AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Posts Tagged ‘Mori Y.’

On the way down

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 2, 2012

Tush!
Fear not, my lord, we will not stand to prate;
Talkers are no good doers: be assured
We come to use our hands and not our tongues.
– Shakespeare, The Life and Death of King Richard III

THE soaring support for reform-minded local political parties and groups in Japan, personified by Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru, is paralleled by a sharp slide in backing for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. They too talked the reform talk, but were incapable of walking the walk without pratfalls and belly flops. Any prominent party member could be selected at random to represent their failure, but Maehara Seiji, former Foreign Minister and current DPJ Policy Research Chair would be an excellent candidate for poster boy as any.

The Iu Dake Bancho

Mr. Maehara became prominent as a relative foreign policy hawk and domestic moderate in a party infused with a large element of ex-Socialists, teacher unionistas, and other variegated leftists. After the DPJ was steamrolled in the 2005 lower house election by the Koizumi-led Liberal Democratic Party, they chose Mr. Maehara to replace Okada Katsuya as party president. They just as quickly dumped him the following year after he attempted to manufacture a political crisis based on an e-mail that was found to be bogus.

A harsh critic of then-party President Ozawa Ichiro, he was viewed by some in the LDP as a man they could work with. He showed up for meetings of a short-lived study group created by former Prime Minister Koizumi, who cited him as a potential PM. Though people wondered whether he might form an alliance with disaffected LDP reformers, it never materialized. He knew the DPJ was his shortest route to power and a prominent place on the public stage.

When the DPJ took control of government in 2009, Mr. Maehara was named the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. To demonstrate that the party would end the old LDP practice of turning on the money spigot for legal vote buying with pork barrel construction projects, he announced the suspension of work on the Yanba Dam, a controversial project in Gunma. That suspension was controversial itself, however, because many people in the region actually wanted the dam built, and he didn’t waste any time consulting with them before making up his mind. (Among the dam’s intended uses is supplying water to the Tokyo megalopolis.) The final approval to resume construction was recently announced by a successor at MLIT, but not after a substantial amount of time, money (such as penalties for cancelling construction contracts), and party credibility was squandered. Mr. Maehara was loudly against restarting construction until he was for it just before the resumption order was issued.

That and several other incidents marked him a talker instead of a doer. Exhibiting their wicked talent for wordplay, some in the Japanese news media, most notably the Sankei Shimbun, began referring to him as the Iu Dake Bancho (言うだけ番長). In fact, the newspaper coined the term just for him, but played the journo game by pretending that other, unidentified people were saying it. Before long, other identified people were doing just that.

To explain: Bancho was a term for a minor government official centuries ago, but in the 20th century it came to be used to refer to the leader of juvenile delinquent gangs of junior high or high school age. Iu means to speak or to say, and dake means “only”. The phrase was inspired by a comic book series that ran from 1967–1971 called Yuyake Bancho (Sunset Bancho) created by Kajiwara Ikki.

After the moniker appeared again in the paper’s 22 February edition, Maehara Seiji lost the plot. He prohibited Sankei reporters from attending his twice-weekly news conferences and covering in person the party affairs for which he has responsibility.

The Sankei published their side of the story earlier this week. Here it is.

*****
The Sankei Shimbun has used the expression Iu Dake Bancho to refer to the behavior of DPJ Policy Research Committee Chair Maehara Seiji. The phrase is modeled after the comic Yuyake Bancho. We also had in mind the incident with the fake e-mail that occurred in 2006 when he was the DPJ president.

There have been 16 articles in the final editions of this newspaper using that phrase in regard to Mr. Maehara. The first was on 15 September 2011. The passage read, “In the background, there is distrust of Mr. Maehara, who has been referred to as the Iu Dake Bancho. Soon after his appointment (to his current post), he proposed during a visit to the United States a reexamination of the three principles for the export of weapons. That led to criticism within the party that he shouldn’t be allowed to act arbitrarily on his own authority.”

In an article on 30 September, when Mr. Maehara proposed to increase by an additional JPY two trillion the amount in the government’s plan for non-tax-derived income to fund the Tohoku recovery, we wrote “It is possible that if the target amount is not achieved, the inglorious term of Iu Dake Bancho will become permanent.”

When Mr. Maehara was the Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, he froze construction on the Yanba dam in Gunma. When the decision to resume construction was announced on 24 December, we wrote, “It is unlikely he will be able to refute being mocked as the Iu Dake Bancho, after finally agreeing to the resumption after opposing it until just before it was announced.”

The Yukan Fuji, some weekly magazines, and some regional newspapers have also used the expression in addition to the Sankei Shimbun.

*****
The Sankei didn’t mention that they publish the Yukan Fuji, but they also didn’t mention the phrase had been picked up by the competing Yomiuri Shimbun, nor did they specify Shukan Shincho as one of the weekly magazines.

The newspaper also used the phrase in the headline for an 8 November article that began like this:

“Policy Research Committee Chair Maehara Seiji was not present during the conference of the secretaries-general of the DPJ, LDP, and New Komeito, though he had worked to coordinate policy with the opposition parties until then. The discussion among the three policy chiefs about the period of redemption for reconstruction bonds was difficult, and DPJ Secretary-General Koshiishi Azuma lost his patience and assumed the leading role in the talks. There was a marked difference in negotiating skills between the LDP and New Komeito on the one hand, and Maehara Seiji on the other, who quickly accepted their proposals with little debate. He worked very hard in the three-party conference to rebound from his reputation as the Iu Dake Bancho, but the situation was such that the authority for other ruling party/opposition party discussions in the future, including that for increasing the consumption tax, had to be taken from him.”

The last straw article in the Sankei on the 22nd quoted a senior LDP official as saying, “He will not lose the stigma of being known as the Iu Dake Bancho.” The next day, Mr. Maehara confronted a Sankei Shimbun reporter in the Diet building, said “I want to talk to you,” and escorted him to his office. Here’s the Sankei’s version of that talk:

“Why do you always write Iu Dake Bancho whenever something happens? I want a formal written answer from your newspaper in the name of the chairman. Without that answer, I will not recognize your coverage of the policy discussion meetings…I get a dark feeling just from reading your articles. This is on the level of childish bullying and the ‘violence of the pen’. I won’t recognize you at news conferences or permit your coverage until I get an answer.”

After reporting to his superior, the journalist returned to ask Mr. Maehara to specify in writing what sort of answer he wanted. “I’ll think about it,” was the answer.

If Mr. Maehara thought he was going to get any sympathy, he was mistaken. What little support he received in his own party was subdued. The Asahi Shimbun — whose political views are the polar opposite of the Sankei — wrote:

“All news companies, the Asahi Shimbun included, oppose excluding specific news organizations and demand an explanation. Mr. Maehara avoided a clear statement by refraining from discussing the specific content of reporting.”

One reason for the lack of sympathy was that a lot of people thought the shoe fit. Said a journalist:

“There have been innumerable occasions when Mr. Maehara made a statement that was just talk, such as his suspension of construction for the Yanba Dam. There’s really nothing to be said if people call him Iu Dake Bancho, but to get upset at that heckling isn’t very mature.”

Eguchi Katsuhiko, an upper house member from Your Party, knows Maehara Seiji well because the DPJ policy chief graduated from the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, which Mr. Eguchi was instrumental in organizing and operating. He said:

“It’s extremely unfortunate. Mr. Maehara looked up to Mr. Matsushita as a teacher, but that’s not how he would have done it. Instead, he would have invited the critic in and listened to him….If he wants to become prime minister, he shouldn’t get so concerned about every bit of criticism.”

LDP Diet member Fukaya Takashi wasn’t sympathetic either:

“False and childish reporting is unforgivable, but it’s not really in error for Mr. Maehara, who has a habit of saying all sorts of things and then finishing in a fog…If you think about citing examples, they’re too numerous to count.”

Mr. Maehara has been interested in exploring an alliance with Hashimoto Toru’s One Osaka party, but his petulance made that less likely to happen. Said new Osaka Gov. Matsui Ichiro:

“Well, he goes back on his word in an instant, so what do you expect people to say? He probably gets angry, but a complete refusal to allow coverage is excessive and unbecoming…If you’re going to say something, it’s a good idea to do it. It’s best not to say things you aren’t going to do.…If he’s got something to say, he should fight back on Twitter, like Mr. Hashimoto.”

Speaking of Hashimoto Toru:

“I don’t understand the reason for it, but if it were me, I’d have the reporter come in and we’d run each other down. If he said something bad about me, I’d give it back to him…I think there’s a certain line (for the content of reporting), but being critical is their job, and without it people in authority would become dangerous.”

A similar incident with Mr. Hashimoto presents a revealing contrast, both in how they dealt with media members who displeased them, and also in how people respond in different ways to the same behavior from different people depending on their perceptions of those people.

On 9 February 2008, then-Osaka Gov. Hashimoto was invited to appear on a live local NHK broadcast with the mayor of Osaka, the former governor of Tottori, and a university professor. He told NHK when he accepted the invitation that he had official business that day in Tokyo, and would be late for the start of the program. He confirmed that they understood more than once. When he showed up 30 minutes after the program started, announcer Fujii Ayako commented, “Well, he’s a little late, he arrived about 30 minutes late.”

In Japan, late is rude unless you have a good reason and let people know in advance. Mr. Hashimoto didn’t care for the comment because he made sure to tell them ahead of time. At a post-program news conference, he also revealed that NHK badgered him to change his work schedule for their benefit. He announced that henceforth, he would no longer appear on NHK programs, though he would respond to their reporters’ questions. Ms. Fujii was reassigned to Tokyo. The incident remains largely unknown.

*****
Some observers think Mr. Maehara is wobbling under the pressure because Noda Yoshihiko may not last much longer as prime minister, and he’s one of few remaining people the party can put forward as a plausible successor. That’s assuming the party stays in power much longer and has the authority to put forward any successor. It’s no longer a secret that Mr. Noda and LDP chief Tanigaki Sadakazu held a secret meeting Saturday, like two mudboats passing in the night. The news media assumes they discussed a deal for a Diet dissolution and lower house election in exchange for an LDP promise to pass the DPJ’s consumption tax increase. Mr. Noda would not survive that election. There’s also speculation the DPJ would use the poll as an excuse to ditch Ozawa Ichiro. The bargain Mr. Sadakazu might be offering is: Get rid of Ozawa, and then we’ll form a tax-increase coalition government with what’s left of the two parties.

