AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Local Government’

Ichigen koji (142)

Posted by ampontan on Friday, August 17, 2012

一言居士
– A person who has something to say about everything

If someone were to submit a document with an opinion on a policy he wants the mayor or ward chief to consider, would the mayor see it?

– Question asked of Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru on Twitter

Not everything comes to me. The city of Osaka is too large, so the organization responds. It would be easier to submit it directly to the ward chief. That’s why the ward chiefs should be chosen in an election and given the same status as the mayor. That is the Osaka Metro District concept.

– Hashimoto Toru’s answer

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Ichigen koji (139)

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, August 14, 2012

一言居士
– A person who has something to say about everything

Most of the people in the existing political parties are thinking about the next election. The young people involved with One Osaka are thinking about the next age. The people have an intuitive sense of this major difference.

– Takenaka Heizo

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Ichigen koji (134)

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, August 9, 2012

一言居士
– A person who has something to say about everything

Eight plans to rebuild Yubari’s finances were formulated immediately after the city declared bankruptcy, and another eight plans were developed after that, for a total of 16. You often hear the expression, “The national government’s agreement is required just to buy a pencil”. Every time those plans were modified, it was discussed with the national government, with (the government of) Hokkaido as an intermediary. It is difficult to convey the conditions in Yubari through this vertical structure, and it takes a lot of time. One of the objectives of the new three-party council is to have the national government and the prefecture see what is needed now in Yubari.

– Yubari Mayor Suzuki Naomichi. The 31-year-old mayor is the center of national attention for his efforts to save a city devasted by municipal mismanagement and population decline. A former employee of the Tokyo Metro District, he was sent to Yubari for a year to help with the municipal reorganization. Mr. Suzuki’s efforts were so appreciated by the people in Yubari that they asked him to return and run for mayor.

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That ain’t right

Posted by ampontan on Monday, December 5, 2011

The debate over taxes will be decided in a different dimension than that of the citizens’ opinions or wishes. The citizens already feel a sense of powerlessness and wonder what elections are for.
– Doctor Z in Gendai Business

IF one country puts the lie to the aphorism that people get the government they deserve, it is Japan. What more is an electorate supposed to do? Japanese voters have tried everything short of hanging the politicians from lampposts to make their wishes very clear: More reform, less central government, lower taxes. They’ve punished at the polls, often brutally, politicians of every party for ignoring them. Though it was not the first expression of voter intent, Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s landslide victory in the 2005 lower house election marked a turning point in voter awareness. What was their reward? His successor, Abe Shinzo, allowed back into the party the foxes Mr. Koizumi threw out of the henhouses. His two successors turned their back on the Koizumian reforms that the voters favored.

That set up the Democratic Party of Japan’s own landslide victory at the next lower house election four years later. But in one of the most successful bait-and-switch scams ever, the DPJ accomplished in just two years what it took the Liberal-Democratic Party 40 to do: They’ve sloughed off their glitter to dip themselves in dreck. As a result, they lost ground in the upper house election last year instead of the outright majority they wanted, and have been pummeled in local elections since.

The one certainty in addition to death and taxes in Japan is that the politicos will ignore the lead story on the front page of the newspaper this morning, which presents a summary of the latest Kyodo polling results.

The findings that the support rate for the Noda Cabinet slid 2.5 points from the month before, to 44.6%, and the non-support rate rose six points to 40.3%, were not the reason for the prominent placement. Here are the results that were:

* Do you think the lower house of the Diet should be dissolved and an election held before a bill is submitted to increase the consumption tax?
Yes: 50.7%

* Do you favor the (Finance Ministry-inspired) Noda plan to pass the tax increase bill first and then hold an election?
Yes: 25.4%

The people also have an idea about where to start looking for solutions. They were asked if there should be a realignment of political party membership. (The unstated premise, which everyone knows, is to achieve ideological consistency.)

Yes: 71.5%
Not necessary: 17.8%

Another important element of the popular will is revealed by their continued selection of radical reformers as the chief executives of local government. Some of the candidates they choose may not be the ideal vessel for those reforms, but they’re the ones listening to the consistent message from throughout the country: We want decentralization and downsizing.

That was demonstrated yet again by Hashimoto Toru’s decisive victory in the election for Osaka mayor a week ago. It was a ratification of his plan to administratively reorganize the Osaka area to resemble the governmental infrastructure in Tokyo, though he’s also a champion of decentralization. That means the mayors of Japan’s second- and third-largest cities, Osaka and Nagoya, are now reformers. The administration of the Tokyo Metro District, particularly with Inose Naoki as Deputy Governor, also has that cast.

Thus, these numbers from the Kyodo poll will not be a surprise:

The combination of those who have hopes for regional parties or who lean that way: 72.4%
The combination of those who do not: 24.6%

Upper house member Yamamoto Ichita of the LDP stated the obvious:

People criticize Mr. Hashimoto and call him a dictator, but he also placed Osaka Prefecture’s finances on a sound footing. Unless the existing political parties take this result very seriously, they’ll find themselves in big trouble in the next election.

The existing political parties know it as well as Mr. Yamamoto. That’s why the DPJ will delay the next lower house election as long as they can, and the DPJ/LDP/New Komeito troika will try to rig the system in the meantime to their advantage.

The national imbalance in the number of people represented in each Diet district has been declared unconstitutional, so a redistricting scheme is required before the next election, which must be held by the summer of 2013. The DPJ promised in 2009 to reduce the number of national legislators, but no one expects them to keep their promises anymore. The mudboat wing of the LDP wants a return to the multiple-seat district system that was eliminated in the 1990s. Their allies in New Komeito and the smaller parties want to keep the proportional representation system instead shifting to a winner-take-all system, because that’s the only way they can keep their seats. LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu said that an “all-or-nothing” system wasn’t suited to Japan.

Regardless of whether it is suited to Japan, it definitely isn’t suited to the old factional style of LDP politics.

Because the three parties haven’t figured out a way to divvy up the political spoils yet, the DPJ announced they will not submit an electoral reorganization plan in the current Diet session. That will thwart the popular will once again, as they will submit a scheme for a tax increase before whatever farce they come up with for electoral reform. Apparently, the ruling party thinks that tossing out the plank of an election manifesto that promises no new tax increases by raising taxes without taking it to the people first is perfectly suited to Japan.

In short, the politicians in Japan are actively moving in reverse and beavering away to achieve the opposite of everything the people have been telling them to do. It’s scant consolation that politicians in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, among other countries, are behaving the same way.

Indeed, they’re lucky the Japanese prefer public order to public unrest. If this country resembled Libya, there’d be more than 700 bloody backsides on corpses in Nagata-cho instead of just one in the Sahara.

*****
Politicians ain’t the only ones who take all the gold. You know that ain’t right.

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Fire down below

Posted by ampontan on Monday, July 5, 2010

THE CONDUCT OF AFFAIRS in local government in Japan can be a lot more compelling—and contain a lot more democracy in the raw—than the kabuki drama staged by the national parties in the Diet. There’s no better illustration than recent events way down south in Akune, Kagoshima, a city of 23,000.

Last month, Akune Mayor Takehara Shin’ichi issued an executive order replacing the system for paying the 16 city council members with an annual salary to one based on a per diem rate. The average council member was paid JPY four million (about $US 45,500) per year under the old method, but can expect only about JPY 400,000 under the mayor’s plan. That’s in the neighborhood of 90% less money–a rough cut indeed. In addition, he halved the annual bonuses of municipal employees, eliminated the city council member bonuses entirely, and ordered a reduction in the fixed asset tax. The bonus reduction was also applied to personnel employed by the prefectural education committee and seconded to the city. The mayor took all these steps by executive order without submitting bills to the city council.

Takehara Shin'ichi

The contretemps began when the mayor, who took office in September 2008 after spending a few years as a city councilman himself, publicly disclosed the remuneration of city employees in 2009. Akune employs 268 people, and their salaries and bonuses totaled JPY 1.73 billion a year. That eats up the bulk of the city’s annual tax revenues of JPY two billion.

This story has quirks running out of its ears, and here’s another one: This February, the mayor challenged the city council to pass a no-confidence motion, but no one took him up on it. Finally, his four supporters on the council did it for him—they introduced the no-confidence motion, which the council then debated and rejected unanimously. The mayor, who uses his blog more often than news conferences these days to communicate with the public, wrote that the vote demonstrated the council’s full confidence in him, which his supporters seconded.

The 12 council members opposed to the mayor said they voted against it because no-confidence motions are not tools for dissolving city council, and the introduction of the motion showed disrespect for the council itself.

What they really mean is that under the Local Government Act, passage of a no confidence motion would have allowed the mayor to dissolve the city council and call a new election–not only for mayor, but for all the city council seats. That the mayor’s opponents chose to avoid that route speaks volumes about their views on the likely winners and losers in an election campaign.

Meanwhile, Mr. Takehara refused to convene the June meeting of the city council. He said his 12 opponents were obstructionists, and that he would hereafter govern by executive order. The council members then submitted a petition to the mayor based on the same Local Government Act to ask for an emergency session, but he ignored it. Municipal employees also sent a written request to the mayor asking that he conduct city operations in the normal manner, but he said he didn’t read it and had it put through the shredder.

Now the dispute has spilled beyond the city’s borders. Kagoshima Gov. Ito Yuichiro last week issued an admonition to the mayor urging him to convene the city council session to discuss the executive orders. That admonition was also issued under the terms of the Local Government Act. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications says it is the eighth time the law has been applied for that purpose in Japan. The most recent occurred last year in Chiba.

