I have done what I should have done. Unfortunately, the people did not fully understand this.
– Kan Naoto, attributing his failures to the people’s stupidity in the Diet this week
THE great festering boil on the butt of the Japanese body politic is about to be lanced, if the reports that Prime Minister Kan Naoto could step down as soon as the end of the month are to be believed. When or if the national prayers are answered, it will end a stalemate perhaps unlike any that has existed in a modern democracy — a standoff created by the unfortunate intersection of nature, circumstances, and the inbred impotence of the political Chatterley classes.
This time for sure, the media are saying, but let’s wait and see if Jack really does hit the road. People were telling each other he would surely step down by the end of June before they started telling each other he would surely step down by the end of August. But the legend in his own mind is still setting conditions for his departure. His revised terms were supposedly the passage of a second supplementary budget, deficit bond-enabling legislation, and the reappraisal of energy policy. After that, he would hand responsibility over to the “younger generation”, as if it were up to him to determine the age of his successors.
What he should be doing instead is bowing his head at his local Shinto shrine to thank the divinities that he doesn’t live in a country where mobs displeased with their rulers film themselves as they machete off ears, noses, and other protruding body parts before dispatching them.
What, me leave?
People became appalled when they realized he intended to remain in office as long as possible, even though the public had written him off well before New Year’s Day 2011. In fact, a source in the Kantei told the media that Mr. Kan keeps a memo book with a list of the days in office of all the prime ministers and calculates those he’s overtaken. On 30 June he passed Mori Yoshiro’s term of 387 days. The next in line was Ohira Masashige’s 554, but he’d have to stick around until December to beat that.
Last month, Mr. Kan said, “I myself have not used the word quit or resign.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon relayed the news that Mr. Kan told him during their meeting last week he intended to speak at a meeting at the United Nations in September on nuclear power plant safety.
Said the prime minister in the Diet on 19 July:
The never-say-die spirit of the women’s soccer team brought about a wonderful result…I too sense that I must fight and never give up as long as there are things I should do.
From the opposition benches:
Prime Minister! Give up!
Here’s what he said in an interview with the weekly Shukan Asahi that appeared on Monday:
Until whenever the day comes that I leave, I will say what should be said and do what should be done. I want to set a course for the drastic reform of nuclear power regulation. That is my candid thought now.
Nuclear power regulatory reform wasn’t one of the conditions listed in the faux agreement with former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio at the beginning of the summer. In fact, just two months ago he said:
The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry has said the nuclear reactors stopped for periodic inspections will be gradually restarted when their safety is confirmed. I am absolutely of the same position.
When METI confirmed their safety, he changed his mind and decided to put the reactors and the nation through a stress test.
The Koizumi complex
The closest politician Japan has had to a Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, Koizumi Jun’ichiro ignored the pleas of the know-it-alls in his own party and dissolved the lower house of the Diet to take the issue of Japan Post privatization to the people. His reward was the second-largest legislative majority in Japanese history.
As you can see from the plan I drew up on the back of the cocktail lounge price list...
Kan Naoto has always been envious of his success (and resentful of the way Mr. Koizumi toyed with him during Question Time in the Diet), and dreamed of becoming the Koizumi of the Left. Another Kantei source reveals that the prime minister vowed: “I’ll do something that Koizumi couldn’t do.” He saw the issue of nuclear power as his path to the same sort of single-issue election that was Mr. Koizumi’s greatest triumph.
According to the 15 July weekly Shukan Post, Mr. Kan began looking at his options on 2 June, the day after the no-confidence motion was introduced. Passage meant that either the Cabinet would have to resign or he would have to call a lower house election, and he didn’t want to resign. He therefore had the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications investigate whether it was possible to hold elections in the Tohoku area, and he demanded a prompt answer. The media outlets and some politicians still deluded themselves that the prime minister retained a modicum of integrity and would resign when “a certain stage had been reached”. Mr. Kan, however, kept badgering the ministry to submit their report, which they did on 10 June.
The ministry thought elections would be possible. The chief municipal officer of Otsuchi-cho in Iwate died in the tsunami, but they had scheduled elections on 28 August for the municipal council. The whereabouts of most people on the voting rolls in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures had been confirmed. The major obstacle was how to handle those evacuated from Fukushima due to the nuclear accident. They’re dispersed throughout country, but compensation payments from Tokyo Electric were to be completed in July and that data could be used. It would take one month to recreate the voting rolls.
The prime minister then ordered the party to search for candidates to replace those who had been suspended from party activities for three months for their abstention on the no-confidence vote. They would be ineligible to run with DPJ backing. He also hinted at the possibility of an election at a meeting of the party’s MPs on 15 June. After that, it became a topic of daily discussion in the media.
