IT SOMETIMES SEEMS as if the only person with the skills required to describe Japanese politics today would have been the novelist Charles Dickens–and sometimes it seems even he wouldn’t have been up to the task.
For example, spearheading the drive for the devolution of governmental authority are Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru and Miyazaki Gov. Higashikokubaru Hideo, two Dickensian characters who have parleyed their celebrity into a national soapbox to present the case for stronger local governments. The former is an attorney turned television performer, and the latter was a television comedian associated with Beat Takeshi, himself a famous comic and film director under his real name of Kitano Takeshi. The nation’s mass media are happy to give the TV veterans and audience favorites that soapbox, and the pair are just as happy with the chance to perch themselves on top and promote their cause while indulging their inner publicity hounds.
Working in a loose alliance, they’ve had a significant role in shaping the parameters of the national political dialogue this year with a potentially landmark lower house election due next month. But constant media attention and popular support is a dangerous combination that can drive anyone over the top. Over the past month, Mr. Hashimoto might finally have found the adult supervision he needed, while Mr. Higashikokubaru did indeed go over the top, but we’ll save that for later.
Of interest this week was the sudden reemergence of the celebrity governor who foreshadowed nearly a decade ago the appearance of the Dynamic Duo on the national political radar. That would be Tanaka Yasuo, an award-winning and best-selling novelist, governor of Nagano for six turbulent years, and now a national at-large delegate in the upper house of the Diet for his vanity party, New Party Nippon.
Mr. Tanaka has agreed to act as an electoral assassin for the opposition Democratic Party of Japan by running in Hyogo’s 8th district against incumbent Fuyushiba Tetsuzo of New Komeito, who has a Dickensian background of his own. Mr. Fuyushiba began his lower house career as a member of Komeito in 1986, switched to the New Frontier Party in 1994, served as a party official when former DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro led the group, and then switched back to New Komeito when it reorganized in 1998. He later served as New Komeito’s secretary-general, but resigned that post in 2006 to serve for two years as the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport.
With his New Frontier Party background, Mr. Fuyushiba might be considered an Ozawan-style conservative, if that concept still has any meaning. Like the DPJ, he supports voting rights in local elections for those people of Korean ancestry born in Japan who choose to retain Korean citizenship. Yet the DPJ, depending on who’s doing the interpreting, is either trying to eliminate New Komeito as a political force because Mr. Ozawa detests them, or making them an offer they can’t refuse to have them defect from the ruling coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party. But let’s get back to Mr. Tanaka.
The incumbent might seem to be in a strong position. New Komeito is backed by Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group. The membership of that group is said to have a relatively high proportion of Japanese-born Korean citizens, as does the population of Hyogo.
Mr. Tanaka might be able to overcome these disadvantages because he is well-known in the area for his hands-on volunteer work during the recovery from the 1995 Hanshin-Awaji earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people. He told the Sankei Shimbun that those volunteer activities opened his eyes to the necessity for changing politics and society. He added, “I want to create a type of politics with a close connection to the local residents, and destroy the vested interests of rule by the bureaucracy.” And this is definitely a year for the anti-incumbents.
La vie est belle
What would Dickens make of him? He wrote a best-selling novel while still a university student, as did the granddaddy of celebrity governors, Ishihara Shintaro—with whom he is engaged in a long-running feud.
After a career as a novelist and critic, and recording one LP as a singer, Mr. Tanaka became involved in community grassroots activities. He spent six months helping the earthquake victims and then campaigned against the construction of the Kobe Airport. He was asked to run as the governor of Nagano, where he lived as a child after his father began teaching at Shinshu University. He originally declined, saying that he thought he could be more effective outside politics, but changed his mind.