The governor claims the mayor’s actions are clearly against the law. He also doesn’t care for the mayor’s rule by executive order, but said his admonition applied only to convening the city council session. The Local Government Act specifies that admonitions can be issued when orders by municipal officers are in violation of the law or detrimental to the public welfare. The mayor is almost certain to ignore it, however; compliance is not compulsory, and there are no penalties for failing to act as suggested.

Here’s another quirk: Mr. Ito helped draft the law when he was an employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The governor said it was formulated with the idea that the chief municipal officer would be a “person of common sense” (joshikinin), so no penalties were included for non-compliance.

The governor asked for a meeting with the mayor, but Mr. Takehara refused, calling him “just another bureaucrat” on his blog. He’s also appeared on a few selected TV stations and said he should be the one filing admonitions instead of the governor. Give the man credit for taking on all comers: He’s also picked a fight with the media. On another blog post, he wrote that “the mass media are like hyenas and I won’t talk with them. I’ll decide which news outlets I’ll talk with.”

The national government can make the same request under the law, but that request too is not compulsory and contains no penalties for refusing to abide by it. The governor says there is nothing more the prefecture can do, and subsequent steps are up to the council and the citizens.

The 12 council members in the opposition camp say they’ll launch a recall petition next month, which will require one-third of the signatures of the city’s voters. They’ve also submitted paperwork to the city refusing to accept payment under the new system of remuneration, which starts this month. The national government is sending a fact-finding team to the city, and people expect it will be part of an effort to isolate the mayor.

Here’s the take of one free-lance journalist:

The city council is a cesspool of riken dango kyosan shugi (literally, a collusive communism of privileges and special interests). Though Japan is for all intents and purposes ruled just as it was by the interior ministry before the war, the democracy implanted by the occupying army has taken the form of “legislative assemblies” that disintermediate the rights of the people. Those who reject that are in turn challenged by the kisha club journalists, who assume those same privileges and interests for themselves and then ask if one rejects democracy.

The person speaking was the man who coined the term riken dango kyosan shugi, Katsuya Masuhiko, a quirky fellow himself. He says it describes Japan’s unique political thought and system, tacitly accepted by the people, in which the state, the politicians, the bureaucracy, the mass media, and the citizens collude to form ad hoc ties and cut each other in on concessions, spoils, and special interests.

Mr. Katsuya is generally perceived as a man of the cultural right, but he’s also a supporter of the DPJ’s Ozawa Ichiro and the pero-guri pol, Tanaka Yasuo. Mr. Tanaka is yet another quirky guy—he’s a published novelist who served as the governor of Nagano, got embroiled in a nearly identical fight with the prefectural legislature, was dumped in a no-confidence vote, and then re-elected. He claims the mantle of reformer, but opposed Koizumi Jun’ichiro’s privatization of Japan Post because he thought foreign interests would buy up the company. Mr. Tanaka formed his own political party, called New Party Nippon, and won a lower house seat in Hyogo in last September’s election. He had been loosely tied with the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, but formed an alliance last month with Kamei Shizuka’s Peoples New Party, the junior member of the coalition government.

As I wrote in the post about Mr. Tanaka (at the link), 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 even Dickens would be incapable of conjuring up a plausible resolution for the situation in Akune.

Stay tuned—this can only get better!

UPDATE:
It keeps getting–well, more unusual, if not better. Word is filtering out that Mr. Katsuya’s comments quoted above might not be on the legit (though he did coin that expression). There’s also a report that the mayor posted municipal employee salaries on a wall at the city offices. An employee tore down the poster and was fired by the mayor. The employee sued and a court ruled that the mayor’s actions were unjustified. Mr. Takehara, however, refused to reinstate the employee and pay the person’s salary, as ordered by the court. The court then seized some of the city’s assets.

I spoke to a perfectly normal middle-aged woman of higher than average intelligence yesterday about the mayor. She said, “Of course he’s over the top,” but likes a lot of what he is doing anyway.

Some other politicians are on board, too. In addition to his supporters on the city council, Mr. Takehara is backed by Fukuchi Kiyofumi, a municipal delegate in Yamatsuri-machi, Fukushima. Mr. Fukuchi is the man who came up with the idea of paying the delegates on a per diem basis and got it passed in Yamatsuri-machi about a year ago. He insists it makes both the politicians and the citizens more aware of the rights and the responsibilities of the public servants. He cites as one example the delegates’ attendance at coming-of-age ceremonies every January. Some people thought they should get paid for that day, but the town council eventually decided that since everyone’s attendance at those events was voluntary, they didn’t need to be reimbursed.

All that is yet more evidence that rather than pound them in, the Japanese are attracted to nails that stick out, and give the benefit of the doubt to anyone perceived as battling against the entrenched interests in the public sector.

The failure to wage that battle despite their pledge to do so is the primary reason the DPJ is coming under increasing attack in weekly and monthly magazines for “betraying” the people.

Afterwords:
Did you know that Fukui Prefecture has a dinosaur museum? I didn’t until I read that a museum survey team found the fossilized joint of the left femur of a hadrosaurus, an herbaceous dinosaur that lived in the late Cretaceous Period around 80 million years ago, in Nagasaki City. It’s the first time a dinosaur fossil has been found in Nagasaki. I added the link for the museum’s English website to the right sidebar.

That was just in time to catch the beginning of the museum’s promotion for its 10th anniversary exhibit featuring large Asian dinosaurs. It is the first large-scale exhibit in Japan of actual fossils and full skeletons.

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The Mainichi on Your Party

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 24, 2010

SATO CHIYAKO wrote an op-ed about Your Party for the Mainichi Shimbun this week. Here it is in English:

They’re calling it the Tama Shock. In the three-candidate election for the mayor of Tama in the Tokyo Metro District, the candidate endorsed by Your Party, 34-year-old Endo Chihiro, ran a superb campaign and finished 1,475 votes short of the winner backed by the Democratic Party, the Communist Party, and the Social Democratic Party. He received 6,772 more votes than the Liberal-Democratic Party candidate. Considering the organizational strength of the parties involved, it is no exaggeration to call this a de facto victory, as one person involved put it.

I talked to Mr. Ando as he made courtesy calls after the election. He seems to be a very businesslike person. He spent eight years with a consulting firm, and as I interviewed him he jotted down notes in a notebook that a university student might use. He noticed that the average annual salary of the Tama municipal employees is about JPY 8.5 million (about $US 91,200), the highest of any sub-national government in Japan. He fought his campaign on the promise to reduce annual personnel costs by 10% for a savings of JPY one billion. It was a strategy based on his judgment that the other candidates couldn’t muscle in on his position because they were either a former city employee or closely connected with labor unions.

“You wouldn’t be allowed to join the DPJ.” That’s what he said many housewives in their 40s and 50s told him after listening to his street corner speeches. His was an easily understood appeal, combined with the strength of a new party untainted by any scandals and free of constraints. Mr. Endo thinks Your Party resembles the DPJ before they took power. I look forward to seeing how this party evolves in the future.
(end translation)

*****
One of the weekly magazines suggested the possibility that Your Party might form a coalition with the DPJ after the upper house election this summer. Nothing is impossible in Japanese politics, but I’ll believe that when I see it. There seem to be too many philosophical incompatibilities, and Your Party members are now unloading their double-barreled scorn on political parties and coalitions formed of barely compatible elements. That a journalist would seriously consider the possibility at this point suggests he might not understand what’s happening. That wouldn’t be surprising, however–the party spent most of last year being ignored by the big boys in other parties and the media.

This is where the energy and vision is, however, and the public is starting to notice. It’s what they’ve been clamoring for, but most of the political class is too myopic to see it or too craven to try it. I too look forward to seeing how this party evolves in the future.

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Aspirations update

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, April 10, 2010

HERE’S SOME MORE information on the new party soon to be formed by a group of local government chief executives calling themselves the Nihon Shimin Kaigi, which I profiled earlier this week.

I included Matsuyama Mayor Nakamura Tokihiro as a party member in that report, but the new party head Yamada Hiroshi says that Mr. Nakamura, who has worked closely with the founding members in the past and appeared on stage with them last week, will not formally be a member. In addition:

* Mr. Yamada himself will not run in the upcoming upper house election, though key member Nakada Hiroshi, former Yokohama mayor, might.

* In regard to Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru:

We’ll work together in different ways, but he is not directly involved now.

* On the party’s philosophy:

From (our) perspective of promoting governmental reform at the local level, there are too many problems with the operation of national government. We’ll apply our experience (to those problems) based on our success in local government.

* On the Democratic Party administration:

Some prominent DPJ members declared earlier this week they had much in common with this new party and that they should work together. Said Mr. Yamada:

There’s too much pork (in that government). That has no connection with reviving the state…We want to be a gathering of the voices of the people nationwide and draw a clear line of demarcation with what’s happening in Nagata-cho.

One prominent DPJ member that I speculated might have interest in forming ties with this group is former party head and current Cabinet minister Maehara Seiji. Mr. Maehara is a graduate of the Matsushita Institute, as are some of the prominent people in the new party, and they would seem to share some important elements of their philosophy. He ruled an alliance out by saying there was no reason for that to happen, however.

Does Mr. Maehara really prefer working with those labor unions, the party’s other undifferentiated leftists, Kamei Shizuka, and the Ozawa Ichiro brigade? Well, look at it from his perspective–some in the party have been questioning his loyalty for quite a while, and he has to keep up appearances. Also, why should he ally himself with a new group now that he’s finally secured a high-profile position in government?

I got mine, right?

The May issue of the Bungei Shunju is out on newsstands today. It contains articles by members of this new party, as well as an article by Yosano Kaoru announcing the start of his Stand Up Japan party.

