: With the amakudari problem, the biggest issue is how to deal with the non-career types. That’s how the public interest corporations and the government-affiliated corporations got created. The problem of watari with high-level civil servants got out of hand, but then again, how are we supposed to make ends meet with our career salaries? (Watari is the name for the ministries’ arrangement of finding successive jobs for retired bureaucrats at government-affiliated corporations, with the former civil servants receiving a pension each time.)

MEXT: Then there’s the campaign promise about changing the way the budget is formulated. Most agencies are fooling themselves by thinking it will go no further than the DPJ submitting its requests to each ministry.

MOF: The DPJ says they want to examine those budget practices that haven’t been looked at before. We can do that if they round up the best and the brightest from each ministry and increase the number of personnel at the Budget Bureau five-fold. And if they separate the Budget Bureau from the Finance Ministry and put it under the direct jurisdiction of the Prime Minister’s Office, it won’t diminish the Finance Ministry’s power. Rather, it will create a new foothold for us.

METI: Our budget is only about one trillion yen (about $US 104 billion), and our biggest worry in the special account is that the expenditures for small businesses are so great. In this economic downturn, some sectors can’t be touched, so we’re optimistic. Meanwhile, there are many sectors such as agriculture, where the ruling party and the opposition party are competing to see how much money they can throw at them. Just what does the DPJ think it’s going to do?

MHLW: Look at it from different angles and it doesn’t seem as if a DPJ government will last that long. Nowadays, the public’s expectations are too great. They can put together a terrific campaign platform, but with a lot of those planks, they’ll wind up saying, “We can’t do that,” or “We’ll put that off.” I wonder if political realignment will come sooner than we think.

MOF: At any rate, they’re only going to be able to find the funding sources for about one year’s worth of programs. There is nothing at all to fear from a DPJ government. No matter what government is in power, we just go quietly about our business. That’s the duty of the civil servant.

MHLW: There was the line in the recent drama, Summer of the Bureaucrats, that went, “We’re not rewarded for our work.” When I saw that, I cried in spite of myself.


* Note that one minister refers to Nakagawa Masaharu as incompetent. This May, Mr. Nakagawa told the BBC the government lost a lot of money from exchange rates after buying U.S. treasuries. He suggested that the American government issue yen-denominated bonds (so-called samurai bonds). His comments ignited a selloff of the dollar against the yen, resulting in a higher yen.

* Maehara Seiji is the former DPJ president who is in the party’s strong national defense wing. He and his allies were bitterly opposed to Ozawa Ichiro as party president, and by extension to Hatoyama Yukio replacing him. During the party election to replace Mr. Ozawa after he resigned, there were reports that he would make it his personal mission to ensure that those who wanted him to quit would never get a high-ranking party or government position in the future. It will be interesting to see where Mr. Maehara winds up.

* A Tanaka/Suzuki/Sato triumvirate at the Foreign Ministry sounds as if it is a nightmare rather than a rumor. Ms. Tanaka briefly served as Foreign Minister in Prime Minister Koizumi’s first cabinet, and the bureaucrats detested her. Their internecine warfare became great soba opera fodder for the daytime TV and current affairs discussion programs until she resigned. Mr. Suzuki had carved out a small fiefdom for himself in the Foreign Ministry until he was discovered carving out too much of a financial share for himself, and wound up doing a record amount of jail time for a Diet member. He’s now back in the Diet heading a vanity party and allied with the DPJ. Sato Masaru was a diplomat and Suzuki Muneo ally, praised by the latter as being the “Rasputin of the Foreign Ministry”. He was found guilty of malfeasance of office and his appeal was dismissed at the end of June, so he resigned his position and is now unlikely to be named to a position in government.

* A look at the English website for the Japanese Teacher’s Union has this on the top page:

Mr. Yuzuru Nakamura, President of JTU, referred first in his address to the issue of “poverty of children”, urging the participants that child-raising is not exclusively an “individual” issue. He said JTU should encourage the society to share the responsibility of child-raising among the “society” and the importance of returning the fruit of this effort to the “society”; and to shift the paradigm of educational philosophy (the value of coexistence and mutual assistance).
He also stated that the union should take every opportunity to have social dialogues with the communities, PTAs (parents’ and teachers’ associations), parents, children, educational and other administrations, and the government in order to exercise its social influence, and that it should issue easy-to-understand messages to the citizens.

One can imagine what sort of “social dialogue” they’d have with parents who insisted that child-rearing was an individual matter and that the union should butt out.

Combine that with Mr. Koshi’ishi’s recent statements that politics cannot be separated from education and it becomes apparent why the MOF official was concerned about labor unions. The JTU hobbled Japanese education with its “yutori education” policies of the 90s, some of which the Abe administration managed to roll back. Education and the schools are likely to become a political battleground in a DPJ administration.

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Does the rubber meet the road with the DPJ platform?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ONE SALUTARY EFFECT emerging from the real possibility that the opposition will take control of the Japanese government after next month’s election is the greater scrutiny given to the parties’ political platforms than has been the case in the past. That is particularly true for the platform of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which critics claim involves some serious book cooking.

Attention so far has been focused on the party’s child-rearing subsidy, but some are also looking at their plan to eliminate the tolls on the nation’s expressways and make their use free of charge.

Here are some recent comments:

First, Kaneko Kazuyoshi, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, and a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, at a press conference after a recent Cabinet meeting:

“(If they make the expressways toll-free), it will require that we triple our budget for roads. The party says they will reduce wasteful spending on public works projects, but how are they going to do that by tripling the amount spent on roads?”

From the vernacular edition of the Asahi Shimbun:

“(The party) intends to implement two “eye-catching policies” next fiscal year: eliminating the tolls on expressways and the surcharge for gasoline taxes. These are expected to cost about JPY 7 trillion (about $US 736 million) a year. It is not clear at present whether they will really be able to obtain the funds (to make up for this loss) for the overall budget.”

From a press conference with Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo:

The plank about eliminating the tolls on expressways was placed under the category of regional sovereignty, but I don’t understand the connection.

From an interview with Tokyo Metro Vice-Mayor Inose Naoki, a fierce critic of the national bureaucracy:

Q: There were immense traffic jams this year during Golden Week (the holidays at the end of April and the beginning of May). Wasn’t it strange for the government to allow people unlimited access to the expressways during the holidays for JPY 1,000 (about $US 10.50)? These tolls are for a company that’s been privatized.

A: I can understand it as a temporary economic stimulus measure. The Nippon Expressway Companies (collectively known as NEXCO, which pre-privatization were the Japan Highway Public Corp.) maintain a framework in which they repay JPY 1.6 trillion in debt every year. The tax funds invested will be only for the discounted amount. The DPJ’s idea of eliminating (highway) tolls, however, is more of a problem than (temporarily) reducing the tolls to JPY 1,000.

Q: But the users will be more grateful for not having to pay any tolls at all.

A: That way of thinking is a mistake. If the tolls are eliminated, they’ll have to sink in tax funds forever. Only one vehicle (in Japan) in 10 uses the expressways, so the people who don’t use them will also bear the burden. The citizens who are happy that the expressways will be free should be aware that it allows the current dominance of the bureaucracy (to continue).


Will the party resolve these contradictions with stealth taxes down the road, or will the DPJ follow the precepts of former head Ozawa Ichiro and “replaster” their campaign promises once they’re in power? Time will tell.


A friend in England occasionally rants about the steps taken in that country to cut back on rail service over the years. He insists that rail travel better suits the country than expressway travel, and the cutbacks have caused economic hardship for some local areas.

I’ve never been to England, so I can’t vouch for that claim, but it does make me wonder if the same is true of Japan. (Not that they’re cutting back rail service here, but that trains are generally a better way to get around than the expressways.)

I also can’t vouch for the figures of either Mr. Kaneko or Mr. Inose, but if the latter is correct, forcing everyone to pay for something that only 10% of the people use does seem like a cheap ploy to win votes in the near term that will wind up being quite expensive further down the road.

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Campaign slogan or Freudian slip?

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, June 10, 2009

AGREE OR DISAGREE, it’s always worth reading the opinions of Takenaka Heizo, the economics and privatization guru for former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro. I usually agree, so it was satisfying to see him present in the first paragraph of a recent article in the Sankei an argument I’ve had half-written for this site for two months. Here’s my quick translation of that paragraph. I left one Japanese expression untranslated for a reason. Stick with me for a little bit and the reason will become apparent later.

Mr. Takenaka is speaking of the Democratic Party of Japan, the primary opposition party.

“In essence, seiken kotai must ultimately be just a method. Emphasizing seiken kotai is a channel for clearly identifying and achieving whatever policy one has. Certainly, the DPJ is offering a fresh perspective on the conduct of governmental affairs, including eliminating (excessive) bureaucratic (influence), but the content of the policies they want to achieve isn’t clear at all. That’s precisely why the rate of support for the DPJ is lower than one might expect. If (the upcoming election) is simply to be a negative choice in which the voter thinks that, well, at least they’re better than today’s Liberal Democratic Party, they will be immediately met with powerful opposition as soon as they take power. The DPJ has a responsibility to clearly present solid policies for the sound development of Japan’s economy and society.”

No sooner had I begun congratulating myself for having come up with the same idea than this quote from Prime Minister Aso Taro floated up:

Seiken kotai is a method, not an objective. The issue is what you want to do after seiken kotai, and what sort of policies you will implement.”

He’s right, of course, but that’s sure starting to sound like the LDP message of the day, isn’t it? Why would Mr. Takenaka would feel compelled to coordinate his message with that of the prime minister, whom no one would mistake for his intellectual soulmate? But we’ll leave that for another day, if it ever happens again.

My enthusiasm was further dampened by this commentary, also in the Sankei:

“The prime minister’s interest is a manifestation of his dread of the expression seiken kotai. No matter how the ruling party criticizes the individual DPJ policies, the DPJ can always counter by telling the people that they won’t know for sure unless they’re given a chance to form a government”.

Is the LDP afraid of what the expression represents, or are they disdainful of it? I suspect it’s a combination of both.

It’s not unusual that so many people would notice it, however—that’s all they talk about. It’s as if they sing it to themselves in the bathtub at night. Mr. Aso was correct when he noted that seiken kotai is the DPJ objective. He’s only repeating what they constantly say themselves.

Here’s the new DPJ head Hatoyama Yukio earlier this year when the DPJ drama queens were stressing out over Ozawa Ichiro’s scandal:

Our objective is ultimately seiken kotai. I’ve said that (Ozawa Ichiro) and I will share the same fate….If we think it will be difficult to achieve seiken kotai, we will both take responsibility (and step down).

How’s that for a revealing quote? It shows the ultimate DPJ objective, what Hatoyama Yukio means by taking responsibility, and whether he can be trusted to keep his word.

This is from Okada Katsuya, Mr. Hatoyama’s opponent in the recent DPJ presidential election, from about the same time:

I understand that with (the people) unable to comprehend (the campaign finance scandal), we will not be able to achieve seiken kotai.

It’s no exaggeration to call it the party line; even Mr. Ozawa’s DPJ opponents spout it. Here’s Komiyama Yoko, the Education Minister in the party’s Shadow Cabinet and a member of the Maehara/Edano group, at a press conference during the crisis:

“The priority is to take an approach for seiken kotai. At this point, he really should withdraw. I do not think we can win a difficult election with apologies and excuses.”

The DPJ clearly thinks the phrase is critical, and the LDP just as clearly thinks it’s worth using as a line of attack. Now there are suggestions that the DPJ will use it as their slogan for the upcoming election. So what does the phrase mean in English?

It literally means alternation of government; in other words, a system in which the two major parties alternate power rather than power being exclusively in the hands of the LDP, as has usually been the case since 1955.

The DPJ themselves translate it as a “change of government” on their English-language website. Some have translated it as “regime change”, but that’s not a good idea. Joseph Stalin had a regime. Pol Pot had a regime. Saddam Hussein had a regime. Kim Jong-il has one now. Great Britain has governments and America has administrations, but free market democracies do not have “regimes”.

Mr. Takenaka makes an excellent point when he reminds us that the DPJ has a lower support rating than one would expect with the LDP’s backsliding from reform and the demonstrated lack of a rudder on their mudboat.