Sui generis is the only term to use to describe his politics. He favors stronger local government, but is opposed to municipal mergers, particularly in remote areas. He is an anti-bureaucracy reformer who was blood-in-the-eye-angry over former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s privatization of Japan Post, citing as his reason concerns that the measure would allow foreign interests to purchase it. Though he is known to have a personal relationship to some degree with Ozawa Ichiro, he dislikes both the LDP and the DPJ and calls himself an “ultra-independent”. He dismisses both the major parties as “department stores”, staffed by personnel seconded from business and industry groups in the case of the former, and labor unions in the case of the latter. He is critical of the influence of what he calls the Labor Aristocracy in the DPJ.
Mr. Tanaka also says he combines the best qualities of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, though it isn’t clear if he knows what they actually did, or is attracted to what he perceives as their image. He has somewhat nativist tendencies—the URL for his party’s website includes the string “love-nippon”–and he thinks that Japan should stake out a more independent international position. Yet he is also well-known for his taste in foreign automobiles, particularly Audis and BMWs. He rejects the label anti-American, preferring to refer to himself as a critic of America. (The Japanese expression he uses is the difficult-to-translate 諫米, if anyone wants to take a crack at it.) But he strongly supported Bill Clinton and redoubled that support after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. (We shall see the probable reason for that shortly.)
He ran for governor in Nagano after his predecessor became embroiled in scandals, which parallels Higashikokubaru Hideo’s entry into prefectural politics. He campaigned in opposition to unnecessary public sector projects, most notably a local dam. He was opposed by every political group except the Communist Party, as well as local legislators. But he was one of the few people in the country to understand and act on the hunger of the Japanese electorate for anti-establishment politicians. Assisted by the publicity that a friendly national media provided, he won the election and assumed office in 2000.
The media coverage lavished on his administration very much prefigured that now bestowed on Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Higashikokubaru. At one point his approval ratings were slightly above 90%, outdoing even the other two, whose ratings still languish at the 80% level.
Mr. Tanaka recently sat for a long interview with the Sankei Shimbun, but his scattered line of thought makes it too difficult to describe concisely what he said, much less translate. Let’s look instead at this interview from four years ago in the Japan Times. It too is scattershot, combining a serious discussion of legitimate issues, grandiose unsupported statements, and more holes than a pound of sliced Swiss cheese. There are too many hard truths to keep it from being useless, but too many flaws that prevent it from being important. Complicating matters is an amateurish interviewer who seems more interested in producing hagiography than bringing to the attention of a non-Japanese audience a man who then was a nationally prominent politician. It all starts with the second sentence.
After converting his private office into a glass-walled room to make his work as transparent as possible…
Excellent PR, isn’t it? “I have nothing to hide.” It also screams, “Hey, everybody, look at me!” The glass substantiated one of the most common criticisms of Tanaka—that he’s nothing more than a publicity hound.
It’s puzzling why a journalist would be making positive references to the glass-walled room at that point in his term. Not long after he became governor, Mr. Tanaka demonstrated his transparency by entertaining a female television personality in this office. They shared a drink together while she sat on his lap. The glass walls made it easy for someone to take their photo and send it to a weekly magazine, which promptly published it. That embarrassed the people of his prefecture, who probably expected him to behave like most politicians and dally somewhere other than his office on his own time. For Mr. Tanaka, however, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Gov. Yasuo Tanaka defiantly declared “No More Dams” in a direct counter to the local economy’s heavy reliance on public works projects at the expense of ecological concerns. He also abolished the traditional, self-serving press club system in his prefecture.
Here we give the man credit where credit is due—Japan could use more governors (and prime ministers) who pursue the same policies, even when the ecology isn’t a consideration. He brings up other worthwhile points in the interview.
Besides tackling local politics, the flamboyant 49-year-old devotes his time to writing columns for magazines and criticizing and analyzing national and local politics on radio and television programs. He is also a well-known restaurant critic….When he was still a student at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo in 1980, he received the prestigeous Bungei Award for his novel “Nantonaku Kurisutaru (Somewhat Like Crystal).”