The vernacular newspapers put reports of Messrs. Yosano and Hiranuma on the front page, and the news of Mr. Yamada and his new party on page two, but it goes without saying which group is driving with its eyes on the road ahead, and which is driving in the rearview mirror.

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Aspirations

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, April 8, 2010

As Fukuzawa Yukichi said regarding an attitude of self-sufficiency and self-respect, a good nation, a good community, and superb people of ability cannot exist unless local governments and individuals support themselves by their own strength.
– Yamada Hiroshi

A CHART in Ito Atsuo’s Political Party Collapse: The 10 lost years of Nagata-Cho outlines the birth and death of political parties in Japan from 1992 to 1998. That chart covers two pages because 22 of those parties no longer exist, and even then I might have miscounted.

After a relatively quiescent decade, the politicos are starting to party hearty once again now that it’s apparent neither of the two major parties which emerged intact from the previous ferment—the Democratic Party and the Liberal Democratic Party—will be viable over the long-term as presently constituted.

Left to right: Yamada Hiroshi, Nakamura Tokihiro, Nakada Hiroshi

The news media has focused this week on the new old party soon to be launched by Yosano Kaoru and Hiranuma Takeo, but they’ve been giving short shrift to the imminent birth of another party with the potential to have a more lasting–and more beneficial–impact. Unlike the granddads of the former group, the three amigos driving the latter venture have a shared, positive vision about the direction of the country and a sense of urgency about achieving their aims. Rather than spending their time in Tokyo television studios, they’re touring the country to take their case to the people.

The three are Nakada Hiroshi, Yamada Hiroshi, and Nakamura Tokihiro, all of whom are veterans of the new party movement of the 90s. They were involved with the Japan New Party headed by Hosokawa Morihiro, the country’s first non-LDP prime minister in nearly 40 years. The New Party was an intriguing mix of people that also included Koike Yuriko, now in the Koizumian wing of the LDP, and Maehara Seiji, the former DPJ head who is currently the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. All three served at least one term in the lower house of the Diet. Mr. Nakada and Mr. Yamada, the two Hiroshis, attended The Matsushita Institute of Government and Management.

What sets this trio apart is that all three turned their backs on national politics and continued their careers as chief executives in local government. Mr. Nakada served nearly two terms as the mayor of Yokohama, Mr. Nakamura is still the mayor of Matsuyama, a city of about 515,000 in Ehime, and Mr. Yamada is the chief municipal officer of Suginami Ward in Tokyo, which itself has a population of roughly 540,000.

They’re pitched a tent on a patch of land similar to that of Watanabe Yoshimi and Your Party, but they arrived from a different direction. They all stand for governmental reform and regional devolution, but as a lower house MP since 1996, Mr. Watanabe is working in the context of national politics. In contrast, these three men are trying to build a national base outside the capital to accomplish similar objectives from the bottom up. Says Mr. Nakada:

What is required is a reorganization to change the approach of the country and the regions. The (people in the) regions understand conditions on the ground, and the reorganization won’t happen unless they apply pressure to the central government.

They call their group 日本志民会議, or the Nihon Shimin Kaigi. The second word is their own creation and literally means people with aspirations. A good English translation is impossible because the word is also a homonym for citizen.

Another difference from Your Party is that the trio comes from a non-LDP background, whereas Mr. Watanabe and his father were prominent members of that party. They say their objective is not to confront the DPJ or the LDP, but to form an all-Japan party and create a core group to rescue Japan from its crisis. An interview conducted with Mr. Nakada last year illustrates their sense of mission and urgency. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m very concerned about the country, and I don’t think there’s much time left. The national budgets contain more debt than tax revenue. The principle behind my approach as mayor is that the regions won’t survive if the country crumbles. I’ll conduct a (national) citizens’ movement from the citizens’ perspective. What I want to do is not the question. The country will crumble unless we do everything we can in the time remaining. I want to do anything and everything.

– Won’t you be active in a political party?

There’s no time to rebuild Japan. I’ll do anything. Doing anything includes starting a new party. As a citizen of this country, I’ll keep building on what I’m already involved with. Part of that might include starting a party.

Japan is in a serious phase. Unless we apply fundamental remedies within five years, the country will be eaten up from within and without. I want to devote all my energy to this full-time, and that includes convening citizens’ conferences and the Alliance of Local Government Executives.

As their past association with both Ms. Koike and Mr. Maehara suggests, they also support a strong defense and a pride in country that would be unremarkable outside of Japan or contemporary left wing groupings incapable of distinguishing between nationalism and patriotism. Yamada Hiroshi wrote an article in the March issue of Voice arguing against the DPJ proposal to allow non-Japanese to participate in local elections. As this previous post based on a blog entry by Nakada Hiroshi demonstrates, they also support individualism and self sufficiency.

The record

They’ve yet to generate top-of-the-fold headlines, but some journalists are aware of them. Sakurai Yoshiko profiled them in a feature article for the July 2009 edition of Voice that presented some of their accomplishments in local government.

Yamada Hiroshi seems to have achieved a stunning success in resuscitating Suginami Ward’s finances. When he took office in 1999, the ward was JPY 95 billion in debt (about $US 1.012 billion) and had just JPY 1.9 billion in the bank. Mr. Yamada’s first step was to cut his own salary by 10%, his bonus by 50%, and the ward budget by 15%. As a symbol of his budget-cutting efforts, he eliminated the free manju distributed to senior citizens’ associations. That may seem like a trivial step, but it illustrates a greater problem whose solution seems beyond the capability or willpower of politicians in free market democracies nowadays. Distributing free confections is not why governments are devised, but people have gotten so used to these handouts that the old folks in Suginami initially complained about the loss of their taxpayer-funded sweets.

Under his leadership, the ward has cut its debt in 10 years to JPY 20 billion and has JPY 23 billion in the bank; in other words, they’re solvent again. He’s also managed to reduce the ward’s workforce from 4,700 to 3,700.

In the 2007 Nikkei Shimbun evaluation of local governments nationwide, Suginami Ward had risen to 3rd from 33rd in the category of government reform, and to 12th from 105th in the category of government services.

Mr. Yamada plans to retire the ward’s debt in two years, and they recently passed a measure to create a fund for reducing taxes starting in ten years, with cuts coming every year.

In Matsuyama

Meanwhile, Matsuyama Mayor Nakamura managed to pull off a merger of three cities that won the approval of most residents in the new metropolis. That was no mean feat; the period from April 1999 to April 2006 was dubbed the Heisei no Dai-gappei (平成の大合併) (Great Heisei Era Mergers), during which the number of municipalities in Japan was reduced from 3,232 (670 cities, 1,994 towns, and 568 villages) to 1,820 (779 cities, 844 towns, and 197 villages). The objectives of the consolidation were to promote the decentralization and the downsizing of government, and to deal with the problems of declining tax revenues and reduced central government subsidies caused by the low birthrate.

Not all of these municipal marriages were love matches, and many had to navigate some rough patches. To cite one example, the new city of Matsuyama would have wound up with 80 city council members had all the delegates from the three municipalities kept their jobs. Some cities involved in the mergers did expand the chambers to include all the delegates, which sparked recall efforts by angry citizens. Mr. Nakamura, however, successfully reduced the number of councilmen from 80 to 45—reportedly by persuasion alone.

All politics is local

The triumvirate has conducted most of the spadework for their new party outside of the national spotlight. They first came to the notice of the public around this time last year, when devolution became a major issue in the lower house election campaign. Attention then focused on Miyazaki Governor Higashikokubaru Hideo and Osaka Governor Hashimoto Toru, both outspoken supporters of devolution, but whose reputations and popularity were based on their prior careers in television and a proclivity to say whatever popped into their heads.

These five formed a loose alliance, but the three municipal executives sidestepped a proposal by Mr. Hashimoto to turn the Local Chief Executive Alliance into a national party. It’s likely they were already planning to create their own party and wanted to keep the drama queens at arm’s length. They also declined the Osaka governor’s suggestion to endorse one of the national parties in the lower house election. Said Mr. Nakada, “It might mislead the people.” Added Mr. Nakamura, “We won’t attract supporters if we increase the risk.” There are no hard feelings, however–Mr. Hashimoto sent them a congratulatory message when they held a conference announcing their intention to start a new party:

The time has come to take action in earnest for all the people filled with the aspiration to change the country.

The Yokohama mayor

Nakada Hiroshi has perhaps the highest national profile of the three. He announced on 28 July last year that he would resign his position as Yokohama mayor with seven months remaining in his second term. Some thought he was getting ready to take a second run at the Diet, but he had other plans. His explained that he had finished the important business of his second term, the city would save money by holding a mayoralty election on the same day as the lower house voting, and the new mayor could get a head start on the new budget and personnel decisions:

The mayor’s election costs JPY 1.1 billion in city funds. By holding it at the same time as the national election, we can save JPY one billion. Considering our harsh financial circumstances, that’s extremely important.

In retrospect, he was surely starting to build the foundation for the new party. They formed a working group at the end of October, when Mr. Nakada would still have been in office in Yokohama had he not resigned. Their vision calls for a low-tax, high-vitality country whose foreign relations are based on the keynote of freedom, responsibility, and mutual respect. At that first conference, they said:

The Diet is just terrible. It’s just pulled along by parties that either want to take power or want to maintain power.

And:

Promoting regional devolution is necessary for a country with a narrowing fiscal base.

Mr. Nakada went into more detail:

There are different views on the population totals that should be required for the classification of local government jurisdictions. The problem, however, is not one of population alone. What is improper is that the national government sets the principles for local government rules, including such details as the number of people in local assemblies and the amount of space required for nursery schools. Each community has different cultures and customs.