I suspect the problem lies elsewhere, however. Maehara Seiji’s ambition to become prime minister is not a new phenomenon, so if his knees were to get wobbly by approaching the throne, they already would have done so. The Sankei isn’t the only target of his petulance, either. He also bounced a reporter from the Hokkaido Shimbun from a recent news conference by telling him, “What you wrote differed from the facts. Please leave at once.”

After the 2009 lower house election, everything was coming up roses for the DPJ. Mr. Maehara was expected to play a prominent role in national politics. That role was likely to include a spell as prime minister. Now, fewer than three years and multiple malfunctions later, the roses are blighted and the public is ready to dig up the bushes. Indeed, former DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro met with some of his younger supporters in the party last week and told them that Hashimoto Toru had stolen their reform thunder. He added, incorrectly, that it was not too late for them to snatch it back.

Maehara Seiji knows he is on the way down without having reached the top. He also knows it might be quite some time before he gets that close to the top again.

Afterwords:

* You can almost smell the DPJ flop sweat. This week they announced they’d be doling out JPY three million apiece to their first term Diet members for “activity money”. Most of them are associated with Ozawa Ichiro’s group, which is opposed to the party’s plan to increase the consumption tax. They’re calling it activity money, but it’s really a bribe to keep them from bolting.

The funds will be distributed to 108 MPs, for an aggregate amount of JPY 324 million yen (almost $US four million).

One wonders how much of that money is derived from the public subsidies to political parties, or, if it isn’t, whether the party would be willing to spend that kind of cash if they hadn’t received the subsidies to begin with.

Americans have a system, by the way, in which people can check a box on their income tax forms to voluntarily contribute $3.00 (from the government) for generic political campaigns, without adding to their taxes. More than 90% leave the box unchecked.

* Former LDP Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro is very anxious to negotiate an election with the DPJ in exchange for a tax increase. Stupid is as stupid does.

*****
Here’s the Yuyake Bancho himself!

The same people you misused on your way up
You might meet up
On your way down.

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At a loss

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 6, 2011

IN NORMAL circumstances anywhere else in the world, it would have been an unremarkable display of political party schmoozing. Considering the people involved in the circumstances of today’s Japan, however, the following scenes highlight the putrefaction of politics at the national level and the numbness of the national political class.

Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji and Koshi’ishi Azuma, the Chair of the Democratic Party Caucus in the upper house, glad-handed each other at a party meeting in Yamanashi yesterday

Said Mr. Koshi’ishi:

“When will springtime arrive for our party? The most important issue facing our party is whether we will be able to pass the baton to Foreign Minister Maehara and others of his generation….Expectations are rising day by day for Mr. Maehara and others to create a vibrant Japan.”

Replied Mr. Maehara:

“To say that I am the “anti-Ozawa” is a nonsensical distinction. I sincerely respect Mr. Koshi’ishi, who is said to be pro-Ozawa….He has supported me in the bad times and the good. I will never be able to forget that.”

On the same day, Kamei Shizuka of the People’s New Party, the DPJ coalition partner, addressed a meeting of DPJ upper house delegates in Onomichi, Hiroshima:

“I spoke to former party president Ozawa Ichiro, and unfortunately, we are now in a state a year a half after the change of government in which it is inconceivable that the coalition government will meet the people’s expectations. The DPJ can’t possibly pull itself together without the 200-strong group led by Mr. Ozawa, ‘the master teacher’.” (宗師)

Mr. Kamei also recently met with Hatoyama Yukio (DPJ) and Mori Yoshiro (LDP), prime ministerial failures who laid eggs so large it’s a wonder they can walk without pain. At that meeting, he reportedly said that Ozawa Ichiro’s indictment meant it was unavoidable his political strength would decline. The two men agreed with him.

Mr. Koshi’ishi is correct to say it’s time to pass the baton to a new generation. Prime Minister Kan Naoto now resembles a walking sandwich board for the embalmer’s art—Lord knows he pumps himself full of enough preservatives—and Messrs. Koshi’ishi, Kamei, Ozawa, and Yosano Kaoru could moonlight as wax museum exhibits. The monthly bill for black hair dye alone must be staggering, and that’s not including the retainer the 74-year-old Mr. Kamei pays his barber to create a head of hair that ages 40 years just by walking behind the man and looking at him from the back.

The nation’s political leaders are starting to bear a strange resemblance to the late-period Sovetskies Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov (15 months in office before dying) and Konstantin Chernenko (13 months in office before dying), all of whom looked as if they lined up to sleep in the same tomb with Vladimir Lenin at night.

The political mechanism and philosophy those Japanese men represent is the same walking invalid the Soviet system was in those days.

If they were part of a coherent political mechanism, Mr. Koshi’ishi and Mr. Maehara would not be in the same party. The only way they would even talk to each other is to fire verbal mortar rounds from different trenches. The former is another DPJ Socialist Party refugee who got into politics by way of the Japanese Teachers Union, which is even more noxious than its Western counterparts. Makieda Motofumi was the JTU chairman when he was a member. Mr. Makieda was a fan of Kim Il-sung, juche, and the North Korean educational system. He wrote a book with a passage claiming there was no thievery in that country, which rewarded him with a medal in 1991.

Mr. Koshi’ishi also thinks it’s not possible to educate children without politics, and it’s obvious what political mickeys he would slip into their milk at school lunch. When there was talk of interdicting North Korean ships on the way to the Middle East to check for weapons or nuclear processing equipment, he was opposed and suggested inspecting the Aso government instead.

Mr. Maehara, meanwhile, is in favor of revising the Japanese Constitution to remove any restrictions on the maintenance of military forces—a stance directly opposed to that of the Article 9-loving Koshi’ishi Azuma. He is one of the DPJ MPs who favors a hard(er) line against the Chinese. He began his career with the Japan New Party of Hosokawa Morihiro, the first non-LDP prime minister since 1955. Other members of that party included former Yokohama Mayor Nakada Hiroshi of the Spirit of Japan Party and Koike Yuriko, now in the LDP. Both champion individual responsibility and freedom, and both tend to be social conservatives. (Current Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio was also in the party, but his tent isn’t pitched near that philosophical camp.) There was also talk that Mr. Maehara might split from the DPJ after he began associating with former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro and Koike Yuriko in an informal group two years ago.

And now they talk about each other as if they were actors on honorary career Oscar night.

It’s not possible to make educated assumptions about the potential policies of a Prime Minister Maehara because he also leads a group in the DPJ with Mr. Edano and Sengoku Yoshito, both men of the left. Who knows what he believes this week? After all, some thought Kan Naoto would be a pragmatic centrist. With people openly talking about the end of the Kan administration, Mr. Sengoku is said to be preparing the ground for Mr. Maehara to succeed him. Such a move reminds people of the taraimawashi (literally, passing around the tub) of the bad old LDP, in which the party bosses rotated the prime minister’s chair amongst themselves with little regard for public opinion.

Ozawa Ichiro is the former secretary-general of the LDP and favorite political son of its Boss Tweed, Tanaka Kakuei. He wrote a book nearly 20 years ago advocating more individual responsibility and liberty as the prescription for what ailed Japan. That impressed Ms. Koike so much she joined the Liberal Party when he created that group, which eventually became part of a coalition government with the LDP. Then he merged the Liberal Party with the DPJ and formed close ties with Mr. Koshi’ishi in particular and other members affiliated with labor unions.

Before that, however, he created and ran from behind the curtain an eight-party coalition led by the aforementioned Hosokawa Morihiro. Mr. Kamei, then in the social conservative wing of the LDP, was instrumental in bringing down that coalition by coaxing the Socialists to leave, form a new coalition with the LDP, and launch a new government. He successfully replaced one cryptozoological fantasy with another because he and they thought Mr. Ozawa was a “fascist bastard”. Now he thinks the man’s indispensable, calls him “the master teacher”, and used the honorific term of address sensei for him in the above quote, though he is older by several years. (Mr. Ozawa has been in the Diet roughly a decade longer, however.) Ozawa-sensei, of course, is the master chef of Japan’s stew of dirty political money. He is the only politician whose funds management committee owns real estate, and that property portfolio is worth several million dollars.

Yet this is the man whom Mr. Kamei laments is losing his political influence in a meeting with two other men that people will suspect was called to gum over plans for a grand coalition of the politically halt, lame, blind, and fabulously well-to-do that will be just as unpopular with the public as the Hatoyama, Mori, and Kan administrations were.

When the DPJ won a majority in the July 2009 elections, I wrote that it was the first flush of several needed to purge the coprolites from the system. It seems likely that the next big flush will occur this year, perhaps before the cherries have finished blooming. Any attempt at a DPJ taraimawashi or a grand coalition of the pork-swilling will only put wings to the feet of the electorate as they rush to the handle.

National politics in Japan will not improve until the only reason these men travel to Nagata-cho is to show their great-granchildren where they once worked. Fortunately, the Japanese public is showing signs of starting a flushing festival at the sub-national level. (That may yet lead to real change, but I’ll have more on that later.) In the meantime, these badgers from the same hole, as the Japanese have it, are at a loss as to what to do next, and that is the nation’s loss.

UPDATE: Maehara Seiji comes a bit closer into focus. Today Mr. Maehara said it would be a mistake to return the LDP to power after the DPJ failures because that would make Japan “like 1980s Britain”.

The prime minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990 was Margaret Thatcher. That’s the same Mrs. Thatcher who cured the Sick Man of Europe plagued by unannounced power blackouts, uncollected garbage in the streets, and untouchable labor unions. If Japan is suffering from national malaise, it should wish for the same 80% rise in total personal wealth she helped create–starting with her privatization and tax reduction measures.

Perhaps he and Mr. Koshi’ishi are closer in spirit than it once seemed.