Some believed he was only bluffing to keep the DPJ delegates in the lower house in line, particularly the younger ones with little political experience. Their chances of winning re-election are rather less than those of a World War I infantryman for surviving trench warfare. It might have been a bluff, but the major parties hedged their bets; campaign-style political posters started appearing on signboards and shop windows.
At the beginning of August, however, Mr. Kan signaled that he wouldn’t hold an election after all. He explained that most voters thought this wouldn’t be a good time.
Translation: The numbers in the DPJ’s internal polls added up to slaughterhouse.
The volume of fury directed at Mr. Kan is unprecedented in the modern era of Japanese politics. People have been angry at other Japanese politicians, but not so broadly or so deeply, and even then most of those politicians retained a core of diehard supporters. In political circles, the people publicly backing Mr. Kan can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
For a taste of the intensity, start with this comment by Tahara Soichiro.
Can we say after all that Mr. Kan is a human being? He doesn’t belong to any category of what I consider to be human beings.
Mr. Tahara was the host from 1989 to 2010 of Sunday Project, a live political blabathon broadcast by a national network on Sunday mornings. For American readers, picture the host of Meet the Press, Face the Nation, or This Week pre-Christiane Amanpour.
The largest organization backing Mr. Kan’s Democratic Party is Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation. Said Rengo Chairman Koga Nobuaki on 28 July:
I want Prime Minister Kan to stop exacerbating the political vacuum immediately.
By 4 August he was saying:
The political vacuum has intensified, and diplomatic issues have come to a standstill. It’s natural for this situation to be resolved by the end of August.
Kawauchi Hiroshi, a Democratic Party MP of the lower house, was once a member of the now defunct New Frontier Party when Mr. Kan was also a member. He said:
The Prime Minister is trying to destroy this country. He is the common enemy of the Japanese people.
Takenaka Kazuo is a magazine editor in Chiba:
Looking for a sense of shame or morality from him (Kan Naoto) is the same as trying to teach a pig how to use a knife and fork….If you idly sit and watch the runaway Kan administration, history will brand you an accomplice to the crime of swindling. That you will be condemned by history is a self-evident truth. The political scientists and journalists who are parasites on the Kan administration are guilty of the same crime.
Most Japanese were willing to give him a chance to deal with the aftereffects of the Tohoku earthquake/tsunami. Here’s how that worked out:
For the stricken area to recover, I want you think about the presence of Prime Minister Kan, the heaviest of the shackles weighing down the recovery.
That was Hatayama Kazuyoshi, the president of the of Miyagi prefectural assembly, on 28 July. He was speaking at a national conference of prefectural assembly presidents, just after the representatives of the assemblies of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima — the three prefectures that suffered the most — submitted an emergency resolution to the committee calling for the resignation of Kan Naoto.
The National Governor’s Conference also met last month in Akita. Declared Hirai Shinji, Governor of Tottori:
(The national government) is not trusted either throughout the world or throughout the regional areas of Japan. The government’s response has been grandstanding from first to last…The national government has been doing nothing but holding conferences. We should express this anger in a special declaration.
Finally, more ominous for a country with little political violence, police in Tokyo last month arrested a man carrying an 11-centimeter fruit knife who wanted to “punish” the prime minister for not resigning.
University professor and author Ikeda Nobuo wrote a blog entry last week to explain Mr. Kan’s behavior. Here’s an excerpt:
Prime Minister Kan plans to attend the Japan-U.S. summit meeting in the U.S. in September. It seems likely he intends to stay in office indefinitely. Even his aides don’t know what he really intends to do. That can be understood rationally, however, considering the objectives of his life in the past.
His entire life has been spent as an activist working against “the system”. He allied himself with the “Structural Reform Wing”, a group that favored a type of syndicalism in which the workers would manage corporations through “factory evaluation councils”. The state was the enemy to be ultimately dismantled. He was not a violent revolutionary in the mold of the Marxist-Leninists; rather, his strategy was to gain a legislative majority and gradually move the hegemony to the left.
But Japanese corporations once had (a system) close to the worker management type envisioned by Gramsci. Kan’s ideal was realized by Japanese corporations, and then fell apart. Management by the workers failed throughout the world. The structural reformers that were part of what was called Euro-Communism, of which the Italian Communist Party was the first example, disappeared, and Socialism collapsed.
In short, Mr. Kan’s objectives were lost when he was still young. Perhaps his only remaining obsession was to smash the state. His life until now has been spent in an assumed guise for the purpose of achieving hegemony. Consider: now, when he has seized the ultimate power, when he causes political turbulence by staying on after saying he will resign, when he stops nuclear power generation and upsets energy policy, and when he has achieved his objective of trashing the state — it is possible to explain the reason he is behaving in such an uncharacteristically dynamic manner.
The political solution
Along with the rest of the nation, the political class was slow on the uptake and failed to immediately recognize Mr. Kan’s unfamiliarity with the knives and forks of shame and morality.