Is it that the phrase does not resonate with the public in the same way that the word “change” has for many years in American politics? Since I’m not a native speaker of Japanese, I’m not qualified to say with certainty. It’s worth noting, however, that the phrase is a four kanji compound, which the Japanese have long used for national sloganeering (and the Chinese for even longer). The impact might be greater than I realize.

But even though I’m not a native speaker, I do believe this: the DPJ’s choice of that expression demonstrates why it’s been so difficult for the party to get traction with the electorate even though the voters are clearly fed up with the recent conduct of the LDP. Further, the party’s behavior has prevented the people from taking their use of the expression seriously.

It didn’t have to be that way, and to see why, one need look no further than Mr. Koizumi and two governors who champion reform, Higashikokubaru Hideo of Miyazaki and Hashimoto Toru of Osaka. The reason the three of them have maintained sky-high popularity ratings for a period of time almost unheard of in politics is that they put citizen-centered reform first. There’s no better example than Mr. Koizumi ignoring his party’s advice and calling for a lower house election to let the public decide the issue of postal privatization. Both his party’s mudboat wing and the DPJ were opposed, but he was rewarded with one of the most decisive mandates in Japanese political history.

Why haven’t the DPJ gotten the same political love, despite their desperate chanting of the mantra of reform?

It’s the slogan, stupid. Citizen-centered reform is not the first thing they mention. For them, it’s all about seiken kotai…Is that two-party government? Change of government?

No. The voters know what that expression really means to the DPJ.

Our objective is to take power.

From the people’s perspective, what they’re saying is that they want to be part of the problem, rather than the solution. That’s why it’s taken so long for the electorate to even think about taking them seriously.

Even worse for the dim bulbs of the DPJ is that their actions have spoken louder than their words, especially after they gained control of the upper house in 2007. Rather than present coherent policy alternatives and use the new platform as a bully pulpit for the discussion and debate of those alternatives, they chose to behave as a teenager behind the wheel of a new muscle car with a six-pack on the passenger seat. Many people share the sentiments of the LDP’s Nakagawa Hidenao:

“They should dispense with this philosophy of making political crises a priority and compete on citizen-centered reform.”

The way to the Japanese electorate’s heart is easier to see than a neon-festooned pachinko parlor on the outskirts of a country town on Sunday night. Mr. Koizumi certainly saw it, as well as the two governors. Of course they’re ambitious—they wouldn’t be politicians otherwise—but they made sure to put citizen-centered reform first, or at least do a believable job of faking it. They’ve made themselves answerable to the people.

The castrati in the DPJ, on the other hand, have made themselves answerable only to the cynical calculator Ozawa Ichiro, not out of a sense of conviction for his principles—whatever those are this month—but out of the fear that he’ll split and deprive them of their chance to take power.

Forget about walking the walk—they can’t even talk the talk. What was that Mr. Hatoyama said about accepting responsibility if Ozawa Ichiro had to step down? And what was the reason he and Mr. Ozawa gave for stepping down? To apologize for the arrests over campaign financing? To demonstrate the sincerity of their claims of being the clean party? To honor their own sense of decency?

No. The reason they gave is that the scandal would prevent them achieving their objective of seiken kotai: Taking power.

Mr. Hatoyama should make a dandy prime minister.

It doesn’t take much insight to know exactly why the party’s rates of support are lower than common sense says they should be. The DPJ has done nothing to make people feel good about voting for them. That’s why Mr. Takenaka’s observation about the party confronting enormous opposition on taking power is likely to be dead on. And since they’ve done nothing to win the goodwill of the people—indeed, they’ve done everything to ignore it—any honeymoon period is likely to be very short.

If the party succeeds in forming a government this year, their first problem will be illustrated by the old story of the barking dog that forever chases the family car. What will the dog do when it finally catches the car?

Don’t ask the DPJ. They haven’t figured it out themselves. After all, their objective is to take power.

But they’d better start thinking fast. When you’re the party in power, words really do mean things.

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Here, take this cash, I don’t need it

Posted by ampontan on Friday, June 5, 2009

WHEN SOMEONE wants to give you something, goes the Japanese proverb, you should take it, even if it’s a warm jacket in summer. (That’s Itadaku mono nara natsu demo kosode in the original. The jacket they’re talking about is a kosode, shown in the photo, which is the last thing anyone would want to wear during Japan’s sultry summer months.)


The sentiment seems to be universal, considering the English-language warning against looking in the mouths of gift horses (to check their age by inspecting their teeth).

Meanwhile, the wildly popular Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo (click the tag for more stories) is surfing on public approval ratings northward of 80% after more than two years in office for his strong stands on devolution and responsible local government. Are his ratings about to climb even higher now that he wants to turn down a taxpayer-funded kosode in June?

Yesterday the governor said he wants to halve the 40 million yen in retirement benefits he’s entitled to receive for serving a four-year term. (That’s about $US 415,000.) He plans to introduce a bill cutting his own benefits at the next session of the legislature this month.

One of the governor’s campaign pledges in January 2007 was the introduction of an accomplishment-based evaluation system that included returning retirement benefits if the Miyazakians weren’t happy with his performance. He cited that pledge as the reason for his decision.

Mr. Higashikokubaru’s popularity is so high that the citizens might be tempted to increase his pension rather than cut it, if given the chance. Nevertheless, that’s nearly a quarter of a million dollars the prefectural treasury doesn’t have to spend. You’d think the legislature would be delighted.

Nah. They’d rather pry open the horse’s mouth instead. One delegate said, “I don’t understand the justification for a 50% cut.” Another suggested it was rash for the governor to cut his pension only halfway through his term.

Mr. Higashikokubaru then allowed as how it would be difficult to establish objective standards to judge his accomplishments to date. Instead, he said, he would use the difficult financial situation of the prefecture and the harsh economic climate to justify the reduction.

Of course everyone knows—and he knows we know—the real reason for his Gandhi-like self-abnegation is that he’s thinking of running for a Diet seat in the upcoming election. It’s just another way for the governor to remind the voters he’s always been their pal. An additional benefit is that he can use that reminder as a trump card any time he wants in the future, regardless of the office he’s seeking or the voters he’s trying to woo.

But why should any legislator want to question his motives? Why try to prevent him from saving the taxpayers money? Do the delegates want to explain to the public and the media why they’re encouraging him to dip deep into the public till? Even if all of them are thinking: You don’t want free money, you crazy boy?

Their thought process doesn’t end there, of course. Everyone knows—and they know we know—the real question they’re asking is this: What are you trying to do, kill this job? If the popular governor does it, they might be forced to do the same. Politicians can get very sulky when someone downsizes the public trough.

Here’s another question: Why can’t they figure out it’s in their best interests to jump on the bandwagon with a smile, even if they have to fake it? The political winds in Japan have been blowing so strongly for so long that it shouldn’t take a weatherman to know from which direction it’s coming. Voters throughout the country have long made it plain what they’re looking for, so one would think the basic political survival instinct should have kicked in by now. To paraphrase another proverb, half a pension is better than none at all.

Politicians buying votes by giving money back to the people–what a novel concept! With any luck it’ll become a fad.

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Japan’s political kaleidoscope

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, June 4, 2009

NOW THAT THE OPPOSITION Democratic Party of Japan has stuck a feather in former leader Ozawa Ichiro’s cap and called it macaroni instead of calling on Jack to hit the road, events in the world of Japanese politics are accelerating with a potentially historic lower house election just a few months away.

Here are some reflections from Japan’s ever-revolving political kaleidoscope while we wait to see how long it takes the mudboat of the ruling LDP’s zombie wing to dissolve, whether the party dumps Aso Taro and replaces him with Hatoyama Kunio to set up a brother-take-all election, and if the members of the DPJ will ever start acting their age instead of their (Western) shoe size.

Kato and Takenaka: Off with the gloves!

Former LDP Secretary-General Kato Koichi has just published a book critical of the Koizumi administration’s structural reforms. To borrow a term used to describe some members of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain, Mr. Kato would be a “wet” in the LDP. He and the very dry Keio University Prof. Takenaka Heizo, the lead privateer of the Koizumian reforms, went toe-to-toe on a recent TV Asahi program.

Mr. Kato’s first punch:

“The reforms exceeded the limits of the weakened regional areas. Your ideas (were inconsiderate of) society.”

Countered Prof. Takenaka:

“(You’re) the man responsible for “ten lost years” (of sluggish economic growth). It’s odd that you would attack Mr. Koizumi, who ended all that, as if you were some cultural critic.”

Mr. Kato thinks the Koizumi administration’s approach of zero interest rates and what he saw as a focus on corporations, reduced personal assets and income, upsetting the public:

“All of society is now irritated!”

Prof. Takenaka pointed out that his antagonist held several important positions in the 1990s, including LDP secretary-general, after the collapse of the bubble economy.

“(You) failed to deal firmly with the non-performing debt, so we did. It’s a mistake to argue there’s a future in going backwards.”

Expect to see more of these arguments, particularly if the LDP falls apart after going into the opposition, thereby liberating its reform wing.

Going backwards

Speaking of retrograde movement, Finance Minister Yosano Kaoru continued his own backwards march into the future, slapping himself during a meeting of the lower house finance committee for daring to support the complete privatization of the Development Bank of Japan as scheduled:

“I’ve done some soul-searching over the shallowness of my thinking for failing to anticipate the current economic crisis. The DBJ should remain as an important tool of the government.”

Which shows that Mr. Yosano remains an important tool of the Finance Ministry, the Big Swinging Dick of the Japanese bureaucracy. The bureaucracy will do anything to maintain its stranglehold on government policy short of strangling babies in the crib. Prime Ministers Koizumi and Abe made some headway on blasting a path through the mountain, but their two successors let the Sisyphean rock roll back down the hill again.

Not only did the lower house committee agree with Mr. Yosano, they also voted to expand the range of assets the bank can buy. The media report said the bank was scheduled for full privatization in three years, but their website (right sidebar) says about five.

Failing to foresee a once-in-a-century economic crisis is forgivable. What is inexcusable, however, is failing to see that it originated in a meddlesome government’s interference with banking practices, and that partial government ownership of those banks to facilitate further meddling will be a cure worse than the disease.

All politics is local, #1

The news media got interested in the usually uninteresting mayoral election in Saitama City last month because it was the first local poll after Ozawa Ichiro resigned from the DPJ presidency. Politicos wanted to know whether his retreat from center stage to the control booth in the wings would boost the local DPJ candidate.

The local DPJ group supported newcomer Shimizu Hayato (47), who easily defeated the incumbent backed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The café commentariat saw this as a win for the new Hatoyama-led LDP, especially as Hatoyama Yukio himself campaigned there.

They’d have a point if people always elected municipal chiefs based on the behavior of national political parties, but other factors confirmed the only coherent point former U.S. House Speaker Thomas O’Neill made in his career: “All politics is local”.

Mr. Shimuzu was a newcomer nearly 20 years younger than his opponent, Aikawa Soichi (66). Mr. Aikawa was seeking a third straight term, or a sixth straight term if you count his time as mayor of Urawa before a municipal merger. Many people were looking for a change.

Some of them were in his own party. While Mr. Aikawa had official party backing, a third candidate in the race was Nakamori Fukuyo, who had been a former LDP lower house member with a proportional representative seat until March. The party didn’t support Mr. Nakamori, but former Secretary-General Ibuki Bunmei and former postal privatization rebelette and current Minister of Consumer Affairs Noda Seiko swung by to campaign for him. Intraparty vote-splitting is the royal road to an election loss.

Then again, Mr. Aikawa ran a mudboat campaign of his own. After winning the primary, he played up his LDP ties and had Hatoyama Kunio, the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications (and Yukio’s brother) campaign for him. Mr. Shimizu figured he had the election cinched at that point, because his strategy was to highlight party identification, and he knew he was running against a split opposition.

The LDP nameplate has negative cachet regardless of who’s running where, but it must take a brick wall to fall on some people before they get it. Just last month, Morita Kensaku was elected Governor of Chiba despite his LDP ties because he pretended they didn’t exist. But the law of natural selection is valid for politics too.

All politics is local, #2

When Hatoyama Yukio claims to be the champion of regional devolution, that has to mean it’s an idea whose time has come at last in Japan. Since his selection as DPJ head, he has proclaimed:

“What I want to do most after I become prime minister is to change the country into one of regional sovereignty.”

He also lifted a line from former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro:

“Leave to the regions what the regions can do.”