*****
The phrase “to be at a loss for…” in Japanese is toho ni kureru, which is the title of this song.

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Fireworks

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 12, 2010

SUMMER IS THE SEASON for fireworks, but there’s a real possibility the mad festival of Japanese politics could explode in a shower of light, fire, and dead flowers as early as this week.

The fuse has already been lit by an unpopular administration, a nebbish prime minister, and a Cabinet whose principal member is so unattractive one wonders how he ever convinced voters in his district to elect him in the first place. If the fuse doesn’t fizzle, the Big Bang could produce (a) A revived coalition between the Democratic Party and the Social Democrats, (b) A grand coalition with the Liberal Democrats, or Ozawa Ichiro (c-1) Either splitting to form a new party or (c-2) Being dumped by the DPJ, which would mean the end of the ruling party as we know it. Let’s see what’s burning under all those smoke signals.

Coalition with the Social Democrats

Unless they provide evidence that they’ve suddenly discovered how to negotiate with the opposition, the Kan Cabinet will have difficultly passing the enabling legislation for next year’s budget through the upper house, where the party does not have a majority. (The budget itself does not require upper house approval to go into effect.) One solution would be to form an ad hoc coalition in the upper house. Another would be to reconstitute the coalition with the Social Democrats that fell apart earlier this year when the Hatoyama administration backtracked on its pledge to have the Americans move the Futenma airbase out of Okinawa. Such a coalition would provide a two-thirds majority in the lower house, negating the need for upper house approval of any legislation.

Some in the DPJ are enthusiastic about the idea. Said Matsuno Yorihisa, the former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary in the Hatoyama Cabinet and the editor of the prime minister’s e-mail magazine:

“We should hold discussions with the Social Democratic Party again and form a parliamentary coalition…regardless of the circumstances, we should create a framework in which we can exercise a two-thirds majority to pass legislation.”

More than a few in the ruling party don’t like the idea at all, however. The price of such a coalition, as discussed by Mr. Kan and SDP head Fukushima Mizuho last Monday, would be to break the agreement with the Americans about Futenma, reduce the Japanese financial contribution to the American military presence, and forget about the new idea floated by the Kan Cabinet to turn Japan into a weapons exporter. On her way out the door after the meeting, Ms. Fukushima said: 私がぶち切れなくてすむようによろしくお願いします.

Translation is not algebra, and there are many ways to approach any passage. For example, the concept of profanity is not the same in the two languages, and the concept of profanity itself has become degraded over the past few years in the Anglosphere. I prefer the high road, but it’s difficult to resist the temptation to translate the above sentence as, “Please make sure you don’t piss me off this time.”

She was joking, but that still wound up pissing off a lot of other people. Said Your Party head Watanabe Yoshimi:

“It’s a reversion to the terminal period of a government. They’ve flip-flopped so much they’ve gone into a Dutch roll.”

Considering the context, he also came as close as any Japanese politician I’ve heard to saying, “WTF are they doing?” and added:

“There has been absolutely no self-reflection based on what happened to the collapsed Hatoyama government, in which the dog’s tail wagged the head. They just want to extend the life of this government.”

LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru said:

“This would destroy the Japan-United States relationship. What will be lost will be more than what is gained by a two-thirds majority.”

Meanwhile, senior LDP member Nakagawa Hidenao wrote on his blog, “It’s time to bring down the Cabinet.”

While there’s no Constitutional or legal problem with using a supermajority in the lower house to override an upper house rejection, some politicians think it runs counter to the spirit of the Japanese democratic system. Here’s what one MP had to say:

“This (maneuver) has been abused so much, the regular repassage of legislation using the two-thirds majority for bills in the lower house represents nothing more than the expiration of the “sell-by date” for the Diet itself, the denial of deliberative democracy, and, more than anything else, the desecration of the Japanese bicameral system of parliamentary democracy. The true path to resolving this situation is to dissolve the Diet as quickly as possible, hold a general election, and call for a vote of confidence from the sovereign will of the people.”

Oh, wait…that was SDP member Abe Tomoko speaking about the Aso administration on 19 June 2009.

Let’s try this one:

“This is the first time we’ve had such an anomalous situation in half a century, since 1957, and I can only say that it is extremely regrettable from the standpoint of parliamentary democracy. It’s clear to everyone that the only way to overcome this situation and create new hope is to dissolve the lower house and hold a general election.”

Oy, did it again! That was Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito in 12 December 2008, when he was an opposition member criticizing the Aso administration.

This time for sure!

“Isn’t it logical that the first thing that should be done is to dissolve the lower house and have a vote of confidence from the people to determine whether the lower house delegates represent the national will?”

Oh, boy. That’s what Prime Minister Kan Naoto said when he was in the opposition speaking out against the Fukuda administration’s use of the supermajority on 13 May 2008.

Grand coalition with the Liberal Democrats

FNN is reporting that DPJ executives asked Watanabe Tsuneo, the chairman of the Yomiuri Shimbun group, to act as a go-between in talks with the LDP to form one big happy political family a grand coalition. Mr. Watanabe served the same role three years ago during negotiations between then-Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and then-DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro. They worked out a deal, but the other DPJ senior members balked and Mr. Ozawa briefly walked.

The Yomiuri chairman met with former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio on the 7th and with LDP head Tanigaki Sadakazu on the 8th. He’s also reportedly met with Sengoku Yoshito.

Writing about the action behind the scenes on his blog, Your Party Secretary-General Eda Kenji charged that the actors were trying to arrange a structure with older conservative elements and veterans in the background while pushing younger and fresher faces up front. He said, “It’s an artifice for double-crossing the people”.

He thinks such a coalition would ultimately benefit his party, because it would create a battle between “big government on a bureaucracy-led, high-tax course with pork, against forces favoring small government on a private sector-led, growth course with the regions playing the main role.”

He also suggested that people should pay attention to the statements of LDP leadership, as one senior party member said they would have to listen to DPJ proposals for a grand coalition if Mr. Kan came to them “on bended knee”.

It’s time to read between the lines. First Ishiba Shigeru, chairman of the party’s Policy Research Council:

“Reorganizing the coalition without an election is a perversion. If the DPJ cuts loose the Ozawa group, it is not out of the question that the LDP could work with them, but they’ll have to clearly state why they want to work together…if there is a coalition, they’ll have to completely change last year’s manifesto, so unless there is an immediate election and the confidence of the people, the government will not have any legitimacy.”

Bended knee, eh? Here’s Mr. Tanigaki:

“At present I am extremely negative (about the possibility). It is not easy to unify a party to create a grand coalition. Does Mr. Kan have that base and those skills?…Their approval rate is in the 20% range. It’s not possible to form a coalition with that sort of government….and there’s no reason to form a coalition with any party in which Mr. Ozawa is a member.”

Mr. Ishihara again:

“How are we supposed to get together with a party that can’t even clean itself? We can’t join hands with them just to increase their popularity.”

And Koike Yuriko, the chair of the party’s General Council, on the 10th:

“Isn’t the DPJ itself already a coalition of the left and right wings? We know how that grand coalition is working out for them. At this point the LDP should not casually engage in talks about a grand coalition.”

Former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro doesn’t like the idea at all. He met informally on the 8th with some former LDP and New Komeito officials and spoke against the coalition because it would only benefit the DPJ.

New Komeito head Yamaguchi Tatsuo is thumbs down too:

“Creating a framework of the two largest parties will result in an extreme amount of authority. We must have a clear sense of the side effects. It must not be like the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (of 1940, in which political parties dissolved themselves into a larger entity with the military and bureaucrats)….A grand coalition is not the only path. It is fully possible to form a consensus by creating the opportunity for the ruling party and the opposition to hold discussions…The DPJ as the ruling party of government should take the responsibility to lead those discussions.”

My sentiments exactly. But Watanabe Yoshimi eschewed the high road:

“I want to tell them, enough already–this isn’t a children’s game. If they’re going to turn politics into a game of playing house, it will only result in the people’s distrust of politics.”

It’s a little late for that now, I’m afraid.

That brings us to the prime minister himself. The media asked him about the possibility of a grand coalition, and he answered:

“I have nothing to say.”

Does that mean you’re not thinking about it?

“I have nothing to say.”

So what else is new?

Ozawa Ichiro

It’s not surprising that the bad penny of Japanese politics, now just a regular old DPJ MP, but formerly the head and/or secretary-general of enough parties to form a grand coalition with himself, is the gorilla in the middle of the room that everyone sees. The problem is that no one knows how much he weighs any more.

Another former LDP prime minister, Mori Yoshiro, said he wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to a grand coalition, but added this non sequitur:

“It’s just weird that the DPJ thinks it has to go that far to protect Ozawa Ichiro. Isn’t it just a ploy to extend Mr. Ozawa’s political career?”

That may be precisely the opposite of what’s happening. Today is election day for the prefectural assembly in Ibaragi. The DPJ has performed miserably in local elections since their poor performance in the July upper house ballot, including the elections for the open Hokkaido 5th district seat, the mayor of Fukuoka City, the governor of Wakayama, and the Matsudo City Council. Earlier this week, Mr. Ozawa told some younger acolytes:

“The local (party organizations) will be spewing fire if there is a (DPJ) defeat in the Ibaragi prefectural assembly election. (The Kan administration) will not survive in the party.”

Mr. Ozawa has already predicted the DPJ will collapse from the sub-national level. The DPJ is supporting 24 candidates, and their bottom line for success is at least 10 winners.

He’s also hinting broadly that he’ll leave the party and form a new one. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s made that threat, nor would it be the first time he’s left a party and formed a new one. Freelance journalist Itagaki Eiken, who seems to have a source in the Ozawa camp, wrote earlier this week that Mr. Ozawa’s mind is made up and that he and Hatoyama Yukio are already working together. A split, he wrote, might come as early as the 17th. Mr. Itagaki says that Mr. Ozawa told affiliates from the old Tanaka faction in the LDP and friendly prefectural politicians to be in Tokyo that day. He also noted that Mr. Ozawa won more than 200 votes in the DPJ presidential election in early September.

The story could be true—after all, if he wants the money from the government subsidy for political parties any time soon, he’s going to have to make his move this month. The story could also be disinformation.