On proposals for a province/state system, which would create nine to 14 subnational jurisdictions to eventually replace the prefectures:

If each local government were to decide on the construction of its own roads, harbors, and airports, this would be a very inefficient country, and it would lead to the deterioration of international competitiveness. I support the state/province system because decisions on these matters would be more efficient at that level.

The trio announced their plans to form a party at a meeting in Hiroshima on 20 March this year and in Osaka the next day. Without utilizing an organization to mobilize turnout, they drew 250 to the first meeting and, to the second, 750 at hall that seats 500. They hope to create a support group of 10,000 people, and they already claim 4,000. They also plan to run at least 10 candidates in the upper house election this summer. Mr. Yamada, the group’s primary spokesman, said the upper house election was a prime opportunity to demonstrate their ideas. He explained this opportunity couldn’t be overlooked because the next national election isn’t required for another three years.

Last weekend they visited Takamatsu, Kagawa, to drum up support and attracted an audience of 300. Accompanying them was the leader of their support group, Joko Akira, the former head of the Matsushita Institute. Mr. Joko, who has written books discussing the importance of aspirations, said at the Takamatsu meeting:

It’s impossible to have any expectations for today’s politicians. We want to gather 10,000 supporters and create a new party with the help of citizens with aspiration.

From Mr. Yamada:

Both the LDP and the DPJ have reached a dead end. If citizens rise up individually, Japan will change.

Now for the bad news

There are skeletons in every politician’s closet that will cause some to recoil, and these men are no exception. At one time, Messrs. Yamada and Nakada were part of a group that wanted to boost the idea of Hatoyama Kunio for prime minister. It’s not clear what possessed them to back that goofy plan, unless it was access to the Hatoyama family fortune for political funds.

Also, some people suspect Mr. Nakada stepped down as Yokohama mayor to avoid the blowback from the failure of an expo commemorating the 150th anniversary of that city’s opening as a port. The expo attracted less than one-fourth the expected turnout and wound up JPY 2.4 billion in the red. There were problems with leftover tickets, talk of a possible lawsuit, and suggestions that Yokohama public funds were used to paper over the problems.

Mr. Nakada claims the failures were the responsibility of the organizing committee and not the city, which just provided financial support. He is also involved in an unresolved lawsuit by a former lover, a bar hostess, for the payment of consolation money after he ended their relationship. Perhaps that’s the reason Mr. Yamada seems to be acting as the chief spokesman for the group.

Those issues notwithstanding, Japanese politics would be the better for the contribution from these men who combine experience as national legislators with real accomplishments as local government executives, and who understand the importance of working from the bottom up rather than the top down. As Mr. Yamada wrote on his website, theirs would be a party:

…created from the aspirations and wishes of the citizens, not a party like those in the past formed to suit the convenience of the politicians.

In other words, they’re not going anywhere near the political group that Yosano Kaoru and Hiranuma Takeo are now gluing together.

This week the People’s New Party, one of the junior members of the ruling coalition led by Kamei Shizuka, announced they would sponsor professional wrestler Nishimura Osamu for an upper house seat in this summer’s election. Using celebrity candidates as puppets in the upper house is not uncommon in Japan, and it’s a good bet that’s happening in this case too.

If you were a voter interested in responsible government and fed up with the two major national parties, and were presented with the option of voting for Mr. Nishimura or a candidate backed by the new party of aspirations, whose name would you write on the ballot?

Is it even necessary to ask?

Afterwords:

If I may make so bold as to spin a political fantasy, Japan could do a lot worse than a loose coalition between this group working with Your Party, the remaining LDP reformers, and potentially simpatico members of the DPJ, such as the Maehara Seiji group. They already are doing a lot worse now.

Speaking of Your Party, Mr. Nakada held the Kanagawa seat in the Diet that’s now represented by Eda Kenji. Mr. Eda challenged him in his first run for a Diet seat, but lost. He gained the seat after Mr. Nakada left to run for Yokohama mayor.

Mr. Yamada was defeated in his bid for a second term in the Diet by the LDP’s Ishihara Nobuteru. Mr. Ishihara later became the minister for governmental reform in Prime Minister Koizumi’s first Cabinet, and still is viewed as a reformer despite sticking it out with the LDP. Nevertheless, Mr. Yamada is said to be on good terms with Mr. Ishihara and his father Shintaro, the Tokyo governor and the co-author of The Japan That Can Say No.

Mr. Nakada thinks Masuzoe Yoichi, the former Health Minister who tops most opinion polls as the person people would like to see as prime minister, will not form a new party but is rather angling for a leadership position in the LDP.

I’ll get around to the Tachiagare Nihon Party of Messrs. Yosano and Hiranuma as soon as they formally agree on which lies they’ll tell each other to create a vehicle for Mr. Yosano to act as a front man for go-playing buddy Ozawa Ichiro if the latter decides to realign Japanese politics by breaking up the DPJ after a poor showing in the upper house election.

UPDATE:

Prime Minister Hatoyama was asked what he thought about the new party. Here’s what he said:

I think they are people who have worked hard for regional devolution, but we’re running ahead of them. Perhaps there are some similiarities in our thinking, but each politician acts based on his own convictions.

Mr. Hatoyama did not explain why he thought his party, which is incapable of coming up with an internal consensus on devolution, is “running ahead of them”, nor did he specify the similarities in their thinking. I sure don’t see any.

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Making them earn their money

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, February 24, 2010

HERE’S AN IDEA so good it’s a shame the potential applications are limited.

The members of the municipal council of Itsuki-mura in Kumamoto have agreed in principle on a plan to base their salaries on job performance. The village residents will form a committee to evaluate the council members as “excellent”, “good”, or “ordinary”. The bill to amend the law governing council member remuneration will be presented to the municipal council in March, and everyone expects it to pass. A spokesman for the National Association of Chairmen of Town and Village Assemblies says they’ve never heard of a local governmental assembly in Japan with a performance-based salary system, and they think Itsuki-mura will be the first in the country to adopt one.

Beautiful downtown Itsuki-mura

Some villagers came up with the idea last December because they wanted to provide incentives for the council members to conceive and implement the drastic steps they believe are needed to revitalize the community of 1,400. Many of the villagers moved away in recent years because the central area was to have been flooded with the construction of the Kawabe River Dam. But that dam was one of the many construction projects suspended by new Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Minister Maehara Seiji after taking office with the new government last September. As you might well imagine, that made a mess of the village’s municipal planning.

The measure will call for the evaluations to take place at the end of every fiscal year. The council members’ current monthly salary of JPY 210,000 (about $US 2,300) will be cut 20%. Those who receive an “excellent” rating will receive an extra JPY 516,000 for the year, the “good” ones will get JPY 258,000 extra, and the “ordinary” ones will get a bundle of switches instead of Christmas presents, but no money. In yen terms, those rated excellent will wind up with about as much in salary as they do now.

The evaluation committee will use minutes from the council meetings to make their decisions, and they will examine the questions raised, the bills presented, and the members’ participation in community activities outside of municipal government. The chair and vice-chair will also be judged on their leadership abilities. The names of the committee members will not be made public, and there will be no appeal of their decisions.

The villagers have yet to decide whether to publicize individual evaluations. The report contained no information on the procedures for choosing the evaluation committee members. The current council chairman allowed that problems with the system would probably arise, but their immediate objective is to revive a village that was nearly wiped off the map.

This plan sounds as if it would work well for small municipalities, though the potential for abuse exists if the committee members let personal grudges interfere with their evaluations. In a village that small, everyone knows everyone else to begin with. In a larger municipality, party politics would probably cause some problems, thought that’s unlikely to be a factor here.

Another drawback is the lack of a “bad” evaluation category. There are stinkers in every village on the planet, and designating “ordinary” as the lowest rating smacks of grade inflation. Nonetheless, it does sound as though it’s worth a try. Financial incentives do tend to focus the mind, and Itsuki-mura is a lovely place to judge from the photos.

It’s also a good thing I’ll never be asked to join that evaluation committee. With the financial incentive, you just know somebody will try to boost their take-home pay by coming up with all sorts of legislative proposals just to make themselves look good.

I’d be tempted to take points away from those people on general principle!

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When a retreat demonstrates an advance

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, January 6, 2010

SOMETIMES a retreat really represents an advance.

At his first news conference of the year on the 4th, Fukuoka Prefecture Gov. Aso Wataru announced the prefecture would close its office in Seoul, South Korea, at the end of March. The reason?

“There’s no longer any need for the office’s original function of gathering information to provide advice about the country to Japanese. Private sector ties have strengthened, and the office has fulfilled its role.”

The single prefectural employee assigned to the Seoul office will return to Japan, but the prefecture plans to maintain its contract with local staffers to provide tourism information.

In other words, the people of northern Kyushu are now so knowledgeable about South Korea in general and Seoul in particular that it’s no longer necessary for a local government to intermediate for them. With the people now out in front of the public sector, the latter has, to its credit, decided to withdraw rather than perpetuate itself needlessly.

The news has another significant aspect. Japan’s new national government has been trying to sell itself as a group of reformers who would eliminate waste and abuse, yet they will submit Japan’s highest budget proposal ever–with its highest level of debt ever–when the Diet convenes later this month. They claim the expenditures are to prevent a double-dip recession, but that’s no more likely to provide a lasting fillip to the economy than the ocean of debt swallowed by the American government over the past year.

To find that part of the public sector in Japan that is actually cutting taxes and eliminating unneeded services, one has to start by looking at the sub-national governments.