(Substitute “private sector” for “regions” and you have the Koizumi mantra. Combine the two and you’re cooking with gas.)

People knew this was a good idea a long time ago. From Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859):

“Municipal institutions are for liberty what primary schools are for science; they place it within reach of the people.”

But how does that translate into practical policy? And just how serious is Mr. Hatoyama? Here he is answering a reporter’s question:


“The DPJ claims in its party platform that it will reduce personnel costs for the central government’s civil service by 20%. But establishing regional authority and transferring that authority to local governments will require that (same) amount of personnel, and the national civil servants will probably become local civil servants. So, as for the reduction of personnel costs for local civil service…”


“I probably haven’t given any answer. I understand of course that (required) personnel are part of the central government’s public employees. I also think that with the emergence of regional sovereignty, the people working in the regional areas will be necessary. Therefore, I hope that many of the central government’s civil servants employees will become local civil servants and do that work.

“But, it’s natural that when local sovereignty emerges, it will be quite difficult to entrust a large amount of authority and funding resources to such places as small villages. That will have to be decided by the people in the regions, but it is inevitable, you know, that authority, if you devolve a great deal of authority, then municipalities will discuss mergers spontaneously on their own. That is a forward looking discussion. That’s not because they don’t have enough money; they’ll discuss it to perform their work.

“Of course the municipalities that exist will discuss mergers to become ‘basic local governments’. And if that happens, you see, they’ll be able to decrease the total number of public employees. That’s what I think. The national government’s role will decline. Therefore, we will be able to drastically cut the number of national civil servants. On the other hand, there will be an increase in the number of national civil servants becoming local civil servants. But it’s entirely possible that the total of local civil servants will decrease rather than increase.”

I read that three times and agree with Mr. Hatoyama. He probably hasn’t given any answer.

(Mr. Hatoyama’s use of “basic local government” here is confusing; municipalities already are the basic local government unit in Japan, even if they are technically classified as villages.)

To be fair to the nominal DPJ chief, the party policy wanks still haven’t been able to clear their ideas with Ozawa Ichiro, whom many suspect is still pulling the strings behind the scenes. The New Boss publicly supports the LDP state/province system of devolution and sub-national rearrangement, but heaven forbid that an opposition party would officially agree with one of the golden planks in the ruling party platform. The Old Boss favors a different plan, fortunately. The DPJ’s decision, whenever they get around to it, will provide some hints on the identity of The Real Boss.

Meanwhile, last November Prime Minister Aso said:

“Our ultimate objective is a state/province system based on regional sovereignty in which national government offices are transferred to the regions.”

Whether he means it or not–and many in his party do–at least it has the advantage of being short, clear, and to the point.

Answer the phone, Yukio!

Constitutional reform in Japan means more than rewriting Article 9, the so-called peace clause. Some want to remove any obstacles to the innocent use of Shinto rituals in government-related activities, while others want to shift to a unicameral legislature. But since the Japanese have never amended the Constitution, they’re still working out how to go about it.

Both houses of the Diet have a Deliberative Council on the Constitution, but it lacks internal regulations on the number of members and its procedures due to opposition party foot dragging, including the DPJ.

Notable for his silence is new DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio, though he was once so hot for constitutional reform he published his own ideas on the subject in 2005 called A Proposal for A New Constitution (PHP). Given his interest in the issue, the LDP thought his election might signal a change in DPJ policy.

They should know better than to take a politician at his word. He isn’t returning their calls. Both the LDP and junior partner New Komeito have repeatedly asked the opposition to help to formulate regulations, and even submitted a proposal for their consideration. No answer.

Some LDP members are now irritated enough to consider passing their own regulations in the second half of the current Diet session while the party still has a supermajority in the lower house and can override a rejection from the DPJ-controlled upper house.

After pointedly mentioning Mr. Hatoyama’s interest in the issue, LDP Diet Affairs Committee Chair Oshima Tadamori said:

“We really want to reach a settlement (on these regulations) during this session because (the issue involves) the sovereignty of the people. Of course we should determine procedures for Constitutional amendments.”

Replied senior DPJ poobah Okada Katsuya at a press conference:

“This should be thoroughly discussed first. I’ve talked to Naoshima Masayuki (chair of the party’s Policy Research Council, member of the Hatoyama group, and the Chief Cabinet Secretary in the shadow cabinet), and I want to use the council first. It’s not something I should talk about over my head.”

Above his pay grade, eh?

The DPJ can’t use their own committee for constitutional research because they’ve left the chairmanship vacant since the upper house election in 2007.

The reason the party is covering its ears and pretending it can’t hear is because the plethora of tails wagging the dog is making too much noise. With the DPJ so close to taking power, that means there’ll be a whole lot of shaking going on. They’re still holding hands with the pacifist/green/anti-free market–nuclear power—automobile—common sense Social Democrats, who are just fine with the Constitution the way it is except for the positive references to the emperor.

More or less within the party is the notorious Japan Teacher’s Union (see right sidebar), which backs the DPJ in the same way that teachers’ unions everywhere back political parties on the left. In the past, they’ve been caught squeezing members to donate to the political campaigns of DPJ Acting President Koshi’ishi Azuma in Yamanashi and harassed a Hiroshima school principal to suicide. They think competitive tests are bad for education and singing the national anthem is bad for any reason at all.

While serving as Foreign Minister in 2005, the LDP’s largest faction leader Machimura Nobutaka claimed the reason the government did not want Japanese schools to focus more intensively on the country’s behavior in the early part of the 20th century was that too many JTU members were Marxist-Leninists. An excuse? Maybe, but he has a point.

Another favorite JTU technique is to mail razor blades to the people that displease them. Mr. Hatoyama apparently prefers to buy his at the store for the time being.

Kasumigaseki reform

Executives of the self-proclaimed reform kings DPJ and the anti-reform People’s New Party agreed to coordinate policy proposals in their respective platforms in the upcoming lower house election, particularly for postal privatization. In other words, they promise to stand athwart the course of reform and yell Stop! The two parties also called on the SPD to join them for some coordination-a-trois, and confirmed they would work together during the election.

One wonders how many words Hatoyama Yukio can use to avoid answering a question about this contradiction while folding back his forked tongue at the same time.

Ishihara Nobuteru speaks

LDP official Ishihara Nobuteru spoke truth to power regarding the DPJ and Ozawa Ichiro during a recent television interview:

“If he were a member of the LDP, he would have resigned his Diet seat…Mr. Ozawa did not resign his Diet seat, he resigned the party presidency and became acting president without reflecting on his errors and without an explanation. This reveals the nature of the Democratic Party of Japan today.”

In your heart, you know he’s right.

A Kan junket?

DPJ Acting President and former leader Kan Naoto will be jetting to England for a four-day stay starting on the 6th. He says he wants to observe how the country’s Cabinet operates because both Great Britain and Japan have a parliamentary cabinet system.

Mr. Kan has been sitting in the Diet since 1980 and was in the Cabinet as Health and Welfare Minister in 1996. And he needs to go to England for four days to see how Cabinets and Parliaments work?

They say London is nice this time of year.

More fad Diets

The Asahi Shimbun enjoyed running an article describing how the LDP is trying to work out its preference among various internal plans to downsize the lower house of the Diet—ranging from cuts of 50-180 seats—while pacifying junior coalition partner New Komeito. If they cut only proportional representation districts, New Komeito would lose 23 of its 31 MPs. That party, widely seen as the political arm of the lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, provides the campaign foot soldiers for the LDP in the same way the unions back the DPJ.

A recent meeting of a parliamentarian’s group formed to slash 180 of the seats and bring the total to 300 drew LDP Election Strategy Council Chair Koga Makoto, the keeper of the Koizumian flame Nakagawa Hidenao, and Sato Yukari and some other Koizumi children (figurative, not literal).

They discussed three plans:

  1. 300 winner-take-all districts
  2. 200 winner-take-all districts and 100 proportional representation districts
  3. A 50-50 split.

But the Asahi, the print wing of Japan’s leftist media voice, didn’t mention that the DPJ, their horse in the race, faces the same problem. Party boss Hatoyama Yukio wants to shed 80 seats, but the survival of the DPJ’s small party allies depends on proportional representation too.

Just an oversight, I guess.

Padding the bill

Governments at the prefectural level are mad as hell about the money they’re forced to fork over to maintain the local agencies of central government ministries, and they’re not going to take it anymore. (See this post for plenty of details.) Every year the national government just hands them a bill and tells them to pay up. The local governors demanded the bills be itemized, and the government finally complied. Now it probably wishes it hadn’t.

Saga Prefecture discovered that personnel costs, including pensions and the operating costs for agency buildings and employee dormitories, accounted for 10% of their financial liability to the central government. In addition to being seriously displeased at the discovery, they claimed the standards for determining payment were vague and demanded further disclosure.

This is a critical issue for some prefectures. Saga Governor Furukawa Yasushi has warned the prefectural government will be bankrupt by 2011 unless present conditions change.

In fact, prefectural governments are being billed for the mutual aid association liabilities of national civil servants for their retirement benefits and annuity reserves. The national government’s justification was that the local regions are the ones to benefit from the work of the national bureaucracy, so they should be the ones to pay.

The governors didn’t buy that for a second. Wondered noted devolutionist Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo of Miyazaki:

I’m having a hard time understanding why these benefits are included in the bill.

But here’s some good news for those who think you can’t fight the central government and win: Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Kaneko Kazuyoshi said the government will probably not bill local governments this year for those retirement benefits.

Here I go again: devolution could be a reform whose time has come.

Chips off the old block

The DPJ successfully created a new wrinkle in the political numbers game by claiming they will nail into their election platform a plank denying official party support to new candidates with family members who’ve served in the Diet in the past three generations. They insist this has something to do with “reform”.

What it really has to do with is making the retiring Koizumi Jun’ichiro look bad for trying to pass his Kanagawa Diet seat off to his number two son. Former Justice Minister Usui Hideo planned on handing over the family business to his son in Chiba this year, too.

Some LDP members realized the media would froth it up to make them look even worse, so they called for the institution of a similar rule. But local party officials in Mr. Koizumi’s district objected because they had settled on Jun’s boy last November, and there isn’t enough time to find a new candidate. So the party said they would apply a hereditary seat restriction rule for the election after next. They also said they wouldn’t back the two lads as independents and have them sign up for the party after the election. That would be cheating.

Aha, shouted the DPJ, you’re not reformers after all! Asahi TV helped whip up the media froth with some predictable tut-tutting and cluck-clucking on their morning roundtable discussion program.

Let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?

If the DPJ were serious about real reform that served the people, they would knock off the political otaku games and spend more of their time involved with the real affairs of government.

If they thought inherited seats were such a bad idea, they could apply the rule to everyone TODAY instead of making it a grandfather clause. But that would erase from the rolls the party’s standard bearer, Hatoyama Yukio, whose patriarchal line of Diet members stretches back to great-grandfather Kazuo. He started the family business during the Meiji period.

You know–the 19th century.

It would also have disqualified in his time Koizumi Jun’ichiro, who managed to accomplish or initiate more reforms in his five years as prime minister than are dreamt of in the DPJ philosophy.

Instead of running numbers in a numbers game and pandering to those who think politics is a spectator sport for the public rather than the means for the public to directly participate in self-rule, the DPJ policy wanks—as well as the LDP mudboaters—should give the power to the people and let them decide who is best qualified to serve in a district through a primary system. If the well-connected kids win, so be it.

You know–make yourselves accountable to the voters. Respect the popular will. Behave like bona fide reformers instead of the mandarins you really are.

Maybe someone will explain it to Kan Naoto during his London junket.


I just ran across this in The Guardian, Britain’s premier newspaper of the Left:

Political reform can no longer be put aside as an abstract idea, of appeal to dreamers but not to voters who face the harder realities of life. The public is calling furiously for a better system. People want an honest parliament. They want leaders who are prepared to act. They loathe the old system, and many of the people who are part of it.

The subject is the British political crisis, but that same tune works with Japanese lyrics as well.

That’s a story well worth following, but it’s curious that people are overlooking the several intertwined stories in Japan, which in many ways are even more compelling.

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Ears to the ground

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 21, 2009

SOMEONE CAME UP WITH A GREAT IDEA for the latest Shinhodo 2001 public opinion survey.