One more of the same, my good man
Senior DPJ members cobbled together a last-minute solution when it appeared the June no-confidence motion would pass and rupture the party. After realizing they had created a political Frankenstein, the same people put together a new strategy to force Mr. Kan from office. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito, Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio, DPJ Secretary-General Okada Katsuya, and Diet Affairs Committee Chairman Azumi Jun reportedly set in motion a three-step plot: (1) Hold a new election for party president (2) Ensure Mr. Kan’s defeat, thereby separating the party presidency from the prime minister, and (3) Promote and support a new no-confidence motion.
Some were hesitant to submit another motion because it’s been customary in Japan to limit such motions to one a Diet term. (Some people even wondered if more than one would be unconstitutional.)
That didn’t bother the Destroyer of Worlds and former DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro. He let it be known that he didn’t see any problem at all with a second no-confidence motion. In fact, he said if the DPJ leadership didn’t like it, he’d form a new party and introduce it himself. Meanwhile, he would wait until the end of August to see what Mr. Okada had in mind. This does not seem to have been a bluff; long-time associate and former upper house member Hirano Tadao confirmed it publicly.
New Komeito Secretary-General Inoue Yoshihisa also threatened a new no-confidence motion, and added:
Before that, the DPJ has to take responsibility and return this country to a state of normalcy.
Even former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio had a bright idea. He publicly floated the suggestion of having Mr. Kan’s Cabinet resign out from under him:
Mr. Kaieda (Economy, Trade, and Industry) could resign at any time. Mr. Kaieda is not alone. Mr. Ohata (Land, Infrastructure, and Transport) Mr. Matsumoto (Foreign Ministry), Mr. Takagi (Education), Mr. Hosokawa (Health, Labor, and Welfare)…Five people will probably quit….Mr. Sengoku has resolved to quit at the same time as Mr. Kaieda. That’s also true for Mr. Noda (Finance) and Mr. Edano.
Sengoku Yoshito confirmed that the latter three planned to resign, and added it would be decisive if Edano Yukio were to quit. (Mr. Edano later denied it, however, either pro forma or out of sincerity.) There were also reports Mr. Sengoku got the thumbs up from the Finance Ministry, allowing him to pave the way for their current lapdog, Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko.
Apart from a few perfunctory jabs, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party followed the grand political tradition of keeping their lips zipped while their opponents formed a circular firing squad, at least in public. Noted Ina Hisayoshi of the Nikkei Shimbun:
The longer Prime Minister Kan holds out, the deeper the cracks run in the DPJ, which will be to the advantage of the LDP in the next lower house election….the LDP is snickering at the idea of a snap election based on nuclear power.
What happened behind closed doors was another matter, however. The DPJ, the LDP, and New Komeito worked together to hammer out the legislation Mr. Kan set as his condition for resignation. According a report in the Sankei Shimbun, one conversation during the meetings went like this:
LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru: Hold the election to name the prime minister by the end of the month.
DPJ counterpart, Okada Katsuya: I understand.
Throwing in the spoon
What changed Mr. Kan’s mind? Was it the realization that he wouldn’t survive a second no-confidence vote, the threatened desertion of his Cabinet, or a message from The Japan Handlers?
It might have been any or all of them, but what seems to have tipped the balance (for somebody) was the continued nose-dive in public opinion polls. Last week’s Asahi poll showed the support for the Kan Cabinet down to 14%, with non-support more than four times higher at 67%. The figures for his predecessor, Hatoyama The Hapless, fell only as low as 19%.
Meanwhile, the same poll showed that 61% of the public had a favorable view of relinquishing the reliance on nuclear power.
In other words, the electorate knew that the continued service of Kan Naoto as prime minister was an issue unrelated to nuclear power generation. There went the dream of becoming Koizumi V.2
The departure of Kan Naoto as prime minister does not mean that the long nightmare of the Japanese public is over. Rather, they will have been plucked from the fire and placed back in the frying pan.
None of the possible successors (or the DPJ itself) has a strong power base, a feasible vision, or practical executive experience. Former Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Minister Mabuchi Sumio has a whiff of the alpha male about him, but he’ll need more than smooth lines, good looks, and his few months of experience in the Cabinet. Besides, he wrote on his blog that he refused Mr. Kan’s offer of the position of deputy minister of METI because he can’t accept the ministry’s atomic energy policy. He was also critical of the ministry’s safety declaration to get the idled nuclear plants restarted.
As we’ve seen before, Mr. Sengoku will try to maneuver Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko into the seat. They’ve already been laying the groundwork. An article under his name titled My Vision of Government appears in the current issue of the monthly Bungei Shunju.