But he hasn’t written a worthwhile novel since then. He has, however, written a regular column for a magazine called The Pero-Guri Diaries. Here’s how Time Magazine explained it a few years ago:
“To understand Yasuo Tanaka, you need a piece of slang you won’t find in any Japanese-English dictionary. Pero-guri is a phrase Tanaka coined himself to describe the sexual act. More specifically, his sexual acts. It’s an onomatopoeic word, the pero coming from the slang pero-pero, which means to lick. The guri comes from guri-guri, which means to grind….Tanaka is Governor of Japan’s mountainous Nagano prefecture, west of Tokyo, but he’s also a writer, specializing in autobiographical pero-guri tales, which reveal a predilection for flight attendants, married women and fine champagne.
“‘Appointment with Mrs. U. Nap at Park Hyatt. The entire floor must have heard us. Midnight. She goes home to her husband… Dom Perignon at Roppongi’s Kingyo. Head to Chianti at Iikura for an espresso chaser but end up on the roof of the adjacent building, pero-pero guri-guri with the Tokyo Tower in the back. Her screaming fills the air. Pull out moist wipes from the bag and clean up.’”
Once upon a time, they used to say a gentleman never tells…And leave it to the Japan Times to fail to mention any of this in the interview.
After graduation, Tanaka at first joined the oil giant Mobil, only to leave three months later to pursue his career as a writer.
Tanaka also got married soon after joining Mobil, but got divorced 11 months later to pursue his career as a pero-guri writer.
…in 2002, conservative assemblymen who were upset by Tanaka’s challenge to tradition and decades of pork-barrel politics passed a no-confidence vote against him, and forced him from office.
Yes, they were upset by his challenge to pork-barrel politics…and creating undesirable attention for Nagano Prefecture by drinking in his glass-walled office with celebrities on his lap, his pero-guri tales, and endless self-promotion.
In the ensuing gubernatorial election, however, Tanaka made a successful comeback, thanks to overwhelming popular support.
Showing once again how desperately the Japanese voting public craves a reformer.
Then…he expanded his curriculum vitae yet again when he became leader of New Party Nippon, a new political party founded to challenge Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party in the Sept. 11 general election.
His party mates are strange bedfellows for a reformer—in addition to Mr. Tanaka, the other four members of his party all voted against Mr. Koizumi’s reforms in the Diet. In other words, they are anti-reformers who support the status quo of tradition and pork barrel politics.
At least the other members ran for the Diet, but Mr. Tanaka didn’t. He just went around the country giving interviews about his new party, leaving the citizens of Nagano to shift for themselves in his absence.
Though (the party) is small…
So small, in fact, that they had to “borrow” one member from another party of anti-reformers to meet the minimum requirements for selection in the proportional representation phase of the election.
Tanaka hopes his fledgling party will make a difference in Japan by encouraging people to think twice about Koizumi’s ongoing reform drives, which he believes fall far short of being true reforms.
Though his interview strangely lacks any concrete suggestions for reform.
On to the content:
Many young Japanese can only define themselves by naming the company they work for or the designer brand they wear. Our society is filled with people who can’t objectively describe themselves without the help of company names or brand products.
If I were Mr. Tanaka, I wouldn’t be so quick to complain about people incapable of objectively describing themselves.
Just as I described in my book, Japan is an affluent society with an abundance of material goods, where people have no need to worry about food or clothes. But who can be proud of, or be happy about, being a member of this society?
The basic needs of human beings are food, clothing, and shelter. Despite admitting that Japan is remarkably successful in providing the basics that so many other countries lack and offering an abundance of pero-guri opportunities, Mr. Tanaka thinks this is nothing to be proud of or happy about.
Japan’s debts have increased by 170 trillion yen since [Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi took office four years ago. What’s more, 100 people take their own lives each day.
That’s called a non sequitor. He might be able to do something about the first, but he’ll never be able to do anything about the second.