Shinhodo 2001 (New Reports 2001) is a Sunday political blabathon broadcast from 7:30 to 8:55 a.m. on the Fuji Television Network. They regularly conduct political polls, and the results of their great idea are incorporated in their survey for 16 April.

One of the questions asked in the poll is: “What (kind of) Administration are you looking for after the next general election?” The pollsters’ inspiration was to add a new choice to the list of possible answers. The new possibility immediately caught the attention of those surveyed, who liked it so much it vaulted to the top of the list. Here’s how the respondents answered the question:

  • An administration centered on a person with experience as the chief executive officer in local government, such as a prefectural governor, and who understands local conditions in Japan: 27.6%
  • A grand coalition consisting of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan: 25.4%
  • An administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan: 19.2%
  • An administration led by the Liberal Democratic Party: 15.0%
  • An administration led by a new third force other than the LDP or DPJ: 7.8%
  • Don’t know: 5.0%

Japan’s Constitution requires the prime minister to be a member of the Diet, which means he or she must be a sitting member of the legislature. Many of the MPs (but by no means all) have had no executive experience in government. That might be one reason the late Tanaka Kakuei, the former cock of the walk in the LDP roost, decreed his politicos had to serve as the head of important party organizations and Cabinet ministries to be considered for the post of prime minister.

This new survey result suggests that the voters are now anxious to see people with the experience of solving problems in an executive capacity, and who will focus on the problems facing the country, rather than gamesmanship to gain a political edge in partisan battles in Nagata-cho after strategy sessions in the back rooms of exclusive Tokyo ryotei. And it is most interesting that the total seeking executive experience in local government, combined with the figures for those seeking a third force, outnumber the combined total of those who prefer either the LDP or DPJ singly–not to mention the number of those who hope to see a grand coalition.

It would also suggest that many of the 39.8% of the electorate undecided about which party they support (according to this poll) want to see regional devolution, and by implication a reform of the civil service system that vitiates the abnormal control of the Kasumigaseki bureaucrats in the central government.

But neither of the two major parties as presently led is likely to give the voters what they want. Therefore, they’ll have to turn to people who have had executive experience before serving in the Diet, or people serving as chief executive officers now and who may run for the Diet in the future.

Hashi and Higashi

Hashi and Higashi

Who might they be? Well, two of the most prominent prefectural governors who have chosen not to affiliate with a party and who champion the devolution of authority to local governments are frequently mentioned on this site: Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo and Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru. It is surely no coincidence that both have approval ratings among their constituents northward of 80%.

Through a serendipitous coincidence (for this article), Gov. Hashimoto paid a well-publicized visit to Kyushu to have dinner with Gov. Higashikokubaru on the 12th and have private discussions with him on the 13th, as you can see from the photo. He also made a point of mentioning that he paid for the visit by cutting his own belly (in other words, out of his own pocket.)

The two men did not offer a lot of details about their discussions, but Gov. Higashikokubaru made this comment:

“He came to talk about his problems. We discussed what was going to happen to this country. I gave him my ideas.”

They also discussed the Osaka Prefectural Assembly’s recent rebuff of Gov. Hashimoto when they voted down a plan to move the prefectural government’s offices to the local World Trade Center. Mr. Higashikokubaru said he gave his Kansai counterpart some advice on dealing with the assembly. Mr. Hashimoto gushed about his host to the Asahi Shimbun:

“Higashi-san really is terrific! I learned a lot”

Unfortunately, the Asahi has been conducting a vendetta against Gov. Hashimoto (to no avail, evidently), so they neglected to mention that other topics were discussed. That was left to the Sankei Shimbun.

Said Mr. Hashimoto:

“Gov. Higashikokubaru talked about how he deals with organizations. Both the public employees and the citizens in Miyazaki are working very hard. Everyone says that the governor has made Miyazaki a more dynamic place.”

They also talked about a subject of great interest to them both, as well as to many people with an interest in the nuts and bolts of Japanese government:

“We discussed the ideal method of financial subsidies and the fundamentals of tax revenue resources once our financial liability for enterprises operated directly by the national government is ended. We want to be able to handle the work of local regions locally.”

Not only did the Asahi leave out that information while running a quote that made Mr. Hashimoto sound like a gushing schoolgirl, they headlined their article this way:

橋下知事、東国原知事と会談 「悩み相談ですよ」
Talks between Gov. Hashimoto and Gov. Higashikokubaru: “I gave him advice for his problems”

Make that a gushing schoolgirl who needs a shoulder to cry on.

And mainstream journalists wonder why people don’t take them seriously anymore.


There are few earthquakes where I live in Saga, but there were a series of moderately intense temblors two or three years ago that occurred in conjunction with larger earthquakes in next-door Fukuoka. It was fascinating to discover that the approach of those earthquakes was clearly audible a few seconds before the motion of the earth began.

Are the results of this Shinhodo 2001 poll the political equivalent of the audible signs of an earthquake’s approach? The next few years in Japanese politics promise to be very interesting indeed.


For the psephology folk, here are some other results from the same public opinion poll:

  • Support the Cabinet: 30.0%, down 0.2 points
  • Don’t support the Cabinet: 61.4%, down 3.8 points
  • Don’t know: 8.6%, up 3.6 points

Which party’s candidates do you plan to vote for in the next general election?

  • LDP: 24.4%, down 3.8 points
  • DPJ: 27.6%, up 4.4 points
  • Komeito: 3.2%, down 1.6 points
  • Communists: 1.8%, down 0.4 points
  • Social Democrats: 1.0%, up one point
  • People’s New Party: 0.2%, down 0.2 points…
  • Undecided 39.8%, up 1.8 points.

Which of the following two people do you think would make the best prime minister?

  • Aso Taro: 40.0%
  • Ozawa Ichiro: 25.8%
  • Others/Don’t know: 34.2%

Who would be suitable as the next prime minister?

  1. Koizumi Jun’ichiro: 10.0%
  2. Aso Taro: 8.2%
  3. Ishihara Shintaro: 6.8%
  4. Masuzoe Yoichi: 6.8%
  5. Yosano Kaoru: 6.6%
  6. Ozawa Ichiro: 6.0%
  7. Higashikokubaru Hideo: 4.8%
  8. Okada Katsuya: 4.6%
  9. Ishihara Nobuteru: 4.4%
  10. Ishiba Shigeru: 3.8%
  11. Hashimoto Toru: 3.4%
  12. Koike Yuriko: 3.2%
  13. Watanabe Yoshimi: 3.0%
  14. Kan Naoto: 3.0%
  15. Maehara Seiji: 2.2%
  16. Hatoyama Yukio: 2.0%
  17. Hatoyama Kunio: 1.6%
  18. Nakagawa Hidenao: 0.6%
  19. Noda Seiko: 0.4%
  20. Other ruling coalition MPs: 1.6%
  21. Other opposition MPs: 3.8%
  22. Don’t know: 12.6%

This might be a fruitful line of inquiry for politicians: Combine the large percentages of undecided respondents, the immense local popularity of reformers (that isn’t reflected here), the miserable support for Messrs. Aso and Ozawa, Mr. Ozawa’s inability to convert his party’s poll advantage to his personal advantage (14 points down head-to-head against Mr. Aso), an extreme state of flux implied by a rate of undecideds near 40%, and the fact that former Prime Minister Koizumi still sits atop the table about 30 months after his departure, to devise a winning electoral strategy.

The aggregate figures only for those committed to reform (which does not include those who have sold their soul to Ozawa Ichiro in the hope of taking power) total 38.4% by my calculations. (It would be higher if the DPJ eunuchs were included.) There’s no telling how far a serious reformer could go if he or she were to use that base as bedrock support and then put the pedal to the metal in a real campaign offensive.

The big problem? None of the current parties is a trustworthy vehicle.

Update: Note that the Shinhodo poll has the Communist Party losing 0.4 percentage points of support, and that only 1.8% of those surveyed said they planned on voting for them.

Now take a look at this article by (sigh) Eric Talmadge of the AP who thinks the Reds are surging in Japan. The article is very short on actual numbers, but the author backs up his assertion by interviewing a single 22-year-old college student (I know, I know) and offering blanket statements without any corroboration. The student later admits that the type of Communism he prefers isn’t the scary type, which makes one wonder whether the undergrad knows as little about Japanese politics as Mr. Talmadge, but that gets tacked on at the end of the article for the 5% of the readers who stuck it out that far. Do BMOC and ET even know that the JCP just sided with China by refusing to censure the recent North Korean missile launch? And Mr. Talmadge also thinks Shii Kazuo is “something of a media star”, which would be hilarious if it weren’t so willfully stupid.

The Communist Party in Japan has always been a receptacle for voter dissatisfaction, and voter dissatisfaction everywhere is high now. (It also started before the economic crisis.) People read Akahata because reporters feed them stories they’re unable to run themselves under Japan’s press club system. Shii Kazuo gets invited on the occasional TV show to speak bluntly because he knows that with a 1.8% support rate, he has nothing to lose.

Mr. Talmadge does not seem to follow actual Japanese politics very closely. He apparently is unaware of the existence of any of the numbers above, much less their meaning.

The Communist Party is not “surging” in Japan. As this poll shows, it’s below 2% and going backwards. A more recent Asahi poll has them at 2.0% on the nose and trending downward. Capitalism is not going to fall from any country’s tree like a ripe persimmon. Shii Kazuo is not “something of a media star”, any more than Eric Talmadge is “something of a knowledgeable journalist on Japanese issues”.

Indeed, one might think that either Mr. Talmadge has a political agenda of his own, or that he’s simply looking to write a Japanese-man-bites-Japanese-dog story. In either case, he’s wasting our time.

If all you know about Japan is what you read in the Western media, then everything you know is wrong.

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An interview with Watanabe Yoshimi

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 16, 2009

AS THE MINISTER in charge of governmental reform during the Abe and Fukuda administrations, Watanabe Yoshimi almost single-handedly pushed through a bill outlawing amakudari. That’s a practice in which former senior employees of the national governmental bureaucracy are hired by public or private sector corporations either connected with or under the supervision of their former ministries. That in turn enables their new employers to receive favorable treatment from the ministries that are supposed to oversee them. It is perhaps the most pernicious of the many misdeeds committed by Japan’s public sector, and one of the ways the bureaucracy, known as Kasumigaseki, maintains its control over governmental policy.

Watanabe Yoshimi

Watanabe Yoshimi

The Aso administration found a way to skirt the law through a Cabinet order, which enraged those in Japan pushing for reform. Mr. Watanabe was so upset he bolted the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to pursue reform through other channels, thereby becoming a national sensation. His departure was widely covered by the Japanese news media, who are as anxious as anyone to see real change instead of the farce presented by the tired hacks who run the LDP and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan.

I wanted to do a profile of Mr. Watanabe at the time, but I had other pressing matters to attend to and events moved on. Luckily, however, the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai published a lengthy interview with the man in their 31 January issue, and here you have it straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s well worth reading, so I’ve rendered it in English.

When did you finally decide to leave the Liberal-Democratic Party?

I decided at the end of last year. With that resolve, I supported the proposal of the (opposition) Democratic Party of Japan to dissolve the lower house on 24 December. I was prepared for the party to expel me, but they chose to issue only a warning instead. Then my departure got put off until now (laughs).

How did your supporters respond to your decision to be the only one to leave the LDP?

The response was completely different from the chilly reaction at Nagata-cho. There was a flood of telephone calls to my office on the day of the press conference (announcing the decision). I was told that other politicians got calls from their constituents telling them not to take down under any circumstances the campaign posters on which our photographs appeared together.

This is the voice of the people. Some Diet members were concerned about the party’s reaction and canceled speeches they asked me to give (on their behalf), but I have to wonder how the voters will respond in the election that will eventually come. (laughs)

In fact, I’ve gotten several encouraging e-mails from people inside the LDP, but I’m not going to mention any names.

Some people say that he (Watanabe) was able to bolt the party because he’s a big vote-getter, but it’s not that simple. When you leave the party, they’ll send “assassins” (to run against you in elections), you no longer get campaign funds from the party, and you can’t put up party posters or distribute party flyers. Fighting an election without a party affiliation is a hard road.

When you appeared on television news programs right after leaving the party, many of the newscasters seemed to be somewhat malicious by suggesting that you’ll be crushed because you took this step by yourself.