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Bait and switch

Posted by ampontan on Monday, October 19, 2009

NOW THAT the Japanese electorate has unwittingly jumped from the frying pan into the fire by selecting the country’s Democratic Party to lead a government, people are starting to get scorched. Everyone knew before the election that the DPJ’s principal talents were obstructionism and harangues more suited for postgraduate seminars and smoky union halls than a legislature, but people held their noses and voted for them anyway. Entropy had finally had its way with the Liberal Democratic Party, and that party’s mudboat wing stepped up to the challenge by committing the de facto equivalent of hara-kiri.

By trying to implement a platform whose individual provisions never polled all that well and won’t work well at all, the new government is making manifest its shallowness, petit authoritarianism, and disregard of anything outside its self-interest.

From the Mainichi Shimbun

The vernacular edition of the newspaper carried a story that described a chilly conversation last week between Sengoku Yoshito, the Minister of State for Administrative Reform, and Nagatsuma Akira, the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Mr. Sengoku initiated the conversation about the JPY 12.4 billion-program for one-time payments of JPY 36,000 to parents of children aged 3-5. That program was started by the Aso Administration at the behest of its New Komeito coalition partners. The payments were supposed to have been made by the end of the year.

The Mainichi quoted Mr. Sengoku as telling Mr. Nagatsuma:

“The special child support allowance was begun by New Komeito, so it has to be cut”.

He also said this was a “Cabinet decision”, though why Mr. Nagatsuma—a Cabinet member—was not present when the decision was made was not explained.

The program was a likely candidate for the axe anyway, because it was adopted to please the former government’s junior coalition partner and to deflect attention from the DPJ’s more extensive child subsidy proposal before the election. That alone doesn’t explain the antagonism, however.

What does? Despite sharing a similar political outlook, the DPJ has shown no interest in bringing New Komeito into their ruling coalition. Indeed, they’ve gone out of their way to harass them in the Diet. They’d rather try to reconcile the irreconcilable paleo-old guard of the PNP and the viperous left of the Social Democrats and govern as if they were in a four-legged race.

That’s because the DPJ’s Shadow Shogun, Ozawa Ichiro, has detested New Komeito for years. If the Mainichi report that this was a Cabinet decision is true, now we know who’s making decisions for the Cabinet.

For an insight into the inscrutability of Japanese politics, by the way, Mr. Sengoku is considered to be an Ozawa opponent within the party.

In the end, the Government canceled the program and held a press conference to “apologize to the people and local governments.”

No one was mollified.

From the Asahi Shimbun

The Aichi Prefecture Mayors’ Conference was held last week in Nagoya, their first meeting since the new government took office. All but one of the prefecture’s 35 mayors attended. The mayors passed a resolution asking the Government to assume full financial liability for the DPJ’s own child allowance proposal, as per their political platform, instead of sticking local governments and the private sector with part of the bill. Some participants complained that the DPJ’s ineptitude is causing turmoil in local government.

Said Inuyama Mayor Tanaka Yukinori (affiliated with the opposition LDP):

“The ministers just jump the gun with these statements, without specifying what is wasteful and what was wrong about the previous expenditures.”

Here’s Toyota Mayor Suzuki Kohei on the work his his city already performed for the Aso Administration policy:

“Our efforts wound up being a waste of time and money. (Some municipalities had to hire temporary employees.) When (the Government) says, ‘We’re a new administration,’ some local governments think that’s an insufficient reason or explanation.”

The sentiments were echoed by Aichi Gov. Kanda Masaaki, a guest at the meeting:

“There is uneasiness and turmoil in the communities. I’m going to do everything I can to hold local conferences to convey our concerns to the government.”

From the Nihonkai Shimbun

Tottori Gov. Hirai Shinji was even more scathing. At a press conference on the 15th, he said:

“The people ordered kabayaki (grilled eel), but they were served up something already eaten alive by a viper.”

In reference to the new Government’s inability to deal with the Finance Ministry bureaucrats, Mr. Hirai noted:

“Whenever the Finance Ministry says anything, they just swallow it whole and keep putting it on the tab of local government. Nothing at all has changed. In fact, it’s gotten worse.”

It might be that local governments could be a more effective check than the nominal opposition party, the LDP, which seems to be missing in action at the national level.

Then again, the Hatoyama Administration isn’t in the mood to listen, regardless of the number of conferences Aichi Gov. Kanda holds.

On television

On the 18th, Deputy Finance Minister Noda Yoshihiko reiterated that the Government is still considering having local governments and businesses cough up some of the money for their child allowance scheme.

Bait-and-switch, inflexibility, and policies that smack of Mussolini-style corporative fascism are no way to run a government, son.

Let’s reduce reliance on the bureaucracy by expanding it!

Back to Sengoku Yoshito, the Minister for Administrative Reform, who also appeared on TV on the 18th touting his latest reform idea. He wants to reorganize Mr. Nagatsuma’s MHLW:

“Its jurisdiction is so broad in scope that the problems arising there every day come up nowhere else.”

The Aso Administration was also interested in reorganizing the ministry last May, but, as with the Aso Administration itself, nothing came of it.

His proposal would seem to be hypocritical for a party that co-opted local reformers by promising to disassociate from the bureaucracy, and then changed its tune to disassociating from a reliance on the bureaucracy once they took office.

Instead, he suggests creating three new Cabinet ministries, each with a name that only the left could dream up:

  • The Ministry of Children and Families
  • The Ministry of Education and Employment
  • The Ministry of Social Insurance

The LDP had the capital idea of privatizing the Social Insurance Agency, but the agency itself torpedoed that plan by leaking the news of the colossal, decade-long foul-up of pension records. (All the more reason to privatize, is it not?) Then-DPJ-head Ozawa Ichiro said it should be merged with the National Tax Agency.

But now the DPJ is the party in power. Now they want to make it into a ministry of its own.

The idea behind coupling education with employment was that the Education Ministry, which also includes culture, sports, science, technology, and God knows what-all, was another candidate for reorganization. Mr. Sengoku did not explain why there was a need to end one Rube Goldberg bureaucracy just to create another. Nor was any justification provided for the existence of full-fledged Cabinet ministries focusing on labor, children, or families; it was as if no justification were needed.

In other words, Mr. Sengoku’s idea of governmental reform is to create three useless ministries where one existed and none are needed. Yes, let’s not rely on bureaucrats any more. As if that weren’t enough, he also said he was going to think of other ways to efficiently reorganize the central government.

Well, what sort of administrative reform can one expect from a former labor lawyer who was first elected to the Diet as a member of the Socialist Party? Did anyone really think he was going to consider central government downsizing?

Here’s another one on the inscrutability of Japanese politics: Mr. Sengoku is affiliated with the DPJ’s Maehara-Edano group/faction, which is considered to be on the Right within the party.

Meanwhile…

People outside of Japan are starting to draw conclusions about the new government, particularly those in financial circles.

Phill Tomlinson thinks stagflation will continue:

Many Keynesian economists are still baffled by Japan. Over the years, policy after policy has been proposed by their school of thought, all of which involve some form of government action, but time and time again they all seem to fail. The classic Keynesian rebuttal whenever these policies fail is “Well, the authorities didn’t do enough”. Just like they apparently didn’t do enough during the Great Depression.

And:

The reason why they never recovered to their previous highs was exactly what the Government did, they took over and tried the command economy approach. Roads to nowhere, propping up banks that were insolvent, not allowing private enterprise to take over the means of production. Rather than money going into the private sector, Japanese savings that were accrued during their economic miracle were funneled into Government bonds, wasteful Government consumption. It was quite simply a classic stagflation that is still ongoing.

That was published on the same day it was reported the Government would try to prop up debt-ridden Japan Airlines by putting its ownership in the hands of a quasi-public corporation without having it go through bankruptcy.

Meet the new boss.

Even worse than the old boss.

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Japan’s Political Kaleidoscope (3): DPJ edition

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, July 12, 2009

THE MOST RECENT JPK focused on the two sides of Aso Taro before “no side” is called for him, which might be sooner than we think. Turnabout being fair play, it’s time to cross the aisle for a look at recent developments with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, a worthy subject for examination if only because they always seem to be on the verge of losing the elastic in their political trousers.

How I spent my summer vacation

The last time we checked in with Kan Naoto, the veteran of nearly 30 years in the Japanese Diet was off to England for a three-day field trip to study the workings of Parliament.

Mr. Kan held a press conference in London to tell the class what he had learned. He said he discovered that the opposition party in Great Britain has a formal meeting with the national bureaucracy before an election to prepare for a smooth handover of power. He asked the Japanese government to permit a meeting of the same type.

“I intend to ask the government to recognize formal contact between the bureaucratic organizations and the party before the next election.”

That’s a good idea, but finding that out required a three-day junket in Westminster? It’s something a junior staffer from the British Embassy in Tokyo could have told him over a two-hour lunch, saving everybody a lot of time and money. Then again, he would have missed seeing the changing of the guards and hearing the chimes of Big Ben. Perhaps he prefers to study using the full immersion technique.

Tails wagging the dog

Awarding seats in the legislature to parties that haven’t won elections using a formula based on the proportion of votes received amplifies their power beyond justification. There are people in every country who believe all sorts of things, but the right to free speech and free thought does not include the right to be taken seriously, much less the right to have a voice in government. The general plot in a democracy is to fashion a rough consensus based on majorities and move in that direction. The only effect fringe elements have on society at large is to cause paralysis or work at cross-purposes with the majority. What else would anyone expect to happen in the world of politics?

As part of its strategy to take control of government, the DPJ formed an alliance with the Social Democratic Party, who represent the flannel-headed death spiral left, as well as the semi-fossilized People’s New Party, who are blocking privatization of unnecessary government ministries and bureaucratic reform.