Mr. Ozawa reportedly met at a sushi bar with Hatoyama Yukio on the 8th, in the company of younger brother and former LDP Justice Minister Hatoyama Kunio and former LDP Health Minister Masuzoe Yoichi. Mr. Masuzoe was considered prime ministerial material a couple of years ago, and left the LDP to form his own group, called the New Renaissance Party. The only people he could get to join, however, were former Ozawa Ichiro allies whose political philosophy would not seem to be in alignment with his. He is seen as an ambitious man, and everyone remembers that Hosokawa Morihiro was also the head of a small party when he became the prime minister in a 1993 coalition government run by Ozawa Ichiro behind the scenes.

Someone present at the sushi bar whispered to a reporter that everyone agreed to cooperate because Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Ozawa are being cut adrift from the DPJ by the Kan administration and the party’s leftist elements as a means to buoy their popularity.

Perhaps hedging his bets, Mr. Masuzoe also met with Prime Minister Kan at the latter’s request the next day. Doesn’t hurt to listen, does it?

Watanabe Yoshimi said he’d have turned down a request by Mr. Kan for a meeting, and observed that Mr. Masuzoe apparently thinks either a coalition to extend the life of the Kan Cabinet or a coalition with Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama would be fine. He added:

“I’m not like Mr. Masuzoe, who doesn’t have a guiding philosophy.”

Then again, Mr. Ozawa might get drummed out of the DPJ before he gets a chance to walk. Leaders of the DPJ will convene a lower house ethics panel this week to hold a vote on whether to summon him to testify over allegations that he helped the group managing his political funds to lie on their official reports. (It’s difficult keeping up with all his alleged financial irregularities.)

Mr. Ozawa doesn’t want to testify, and his supporters say it’s an insult. The DPJ is hinting that they might kick him out if he doesn’t show up.

Let’s leave the last word to Watanabe Yoshimi:

“If the DPJ takes a shellacking in the Ibaragi prefectural council elections, Armageddon will start within the party. It would be best for Japan if they broke up quickly.”

UPDATE: The DPJ won only six seats in the Ibaragi election, one-fourth of the number they backed. Four of the winners were incumbents; two DPJ-backed incumbents lost. In four electoral districts, there was a direct face-off between the DPJ-backed candidate and the LDP-backed candidate, with no others in the race. The DPJ lost all four.

*******
What’s going to happen? I’m not going to make any guesses. Trying to predict the course of Japanese politics is Mission: Impossible.

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Posted in Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

So what?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A DISAGREEMENT between the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the opposition Liberal Democratic Party over the leadership of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union is preventing the organization from functioning, the Kyodo news agency frets.

Former prime minister and LDP member Mori Yoshiro heads the group, but the DPJ thinks someone from their ranks should assume the chairmanship now that they are the party in power. Two possible candidates from the DPJ are the speaker of the lower house and the president of the upper house–in other words, two people in largely ceremonial roles for a role even more ceremonial and insignificant.

Of course the standoff is childish, but politicians are no less immune from childish behavior than anyone else, and more prone to it than most.

For some reason, Kyodo thinks it’s important.

In parallel with government-to-government contacts, the Japan group and its South Korean counterpart have contributed toward an improvement in bilateral relations.

Apart from regular exchanges of visits by the top leaders of the unions, lawmakers from the two parliamentary groups have helped lower political tensions that from time to time have gripped the two countries, mostly as a legacy of acrimonious historical ties.

Is it a coincidence they cite no examples of how these two groups have lowered political tensions? If there were any examples, why hasn’t Kyodo been filing reports on them all along? One would think the minimum standards of journalism would require them to offer their consumers brief descriptions of one or two instances in this article, but then they always expect us to take their word for it, don’t they?

What lowers political tensions between the two countries are ongoing daily business, academic, scientific, and cultural exchanges, as well as the brisk traffic in tourism. The cumulative effect of all that interaction, conducted with little or no fanfare, is the most important factor creating friendly ties between the two countries. Try the Japanese-Korean Amity category on the left sidebar for samples.

If the politicians want to search for the usual source of any tensions that arise, they should listen to recordings of themselves posturing for the electorate.

It’s typical of the dinosaur mass media to think that an idealistic-sounding excuse for political junkets to enjoy banquets with food and drink paid for by other people, and justified by self-important speeches written by aides and listened to by no one, would have as much of an impact on bilateral relations as the daily interaction of people in their respective fields of endeavor. It’s the same sort of illusion that pretends UN Security Council meetings, Copenhagen climate change conferences, and G7 or 8 or however-many-there-are-now summits have much of an impact on anything except the hotel and catering business.

While the two groups are harmless, albeit a waste of money, Japanese-Korean relations would not deteriorate in the slightest if they were to evaporate tomorrow. The people in both countries who actually are enriching and strengthening bilateral ties will continue to do so by pursuing their mutual interests.

Posted in International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Thoughts on Buddhahood, alliances, and polite fictions

Posted by ampontan on Friday, November 20, 2009

“At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”

BY NOW, the world knows that Ozawa Ichiro, Secretary-General of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, beclowned himself last week when he held forth on global cultural and religious matters to reporters after a meeting with Matsunaga Yukei, chairman of the Japan Buddhist Federation in Wakayama.

Mr. Ozawa asserted that Christianity is “exclusive and self-righteous” and that Western society is “stuck in a dead end” (or “has reached an impasse”, depending on the translation.) He added that “Islamism is also exclusive, although it’s somewhat better than Christianity”.

That the man who controls both the Japanese government’s ruling party and the Diet seems to know so little about the world outside East Asia is disquieting. Did he not learn that America exists because it was originally a haven of religious freedom? Does he not realize how secularized Western society has become? Is he unaware that the continued Islamification of Europe will alter the face of that continent within a generation?

And where did he get the idea that Islamism is less exclusive than Christianity? It isn’t the Christians who treat non-believers as infidels to be given the choice of death or dhimmitude if they don’t convert. It isn’t the courtrooms in Christian countries that give more weight by law to the testimony of believers.

This is not to defend Mr. Ozawa—ignorance is ignorance, after all—but his is not an isolated example. More than a few politicians from the Liberal Democratic Party also exposed their breeches after their climb to the top of the greasy pole. But it’s rare for the politico in any country to have more than a rudimentary knowledge of people and events overseas. U.S. President Barack Obama, for example, thinks the people of Austria speak a language he refers to as “Austrian”. We should have learned by now that the political class devotes its time and energy to schmoozing and outsources the rest to their aides, speechwriters, or the Foreign Service.

The infotainment media worldwide bears a heavy responsibility for this ignorance. The Japanese media’s presentation of conditions overseas is kiddie-pool shallow and usually consists of little more than the superficial translation of a few newspaper or television reports. Meanwhile, the overseas media’s offerings on Japan are filled with enough bologna to launch an international chain of delicatessens.

What he also said

But the spitballers and peashooters missed several comments by Mr. Ozawa that are even more worthy of interest. For example, he also said this at his Wakayama press conference: “Modern society has forgotten or lost sight of the spirit of the Japanese people.” And most interesting of all: “Buddhism teaches you how humans should live and how the conditions of the mind should be from a fundamental standpoint.”

People also seem to be overlooking more of the Ozawa Analects delivered at a press conference on Monday this week, and at another meeting last week on the 11th. None of those bon mots seem to be in wide circulation in English, perhaps because they offer no diversion for the coffeehousers.

During his Monday press conference, Mr. Ozawa not only refused to apologize for or retract his comments, he also gave us further insight into his personal philosophy:

“The Eastern view is that humankind is one of the workings of eternal nature, while Western civilization believes that human beings are of the highest order as primates.”

And:

“(In the Buddhist worldview) people can become Buddhas during their lifetime, and when they die, everyone achieves Buddhahood. Do any other religions allow for everyone to become divinities? I expressed the basic differences in religion, philosophy, and view of life.”

He also quoted Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who gave as his reason for climbing Everest, “Because it was there”:

“Western civilization believes that (everything) exists for human beings, even nature. But Everest is worshipped as a sacred mountain by the people in the region where it is located. Most Asians do not have the idea of trying to conquer it.”

He concluded:

“Both you and I can attain Buddhahood when we die.”

Who knew that the master practitioner of Chicago-style politics in Japan was such a spiritual being at heart?

To be fair, this is nothing new for Shadow Shogun V.2. He has spoken in the past about the importance of symbiosis (kyosei) between person and person, country and country, and people and nature. There seems to be a streak of Buddhism in Mr. Ozawa that informs his views on government, and it ranges from foreign affairs to environmentalism.

In fact, it makes one wonder if he and Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio are political and religious soul mates of a sort. We already know about Mr. Hatoyama’s family heirloom philosophy of yuai. Indeed, the man whose ideas were the inspiration for yuai once wrote (emphasis mine):

“The chaos of modern politics will only…find its end when a spiritual aristocracy seizes the means of power of society: (gun)powder, gold, ink, and uses them for the blessing of the general public.”

Here’s the latter day spiritual aristocrat explaining his support of suffrage for foreigners with permanent resident status:

“The Japanese archipelago is not only a Japanese possession. The Japanese are more infused with the Buddhist spirit than anyone else in the world, so why do we not allow foreigners to participate in local elections?”

Giving expression to that Buddhist spirit, he added:

“The earth is for all people who live with gusto. The same is true for the Japanese archipelago. It is not just for all human beings. It is the possession of animals, plants, and all creatures.”

Is there any other government among the world’s economically advanced nations in which the two most important figures talk this way? Had George W. Bush used his Christian beliefs to justify or elaborate the reasons for his policy decisions while head of government, he would have been pilloried in the U.S. for mixing church and state. That would have been followed by a global epidemic of tongue-swallowing. Meanwhile, the Japanese merely roll their eyes over yet another mention of yuai and say, “That’s Yukio.” Mr. Ozawa’s observations are considered unremarkable.

That brings us to another underreported Ozawa comment. The day after his Wakayama press conference, Mr. Ozawa addressed the closing assembly of the third Japan-China Exchange and Discussion Mechanism in Tokyo, of which he is the chair. The top-ranking representative from China was Wang Jiarui, the Chinese Communist Party International Department Minister.