That’s because those people are the so-called political “pros”. They’ve evaluated a politician’s behavior using such scales as the dynamics of party factions or how many other Diet members are lined up in support. The people who view events from the perspective of Nagata-cho, including politicians, are incapable of understanding my actions. As far as I’m concerned, they can go ahead and criticize me all they like.

A People’s Movement

You’ve said that in the future, you’d like to rally other people with the same ambitions, including the chief executives of local government, people in business and financial circles, and academics, to create a people’s movement. Specifically, what sort of activities will you conduct?

The image I have in mind is close to that of Sentaku, the group formed by former Mie Governor Kitakawa Masayasu from the perspective of eradicating the influence of the bureaucracy and Kasumigaseki. Unfortunately, while the Sentaku concept is superb, the group seems to have temporarily suspended its activities. That’s because they added too many Diet members. More than 100 members from all parties joined their association for Diet members. Their joint representative is the current Chief Cabinet Secretary, Kawamura Takeo, and more than half the members are MPs from the ruling party. It’s not possible for them to escape the clutches of the current administration. It turned out to be anticlimactic.

That’s why I intend to limit the membership to the most capable people I can find. There’s no merit at all in an assembly consisting only of Diet members.

What are the main slogans for your activities?

We will work under the banner of the slogan, “Smash the System of Bureaucracy-Led Cabinets”. Prime Minister Aso has said the bureaucracy is not the enemy, but he has completely relinquished public policy to the bureaucrats, and as a quid pro quo, he has restored amakudari, which had been prohibited. The bureaucracy has the Aso administration wrapped around its little finger. My mission is to move forward by creating a great change and smashing the current system, replacing it with one in which the cabinets are led by the prime minister.

Other Supporters

Your belief in eliminating bureaucratic domination and promoting regional autonomy is very close to that of Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru, or at least to the ideas of his principal political advisor, Sakaiya Taichi, former Director-General of the Economic Planning Agency. There are also rumors of your association with Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo. Will they also become members of your people’s movement?

I can’t give you any names yet. It’s not only a question of my decision—it’s also the decision of the core members who will work with me.

The names of MPs Mizuno Ken’ichi (LDP, no faction) and Shibayama Masahiko (LDP, Machimura faction) also have been linked to you.

I can’t say anything about the members yet.

Who will the core members be?

Eda Kenji (Independent) is one, and in the future, the number of kindred spirits will grow and expand beyond the confines of Nagata-cho.

There’s a story that Gov. Hashimoto met with you for four hours but turned down an offer to join you.

It wasn’t a question of turning me down, but of him saying ‘Let me think about it’. I think he was concerned about his dealings with the Diet. He’s very anxious to move the Osaka Prefecture offices to the Osaka World Trade Center, which is losing a lot of money. That will require the cooperation of Diet members in both the LDP and New Komeito. If he were to join my movement, his relationship with both of those parties would deteriorate. I think that’s the judgment he made.

A Non-Political Movement

Will the ‘People’s Movement’ try to bring down the Aso administration?

This will not be a movement that becomes involved with politics. It will be a pure citizen’s movement.

Will the ‘People’s Movement’ put forth any candidates in the next general election?

That’s different from any movement. People might say that if you’re going to put up candidates, you should form a party. Even if we gathered the five MPs required for creating a new party, the movement wouldn’t spread to the people. A party would be centered on the Diet members.

It’s important to destroy bureaucracy-led politics, but the economy is an urgent priority today.

Mr. Aso has said that his individual stimulus payments will boost consumption, but at 12,000 yen (about US$ 120.43) per person, that’s one digit short. It would be better if the government were to issue bank notes instead of the Bank of Japan, and distribute 20 trillion yen, 10 times Mr. Aso’s two trillion yen, to the people. If this is supposed to be a “once in a hundred years” crisis, you have to show that sort of resolve.

If it’s not possible to implement that sort of bold policy, we should discuss a forward-looking compromise on the two trillion yen stimulus measure with the opposition and allocate it to the regional areas plagued by unemployment. Mr. Aso can’t even do that.

What sort of conversations have you had with former LDP Secretary-General Takebe Tsutomu?

I wouldn’t call them consultations, but detailed reports. Mr. Takebe himself often says that he wants to work with me, but that his priority is the New Wind policy group that consists primarily of the Koizumi Children, the Diet members elected to their first term when he was secretary-general. He has to look out for them, so it’s not possible for him to work with a smaller group now.

My father (former Finance Minister Watanabe Michio) was asked by Ozawa Ichiro, then head of the Renewal Party, to take over as prime minister in 1994 when Hosokawa Morihiro stepped down. His condition was that my father leave the LDP. My father ultimately could not leave the party because he was a faction head. The reason is the same (as in Mr. Takebe’s case). I’m not part of a faction, so I was free.

Did you visit your father’s grave to tell him about your decision?

Yes, I did on 12 January, before the executives of my local support group gave their approval. When he was alive, my father often said, “The party comes before faction, and the country and the people come before party.” If you return to that starting point, I think my father also worked in politics for the country and the people, not party interests. That’s why I said at the press conference after I left the party that I probably had my father’s DNA.

His Political Future

An FNN poll about people who would make suitable prime ministers shows you coming in third behind Koizumi Jun’ichiro and Ozawa Ichiro. Are you interested in becoming prime minister?

It was the same situation with my father–it’s not possible to become prime minister through actual ability alone. Luck is a big factor.

Ozawa Ichiro of the DPJ said when you left the LDP that your political stance and way of thinking are the same as his. What ties do you have with the DPJ?

The DPJ says they’re interested in “alternating governments”. I’m interested in reorganizing government. There’s a big difference between the two. We agree on an early Diet dissolution and getting the bureaucrats out of government, but there are people in the LDP who believe the same thing. That’s why I think reorganizing government is the proper course.

Will you take any steps for governmental reorganization before the election?

It’s important to be established before the election. Then we can have a political realignment after the election based on the people’s judgment. I think that’s how affairs are trending.

Anyway, people are calling me a Don Quixote. I decided to jump out in front and sacrifice myself for governmental reorganization. I might be killed once politically because of it, but if so, I will most certainly come back to life.

The Osaka prefectural assembly rejected the initiative to move the prefecture offices to the World Trade Center. That may make it possible for Mr. Hashimoto to work more openly with Mr. Watanabe.

There are actually two parts to the Sentaku group, and Mr. Watanabe is referring to the liaison group with the national Diet. The original group was formed with the chief executives of local governments.

Now that his chief aide has been arrested in a political contribution scandal, Mr. Ozawa is no longer likely to be at the top of any lists of potential prime ministers. A Mainichi Shimbun poll in the past week shows that 39% of the respondents think he should step down as party boss immediately, and 33% say he should quit before the next election. In other words, almost three-quarters of the people think it’s time for him to take a hike.

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“This time for sure” for Sonomanma?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 31, 2009

WE’VE HAD SEVERAL POSTS about the political career of former comedian Higashikokubaru Hideo, who performed under the name of Sonomanma Higashi as an associate of Kitano Takeshi (film director and comedian Beat Takeshi). He was elected governor of largely rural Miyazaki in January 2007 in a runoff to replace a man who resigned over bid-rigging scandals (and who was found guilty just last week).

Mr. Higashikokubaru is wildly popular among his constituents and has also become a nationally-known spokesman promoting devolution to strengthen local government in Japan. (There’s a long interview with him in the current edition of the monthly magazine Ushio.) His frequent appearances on network television programs that have nothing to do with politics have fueled speculation that he would love to maintain his national audience. The best way to do that and stay in politics is to run for a seat in the lower house election that must be held by September at the latest.

In fact, our last post on Sonomanma described discussions he supposedly had with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party about running in an election that was expected to be held in the autumn. He was prevailed upon by local supporters to finish at least one term in the statehouse before making a national move. Or so the story goes.

Others claim he refrained because it looked very much like the LDP would be beaten badly in that election, and he didn’t want to be allied with the losing side. (One of his supporters used the Japanese equivalent of the expression, “draw a short straw”.) But he might have recalcuated his chances in the wake of the scandal currently engulfing Ozawa Ichiro, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. That has given the LDP something resembling a second wind, at least for the time being.

Speculation ramped up even further after Mr. Higashikokubaru held a fund-raising party at a Tokyo hotel last Saturday attended by about 700 people. Since taking office in January 2007, the governor has held 17 of these parties, but this was his first in the capital. Prefectural governors very seldom hold fund raisers in Tokyo, so this one raised more than a few eyebrows.

To allay concerns of the event being overtly political in an environment in which fund raising has become controversial, the only politicians invited were Diet members from Miyazaki. The reports did not include word on how much money the party brought in.

While he is being courted by the LDP, the governor ran as an independent in the gubernatorial election, saying that the only party a local politician needs is the citizens. But he is known to be philosophically closer to the devolution/reform wing of the LDP than to the opposition.

Then again, perhaps he thinks that siding with the DPJ, which is little more than an unwieldy anti-LDP coaltion held together by the Ozawan Iron Fist, would be the equivalent of drawing an even shorter straw.

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Nothing is ever sonomama with Sonomanma

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, November 25, 2008

FIRST HE MIGHT. Then he won’t. Now, he just might after all.

The plans of the former comedian, current reform-minded governor of Miyazaki, and eternal publicity hound Higashikokubaru Hideo are once again the subject of speculation in regional newspapers. The governor asserts that his motivation is to reform government in his home prefecture and spread those reforms nationwide, but most people assume that national politics has always been his goal.

His political career began after his predecessor in Miyazaki resigned and was arrested for bid-rigging. The failure of another politician, lower house member Nakayama Nariaki of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, seemed set to launch Mr. Higashikokubaru’s Diet career. Mr. Nakayama lasted only five days as the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport in the Aso Taro cabinet after he offended the teachers’ union. He then announced he would not run for reelection to the Diet in Miyazaki #1 in early October, when an election was expected imminently.

The Miyazaki governor openly flirted with the possibility of running for Mr. Nakayama’s seat, only to give up the idea when his supporters in the prefecture said they would rather have him complete his first term instead of leaving before it reached the halfway point.

This weekend, the Nishinippon Shimbun ran an article claiming that the governor was much closer to declaring for the Diet seat than previously thought, and that he is again weighing the pros and cons of running in an election expected to come early next year.

The newspaper cites sources familiar with the conversation that the governor and Mr. Nakayama met in secret in Miyazaki City on 2 October and discussed the former’s candidacy. Mr. Nakayama, who had just resigned from the Cabinet, told Mr. Higashikokubaru that he wouldn’t stand for reelection in his district in the next lower house election. He urged the governor to run in his place. The governor replied that he was very interested in a Diet seat and wanted to run as an independent (in keeping with his stated political philosophy), albeit with LDP support. He also expressed concerns about being viewed as Mr. Nakayama’s designated successor.

Then, during a meeting in Tokyo on 8 October that both attended, Mr. Nakayama said in his introductory remarks that “(They would) have a hard time of it unless you (Gov. Higashikokubaru) somehow decide to run.” (The Japanese language allows sentences without subjects, and sometimes it is not clear what is being referred to. This is a case in point. It wasn’t specified whether the speaker, the people of the district, the people of the prefecture, the LDP, or various combinations of those would have a hard time of it.)

Despite the encouragement, the governor finally said that he would submit to the popular will and stay in Miyazaki. But he might be reconsidering that decision, as suggested by some of his statements during a speech in front of a fund-raising party of 600 in the prefecture on the 20th. Then again, he was all over the map, so divining his intentions is not easy. Here’s a sampler of what he said:

(The) differentials (in regional prosperity) won’t be overcome until the country’s system is changed. All I’m saying is that I want to change the system.


“There are 480 people in the lower house and 242 in the upper house. I don’t really want to become one of 722. If that’s the case, I won’t go, even with all this talk about running in my first term.”

But then:

“First election, first Cabinet appointment…I won’t go without a Cabinet-level appointment.”

Note that the governor will have completed only his second year in elective office in January 2009, but he’s already talking about a Cabinet post.

Then he closed with:

“Some of what I said here was a bit dicey.” (危うい、and what exactly he meant by that is a bit uncertain, too.)

The newspaper asked the Governor about his discussion with Mr. Nakayama, and he denied that it occurred. When they asked Mr. Nakayama, however, he replied:

“I can’t say now.”

Not very skillful at dissembling, is he?