Many Japanese politicians also realize there’s a problem, and moves are afoot to reduce the number of MPs in both houses of the Diet. (Proportional representation is not the only issue; there are just too many legislators in Japan at all levels of government, period.) Proposals are floating around that call for cuts ranging from 50 to 180 of the lower house legislators. That 180 is an important figure because it’s the number of proportional representation seats in the House of Representatives.

The DPJ adopted a platform plank during the last national election to reduce those seats from 180 to 100, nearly halving the number of proportional representation delegates. But they could afford to be honest since the voters weren’t ready to take them seriously as the head of a national government yet. It’s funny how that changes the closer one gets to power.

The SDP is taking them very seriously, however. They have seven seats in the lower house, only one of which they won outright. The rest are all filled by proportional representation delegates. Eliminating those seats eliminates their voice, such as it is.

So it’s no surprise that their participation in a DPJ-led coalition government is conditioned on maintaining the status quo on proportional representation. Said party head Fukushima Mizuho:

“An electoral system based on one delegate in a winner-take-all district will lead to a two-party system. The Diet requires a multidimensional value system, including small parties.”

Defending this idea inevitably means that one has to defend minority control of the majority, which is anathema to the idea of a democratic government.

Incidentally, it’s worth remembering that the last non-LDP government in Japan fell apart when the Socialists, the previous incarnation of the SDP, bolted the coalition.

Yukio steps in it again

The subject of proportional representation intersected with DPJ party head Hatoyama Yukio’s tendency to babble, particularly where the PNP is concerned.

Said Mr. Hatoyama during an FM radio broadcast:

“Our preference is a coalition with the SDP and PNP until we can take an absolute majority in the upper house election next July.”

The PNP was not amused, and who could blame them? Asked party chief Kamei Shizuka:

“Would anyone get married knowing they’ll divorce in a year?”

From that you can tell pre-nuptial agreements aren’t yet commonplace in Japan.

But Mr. Kamei is more old-fashioned. If you want us to hop into bed in bed with you, he suggested, give us a real kiss instead of a kiss-off.

To show their displeasure, the party postponed a decision on offering their support to 50 candidates in the lower house election proposed by the DPJ.

Mr. Hatoyama offered an excuse:

“My true intent was not conveyed.”

That’s the best he can come up with after 40 years of marriage? Then again, maybe he’s never had to do better. In 1996 it was revealed that he had a mistress in Hokkaido for 10 years, but his wife blamed herself and took him back.

Considering the mood of electorates world-wide and the odds a DPJ administration will belly flop, it might not be such a good idea for them to start counting any badger skins from an upper house election. (The Japanese proverbially warn against counting those pelts rather than unhatched chickens.)

Not all the DPJ Diet reform plans are meeting with opposition from their small-party allies, however. Some are meeting with opposition from DPJ members themselves.

For example, some want to include a measure in the platform reducing the number of upper house seats. Naturally those DPJ members with upper house seats aren’t ready to get on board that train. They say the party is being “too hasty”.

So, what will the party’s latest edition of its “true intent” turn out to be?

Yukio tries to wipe it off

Those who have been following the DPJ hymnbook know that Mr. Hatoyama’s plan for reforming the Japanese bureaucracy is to have everyone at the level of department head or above resign when the party forms a government. They’d be rehired on the condition of signing a loyalty oath pledging to support DPJ policies. Acting Party President Kan Naoto has already begun backing off that one, and now Mr. Hatoyama is sidling away too, though he hasn’t conveyed his true intent yet. He said:

“(When the) current law is unraveled, (we find) it’s difficult from a legal perspective to demote civil service personnel. (So) it’s my understanding this will not necessarily take the form of a written resignation.”

Unraveling that statement leads to the question of what form it could possibly take. Let’s assume they won’t be lined up against the wall, given a last cigarette and blindfold, and shot.

Here’s an idea: Make a phone call to Nakagawa Hidenao of the LDP and tell him you’ll support his bill to make it easier to demote civil servants as well as outlaw the revolving employment door for retired bureaucrats. He’s got more than 100 signatures on the bill, and he said he wrote it specifically to get DPJ backing. If you worked together, it would easily pass both houses.

That’s assuming you’re serious, of course.

Manifestly devolving

The DPJ has formulated the outline for a new platform a plank on devolution. It’s seen as a nod to the ideas (and more importantly, the popularity) of Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru, surely with the intent of capturing his support in the election. The party claims it will promote a great shift of authority to local government by 2013, their fourth year in office, if they’re still there.

They plan on eliminating the prefectural government liability for local agencies of central government enterprises, which is near the top of Mr. Hashimoto’s wish list. Also included for elimination are grants with strings attached to specific agencies.

The party hopes this will neutralize the authority of the central bureaucracy and the influence of the zokugi-in, those legislators sitting in the Diet who serve as the handmaidens of the individual ministries by acting as their de facto in-house lobbyists.

They’ve also ditched Ozawa Ichiro’s idea to reorganize local government around 300 units, which Mr. Hashimoto and the National Association of Towns and Villages opposed. In its place they’ve offered up a vague program for basic local governmental units (usually municipalities in most countries) with authority equal to that of prefectures. They promised to “think about” the state/province system, an LDP idea that is already halfway down the runway, and which Mr. Hashimoto likes.

In fact, DPJ bigwig Okada Katsuya visited the Osaka governor and played up to him by suggesting a state could be created in the Kinki region. Mr. Hashimoto says he will “cheer on”, rather than endorse, a party in the upcoming election, so perhaps Mr. Okada thinks that flattery will get him everywhere.

Never underestimate the power of a local politician from a populous region with poll ratings north of 80%!

Political indoctrination of children Public school education

Koshi’ishi Azuma, one of the troika of DPJ acting presidents with Ozawa Ichiro and Kan Naoto, addressed the Supreme Soviet general meeting of the Japan Teachers’ Union, held at Social Democratic Party headquarters in Tokyo. Mr. Koshi’ishi is one of seven DPJ legislators to have a Socialist Party background, and he formerly headed the JTU-affiliated Yamanashi teachers’ union. Once a Red, always a Red, eh?

You think I exaggerate? Last month Mr. Koshi’ishi said at a press conference:

“Rather than inspecting North Korean ships, we should inspect the Aso Cabinet.”

As he frequently does, Mr. Koshi’ishi spoke about the relationship between politics and education:

“There is no such thing as education without politics.”

Well, that clears that up. The JTU criticism of the use of innocuous patriotic gestures in the schools, such as singing the national anthem, is so habitual as to be knee-jerk. Now we know it’s not because it injects politics into education, but rather because it injects the politics they dislike into education—i.e., they’d rather sing the Internationale.

Koshi'ishi Azuma

Koshi'ishi Azuma

But there was no mystery about what he thought to begin with. The Yamanashi union got caught a few years ago squeezing contributions from primary and junior high school teachers for his election campaign, and they even had teachers working the phone banks to bug voters at home. The teachers themselves admitted the money went into a dummy bank account for Mr. Koshi’ishi, who wound up with JPY 3 million.

At another JTU meeting in Tokyo in January, he said:

“It is not possible to be politically neutral in education…We will change education through politics.”

Statements such as these skate close to the edge of violating the Japanese laws regarding politics and education, and–let’s face it–are a de facto pledge to indoctrinate students.

The Japanese electorate might be desperate for a change of government, but it’s unlikely this is what they have in mind. Most of the DPJ rank and file probably don’t care for it either, but that’s the price they pay for trying to paste together unwieldy coalitions.

As an example of how far the DPJ is willing to follow the JTU party line, they said they would abolish the JTU-opposed supplementary reader on morality, Kokoro no Noto (Notebook of the Heart), of which several editions are used in primary and junior high schools. It would save JPY 300 million ($US 3.24 million), which admittedly is a bit steep.

Developed by a psychologist, the book is very easy to read, is written in a soft and fuzzy tone, and talks about the importance of working for a living, raising a family, and becoming a responsible citizen. In other words, it’s as controversial as vanilla ice cream.

But here are the objections raised at one website:

“For example, about working, the reader includes such sentences as, ‘When do you get the feeling that you have worked? Is it when you’ve studied? Is it when you’ve come home from school?’, and ‘Working is not only for your own sake, but also for contributing to society.’

“We think that tries to whitewash the idea of working. Considering the reality of employment in Japan today, some children are not able to have a satisfying life at school because of the burden they feel from their parents (having lost their jobs) due to restructuring.”

No, I did not make that up.

Their real beef, however, is probably to be found on the page about patriotism (the only one) that appears later in the book. Here’s the complete and unexpurgated version of how one reader treats the subject:

“If you extend the feeling of loving your hometown outward
It will connect with the feeling of loving Japan.
The feeling of loving this country where we live
And wishing for its development is perfectly natural.
But, how much about this country do we know?
We should have a thorough knowledge of Japan now and renew our awareness of its splendid traditions and culture.
When seeing the excellence of this country, and passing on its merits to the future,
Loving Japan as a member of international society, and as one of the people on the Earth,
Must not be the narrow and exclusionary glorification of one’s country.
Loving this country will connect with loving the world.”

Mark my words! If they force Japanese junior high school kids to read this propaganda, before you know it they’ll want to start marching into the Korean Peninsula again!

Is it any surprise that people who think Aso Taro is a criminal and Kim Jong-il should skate would respond to the sentiments in the above excerpt like Dracula to a cross?

Look for a lot of Ministry of Education news to be generated in the event of a DPJ victory.

Grave robbers

Now that we’re on the subject of people who sleep in coffins, what is it with necrophilia and Democratic Parties? The Democratic Party of the Daley machine in Chicago (where Barack Obama learned whatever it is he knows about politics) has long been the butt of jokes for having perfected the technique of counting the graveyard vote. It’s part of the American political folklore that the Illinois ballots cinching the White House for Richard Nixon in 1960 are in a cement-weighted chest at the bottom of Lake Michigan.)