He got all cosmic on us then, too:

“I am convinced that both countries can cooperate and work together in the 21st century to achieve an epochal partnership in the history of humankind in both political and economic terms, as well as in terms of culture and civilization and the global environment. This will enable the world to prosper in peace and stability, and human beings to live together and coexist with each other.”

Mr. Ozawa was not just whistling Dixie for his Chinese guest. He has long been open about his pro-Chinese sentiments while coming as close to anti-Americanism as any mainstream Japanese politician who wishes to hold power dares.

The DPJ Secretary-General has been the leader of a citizen exchange group called the Great Wall Project since 1986, when he was still a member of the LDP. He plans to lead a delegation of the group to visit China again this year. It will be their 16th trip, though this one is being conducted under the auspices of the DPJ. During a visit in late 2007, he was so obsequious to his hosts it even angered some members of his party. (They have since split.) At about the same time, he purposely kept then-American ambassador Thomas Schieffer waiting for 30 minutes before deigning to meet with him and discuss his party’s approach for global anti-terrorism efforts. China was the first country he visited after being named head of the DPJ for the second time in 2006.

Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Wang go back a long way. Their last meeting was in Tokyo in February, when Mr. Ozawa created a minor stir by telling him that he has always had a “special feeling of closeness with China”. As he was then still head of the DPJ and in line to become prime minister after the next lower house election, he promised Mr. Wang that relations with China would be given a special emphasis in a DPJ government. That same month Mr. Ozawa made his more publicized observation that the Seventh Fleet was the only American military force that needed to stay in Japan, and that the country should instead focus on closer ties with China and South Korea to deal with regional issues.

He met with Mr. Wang for 75 minutes during the latter’s February visit, but could spare only a half an hour for American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, Mr. Wang’s meeting with then-Prime Minister Aso Taro lasted 60 minutes.

Ozawa The Sinophile

Mr. Ozawa comes by his Sinophilia honestly. At the start of his national political career, he became attached to Tanaka Kakuei, who was the Big Enchilada of Japanese politics for the better part of two decades even when he wasn’t serving a term as prime minister. It was Mr. Tanaka who spearheaded the drive to recognize mainland China when the nation’s political class was split 50-50 on the issue, achieving his objective in 1972. He long worked to improve Japanese-Sino relations and formed close personal ties with members of the Chinese ruling class.

For their part, the Chinese always considered Mr. Tanaka a friend, and that friendship extends to his daughter Makiko, who briefly served as Foreign Minister in the first Koizumi Jun’ichiro Cabinet. A chip off the old block, Ms. Tanaka followed her father’s line during her term in office by urging a stronger relationship with China and South Korea and less dependence on the United States. She also disagreed with U.S. policy on Taiwan and tried to steer the Japanese position on that issue on a course independent of the Americans.

Whenever he meets with the Chinese, Ozawa Ichiro insists that he is simply following the lead of Tanaka Kakuei. He likes to quote former Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai on the subject, saying that the people who drink the water of a well should always remember the people who dug it.

While perhaps not as blatantly pro-Chinese as Mr. Ozawa, Mr. Hatoyama is clearly intent on steering Japan on a course closer to Asia than the United States (the emphasis is mine again):

The one important thing now is the spirit of yuai in foreign relations, which I have devoted the most attention to since becoming party president. That is to say, the yuai spirit elevated France and Germany, which constantly fought each other, into the EU, which does not have wars. I think that is by no means impossible to achieve in East Asia. First, cooperation between Japan and South Korea is extremely important, and then we can add China. If necessary, we can have the Americans join. I’m saying that an East Asian entity, the concept of an Asia-Pacific mechanism, is important. That’s why I said the early creation of a free trade agreement between Japan and South Korea is critical.

That’s Yukio!

Try this on for size: If Buddhism indeed informs the perspective of both Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama, might it be one factor underlying DPJ positions regarding political circumstances in Japan, East Asia, and the alliance with America?

Japanese-Korean nationals

For example, both men strongly support suffrage in local elections for foreign nationals who are permanent residents. In practice, that means the people born and raised in Japan of Korean ancestry who have chosen to retain Korean citizenship. Supporters of the measure hide behind the euphemism of “permanent residents”, but their meaning is clear. Openly advocating the vote for that particular group would ensure focused opposition because the zainichi could easily obtain Japanese citizenship, and because of the size and outspokenness of Chongryun, the pro-North Korean organization in Japan.

Is it possible that their position is a statement of East Asian solidarity based on their expressed cultural and religious perspectives?

The LDP

Certainly some, if not most, members of the Liberal Democratic Party understand and share these Buddhist sentiments. It is also certain that somewhere in both the Ozawa and Hatoyama homes there is a kamidana, a small Shinto altar/shrine (usually on a shelf) to honor the family guardian deities.

Yet one seldom hears the LDP politicos express such explicitly Buddhist sentiments. They are more likely to talk of Shinto, and that offers an intriguing contrast between the parties. Explaining the relationship between Shinto and the Japanese would be like trying to explain the relationship between fish and water, but to put it briefly, it consists of two strains. One involves community-based customs and attitudes that have existed as long as there have been Japanese, and the other resembles an organized religion associated with the imperial line. These strains have repeatedly interacted and diverged over the centuries, but when today’s politicians speak of Shinto, it is not tantamount to a referral to the state-established variety that lasted from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 to 1945. That was just one chapter of a much longer history.

On the other hand, despite its immense impact on the country, Buddhism is an import that arrived from China via the Korean Peninsula. In fact, it was subjected to attack at the beginning of the Meiji Restoration just for this foreignness.

Thus, the visits of prime ministers Suzuki, Nakasone, and Koizumi to the Yasukuni shrine, and the visits of prime ministers Mori and Abe to the Meiji shrine, might be viewed mainly as an expression of national identity. The invocation of Buddhism by Mr. Ozawa and Mr. Hatoyama, in contrast, would therefore seem to be expressions of regional identity.

Some in the media compared Mr. Ozawa’s observation about Buddhism and Western religions to former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro’s controversial statement to a Shinto group that Japan is a “kami no kuni”, centered on the Tenno (Emperor). That Japanese sentence is impossible to translate in a meaningful way in English, however. Without background knowledge, the Western conception of “divinity” will prevent those in the West from understanding the meaning when they read the commonly used translation of “Japan is a divine country.”.

It might be that Mr. Ozawa’s claim that “Modern society has forgotten or lost sight of the spirit of the Japanese people” sprang from a similar source within. It’s just that Mr. Mori’s approach was from a Shinto perspective, while that of Mr. Ozawa is from a Buddhist perspective.

Therefore—speaking very broadly and generally—could the emphasis on Buddhism as opposed to Shintoism by the two DPJ leaders be one way they differentiate themselves from the LDP, intentionally or not?

New Komeito

The New Komeito political party is widely assumed to be the political arm of the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization. An enigma for many Japanese was their willingness to form a coalition government with the center-right LDP, despite a center-left outlook that includes pacifist tendencies and a program calling for more social welfare benefits. A relatively high percentage of the Soka Gakkai membership consists of Japanese-born Korean citizens, most of whom would welcome the chance to vote in local elections, a policy the LDP opposes. It would seem that New Komeito and the DPJ would be natural allies.

Yet Ozawa Ichiro is known for an intense dislike of New Komeito that dates back at least to his days as head of the Liberal Party, when they were in a coalition government headed by the LDP under Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo. No one seems to be able to explain it, or at least they aren’t trying to explain it in public.

Is it possible that Mr. Ozawa’s dislike of New Komeito stems from a belief that their backers represent a divergent sect of Buddhism whose beliefs have been used for nationalist aims in the past? (Soka Gakkai claims it is based on the teachings of Nichiren. See this previous post for a brief discussion of the influence of Nichirenists on early 20th century Japan.)

Polite fictions

The factual or interpretive accuracy of the Ozawa/Hatoyama cosmology is not the point in any of these matters. Nor is it important whether Buddhism was their point of departure for reaching the political position of regional identity, or whether they started from an awareness of regional identity and then employed Buddhism as a justification. What is important is whether they sincerely believe it, and whether they act on those beliefs.

But Mr. Hatoyama in particular must weigh his public statements carefully and engage in polite fictions, because telling the truth would be asking for trouble both at home and abroad. There is a long-standing debate in Japan whether it should align primarily with the West or with East Asia. Those who favor alignment with the West consist of several elements, including people who think China and the two Koreas will never take Japan’s interest into account in any regional grouping. Mr. Hatoyama’s calls for an East Asian entity are sufficient to arouse their opposition.

These folks are well aware this ground has been covered before. In a 1973 interview with Time magazine, Tanaka Kakuei felt compelled to reassure his visitors that “the U.S. comes first.” After his now notorious article in the September issue of Voice, portions of which were translated into English and published in the New York Times, Mr. Hatoyama has been similarly compelled to reassure contemporary Americans that the U.S. still comes first.

That’s what he says. In his article, Mr. Hatoyama wrote that America is waning and China is waxing. He also wrote that the U.S. is seeking to maintain its dominance, and China is seeking to attain dominance as it becomes economically powerful. He claims that an East Asian entity would be the best way to keep Chinese ambitions in check, bring order to their economic activity, and defuse nationalism in the region. It is perhaps an irony that the U.S. government pre-Obama sought to do something similar through a strategy of simultaneous engagement and balance, though more through friendship than through marriage.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hatoyama is all too sincere in these beliefs, which suggest a level of ignorance similar to that of Ozawa Ichiro’s views on international religion and culture. It is not enough to note that the Chinese naturally assume that regional dominance and hegemony is their national birthright. One has to realize the term they use for themselves is “the flower in the center of the universe”. Mr. Hatoyama is never going to change that, no matter how willing he is to share his cookies and milk.

And his view of the European Union is a mirage. The EU has had little to do with preventing another continental war, for which Europeans thankfully no longer have the stomach. Instead, it has evolved into an oppressive, top-down meddling behemoth of a bureaucracy that is a multinational Kasumigaseki times ten. Czech President Vaclav Klaus calls its governing principle “post-democracy”: “where there is no democratic accountabiity, and the decisions are made by politicians, appointed by politicians, not elected by citizens in free elections.” That sounds like just the sort of thing a spiritual aristocrat could sink his teeth into.