The interviewer, Sayuri Daimon, pipes up:
How can we reform this sick society?
Before you can call it a sick society, Sayuri, you have to show us some of the symptoms. Too much food, shelter, clothing, and pero-guri? Plenty of countries are just waiting to come down with that disease. But if the problem is pork-barrel politics, why is Japan being singled out for an illness that is endemic over the globe?
Back to the governor:
In my case, if someone gives me a hard time, I write or speak publicly about it. So I think people decided not to give me a hard time.
Was that before or after you were removed from office in a no-confidence vote?
What do you think about Koizumi’s postal reform drive?
Where would the money in the postal savings and postal life insurance go once they were privatized?
What happens if a foreign company takes control of the privatized postal savings company and the postal insurance company?
Is his alliance with the anti-reformers beginning to make more sense now?
I think politics should be about what politicians actually say. For example, South American countries may have some political turmoil, but the debates in their parliaments are like an art formed by the politicians’ speeches.
Yes, Japan could learn a lot about parliamentary democracy from the politically stable and economically thriving South American countries.
…in other non-English-speaking countries, such as Thailand, there are foreign-language media that enjoy a leading position in those countries. But in Japan, unless something is reported in Japanese-language newspapers or it appears on Japanese TV, it does not become “evidence” to be taken seriously.
If the foreign-language media in Thailand have a leading position, what does that say about the indigenous media? And how can media that the Thai people—or Japanese people–can’t understand have a leading position?
My current girlfriend doesn’t seem to want to get married.
No surprise there.
Are you going to run for another term as governor?
I will do what the Nagano people want me to do. I want to listen to what people in Nagano say, whether they say I should stay or leave office.
The people of Nagano were already speaking, but he wasn’t listening. As of the date of that interview, Mr. Tanaka had the lowest approval ranking of any Japanese governor. (35% unqualified approval, 40% unqualified disapproval; when combined with those who approve somewhat, his approval rating exceeded 50%)
In fact, he was defeated for reelection the following year in 2006. He began his term as a media favorite, but his stance against the kisha club system that allows major media outlets to monopolize information put the kibosh on that. (More than politics and government needs reforming in Japan.) He certainly didn’t help himself with the prefecture’s voters by neglecting local affairs to start his own political party and get involved in a national campaign. And what can you say about the lack of common sense demonstrated by his failure to escort a female companion to a private spot for a tête-à-tête rather than share a drink with her in his glass-walled office on government property?
Nevertheless, to his credit, he did succeed in producing budget surpluses seven years running and slashing the amount of money required to win bids on local public works projects by making bidding practices more transparent.
Now imagine what will happen if he wins the Hyogo seat and joins an alliance with a government led by the DPJ, whose membership ranges from Nanking Massacre deniers to de facto Socialists looking for a piece of the action instead of holding meetings in coffee shops with the rest of the faux Social Democrats. Team them up with the corrupt petty baron Suzuki Muneo, the paleos of the People’s New Party, and the Social Democrats themselves, and circus will not be the word to describe what ensues.
But even Charles Dickens could not find the words for that.
Japan’s lax residency requirements for running in an election, which allow Mr. Tanaka to parachute into Hyogo at the last minute (though Ozawa Ichiro claims the decision was made a long time ago) are more conducive to political maneuvering in the back rooms of upscale Tokyo restaurants than they are to serving the people of a particular area.
The longer I’m in Japan, the more I’m convinced that the political class remains stuck in the Warring States Period:
(F)or all practical purposes, Japan by 1467 was in fact 260 separate countries, for each daimyo was independent and maintained separate armies. The political and territorial picture in Japan, then, was highly volatile. With no powerful central administration to adjudicate disputes, individual daimyo were frequently in armed conflict with other daimyo all through the Ashikaga period.
The only way this ends is if the electorate reminds these people just who serves whom and makes them unemployed every time they get the chance to vote.