Mr. Noda delayed a formal announcement of his candidacy when the Nikkei fell below 9,000 this week. That’s a nice touch for the sake of appearances, though everyone realizes it has no substantive meaning. As with Kan Naoto before him, Mr. Noda’s knowledge of governmental fiscal matters is limited to the information his Finance Ministry tutors fed him after he took the job. There have been exceptions, but the job description of finance minister in Japan most often amounts to serving as the Finance Ministry press spokesman.
In keeping with that job description and his field-specific ignorance, Mr. Noda favors a tax increase. The sound of the world’s social welfare states collapsing is apparently inaudible at the Finance Ministry building. He also favors another stimulus. Why not? The last one didn’t work, so of course they’ve got to do the same thing, only harder this time.
That should not be construed as a criticism of the Japanese political system, incidentally. Japanese behavior is no worse than what the people in charge of economic policy in the United States and Europe have wrought.
No, the one next to the green bottle of shochu
The problem is ultimately the Democratic Party itself. Democrats in America enjoy amusing the dwindling audience for political conventions every four years by telling a joke on themselves that is usually attributed to the humorist Will Rogers: “I belong to no organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” There’s also the remark by an earlier humorist, Finley Peter Dunne: “Th’ dimmy-cratic party ain’t on speakin’ terms with itself.”
Whatever the situation in the United States these days, those are perfect descriptions of the Democratic Party of Japan, a group jerrybuilt with spare parts and whose only common element is “We’re not the LDP.” That worked in 2009, but they’ll never be able to play that card again.
As part of the grand bargain to get the deficit-financing bonds passed in the Diet, Mr. Okada (and presumably Messrs. Sengoku and Edano) agreed to repeal some of the legal vote-buying schemes they put in their manifesto in 2009 and later passed. Those include the child-rearing allowance, which will revert to the status quo ante of the former LDP policy of paying only for small children, and the free expressway tolls.
That’s actually a seldom-seen demonstration of common sense to deal with a situation in which annual government expenditures are twice government revenue. Nonetheless, some party members strongly object to that approach, namely Ozawa Ichiro and Hatoyama Yukio. (Some opposition pols agree.) That insistence on preserving the party platform is prima facie evidence they lack the qualifications for higher office. A casual glance at any newspaper should be enough to confirm for even the thickest of bricks that morbid gigantism and philosophical obsolescence is testing the capacity of governments worldwide to survive in a viable form. Either they can’t be bothered to read the newspaper, or they think saving the face of the party takes priority over preventing national bankruptcy.
Other DPJ members insist that no one currently in the Cabinet should run for the post because they are Mr. Kan’s “criminal accomplices”. That’s a capital idea, but politicians never think it’s in their interest to listen to capital ideas that hamper their job prospects.
On the bright side
For all Kan Naoto’s negatives, some good things did emerge as a result of his term in office. For one, the political parties learned to negotiate and work around the absence of a majority party or coalition in the upper house, the source of past gridlock. New Komeito head Yamaguchi Natsuo explained that dealing with Prime Minister Kan was a waste of time, and it was more fruitful to ignore him.
Regardless of the content of the bills or legislation that emerged from these negotiations (and some of it is truly terrible), at least they’ve learned something about compromise. That’s a novel experience for the DPJ in particular.
Also, unlike the electorates of the West, the Japanese public had never before seen the ugliness of the left when in power.
Now it has.
* Despite Mr. Kan’s insistence on the revision of Japan’s nuclear energy policy before saying his last sayonara, his Hiroshima and Nagasaki declarations of a nuclear-free Japan, and his smartass comment that the Diet should hurry up and pass the bill if they didn’t want to see his face, reports in the media say he left the determination of the content of the bill to DPJ party execs. That will likely result in legislative mush the opposition will slurp down simply to send the man packing. It also makes it easier for subsequent governments to amend or repeal.
* Some people snipe at the Japanese for a narrow-mindedness they claim is a result of their monoracial society, but we now see that the absence of multiculturalism can sometimes have benefits.
For example, consider the tone and content of the wholly justified criticisms leveled at Kan Naoto. If anyone complained about the nature of the criticism, I missed it.
Now imagine what some Americans would say if those identical wholly justified criticisms were leveled at Barack Obama, who shares with Mr. Kan the same political philosophy, character, incompetence, deluded smugness in his imaginary abilities, antipathy toward the nation and political system he is supposed to lead, and lack of interest in legislative detail.
A man could get rich buying stock in companies that manufacture anti-enuretic devices.
* A Rasmussen poll in the U.S. released earlier this week shows that only 17% of the respondents agree with the statement that the American government “has the consent of the governed”, to use the wording of the Declaration of Independence. That’s the lowest figure ever recorded for that question. It’s also been roughly the final approval rate for the past two DPJ governments in Japan.
It’s about time for Japanese pollsters to ask the same question. In the Westminster system, that result should be grounds to call a new lower house election.
And now, for the reaction of the Japanese public to the news of Mr. Kan’s tabun maybe perhaps desho departure…