Japanese-American relations

Too much Hatoyama honesty causes too many problems for Japanese-American relations, but we can be frank: some contemporary Americans make too much of themselves for what their ancestors did and act as if they are owed eternal subservience.

As it is unfair to hold contemporary Japanese responsible for their ancestors’ behavior, it is just as unreasonable to remain in liege to America for its past behavior. Yes, the Japanese did what they did, and the Americans did what they did, but Imperial Japan and the U.S. of the 1940s no longer exist, and the world is a much different place. It is as if the Americans perceive a Japanese and Western European failure to pledge emotional and financial fealty as ingratitude.

Christopher Preble, writing on the Cato Institute’s blog, recently expressed this idea:

From the perspective of our allies in East Asia (chiefly the Japanese and the South Koreans), and for the Europeans tucked safely within NATO, getting the Americans to pay the costs, and assume the risks, associated with policing the world is a pretty good gig.

Mr. Preble needs to pay more attention to the details. In 2002 Japan’s contributions represented more than 60% of all allied financial contributions to the US, and covered 75% of the USFJ’s operating costs. That contribution has declined somewhat since then, but it is still substantial. He also overlooks the risks Japan faces if the American military were to use its locally based forces to intervene in a Chinese attack on Taiwan, for example. Does he think the Chinese would consider those bases in Japan to be off-limits for retaliation?

To those Americans who would complain that the Japanese are using the Peace Constitution as an excuse, it might be asked: Just whose idea was that anyway? Americans wanted to create a pacifist culture in Japan after the war, and they succeeded. The legal basis for the Japanese state does not come in a ring binder whose leaves are to be inserted or removed on the whims of politicians in another country according to the circumstances of the day.

And that brings us to the ultimate in polite fictions—unless you’re certain that the United States would come to the aid of the Japanese if the latter were attacked. There is speculation from U.S. sources now circulating in the Japanese media that an American military response would be a 50-50 proposition at best.

Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo called for an end to the post-war regime. Would it not be an irony if his political foes in the DPJ were the ones to achieve it?

But why stop there? Isn’t it high time the Americans moved on from the post-war paradigm as well? Everyone might be better off by letting the neo-Buddhists in the DPJ start the process of Japan seeking a new equilibrium on its own. Owing to its history, Japan is unlikely to ever be wholly aligned with either East or West. And owing to its history, that might be the best course for all concerned, because it’s uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge between both.

In that event, the key for the Japanese would be to remain aware that lurking in the shadows of the shining path is the resentment from both for belonging to neither.

Afterwords:

* Some Japanese worry that the DPJ approach will cause the U.S. to move toward the Chinese at Japanese expense. Surely they are forgetting the traditional Chinese outlook toward foreign affairs and other countries. Now that the Chinese are reverting to their default attitude, it would seem that Japan doesn’t have much to worry about.

* Here’s a link to a review of the book Zen at War by Brian Victoria, which describes Zen Buddhism’s intellectual and emotional contributions to the Japanese war effort. The review is worth reading for that reason, despite the self-indulgent prose and the swallowing whole of the claims in Iris Chang’s book. The reviewer also claims the book could never have been written in Japan, and he has a point. The Japanese would not have failed to mention that the Tokugawas used the requirement for families to register with Buddhist temples as a weapon to eliminate Christianity. Nor would they have failed to mention that since the warrior class initially popularized Zen in Japan, it would have been natural for some Japanese Zen Buddhists to get behind the war in their own way. The reviewer also seems to think that “it could happen again”, which is just silly.

* The Time magazine interview with Tanaka Kakuei contains this passage:

“In the big cities, the left tends to support academic men. They usually are not very hardworking, but for some reason they appeal to people, especially since they don’t wave the red flag of their socialist and Communist sponsors but the green flag [of the fight against pollution].”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

* When I taught adult English classes years ago, I liked to do quick surveys of my students to find out what religions they professed to believe in as part of the classroom discussion. About 1% of Japanese are Christians, but historical factors boost that to about 5% in Kyushu, and a slightly higher percentage than that show up to study English on their own time and dime.

I asked students to raise their hands when I mentioned a religion. Almost no one raised their hand when I asked if they were Shinto. Almost everyone raised their hands when I asked if they were Buddhist.

* The quote at the top of the post refers to the behavior of everyone mentioned in the post itself.

Posted in China, Government, History, International relations, Religion, South Korea | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Japan’s political Big Bang, V.2

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, July 14, 2009

WE’VE ALL HEARD THE EXPRESSION about running around like a chicken with its head cut off. That’s derived from the way in which chickens will thrash around the barnyard in a headless state.

After the reports on the radio I heard yesterday morning about how the pols in the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party were taking their party’s defeat in the Tokyo Metro elections on Sunday, I can imagine what it must have been like to see dinosaurs with their heads cut off.

Some thought a lower house election should be called right away, while others were aghast at the prospect. Former Cabinet member Hatoyama “Little Brother” Kunio was uncharacteristically lucid when he said that holding an election now would be like group suicide. Yamasaki Hiraku (AKA Taku), who’s already pushing a petition from within the party to oust Mr. Aso, observed that dissolving the lower house would be fine if the prime minister intended to leave the LDP a burnt-out wasteland. Mr. Yamasaki purposely chose a phrase the Japanese use to describe the state of their cities after the flyovers of Allied bombers during the war.

About an hour later, NHK interrupted their broadcast to announce that Prime Minister Aso had chosen the group suicide/wasteland option after briefly consulting with leaders in the LDP and the party’s New Komeito coalition partners. He’ll dissolve the Diet later this month and scheduled an election for 30 August.

Some reports claim there was shock over the election results in the LDP camp, but surely they jest. Japanese pollsters can add just as well as those elsewhere, particularly the ones hired by the major parties, so they already had to have put two and two together. Not that anyone needed a pollster to know in advance. Indeed, if they really are shocked, they need to be looking for another job, and as soon as possible, please.

Mr. Aso put on a brave face and said the Tokyo Metro results were unrelated to national issues. He plans to campaign on his government’s financial policies, i.e., a promise to be responsible and raise taxes. (The more responsible position would be to eliminate wide swaths of the Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki Leviathan while cutting some taxes, but I digress.)

He knows that’s nonsense, of course, because his party’s national polls have to be showing the same numbers as the Tokyo results writ large. Does he think he can prevent the opposition Democratic Party of Japan from obtaining a majority and limit them to replacing the LDP as the largest party in the Diet? A DPJ government in an alliance with their motley crew of potential coalition partners would certainly be a chabangeki, the Japanese term for a farce or burlesque. Perhaps the party poobahs are calculating that a DPJ-led coalition government likely to strew its own path with banana peels would cause a voter revulsion and reversion back to the LDP that much sooner.

Or does he and the rest of the party realize that Nagata-cho needs a political realignment, and it won’t start unless the LDP is in the opposition? The party isn’t capable of resolving its internal conflict between the mudboaters and the reformers while it’s still in power, so they can conduct their headchopping out of public view while the DPJ circus occupies center ring.

Reorganizing around philosophical viewpoints rather than personal associations—if that’s what they intend—will be a lot easier after the smoke clears, the bodies are counted, and the identity of the survivors is known next month.

Quo Vadis?

Political predictions in Japan are pointless, which is why I seldom read or write any, but here’s one anyway: The upcoming lower house election will be Part Two of the Japanese political Big Bang, following an interval of more than a decade after Part One and the short-lived Hosokawa administration. Or from a scatological perspective, it will be the second flush of the toilet. There’s still too much residue in the bowl that needs to be sent to the sewer, and political health demands proper hygiene.

With some luck, it just might happen. For example, former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro is worried about the challenge in his district from ex-tour conductor Tanaka Mieko, who is less than half his age. On the one hand, it was already time for him to go during the 20th century, and I’m of the school that holds we’d get better government by picking names at random from the phone book. Then again, Ms. Tanaka’s voting choices will probably be determined at party headquarters by people who should be shuffling on board the same ferry across the Styx as Mr. Mori.

Here’s something else that shouldn’t be a surprise: DPJ leader Hatoyama Yukio now says a DPJ-led government won’t end the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean for the NATO-backed effort in Afghanistan. That should make some people feel foolish—including some English-language journalists—for taking the party seriously in the fall of 2007 when they tried to leverage Japan’s reputation abroad for petty political advantage at home. There’s a reason the LDP calls on its opponents to pursue policy rather than political crisis, but the Japanese phrase for that is uma no mimi ni nembutsu: Like a sutra in a horse’s ear.

Why should anyone be surprised about their about face when that’s the only dance step they know? Mr. Hatoyama promised to vacate his office to accept responsibility if Ozawa Ichiro resigned as party head, but instead wound up in Mr. Ozawa’s old office less than a week after the resignation. Now that’s a golden parachute! The party also opposed the bill dealing with the Somali pirates, but also said they wouldn’t eliminate it if they formed a government.

And now comes the report that DPJ and three smaller parties will introduce a motion in the upper house to censure Prime Minister Aso, coupled with a no-confidence measure in the lower house. Well, what’s the bleedin’ point, as Basil Fawlty would ask. The man will be gone before autumn. Then again, what’s the bloody point of bothering with serious criticism of the DPJ when they’ve demonstrated the only thing they take seriously is a manufactured political crisis? At least the Koizumi Children—or most of them—behaved like adults.

What to do?

If the LDP had an ounce of wit left in their collective DNA, they’d see the DPJ’s bet and raise it by agreeing with them. They could say yes, we know, but since we’ve already set the election date, we’ll replace Mr. Aso with (Fill in the Name of Plausible Reformer) until the election. That seems to be a longshot now; the members most likely to be interested are heading back to their districts to keep their own necks off the chopping block. Some say one of the men who could lead that effort, Nakagawa Hidenao, is thinking of developing his own platform to position himself and his fellow travelers for an apres-election aligment with Watanabe Yoshimi and other reformers.