Now it turns out that the Democratic Party of the Hatoyama machine in Hokkaido modified the grave robbing technique by having the dearly departed donate money to DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio rather than rise up and vote for him.

Good idea. The write-in ballot is used in Japan, and that could get messy.

The Asahi Shimbun reported on 16 June that from 2003 to 2007, at least five very still people contributed an aggregate of 1.2 million yen on 10 occasions to Mr. Hatoyama’s personal political fund raising group. When contacted, relatives of four of the five said WTF? and the fifth said he wasn’t sure. Perhaps he needs to conduct a séance.

When asked about it at a press conference, Mr. Hatoyama said he would look into it right away. He also said:

“I’m surprised, because it was completely unexpected.”

What was unexpected? Getting caught, or getting money from dead people?

Then a curious thing occurred—several other media outlets, including the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Kyodo news agency, and weekly magazines, started matching up obituary columns with Mr. Hatoyama’s list of donors. The original list swelled to 90 corpses (or the urns containing their ashes) who donated up to JPY 21.77 million (about $US 235,000) in 193 instances.

And here we thought all the zombies were in the LDP!

The DPJ boss asked his attorney to investigate. The lawyer came back to report that the donations were derived from JPY 10 million which Mr. Hatoyama had entrusted to an aide if political funds ran short. The aide was embarrassed that he wasn’t able to shake down enough people, so he used those funds to cover for it. The report quotes the aide:

“I should have asked for donations in person but I neglected to do so. So I repeatedly made false accounts (in the political fund reports).”

Said Mr. Hatoyama:

“I assume that since there was so few donations from individuals for me, (the aide) thought it would be embarrassing if the fact came into light.”

The DPJ wants everyone to think that settles it.

The party—which submitted a bill to the Diet for amending the political campaign law to prohibit corporate donations after their former chief Ozawa Ichiro’s fund-raising group got caught taking illegal contributions from a construction company—refuses to cooperate with a Diet investigation of the matter. Said Okada Katsuya:

“(Hatoyama Yukio) has fulfilled his responsibility to explain.”

But wait!

There’s a lot that hasn’t been explained. For starters, if Mr. Hatoyama gave all that money to his aide to cover expenses, which the aide diverted to graveyard donations, why didn’t he ask the aide for a yearend accounting of the money provided? You know–follow normal business practices. If he’s that cavalier with his own money, how will he be with the national treasury?

“There’s something wrong here someplace.”
– Bo Diddley, Ooh Baby

But another question remained unanswered: What shortfall in donations? Mr. Hatoyama said the aide was embarrassed over the lack of money collected, but that wouldn’t be the appropriate word for the amount of individual donations the DPJ leader received, unless it was used in the context of an embarrassment of riches.

According to Mr. Hatoyama’s political fund reports between 2003 and 2007, he received from 50 million yen to 110 million yen annually in individual donations.

Further, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that during the 10 years from 1998 to 2007, Mr. Hatoyama received JPY 590 million yen (about $US 6.37 million) in political largesse. (Remember that he represents just a single legislative district.) Rather than having a shortage of fund raising, his committee brought forward money at the end of every fiscal year.

But wait!

Even subtracting the JPY 21.78 million in dead man money from the total, Mr. Hatoyama scraped up far more that of other DPJ and LDP leaders in recent years, including former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Ozawa Ichiro himself. And Mr. Ozawa was getting money from construction companies.

The annual political contributions to other LDP and DPJ party presidents averaged JPY 1.40 million during that same time period, a paltry amount in comparison.

And of those donations to Mr. Hatoyama less than JPY 50,000 ($US 540), which is the level at which tax deductions kick in, 60% were from anonymous contributors. In 2003, at least 1,500 of the quick rather than the dead made these small donations without stating their names or addresses.

A useful contrast is the individual contributions given to blueblood Aso Taro, whose family is so fabulously wealthy he pretends to read comic books to acquire the common touch. They exceeded JPY 10 million only once, and anonymous donations accounted for less than 10% of the total.

Mr. Hatoyama is on the record as calling for greater use of tax-exempt contributions to encourage individuals to give money to candidates, yet he is the undisputed champ for pulling in small anonymous contributions that aren’t eligible for tax deductions.

The law states that individuals can contribute a maximum of 10 million a year. Did Mr. Hatoyama and his supporters employ anonymous donations that wouldn’t show up on tax statements to get around the law?

But wait!

In addition to dead people, it also turns out that the DPJ president also hauls in a substantial amount of swag from local legislators at the prefectural and municipal level. He’s the official representative of a DPJ district level group in Hokkaido that receives hundreds of thousands of yen annually from local pols, and an aggregate of JPY 16.50 million over five years.

What’s so unusual about that? One Diet member from the LDP–you know, the money politics party–said that he had never heard of local politicians donating to the campaigns of national politicians before.

But wait!

The local politicians have a tendency to give their money to Mr. Hatoyama on 25 December. That’s not a public holiday in Japan, but it’s still an unusual coincidence. Christmas in 2005 fell on a Sunday, yet that’s the day the fund-raising group reported receiving the cash-stuffed envelopes in its stocking. Ho ho ho!

Is the group visiting the homes of local politicians in Santa suits picking up individual donations on Christmas Sundays?

Or, in addition to their mobilization of the deceased, does the DPJ share with their American counterparts a puerile sense of humor? What will the party try next, a dead flower hanami?

But wait!

There were 26 local legislators who gave money to the group in 2007—Christmas Day again—and all of them received the documents issued by the government permitting their donations to be deducted from their income tax. The local DPJ explained that the donations were a substitute means for offseting party expenditures. But party expenditures are not eligible for income tax deductions, so if they received deductions, they broke the law.

The contributions ranged from JPY 18,000 to JPY 264,000.

There’s even more!

Another political support group for Mr. Hatoyama based in Muroran, Hokkaido, reported JPY 0 ($US 0.00) in operating expenses on their financial statements for the three-year period starting in 2005. The DPJ explained that their president’s main group paid the office’s rent and phone bill. They said the other group was just a volunteer body created to organize and hold events, that it had no employees, and that it didn’t use the offices every day.

It turns out, however, that the volunteer group’s offices are in a building owned by Mr. Hatoyama’s mother. Of course the LDP pointed out that the recording of zero expenditures is eccentric bookkeeping, and that if his mother let them use the offices rent-free, it should be considered a political donation.

Ooh, baby. Bo knows. There’s something wrong here someplace.

Haven’t these people learned how to deal with revelations of unpleasant facts yet?

It doesn’t matter if the media is discovering this on its own, or if sources within the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy are feeding them the information now to derail any civil service reform before it leaves the station.

It’s all going to come out now. Trying to stall in the Diet by saying it’s already been explained isn’t convincing anybody.

Just hold your nose while we hold ours, take the medicine, and get it over with.

Posted in Education, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »

You say you want a devolution

Posted by ampontan on Friday, July 3, 2009

YOU’LL SELDOM SEE it covered on the front page of newspapers or on prime time television—their game is infotainment, not issues—but the political equivalent of a civil war is raging in Japan. The insurgents in this war are the governors, mayors, and other chief municipal officers storming the barricades of the central government in Tokyo.

Though both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan claim they support greater devolution, the rebels take neither at their word. Still, the issue in Japan is not whether there will be regional devolution and a restructuring of government, but when and to what extent. Here are some dispatches from the front lines.

A pox on you both!

Eguchi Katsuhiko

Eguchi Katsuhiko

Eguchi Katsuhiko chairs a government panel for examining the state/prefecture concept, the official policy of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its New Komeito coalition partner. It would create 9-12 large sub-national entities to replace the current 47 prefectures at the level between the central government and municipalities. Supporters say this plan would revitalize the country by reducing the size and authority of the central government while curtailing the influence of the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy.

Prime Minister Aso Taro says he supports the LDP program in particular and devolution in general, but Mr. Eguchi thinks he’s full of bologna. He publicly slammed the prime minister for his failure to actively promote the state/prefecture concept, calling his approach retrogressive. He didn’t stop there; he also criticized Mr. Aso for his attitude toward devolution and civil service reform, and said those in business and financial circles were fed up with him. Neither did Mr. Eguchi spare Hatoyama Yukio, the head of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan:

Regrettably, neither Mr. Aso nor Mr. Hatoyama seem interested in reforming Japan. The bureaucracy dominates and the politicians and the people are being led by the nose. The prime minister doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s being used by the bureaucracy.

Mr. Eguchi is a supporter of small government, and he’s got a good reason:

The central government creates dependency among the people. The form of the country must be changed.

The very public criticism by Mr. Eguchi raised eyebrows because it’s unusual for the chair of a government group of this type to criticize the prime minister in public.

He’s so committed to the issue he’s written a book about it, called Chiiki Shuken-Gata Doshusei (A State/Province System Based on Regional Sovereignty). His specific proposal calls for the reorganization of sub-national governments into 12 states/provinces and 300 municipalities (or “basic governmental units”), with both levels receiving substantial authority to levy and collect many of the taxes now paid to the central government. In return, they would be given the authority to conduct those governmental functions with the greatest impact on daily life.

Mr. Eguchi is the head of the PHP Research Institute founded by Matsushita Konosuke. He’s also allied with reform firebrands Watanabe Yoshimi and Eda Kenji (click on the Tags for more), and joined them to establish a political organization this January. That organization is about to be transformed into a political party. PHP publishes a line of trade paperbacks and the monthly current affairs magazine Voice, so the group has a ready-made medium through which to make its views known.