A source in the LDP said that Prime Minister Aso Taro was enthusiastic about the idea of a Higashikokubaru candidacy. He added that some upper-level LDP officials chewed over the idea of appointing him the Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications, or giving him a portfolio as a special tourism minister. The latter idea might be a good one; the governor is a tireless promoter of the prefecture and its products, and he does have a show business background.

The local branch of the LDP decided to back former upper house MP and member of the Hashimoto Cabinet Uesugi Mitsuhiro for the Miyazaki #1 seat, but the Nishinippon Shimbun passes on word from an unidentified local official who said the party wants Mr. Uesugi to talk to Mr. Nakayama and work something out. He suggests they are laying the groundwork for a Higashikokubaru candidacy using Mr. Nakayama as cover.

Here’s an opinion from one official in the Miyazaki prefectural government:

“The governor seems to be bored by his current job. He wants to perform his next role.”

Others, however, say that with the Cabinet approval rate dropping, he doesn’t want to get on board the LDP “mud boat”. (If you’re not familiar with that Japanese expression, think of how long a boat made of mud might float crossing a river with passengers.)

But the article concluded with this from another observer:

“Once you get the idea you want to run, that feeling never goes away.”

Exactly. And for a man who is now in the national limelight a second time, it is likely to grow only stronger.

Let’s hope that the entertainer/politician who still appears as a panel member on nationally broadcast quiz/entertainment programs is learning something as he passes through the governor’s mansion.

Afterwords: Hit the search engine on the left sidebar for more posts on Gov. Higashikokubaru.

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Sentaku: Getting Japan to choose

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 6, 2008

I want to clean up Japan once and for all.
– Sakamoto Ryoma

THERE’S A REASON the activist group Sentaku chose this statement by Sakamoto Ryoma (1834-1867), a citizen-activist himself, as the inspiration for its activities and the name of its organization. Sentaku in Japanese means both to choose and to clean. (They are homonyms.)

Sakamoto lived during a period of yeasty ferment in Japanese history—the old order had succumbed to entropy, and a new order was struggling to be born. When Commodore Perry barged into Tokyo Bay in 1853 with his black ships, Japan was a technologically backward nation whose political structure was the essence of top-down rule. It had been governed for 250 years by the Tokugawa shoguns, hereditary military dictators who strictly enforced the country’s isolation. Local government consisted of about 260 feudal domains, and an oppressive class structure stunted the nation’s growth.

A self-described “potato digger from Tosa” (now Kochi Prefecture) and a masterless samurai, Sakamoto at first wanted to expel the barbarian foreigners, but later came to admire the Western system of representative government and free trade with other nations. He played a key role in the events that led to the downfall of the Tokugawa regime when he and others convinced the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, to resign rather than face open rebellion. That finally placed Japan on the road to modernization and interaction with the world.

Sakamoto expressed the motive for his desire to make Japan choose when he write in a letter to his sister that his intent was to “clean up Japan once and for all.”

It’s Yesterday Once More

Today, Japan’s stagnant political system shares some of the characteristics of the terminal stage Shogunate that Sakamoto wished to scrub out. Entropy has had its way with the postwar paradigm of the so-called Iron Triangle: rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (the original grand coalition), the bureaucracy, and business interests working hand in glove.

This system once worked to Japan’s advantage because it allowed the country to pull itself up by its bootstraps in the space of a generation from the havoc wreaked by the war and climb into the ranks of the advanced industrialized nations, creating in the process the world’s second largest economy.

But the arrangements that allowed Japan to remake itself have become an obstacle to its continued progress now that success has been achieved. No iron triangle has the flexibility to permit a country to move swiftly and freely in a modern global economy and to reap the benefits of the unfettered talents of individual citizens acting on their own behalf. Iron becomes encrusted with corrosive layers of vested interests more interested in gaining the political upper hand and feathering their own nest rather than in the national welfare.

The behavior of national government is stifling the emergence of the reforms necessary for the sustaining the country’s prosperity and well-being, and the political class at the national level is more often part of the problem rather than part of the solution. While significant elements within the ruling LDP would follow the path to reform created by its icebreaker, former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, they are stymied by the party’s ties to the bureaucracy and vested interests.

There are reformists among the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, but the party lacks integrity in both senses of the word–it is composed of incompatible elements incapable of action as a cohesive unit without strict top-down party discipline, and its behavior in the Diet as a party seems designed only to create a Nagata-cho sturm-und-drang that would allow it to take power. Had the near-desperate electorate of Japan approved of their behavior, they would have given the party a mandate to form a government years ago.

But as in the latter days of the Tokugawas, a yeasty ferment is at work in today’s Japan that would transform Japan from the ground up.

One problem plaguing Japanese politics and society is that the traditional reliance on top-down control creates a tendency toward what the French call dirigisme, or government control and intervention, especially in business activity or the economy.

There’s no better illustration than the story former Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro told about his experience as the governor of Kumamoto Prefecture when he tried to move the location of a bus stop. “For an advanced country,” he explained, “this is embarrassing. To move the stop a few hundred meters, I had to send a delegation to Tokyo. In Japan, you can’t tie your own shoes without official permission.”

Many in Japan fed up with this state of affairs see in the current political stalemate an opportunity to finally generate a wave of reform from regional areas that would engulf and wash the center. The Sentaku group was formed with the same intention as that expressed by Sakamoto Ryoma: to clean up Japan by having it choose.

Sentaku: Choose Clean!

Officially launched on January 20, the group’s full name roughly translates to The People’s Federation for Cleaning (Choosing) Japan by the Regions and Individual Citizens.

One of the group’s founding members and its representative is Kitagawa Masayasu, who understands local Japanese politics from the inside out. A former governor of Mie Prefecture who retired voluntarily from politics after serving two terms, he is now a Waseda University professor and head of the Waseda University Political Platform Research Institute.

This is not a spur-of-the-moment commitment by Mr. Kitagawa—he has been involved with promoting bottom-up government in Japan for some years. In a speech earlier this decade, he declared:

“The excessive concentration of government and business organizations in Tokyo has resulted in a serious decline in the health of the regions. Those local governments with the intent to create reform will work together to change our social systems from the local level. Rather than fearing mistakes, it is more appropriate for us to move forward with a positive attitude and correct any mistakes. Fair competition among regional governments will surely spur our communities to engage in the reform of society.”

He is aware of the magnitude of his task. In an interview conducted a few years ago, he noted:

With local politics, it’s bad enough that the media doesn’t cover the chief executives, but they don’t even cover the prefectural assemblies. That’s both the national media and the local media.

At the Tokyo press conference held to unveil the group in January, Mr. Kitagawa explained that Sentaku was an organization for promoting true political reform for the next lower house election, expected sometime later this year. Considering Mr. Kitagawa’s long commitment to local reform and the ideas of the people he has brought on board, it seems likely that the organization’s efforts will continue after the election.

Sentaku’s parent organization is the Citizen’s Council to Create a New Japan, whose membership consists of leading figures in the private sector. That group has focused its efforts on having political parties and groups throughout the nation formulate specific policy platforms and present them to the public to offer them a choice. These goals are congruent with Mr. Kitagawa’s current efforts at the Waseda institute he heads.

At the inaugural press conference, Mr. Kitagawa seemed to be channeling Sakamoto Ryoma when he said:

“Today’s Diet is incapable of conducting debate that seeks a choice from the citizens and a systemic policy. Both the regions and the citizens still view the central government as their lord and master. We will provide a platform for encouraging serious debate among the parties and politicians.”

Specifically, Sentaku’s goals are the following:

  • Reform citizen awareness, including the Japanese approach to living and working
  • Achieve devolution to break free from (the ties of) the bureaucracy and central government authority and to achieve responsible political leadership
  • Promote citizen debate focusing on policy that is based on regions, areas, and individual citizens, and rework the concept of the state. Cast aside the postwar democracy that leaves (policy decisions) to the politicians. Make the parties create and present specific platforms.

Mr. Kitagawa stressed that the group has no plans to endorse candidates. “We’re not a party. We’re offering a venue for debate.” He also noted Sentaku was not necessarily opposed to the idea of a grand coalition of the type discussed late last year by Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro.

Addressing Sentaku’s agenda for the immediate future, he said:

“We should have each political party present their platforms about major issues on which no agreement has been reached, and hold a general election for choosing a policy-based government.”

He also stated during the press conference:

“We are aware that this is an extremely important year that will determine Japan’s future. Yet, looking at current conditions in the government, the ruling and opposition parties, and the Diet, we are forced to say that they are far removed from the citizens’ expectations…Our past group has promoted the verification and evaluation of the platforms of the political parties, but the situation today is that those activities are insufficient. The role of Sentaku will be to seek the parties to fulfill their responsibility to explain by formulating policies and actively expressing our opinions from the citizens’ perspective in the process of creating platforms.”

The politician turned professor is not leading a solitary charge. The roster, background, and views of other founding members of the group offer an intriguing glimpse of the yeasty ferment at work at the subnational level in Japan and the diversity of the country’s political and social thought. Here are profiles of some of the members.

Matsuzawa Shigefumi

Mr. Matsuzawa is in his second term as the governor of Kanagawa Prefecture (where the city of Yokohama is located). He is a graduate of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, an academy for training a new generation of politicians with a long-term vision for the nation’s future. It was established in 1979 by Matsushita Konosuke, the founder of consumer electronics giant Matsushita Electric Industrial, when he became distressed by the direction of Japanese politics a generation ago.

A former member of the small Progressive Party (formed by the members of a slightly larger group who chose not to merge with the LDP), he became the youngest prefectural assembly member in Kanagawa history. Mr. Matsuzawa later joined the opposition DPJ and won election to the Diet, and was quickly enlisted into the party’s shadow cabinet. A proponent of Constitutional reform and a resolute stance against the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens, he ran against Kan Naoto for the party leadership, but lost. He left the DPJ in 2003 and won election as governor later that year. His political hero is former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mr. Matsuzawa describes his vision for Sentaku:

“The perpetual crises generated by the two major parties are not the way to save Japan. Our objective is to have the national government implement true reform in their platforms. We will pressure the political parties to create real platforms and ask the citizens to make a choice. If devolution continues, we can smash the centralized authority of the bureaucracy and create a dynamic Japan.”

Yamada Keiji

The Governor of the Kyoto Metropolitan District, Mr. Yamada has chaired a committee in the National Governors’ Conference focusing on the devolution of governmental authority.

Furukawa Yasushi

When elected governor of Saga Prefecture in 2003, he became the youngest governor in the country. Mr. Furukawa initially entered governmental service when he joined the former Ministry of Home Affairs, now the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. He has extensive experience in working with local governments to implement reorganization and promote local development. He was asked to consider running for governor of other prefectures, including Nagano Prefecture, where he was once assigned, but returned to serve in his home prefecture of Saga.

Higashikokubaru Hideo

The bien pensant pundits of Japan are quick to dismiss Mr. Higashikokubaru (on the left in the photo) because of his previous career as a comedian and the boorish, roughhouse behavior of his younger days. A former protégé of comedian, film director, and television personality Beat Takeshi, known internationally by his original name of Kitano Takeshi, the man once known as Sonomanma Higashi was arrested in 1986 when he got carried away with himself during a visit with his boss and a few other cohorts to the offices of a weekly magazine to complain about its coverage of Mr. Kitano.

After this and several other unflattering incidents, Mr. Higashikokubaru literally decided to clean up his act. He suspended public performances, started practicing Zen, and was admitted to Waseda University in 2000. By all accounts, his academic record was superb, and he graduated in 2004 at the age of 46. The subject of his graduation thesis was election campaigns. When the former governor of Miyazaki Prefecture, Ando Tadahiro, was arrested for bribery, Mr. Higashikokubaru saw his chance and returned to his childhood home to run for office, winning handily against an LDP-backed opponent.

His ability to handle a crisis was immediately tested by an outbreak of avian flu in his largely rural prefecture, which accounts for the production of 25% of the chickens consumed in Japan. He also assumed office at a time when scandals involving slush funds were coming to light throughout the country and the Kyushu region in particular. Mr. Higashikokubaru instructed prefectural employees to come clean about any potential problems. He suceeded beyond his expectations: through his efforts the prefecture recovered roughly 91.5 million yen (about $US 883,500) generated by illegal slush funds, exceeding the 76 million yen he had targeted. The money included cash returned by the disgraced former Governor Ando and the family of the late former Governor Matsukata Suketaka

While his celebrity is undoubtedly a factor, his constituents are thrilled by his no-frills style and his tireless promotion of the products of his prefecture; at one point last year his disapproval rating was under 2%. He has become famous nationally for using a phrase in the local dialect, “Miyazaki wo dogenkasen to ikan” (We must do something about Miyazaki.)