Some well-meaning and serious people are urging the citizens to read the political platforms of the parties before deciding how to vote. Now what would be the bleedin’ point of that? It’s obvious even to real children that policy for a DPJ-led government will be an ad hoc affair. Why read their platform when the key point about the DPJ’s behavior regarding the Indian Ocean refueling mission won’t be in it? That might let down the policy wanks, but it isn’t as if there’s anything scientific about “political science”, now is there?

An additional benefit of the upcoming election will be to set the fuse for Part Three of the Japanese political Big Bang, whether it is lit soon or late. Or, to put it another way, there’s so much crap in the system it will take another flush—at least—to get rid of it all.

For the next two months, many in the old and the new media will be making the cyber-welkin ring with unreadable/unwatchable meta-commentary on Japanese politics, but it’s safe to predict they too will miss the bleedin’ point. Flushing away this layer of crap won’t result in a clean toilet bowl: It will just expose the next layer of crap outside the LDP that the older layer has partially obscured until now.

Looks like a job for Ben and Joe the Plumbers!

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The moribund diet of Japanese politicians

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, May 30, 2009

A FEW WEEKS AGO, an observant reader passed along a link to one of those blind-leading-the-blind articles about Japan that appeared in an overseas newspaper. The author, a non-Japanese who lives in this country, declared in the text that Japanese politics were “moribund”.

Mr. Japan Hand apparently doesn’t follow Japanese politics too closely. If he did, he would have already seen the following statements—direct quotes all—by politicians that have appeared in the past fortnight. They’ve been discussing the possibility of reapportioning the Diet by reducing the number of seats. Keep in mind this issue isn’t even on the political front burner—it’s just one of the many ideas being batted around with reform in the air.

The recent debate seems to have been jump-started by firebrand reformer Watanabe Yoshimi and ex-bureaucrat Eda Kenji, who recently published a book presenting their ten-point program to remake Japanese government. One of those points calls for slashing the number of lower house members to 300 (by eliminating the 180 proportional representation delegates) and the number of upper house members to 100 (by eliminating the 142 proportional representation delegates).

Suga Yoshihide

Suga Yoshihide, (Koga faction) the deputy chief of election campaigns for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, offered a more modest proposal during a speech to a local party meeting in Saga:

“(Our party platform) should include the reduction of at least 50 Diet seats from the 480 in the lower house, about 10%.”

Mr. Suga’s reasoning was that municipal mergers and other governmental reforms have lowered the number of seats in legislatures at the sub-national level throughout the country. He wants to use this plank as a weapon in the coming electoral battle with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which in part will be fought over which party is the more credible reformer. As Mr. Suga is known to be close to Prime Minister Aso, the proposal is not to be taken lightly. He added:

“The winds are not blowing in a favorable direction for the LDP. We should first show our resolve to make sacrifices, and then make a point of insisting during the campaign that we cannot entrust the government to the DPJ.”

Hatoyama Yukio

New DPJ Party President Hatoyama Yukio then saw Mr. Suga’s bet of 50 and raised him 30 during a Tokyo press conference:

“I have proposed that the number (of lower house seats) be reduced by about 80. It might be included in our next party platform. Fifty is not enough.”

To be fair, he’s just restating a previous DPJ proposal. Their platform for the 2007 upper house elections included a plank that called for eliminating the same number of the 180 proportional representation seats in the lower house.

Koshi’ishi Azuma

Koshi’ishi Azuma (Yokomichi group), one of three DPJ acting presidents (with Ozawa Ichiro and Kan Naoto) and chair of the party’s upper house caucus, then made the following suggestion at a press conference:

“It isn’t possible to lower the number of lower house seats by 80 while increasing the number of upper house seats. We must embark on a course of reduction.”

Remember that he’s on the same team as Mr. Hatoyama. But no sooner did he offer this tasty morsel than he snatched it back:

“A decision won’t be reached (about including the idea in the next platform) until we hear the opinions of the other opposition parties.”

In other words, he’s all hat and no cattle. The “other opposition parties” include such DPJ allies and fellow travelers as the People’s New Party, the Social Democrats, and the vanity parties of Suzuki Muneo The Scandalous and Tanaka Yasuo The Lecherous. Most of those parties would evaporate without proportional representation seats, so it’s a safe bet that Mr. Koshi’ishi won’t even seek their opinion. (The party could afford to take a strong stand in 2007 when it was numerically much weaker. They’re certainly not going to kick their bedfellows out from under the covers now that they’re close enough to power to smell it. At least not right away, anyway.)

If the two major parties keep raising the stakes, they might wind up at Watanabe Yoshimi’s position of eliminating the proportional representation seats altogether. But that won’t happen until after an election and a political reorganization. Both of the primary parties still need the smaller parties for the upcoming election, and most of the politicos are waiting to see how that shakes out before taking any drastic new steps.

Mori Yoshiro

Former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, one of the Big Cheeses of the zombie wing of the LDP, confirmed the old saying about blind squirrels and acorns by pointing out the obvious:

“It would be great if the Communist Party did us the favor of disappearing, but the people who want to reduce the lower house to 300 should go to New Komeito, get their approval, and bring it back to us….We might not need 180 proportional representatives, but the Communist Party and New Komeito will fight it tooth and nail. I wonder if the folks who are saying those things are capable of girding their loins to do battle with New Komeito.”

Mr. Mori is probably alluding to the capacity for harassment of both New Komeito and their backers in Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group. They can be very unpleasant when aroused. Eliminating those seats would decimate New Komeito, the LDP’s junior partner in the ruling coalition.

He also brought up Ozawa Ichiro’s effort to convince the late Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo to do away with some proportional representation seats in 1999 when the LDP was governing in a coalition with the Liberal Party, Mr. Ozawa’s vehicle at the time.

“Mr. Ozawa tried to forcibly eliminate proportional representation districts. Basically, he hates New Komeito. Calling for the seats to be reduced without knowing about those circumstances, and then saying we won’t lose to the DPJ, is a truly stupid idea.”

And yes, Mr. Ozawa does hate New Komeito. It’s no coincidence that the DPJ made loud noises last year about grilling former party leader Yano Junya in the Diet after he filed a suit against Soka Gakkai, claiming that they tried to force him to stop working as a political commentator.

Some are suggesting that the DPJ might try to seduce New Komeito into changing partners. It’s possible, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that idea, even considering the anything-goes default position of Japanese politics.

Shii Kazuo

That leaves the Communist Party of Japan. Here’s what JCP Chair Shii Kazuo said at a press conference when he got wind of the downsizing plans:

“The idea is that if there are two parties in the Diet, then other parties won’t be necessary. That is undermining democracy from its foundation.”

When it comes to undermining the foundation of democracy, the Communist Party is the go-to source to learn all about it. Remember all those Democratic People’s Republics they used to have? And they’ve still got one in Pyeongyang!

The last one is from LDP party executive Ishihara Nobuteru, who has also served as party policy chief and twice as Cabinet minister, once in charge of governmental reform:

“My thinking is roughly the same as that of former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro. It would be best to amend the Constitution in 10 years, create a unicameral legislature by combining the upper and lower house, and use (districts with multiple representatives).

So, a serious competition is underway about how many seats to slash from the Diet—not if—and the debate over the past week to 10 days has included the possibility of neutering several smaller parties and eliminating one of the houses altogether.

And some people are getting paid to write that Japanese politics is moribund?

Bonus Communist Party quote!

Mr. Shii also chimed in on the topic of whether the government has the authority to order pre-emptive military strikes against foreign countries:

“Using the activities of North Korea to tread onto dangerous territory is to create a vicious circle of military response. It would destroy the Constitution and destroy world peace. We absolutely will not approve of it.”

One of the Japanese equivalents of the proverb “Birds of a feather flock together” roughly translates as “Mix with crimson and you’ll turn red.”

How appropriate, considering the circumstances.

Now try this one: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Bonus political joke!

The DPJ and one of their splinter group allies, the People’s New Party, have been holding negotiations over how to deal with one of the electoral districts in Kanagawa. Both parties have promising candidates they want to run in the district, but they don’t want to go head-to-head, and neither wants to back down.

New DPJ President Hatoyama Yukio, known in some quarters as “the man from outer space”, announced that the parties had reached an agreement and the DPJ candidate would be the one to run.

This angered their PNP friends, who said that no decisions had been made and that the two parties were still negotiating.

Right after the disagreement became public, leaders from the two parties met for a conference. The DPJ side included such heavyweights as Kan Naoto and Okada Katsuya, but Mr. Hatoyama did not attend.

When the discussions began, PNP representative Kamei Shizuka observed:

“Looks like only the earthlings showed up today.”

A DPJ-led government promises to be hugely entertaining!

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The platypus and Japanese politics

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 20, 2008

THE DONKEY is the symbol of the Democratic Party in the United States, while their GOP rivals are caricatured as an elephant. What animal would best illustrate Japanese politics, the membership of the country’s two major political parties, and their respective factions? Some might suggest the Australian platypus.

Political character goods

Political character goods

The platypus is so odd that some European naturalists in the 19th century thought reports of the creature were a deliberate fraud when they first heard them. One of the few mammals that lays eggs, it has thick fur, a bill like a duck, webbed feet like an otter with nails for digging, and a tail like a beaver. Males have hollow spurs on their ankles that carry enough venom to kill a dog. Females have two ovaries, but only the left one is functional. It finds food by sticking its bill in the dirt and using spots on the bill that detect minute electrical discharges from its prey.

That agglomeration of anomalies is the perfect description of politics in Japan. Members of the same party or faction often have ideologies as different as a turtle and the moon. They can be at such variance it’s difficult to see how they can function as a coherent group.

Nevertheless, the system created by the Liberal Democratic Party not only functioned, it served as the structure for rebuilding Japan from postwar ruins to the world’s second largest economy. More than a half-century later, however, the evolution of the national polity has exposed the rusted girders, frayed wiring, and sagging foundation of the old system. The Democratic Party of Japan has finally given the country a credible opposition, though they are every bit the platypus as the LDP. Nevertheless, the combination of their growing electoral strength and tactics designed solely to generate political crises has created a stalemate that forcing everyone to confront the reality of a major political restructuring. For Japan to continue functioning at a level that everyone now takes for granted, nothing less will do.