Mr. Inside

Meanwhile, the LDP’s Koizumian standard-bearer Nakagawa Hidenao continues his daily barrage against the party’s mudboat wing. He recently threw a party at a Tokyo hotel for young Diet members (probably first-termers who owe their seats to Mr. Koizumi’s coattails in 2005) and invited that well-known loose cannon of devolution and reform, Osaka Gov. Hashimoto Toru.

During the meeting, Mr. Nakagawa told those assembled:

“The people’s expectations for changing the Kasumigaseki bureaucracy lie with the DPJ. They will not be with us unless we offer a compelling plan that goes above and beyond theirs…The only message that will counter the DPJ’s call for a change in government is to dismantle Kasumigaseki.”

Some of the party’s mudboaters have begun firing back. Machimura Nobutaka, the head of the LDP’s largest faction–of which Mr. Nakagawa may or may not still be a member–took issue with the latter’s promotion of a bill to completely outlaw the means through which retired civil servants find cushy post-retirement employment in organizations affiliated with the government. It also would allow for the demotion or salary reductions of senior civil servants. Said Mr. Machimura:

“We already can demote or cut the salaries of those bureaucrats under the present law. I have to think that those people who claim it isn’t possible, and that this is a new law, have some different end in view.”

Retorted Mr. Nakagawa:

“Flexible salary reductions are difficult under the government’s proposal.”

Translation: “Difficult” is often a euphemism in Japanese. It usually means that the subject under discussion is either (a) impossible, or (b) so unlikely as to be impossible in practice.

There is speculation in the Japanese media that Mr. Nakagawa’s redoubled efforts are a counterattack against the tribal MPs (zokugiin) with close ties to Cabinet ministries (in a sense, lobbyist-legislators working for the bureaucracy) who scuttled the recent proposal to reorganize the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare.

The human howitzer

Speaking of Mr. Hashimoto, he is slinging so much lead at both the LDP and DPJ he’s on the verge of exploding into space. Keeping track of the governor’s daily activities is akin to following a spectator sport. But his sky-high ratings among his Osaka Prefecture constituency mean that both the LDP and the DPJ are desperate for his endorsement in the upcoming lower house election.

The governor knows an opportunity when he sees one, so he’s letting them have it with both barrels.

Here’s what he said about the LDP at that Tokyo hotel party hosted by Nakagawa Hidenao:

“As long as there is no change in the Kasumigaseki system, the people will think that nothing’s going to happen. The LDP and (coalition partners) New Komeito will lose the election if they approach it this way…I’d like to see you (the Diet members) introduce a compelling plan (to deal with the bureaucracy) that will astound every citizen.”

He later told a press conference:

“The LDP is not doing enough. The ruling party in government has the authority, so I hope they submit a terrific plan.”

Mr. Nakagawa agreed that the prime minister’s efforts were insufficient:

“If he can’t (come up with a good plan), the election result will be as Gov. Hashimoto said.”

Après-party, the governor let loose a volley against the government’s Robust Policy Plan for 2009:

“There’s not enough about devolution. It’s worse than last year’s plan. Last year’s plan had a chapter heading with a promise to look into the problem of local agencies (i.e., the local agencies of the central government that prefectural governments must pay to support). This year, there’s no chapter heading and less talk about the bureaucracy…not enough effort is being put into cutting expenditures.”

Salvos at the DPJ

While the Osaka governor has praised the DPJ’s stance on reforming the bureaucracy at Kasumigaskei, he’s not entirely convinced they’re serious. For example, he’s said he thinks the party will try to end bureaucracy-led government—the way things have worked here since the Meiji Era. But he’s also said:

“With the DPJ riding on the backs of (public sector) unions, are they capable of civil service reform?”

But he hasn’t had anything good to say at all about the devolution plan the DPJ is most likely to adopt. Mr. Hashimoto supports the LDP’s state/province system with three layers of government.

It’s difficult to determine exactly what plan the DPJ favors. Party members have told the media the issue divides them more than any other. DPJ boss Hatoyama Yukio has supported the LDP state/province system plan in the past, but it’s now apparent that he can’t be taken at his word for much of anything.

The plan most people think they’ll back is one that former DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro has touted for at least 15 years: a two-level scheme divided between the central government and 300 sub-national governmental units. It still isn’t clear who wears the pants in the DPJ family, however, and they’ve yet to nail this plank into their platform. Here’s Mr. Hashimoto on the Ozawa plan:

“This image of the state is divorced from reality…No head of local government agrees with them. The people in charge of this issue in the party should hold a public debate.”

And:

“The DPJ talks about (strengthening) regional authority, but that’s not what will happen. Central government will be stronger under a two-level structure, making top-down decision-making more likely.”

And:

“The approach of making the central government the next highest government body above the basic local government units (without anything in between) is dangerous. It could lead to egregious central governmental authority.”

Tokyo Deputy Governor Inose Naoki, a Hashimoto ally, thinks the Ozawa idea is a warmed-over version of the governmental system in Japan during the Edo period, from the early 17th century to the mid-19th century. The Shogun sat atop the food chain, and under him were 300 primary daimyos and their fiefdoms, defined as those offering at least 10,000 koku of rice (about 51,200 bushels) as tribute.

(To be precise, most historians say there were really only 260 to 280 primary fiefdoms, and that the number 300 is used as a convenient shorthand.)

The Hashimoto charge that the Ozawa system would lead to egregious central government authority is not without merit. Japanese historians say that while the local daimyo were granted some authority and privileges, including law enforcement and the right to levy taxes, the central government was extremely powerful.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the man who prefers the role of shadow Shogun would be atttracted to that concept.

Mr. Inose recently discussed the issue with Haraguchi Kazuhiro, who holds the portfolio for the Internal Affairs and Communications ministry in the DPJ Shadow Cabinet. He told Mr. Haraguchi that the DPJ plan was too abstract for serious discussion.

One potential difficulty is that Japan has just been through a series of extensive municipal mergers. The so-called Great Heisei Mergers (Heisei being the reign name of the Emperor), have reduced the number of Japanese municipalities–cities, towns, and villages–from 3,300 to 1,800. It just isn’t possible to slash that number to 300 while eliminating the prefectures at the same time, and officials in the Internal Affairs Ministry have told the party as much.

Mr. Haraguchi sheepishly admitted to the Tokyo Deputy Mayor that the first step to attaining the goal of 300 would be a reduction to 700, but said, “we really haven’t thought this out. This is as far as we’ve gotten.”

Strong opposition to the Ozawa plan has also emerged from the National Association of Towns and Villages, an association for the municipal officers of machi and mura nationwide. (Those municipalities designated as cities are excluded.) While the association is a strong supporter of devolution, they are opposed to further consolidation because they maintain the last round of mergers did more harm than good.

There were 2,652 towns and villages before the merger mania started, and the total as of 1 June was 992, according to the NATV website. (A further complication is that there are no clear-cut definitions under the law to differentiate cities, towns, and villages. Generally speaking, cities have the most people and villages have the fewest, but some municipalities classified as towns have a larger population than some smaller cities.)

The NATV recently pried another admission out of the DPJ that the Ozawa plan is unrealistic and has to be reworked. The DPJ official who let that cat out of the bag was Osaka Seiji, the managing director of the party’s devolution survey committee.

This issue is taken very seriously by business and financial leaders throughout Japan–Keidanren, the country’s most influential business organization, is a staunch supporter of the LDP plan–but the DPJ still hasn’t decided where it stands as a party.

And they think they’re ready to assume leadership of the government?

The governors’ rebellion

Perhaps the most stunning development in the battle between local and central government was the response of the prefectural governors to the national government’s explanation of the prefectures’ liabilities for the maintenance and management costs of the local agencies of central government ministries. (For a more detailed look at the issue, try this dialogue between Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Inose.)

The Kyodo news agency conducted a survey by questionnaire of the 47 prefectural governors regarding their views of the explanation and itemization of the charges provided by Kaneko Kazuyoshi, the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. Forty of the 47 said it wasn’t sufficient.

Of those 40, 21 gave as their reason the continued prefectural financial liability for the maintenance and management of national roads and rivers. The National Governors’ Conference is seeking its immediate abolition. The dissenters thought the information was lacking and said they were dissatisfied with the government’s partial modification of the system while maintaining its essence. (This is a hallmark of governmental operations under the LDP.)

As specific examples of the inappropriate use of the funds they’re required to provide, 33 cited construction costs for agency buildings and dormitories for the civil servants. Eighteen of the governors cited footing the bill for the personnel costs of management personnel at research institutes and agencies under the direct control of the ministry. In addition, 36 said the breakdown of liabilities in the FY 2008 budget presented by the ministry at the end of May lacked critical information.

I’m not kidding about rebellion. Of the 47 governors, only three said their prefectures would pay the money the central government is asking for. In addition, Gov. Hashimoto of Osaka said his prefecture wouldn’t pay other inappropriate expenditures in addition to retirement and pension benefits. The remaining three governors did not specifically say what they would do. The Saitama governor said they might freeze payments if they thought the information disclosed was inadequate, while the Wakayama governor said the prefecture wouldn’t hand over any money until they received a reasonable explanation.

A total of 46 of the governors said the system should be either modified or eliminated entirely (only the Mie governor dissented), and of those 46, 27 opted for complete elimination.

Now imagine what would happen if 43 of the 50 American state governors flipped the bird in unison to the federal government after being told it was time to pay up. There would be so much activity on the Internet and in the mass media it would melt optical fiber cables worldwide and smoke would be issuing from the vents of your CPU.

It sounds like a rebellion to me!

Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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.)

kosode

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:

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…”

Answer:

“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.

Afterwords:

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.

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