Mr. Higashikokubaru’s current efforts mesh perfectly with the objectives of Sentaku. While campaigning for election, the governor repeatedly emphasized that his goal was to achieve political reform in the prefecture and spread those reforms nationwide. Explaining the rationale for joining the group, he said:

“I can’t see any national vision or strategy. Isn’t it time to question the approach of the country as a whole, when politics is so stagnant and confused? This (Sentaku) is not a third force between the ruling and opposition parties. Both the opposition and the government parties should offer policies easily understood by the citizens, and allow them to be the standard by which a government is chosen. I want to speak to the national government from a regional perspective.”

He also said, “The reason (the group was formed) was dissatisfaction and distrust in the national government. It will not be possible (to put) regional finances (on a solid footing) without a debate on the consumption tax. The citizens are seeking a real forum for debate.”

Some have suggested that one flaw in Sentaku’s original membership roster was their failure to include a person associated with the media. This suggestion overlooks that Mr. Higashikokubaru is a media magnet who attracts publicity with little effort. (See here, here, and here for previous Ampontan articles about the governor.)

Ikeda Morio

Mr. Ikeda is the former president and chairman of Shiseido, the major cosmetics company, and is now a senior advisor to the firm. He was a member of the so-called Education Rebuilding Council, a group established by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo for the reform of Japanese education, which was since disbanded by his successor Mr. Fukuda.

Mogi Yuzaburo

Mr. Mogi is the chairman of the food products company Kikkoman. A graduate of the Columbia School of Business in 1961, he thus became the first Japanese to be awarded an MBA. Kikkoman enjoyed extraordinary success under his leadership. Mr. Mogi believes in training people with an international perspective for the era of globalization, and thinks the key to success for Japanese enterprises abroad is to form ties with local communities and rely on local personnel instead of sending Japanese from the home office.

Koga Nobuaki

Mr. Koga is the primary representative of organized labor. He is the former President of the Japanese Electrical, Electronic and Information Union and is now an official with Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation

Sasaki Takeshi

The former president of the University of Tokyo, Mr. Sasaki’s area of specialization is the history of Western political thought. He tried to reform the structure of the university (known in Japan for its conservative approach) but was defeated for reelection. He was awarded the Japanese Medal of Honor (Medal with Purple Ribbon) for his service.

Sentaku has succeeded in attracting more reform-minded local politicians to its cause since its inauguration six weeks ago. These include:

Terata Sukeshiro

The popular governor of Akita Prefecture, he initially ran at the request of DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro when the latter headed the small New Frontier party. He won despite the opposition of the LDP, which has continued since his election.

Kada Yukiko

Shiga Prefecture Governor Kada has a doctor’s degree in agriculture and is the fifth woman to serve as the governor of a Japanese prefecture. Still in her first term, she campaigned on a platform of freezing public works projects, including the construction of six dams and a new Shinkansen station. (This stance is often a winner among the Japanese public and just as often earns the enmity of the long-entrenched political interests allied with the construction industry.)

Her political philosophy as governor is that leaders at the local level should transcend political parties and treat the prefecture’s citizens as their party, echoing the same theme presented by Mr. Higashikokubaru in Miyazaki Prefecture. Neither of the two major parties supported her during her election campaign–the DPJ, ironically, because of her opposition to the Shinkansen station. She wound up with the support of the Social Democrats, a small party that contains what is left of the former Socialist Party, and defeated the candidate backed by the LDP, the DPJ, and New Komeito.

Ms. Kada already has succeeded in freezing the construction of the Shinkansen station by refusing to prepare a budget for the related expenditures, which nearly embroiled her in a lawsuit that sought to recover damages.

Sentaku’s membership also includes the nation’s youngest mayor, 35-year-old Kunisada Isato of Sanjo, Niigata.

Joining in late February was Kojima Zenkichi, the mayor of Shizuoka City. Mr. Kojima explained that Japan was in a critical period in the second stage of reform for devolution. He said he wanted to work with the group to increase regional authority now that debate at the national level is stalled, which has created a sense of crisis among local governments. The Diet, said Mr. Kojima, is tied up in the issue of the gasoline tax and the road funds and there is little discussion reform or devolution. Sentaku, he believes, is the means to get the Diet to pay more attention.

To be fair, not every local politician is on board. Itoh Yuichiro, the governor of Kagoshima Prefecture, carped to the press, “I don’t know why (Sentaku) is necessary. It’s the job of the mass media to conduct debate regarding various issues and to create a venue for the exchange of opinions.” (Since Mr. Itoh was speaking to a reporter, it should be no surprise that his interviewer failed to follow up by asking why the mass media has so dismally failed to fulfill this function.)

Diet Liaison Group

When Sentaku was launched in January, Mr. Kitagawa also said he would seek the formation of a group consisting of members of the national Diet to work together to implement the group’s goals for the next lower house election:

We also will call on Diet members of all parties who agree with our activities and aims to form a new federation among themselves. We can provide the MPs with a platform for the debate required.

The formation of that group was announced on 3 March with the participation of 110 members from four parties, much more than the originally anticipated 70. Unlike the main Sentaku group, this is expected to be a temporary body for promoting the group’s aims in the next lower house election, expected to be held later this year.

The point was explicitly made that the Diet liaison group was not created to promote political realignment, which is the defining trend in Japanese politics at the national level and the backdrop to the tactical maneuvers of both parties that are ostensibly related to national policy. Prominent DPJ Diet member Noda Yoshihiko had this to say on his participation: “I am not one of those seeking a political realignment. I want to form a government without the LDP. I am interested in (a system) in which governments are formed alternately by the two parties.”

Kyoto Governor Yamada also explained the need for this liaison group: “The opposition of central government agencies has prevented debate on devolution. This way we can avoid the distorted connection with (the bureaucracy).”

Not everyone is sanguine about the prospects of success for the Diet liaison group. In an editorial, the Nishinippon Shimbun wondered if it would be able to focus on policy-based reform, considering that most Diet members are conducting themselves with an eye on political realignment. The newspaper also wondered whether this group would subvert the goals of Sentaku by serving as the means to accelerate the creation of alliances of politicians of different parties and lead to talks for another grand coalition. Indeed, the newspaper reported that one MP from Kyushu was instructed by his faction leader to attend the inaugural meeting for the specific purpose of confirming who was present.

Regardless of how its relationship with the Diet evolves, Sentaku now counts among its members 144 heads of local government, including 13 of the 47 prefectural governors. They have formed four committees to examine policy alternatives, including one for Diet reform and one for the reform of the bureaucracy and political leadership. The group has without question established a beachhead for itself as a vehicle for people of intelligence and accomplishment throughout the country who have long been dismayed at the inability of national politicians and other leaders to see beyond their immediate interests and recognize that without change Japan is headed toward a dead end. (Indeed, I am aware of no similar group anywhere else in the Western world; certainly no such group with anything approaching the credentials of Sentaku exists in the United States)

In the days of the post-bubble economy, the Asahi Shimbun asked executives of 200 Japanese corporations who from the past 1,000 years of world history, regardless of nationality, would be most useful in overcoming Japan’s financial crisis. The winner of the poll? Sakamoto Ryoma, the man who midwifed the birth of the modern Japanese state.

Most of the public shares Sakamoto’s desire to have the country choose a thorough cleaning, once and for all. The enthusiasm for Sentaku evinced by local politicians of different political backgrounds shows that the spirit for bottom-up reform is still alive and well.

This time, they might finish the job that Sakamoto Ryoma started.

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Posted in Government, History, Politics | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »

Japan’s media: More fiction than fact?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 20, 2007

RASHOMON, the famous literary montage by Akutagawa Ryunosuke that Kurosawa Akira turned into an even more famous film starring Mifune Toshiro, tells the story of a man’s murder and the rape of his wife from the perspectives of four people. Their accounts differ so greatly the reader or viewer wonders if they are describing the same incident. The Akutagawa story is a classic in world literature, and some rate the Kurosawa film as one the five best non-American movies ever made.

The Japanese media like this concept so much they’ve updated the technique to use for their news reports about Miyazaki Prefecture Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo’s visit to Tokyo on the 14th. Reading the accounts from several media outlets leaves one wondering if they are describing the same event with the same participants.

Higashikokubaru has spent all of two months as governor after winning a special election to replace his predecessor, who was arrested for bid rigging. You can get up to speed on his first career as a comedian in the group associated with Beat Takeshi using the stage name of Sonomanma Higashi, his political science studies at university, and his diligence in dealing with an avian flu epidemic and reforming bidding procedures for government jobs in his early days in the job in our previous post here.

Nothing will prepare you, however, for the sheer incompetence, sloppiness, and lack of integrity in the media’s Rashomon-like approach to the governor’s visit one day last week as he dropped in on two government ministries and several companies with plants in Miyazaki, and gave a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

Here’s look at how several media outlets covered the speech. All but one of the reports were in Japanese.

Kyodo News, Japan’s leading news agency, chose to emphasize the comedic aspects of Higashikokubaru’s speech to the foreign correspondents. When he began his talk, he asked them not to ask difficult or trashy questions like those from a weekly magazine or a “wide show”. The governor spoke briefly in English, joking that some have compared him to Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, but that he would prefer to be compared to Ronald Reagan (who also started out as governor of that state).

Kyodo added that he reminisced about his school days, and he recalled that he told his primary school teacher his ambition in life was to become French.

The report I saw did not mention the serious aspects of his speech, nor did they mention his visits to the ministries or companies.

The Yomiuri Shimbun began by describing Higashikokubaru’s appearance as PR for Miyazaki. They were the only outlet to mention that the governor referred to the legends claiming that his home prefecture was the birthplace of the Japanese people. They also mentioned his English jokes and the crack about Reagan, and noted that his audience laughed loud and long.

Yomiuri reported that he talked about local government in Japan, but thought he got sidetracked with stories about becoming French and the dustup with a publishing company when he stormed their offices with Takeshi and other members of his troupe. They noted his speech went beyond the allotted 20 minutes, but didn’t say how long it went on.

Unlike Kyodo, they brought up the governor’s answers to questions asked by the correspondents. One asked him if he had any advice for Prime Minister Abe, whose poll numbers are down, and Higashikokubaru suggested that Abe’s ratings might rise if his hair thinned out.

He also mentioned his pet theory (no one else called it this) that political parties weren’t needed in local government. “A prefectural citizens’ party” was sufficient. Yomiuri did not elaborate on this statement.

The Miyazaki Shimbun, the governor’s hometown paper, mentioned that he gave a humorous speech that also included the reasons for his wanting to become a politician. Unlike Yomiuri or Kyodo, they quoted Higashikokubaru’s comments on the prime minister’s low poll numbers: “I suspect the cause is that he does not sense the temperature of the people.”

They also mentioned his self-introduction in English, and were the only outlet to report that he talked for about 30 minutes. They were also the only ones to report that the governor spoke about his initial meeting with Beat Takeshi and his reasons for switching from show business to politics.

The Miyazaki Shimbun also scooped the rest by reporting that when asked to compare the two professions, Higashikokubaru answered they both shared the aspect of making people happy. He said that Takeshi taught him to read the audience while doing a comedy routine.

According to the Miyazaki paper, the governor said his most important tasks were to decide what sort of local government to create in Miyazaki and how to turn it into a vibrant region. The previous two media outlets did not think this was worth mentioning. Oddly, however, the hometown paper did not talk about his visits to the ministries or the companies (in this article, at least).

Sankei Sports is one of Japan’s many sports dailies, which cover popular topics in the news as well as sports. Had the governor not been a comedian with a reputation for rough-and-ready behavior, they likely wouldn’t have bothered attending at all.

Sansupo, as they are called, focused exclusively on the audience response. They said the foreign correspondents were in two camps regarding the governor’s appearance. They quoted an unidentified official from the French embassy familiar with Higashikokubaru’s career as a comedian as saying that he had become a good politician because he was not so bureaucratic. Sansupo also noted that others thought his jokes in English were funny, but they didn’t repeat them.

Some correspondents, however, said they thought his speech was too much of a comedy routine and they wanted to hear more about politics. Dennis Normile, the chairman of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, said he would rather have heard more about Miyazaki than about the scandals.

I have to wonder about Normile’s motives, however. The speech was scheduled to last just 20 minutes, and Higashikokubaru has been in office only two months. There’s not a lot of information he can provide about local politics to a foreign audience in that amount of time. The governor probably thought he was giving them what they really wanted.

Janjan describes itself as an alternative media outlet. They provided the largest amount of direct quotes from the speech and focused on its political content. Here is how they quoted Higashikokubaru describing his reasons for becoming governor:

“I gave up my life in Tokyo and returned to Miyazaki to pursue a great dream—to change Miyazaki, where I had grown up, and then change Japan from Miyazaki. It remains a business-as-usual, conservative prefecture, but that approach was the foundation for postwar Japan. Our forebears must be praised for the Miyazaki they created, but now we face the problem of how to change it.

“Don’t you think there was a sense of dissatisfaction and impotence among the citizens after the collapse of the bubble economy? I began to think this (attitude) must be changed about 10 years ago, and this feeling gradually grew stronger. Then I began to believe that I should take action.”

It was at that point that Higashikokubaru mentioned his most important tasks, previously described in the Miyazaki Shimbun section. No other media outlet quoted the governor’s remarks leading up to that statement, however.

Janjan also noted that the reporters asked him questions about his everyday work as a governor, Prime Minister Abe’s statements about the comfort women, and his awareness of the traditional culture of Miyazaki. They didn’t give any of his answers. They also did not mention his ministry and company visits.

The Asahi Shimbun used the governor’s original name, but added his stage name in parentheses. They also mentioned that he had said the people felt a sense of impotence, but chose to omit that he referred to their dissatisfaction.

The Asahi reported that he gave a self-introduction in English, but did not repeat his jokes. They did say these jokes drew a lot of laughs and applause.

They quoted Higashikokubaru about the growing interest in independent politics. He said:

“Now, 60 years after the end of the war, people no longer trust party politics. Local government provides services directly to the residents. They don’t need parties. ‘One’ prefectural citizens’ party is enough. I want to conduct my activities so that this idea takes root.”

Yomiuri was the only other outlet that thought the comment about a single prefectural citizens’ party was worthy of quoting, but they did not provide the full context.

Asahi were the only ones to mention that the Japanese reporters at the event asked him what he thought of the Tokyo governor’s race. He said, “Several people have entered the race and there are a lot of choices. That’s good for maintaining democracy.”

They were one of the few media outlets to report that he also visited companies with plants in his prefecture. They were the only one to provide the details that the sites he visited included Oji Paper and Asahi Kasei, and the Education and Land, Infrastructure, and Transport ministries. They mentioned that the governor brought gifts of locally produced free range chicken to each place he visited (including the Foreign Correspondents’ Club), but Education Minister Ibuki Bunmei turned down the present. The minister said he makes it a rule not to receive anything from local governments. Asahi noted that everyone else accepted the gifts.

Higashikokubaru’s appearance in front of the foreign correspondents was covered on The Wide, an afternoon TV program, the next day. They ran clips of the governor during the funniest parts of his speech, which were notable for his goofy poses. The program did not mention his other visits, nor did they mention his political commentary.

These omissions allowed them to tut-tut and take the governor to task for a lack of gravitas. The commentators on the program were disturbed by what they considered his frivolousness, and remarked that Beat Takeshi thought the governor’s biggest problem as a comedian was matching his behavior to the situation and the place. Their position was that governors should not be telling jokes to entertain an audience.

The Nishinippon Shimbun, a regional Kyushu daily, did not mention at all that Higashikokubaru spoke to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (much less the content of his speech), nor that he visited several companies in Tokyo. They focused solely on his five-minute visit to the Education Ministry. They disposed of Ibuki’s refusal to accept the present of chicken in three paragraphs. They were the only media outlet to mention that the Deputy Minister took the chicken instead, and quoted her as saying, “I love chicken.”

Finally, the Japan Times also filed a report in English.

Their report is eight paragraphs long. It does not mention any part of the governor’s speech whatsoever. The newspaper’s readers would not know that the governor has serious views about local government, or that he perhaps overdid the comedy. They would not know about his reasons for going into government. They would not even know about his gifts of chicken at the ministries or the companies. They would not know about the several questions the correspondents asked him. They would know only one thing:

Miyazaki Gov. Hideo Higashikokubaru, a comedian-turned-rookie-politician, waded into a political minefield Wednesday, claiming it was hard to confirm as historical fact that the wartime Japanese military coerced women across Asia into frontline brothels…Asked by reporters for his opinion on Abe’s comments, Higashikokubaru said, “It is very difficult to confirm as a historical fact that the ‘comfort women’ actually existed. My position is that it is hard to make a comment (on the issue) unless the history is verified,” he said. “Both cases of existence and nonexistence (of coercion) should be verified objectively.”

Aside from the question of whether there was coercion to get the sex slaves into the brothels, Higashikokubaru said he believes there was nothing wrong with Japanese engaging in the sex trade in pre-1945 Korea, because under a “bilateral accord” in 1910, the Korean Peninsula became part of Japan, where the sex business had been allowed under certain regulations.

What do they hope to prove with their distorted approach? Why do they consider this issue important, when the rest of Japan manifestly does not, and never will? The other news outlets didn’t think this comment was worth talking about. Why are they asking this particular question of a man who has been in office just two months—a man who is the governor of a rural prefecture ranked 37th of Japan’s 47 prefectures in population, with fewer than two million people, and who has no national responsibilities? Why did they fail to mention anything else that Higashikokubaru did or said that day?

And why did they refer to him in their headline by his stage name of “Gov. Sonomanma” instead of his real name? None of the Japanese papers did that. Granted, his name is 14 letters long and hard to fit in a headline. But Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name is also 14 letters long, and they manage to squeeze that into headlines.

Perhaps the Japan Times thinks they are burnishing their reputation overseas as crusaders for truth and justice. Perhaps they are trying to please their primary audience of cynically ironic Westerners who savor a snide sense of superiority as they eke out a living on the fringes of Japanese society. Perhaps they are trying to please South Korea, where the paper’s publisher has business interests. (They already canned a sports reporter without notice for talking about prostitutes in Seoul during the World Cup. The Koreans claimed that he insulted the womanhood of the nation.)

What they’ve actually done, however, is reinforced their reputation as a publication utterly lacking in journalistic integrity.

Still, the other eight media outlets weren’t much better. A reader would have to put together all eight stories about Governor Higashikokubaru’s Tokyo trip to get one decent account of the day’s events.

And as with Rashomon, we still wouldn’t be sure of what actually happened.

Posted in Mass media, Politics | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

Japan’s celebrity politicians

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Japanese television this morning was filled with wall-to-wall features on Sonomanma Higashi’s election as governor of Miyazaki Prefecture. (See yesterday’s post for more details.) He may not be the last person the media expected to see elected to an important government position, but his colorful background makes it safe to assume that he wasn’t within hailing distance of the top ten on their list, either.

But Higashikokubaru Hideo (his real name) is by no means the first celebrity to successfully cross over to politics in Japan. He’s just the next in a long line of performers, athletes, or otherwise well-known people to add “politician” to their list of accomplishments on their resume.

Antonio Inoki

Many celebrities turned politician make a beeline for the House of Councilors, the Upper House of the Japanese Diet. The Upper House was created to act as a check on the House of Representatives, or Lower House, where the real power lies. The inaptly named Lower House has the sole authority to select the prime minister, set the budget, ratify treaties, and initiate legislation. The framers of Japan’s constitution seemed to want more mature people to serve as Upper House MPs—they serve fixed terms that are longer than those of their Lower House counterparts, and they have to be older to run for a seat.

That’s the way it is in theory, but that’s not how it turned out in practice. Perhaps because it so seldom exercises real power, the Upper House continues to attract people from outside politics and gives them a pulpit to espouse their pet causes, get free publicity, or both.

One was professional wrestler Antonio Inoki (more here), a very popular figure nationwide at the time of his election. Inoki, shown in the first photo, formed the Sports Peace Party (comprised primarily of Antonio Inoki), which later merged with the Democratic Socialists. He was known for his various holds, including the Reverse Indian Death Lock, marrying and divorcing Baisho Mitsuko, one of the most shapely Japanese women of her generation, and getting charged with tax evasion and election law violations. He still shows up on TV occasionally, often putting announcers in some painful wrestling hold or just whacking them outright.

The Upper House also seems to attract former Olympic athletes. It didn’t take long for former Olympic speed skater and bicycle racer Hashimoto Seiko to jump into politics, and Ogiwara Kenji, who won two gold medals as part of Japan’s Nordic combined skiing team, was elected a few years ago. Both are members of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party.

The body now has another former professional wrestler serving in its ranks—Onita Atsushi, whose claim to fame was being the first wrestler to participate in a “no-rope barbed-wire electric-explosive death match” (which he won). That sounds like just the background one needs for political trench warfare. He also was known for screaming “Fire!” at the top of his lungs. And when you come right down to it, isn’t that the chief occupation of politicians? (Try this for his professional wrestling curriculum vitae.)

Elected to his first term in 2004 was Okinawan roots musician Kina Shokichi. Kina has some goofy ideas (and he also once ran a nightclub called the Chakra), but he seems to be a sharp observer of the political scene:

Some DPJ members, however, look askance at their new colleague, given that some of his views and ideas run counter to DPJ policies, particularly his advocacy of independence for Okinawa.
But Kina shrugged off such criticism, saying, “The DPJ is by nature a party of contradictions.”

Presiding over this group of zanies is Ogi Chikage, a former member of the Takarazuka troupe, movie actress, and the Transport Minister in Prime Minister Koizumi’s first Cabinet (the above photo is from her younger days).

But the most well-known celebrity politician in Japan is a man who is no longer a member of the Upper House and is not known overseas for being a celebrity—Ishihara Shintaro, the governor of the Tokyo Metropolitan District.

But before Ishihara became known overseas as the man who co-authored The Japan that Can Say No with the late Sony President Morita Akio to call on his countrymen to be more assertive, or the man who, with dismaying regularity, delivers breathtakingly blunt statements that denigrate women, Koreans, the French, or Mickey Mouse, he was already famous in Japan as an award-winning author and Richard Branson-type adventurer.

Shintaro Ishihara poster

Two months before being graduated from college in 1956, Ishihara skyrocketed to the upper reaches of Japan’s celestial celebrity stratosphere when he won the Akutagawa Prize—the foremost literary award in the country—for his novel Taiyo no Kisetsu, or Seasons in the Sun. The book created a sensation because it heralded the emergence of a new generation in a Japan just starting to recover from the war years.

The novel was made into a movie, and Ishihara’s younger brother Yujiro made his debut in the film. The movie did for Yujiro what the novel did for Shintaro—it was his springboard for becoming the most popular Japanese male actor of the postwar era. It’s a mantle that no one else has assumed in the 20 years since his death. (Yujiro may be most familiar to overseas audiences as the Japanese pilot in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.) Thus, Shintaro is not only a celebrity in his own right, but also basks in the considerable light that still emanates from his brother’s seemingly immortal glory.

Ishihara later continued his career as a novelist, and dabbled in directing, running a theater company, exploring the North Pole, sailing yachts, and traveling through South America on a motorcycle. He also served as war correspondent for the Yomiuri Shimbun in Vietnam in 1967-68.

On his return, Ishihara took the celebrity path into Japanese politics and won a seat in the Upper House, but later was elected to the more important Lower House. He retired from politics in 1995 after 25 years in the Diet, but resumed his career in 1999 when he ran in the election for governor of Tokyo and won. He still holds the position today, and plans to run again in the next election.

Outside observers hear of Ishihara’s outrageous statements and his huge margins of electoral victory in the sophisticated city of Tokyo and sometimes see this as evidence that a particularly virulent strain of ultra-rightwing nationalism continues to lurk in the Japanese soul. (Either that, or they find it sexier to bash rightwing fanatics than leftwing fanatics.)

The explanation is much simpler. There are two reasons for Ishihara’s political success. The first is his outspokenness, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, the Japanese love in a politician. The second and more important factor is his celebrity.

If you don’t believe me, ask Arnold Schwarzenegger. If it weren’t for celebrity, how else could a Republican win two gubernatorial elections in the Democratic Party stronghold of California?

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