When this restructuring is complete, the new entities will resemble animals that are more commonly found in political zoos. Until then, however, we can expect the cloning process to create many morbid failures.

Iijima Isao, once the top advisor to former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, declared earlier this year that political realignment had already started. But money is the ultimate guarantor of political viability, and Japan’s three foremost political parties are efficient fund raising mechanisms. (The subsidies of public funds given for votes received also help.) Turning one’s back on that cornucopia of cash, going out on a limb, and forming a new party requires more courage that most politicians would like to muster.

By now it is obvious that the Aso Taro administration is going nowhere, mainly because his Cabinet is a front for preventing further governmental reform of the type sought by an estimated 70% of the LDP Diet members, some in the DPJ, and most of the Japanese public. There is also the suspicion that the Aso administration wants to roll back the hard-earned achievements that have been gained so far. Making matters worse for the LDP is that unless the mudboat wing wants to bite the bullet and return to the Koizumi days, there’s not much left in the leadership locker room after Mr. Aso.

Now that the stars have finally aligned, fate is kicking the political class in the pants to reject their inner platypus and launch a political realignment that will be painful, bloody, and last the better part of a decade. Here’s a summary of recent events and the people driving them.

Nakagawa Hidenao

“I want to examine the popular support for the LDP and DPJ reformers to emerge and form a coalition.”

The 68-year-old Mr. Nakagawa is both the most prominent champion of Koizumi-style political and governmental reform and the strongest pro-growth, anti-tax voice left in the LDP. A former chief cabinet secretary and party bigwig, he has written books describing the pernicious influence of Kasumigaseki, the government-within-a-government run by Japan’s bureaucracy. He is also a member of the Machimura faction, the party’s largest and a particularly ungainly platypus.

In a television interview on the 7th, Mr. Nakagawa addressed the coming political realignment and suggested an alliance with some opposition politicians:

“This is not on the minor level of asking who’s going to leave the party, or whether I will be leaving the party. Public opinion wants a reform element to emerge from both the ruling coalition and the opposition to overturn the entire political world.”

He added that he wasn’t yet at the stage of bolting the LDP, and said he would decide his course of action on realignment “in the instant after the lower house election.”

Abe, Nakagawa H., Koizumi, Ishihara; platypus not pictured

L-R: Abe, Nakagawa H., Koizumi, Ishihara; platypus not pictured

Mr. Nakagawa is perhaps the most important member of a new group launched by Mr. Koizumi to keep his privatization of the postal system alive. As he nears retirement, the former prime minister is concerned that anti-privatization members have received high-profile roles in the Aso Cabinet. He also knows that Mr. Aso was anti-privatization (and anti-bureaucratic reform) to begin with. For all the campaign shouting it does in favor of reform, the opposition DPJ has become a center of anti-privatization activity among the opposition groups. It is not out of the question that postal privatization—supported by 70% of the electorate in 2005—may be derailed.

Who handles the dwindling amount of physical mail that people send these days is not important. Rather, privatization keeps the government’s hands off the money in the postal savings accounts. That prevents it from being used to finance pork barrel public works projects to buy off the construction industry and rural voters at the same time. It is the cornerstone of governmental reform itself, and a highly visible symbol.

The former prime minister, whom some polls still show as the man Japanese view as the person they’d most want to run the government, was applauded by 60 MPs when he said:

“I want to remind people of what sort of election was held three years ago. It seems that many of the people who are doing these incomprehensible things (i.e., anti-reform) were originally opposed to privatization. But they were allowed back into the party after writing a pledge and admitting their mistakes.”

Mr. Nakagawa added a warning against gutting the Koizumi reforms:

“There is meaning in sending a message to the people that we will not reverse course.”

Yet sitting at the head table with Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Nakagawa was this platypus tribe:

  • The 56-year-old former Environment and Defense Minister Koike Yuriko (Machimura faction), who was once an ally of opposition DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro in a party that governed in a coalition with the LDP. A hawkish supporter of Yasukuni visits, Ms. Koike recently ran against Aso Taro for the party presidency as a reform wing candidate and received fewer than 50 votes. (Some question her party loyalty.) Mr. Koizumi was something a realpolitik feminist, and one of his favorite tactics was to put women in prominent positions, either in the Cabinet or in Diet seats. Some think Ms. Koike is being groomed as a potential prime minister of the type that minds the store while Mr. Nakagawa and others handle back-office operations.
  • Ishihara Nobuteru, the son of Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro, Abe Shinzo ally, and Mr. Koizumi’s former reform minister.
  • Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who was responsible for allowing the anti-privatization rebels back into the LDP in the first place. Indeed, one of them, Yamaguchi Shun’ichi (Aso faction), was just tapped by Prime Minister Aso to serve as an aide. Mr. Yamaguchi is involved in another group launched in October to stop the privatization process.

Though he too pursued governmental reform during his administration, Mr. Abe did so because he is first of all a party man. He said at the meeting that he supported privatization because it was a policy that had already been approved by the party and the Diet.

In the audience were many of the so-called Koizumi Children, younger MPs who won their seats on the former Prime Minister’s coattails in the 2005 election. This group has been talking openly since the spring about breaking away and forming a new, urban-based party headed by Mr. Nakagawa or someone like him. There is some irony in their self-description as urban based. In the old days, big city folks tended to vote for the opposition, while the LDP derived much of its strength from rural strongholds.

Also present at the meeting was upper house member Yamamoto Ichita (Machimura faction), generally a Nakagawa ally on domestic issues. Said Mr. Yamamoto of the need to continue privatization:

“The debate in the party now seems to be that since we face a crisis, it’s acceptable to return to the old pork barrel ways.”

The latter complaint is often heard now within the LDP about Prime Minister Aso. Here’s still more irony: It is also the complaint most frequently heard about the DPJ’s electoral platform.

The Nakagawa group

Mr. Nakagawa launched his own 87-member study group on the 11th to examine social welfare issues. The members plan to look for ways to resolve the problem of the botched national pension records that became the final nail in the Abe administration’s coffin. They also want to refine the concept of what is called the Social Welfare Card, an Abe Cabinet proposal that involves combining the social welfare and tax systems into personal accounts. Since the DPJ has suggested a similar idea, they want to explore areas of agreement across party lines.

In addition to Mr. Nakagawa, the members include:

  • Koike Yuriko
  • Abe Shinzo
  • Watanabe Yoshimi (no faction), a crusader and firebrand profiled here a few days ago. Of all the LDP reformers, he has taken the most outspoken anti-Aso, anti-mudboat wing stance in public.
  • Suga Yoshihide (Koga faction), who is close to Prime Minister Aso and a former member of the Abe Cabinet. Mr. Suga is another party-first man, and is known for having refused to join the revolt against Prime Minister Mori in 2000.

This group was widely seen as an anti-Aso vehicle for the mid-tier and younger LDP members starting to distance themselves from the prime minister. Mr. Nakagawa insisted otherwise, and asked people not to get excited because it was “an extremely pure study group”.

He added:

“The Aso Cabinet should boldly present its own policies without worrying about the polls. Now is not the time to bring down the Cabinet. No one is farther apart from Prime Minister Aso than I am, so if I say it, it has to be the truth.

Mr. Watanabe chimed in:

“There is such a feeling of obstruction that people even think this serious study group was formed to create a sense of political crisis.”

Not everyone buys that line, however. Some think the group was actually organized to explore post-realignment politics in addition to social welfare questions, but was co-opted by the mudboat wing of the Machimura faction to create yet another platypus.

Here’s why: Mr. Nakagawa called former Prime Minister Abe personally to ask him to join, and Mr. Abe, who resigned from the faction when he became prime minister, agreed. Mr. Machimura later objected to the formation of the group, but Mr. Abe and former Prime Minister Mori, the former faction head, convinced him to let Mr. Abe participate to prevent a factional split.

Their strategy was to use Mr. Abe to neutralize Mr. Nakagawa and dilute the impact of the group’s formation. Indeed, Mr. Mori is said to have angrily telephoned some of the younger faction members thinking about signing up to say:

“Don’t do anything stupid when Mr. Aso is in such serious trouble. Do you seriously intend to install Nakagawa as party president?”

The subtle subversion disappointed many people who wanted to see a Nakagawa challenge. The disappointment grew when former Prime Minister Abe publicly said the group wanted to get together and support Mr. Aso.

Privately, nobody believes that for a second. Nor does anyone believe it is an anti-Aso step so much as the start of several post-Aso steps. Everyone has factored Mr. Aso’s eventual departure into their thinking.

Watanabe Yoshimi

Mr. Watanabe is raising the voltage as Prime Minister Aso’s popularity is falling. He has openly criticized the prime minister, made references to creating a new party, and shifted from merely being anti-Aso to encouraging political realignment.

Here’s a taste of Mr. Watanabe going off on Prime Minister Aso in public:

“He won’t hold an election. He puts off economic measures. Just what the heck’s going on here?”

The critical question is how long it takes for people to move in his direction, or whether they decide to stay put for the time being.

At a party on the 8th attended by 800 supporters, Mr. Watanabe started talking about “mental calisthenics”, which he used as an excuse to segue into speculation about a new party.

He ended his intellectual workout by saying:

“Starting from scratch will have an impact and has the potential for great transformation. (Creating a new party) is possible to do with resolve alone.”

He started ramping up the voltage on 21 November when he and 24 younger Diet members called on Prime Minister Abe to quickly introduce a second supplementary budget and hold elections. Even that group bore a slight resemblance to a platypus—one of its members was Shiozaki Yasuhisa (Koga faction), the chief cabinet secretary during the Abe administration. It was the Shiozaki appointment, his first to an important position, that led critics to use the term “Friends Cabinet”. Somewhat less of a foreign policy hardliner than his former boss, his spat with Koike Yuriko over the appointment of a deputy in the Defense Ministry led to her resignation from the Cabinet after fewer than two months.

Watanabe Yoshimi and his mental calisthenics

Watanabe Yoshimi and his mental calisthenics

Mr. Shiozaki cautioned reporters that the group, which is expected to grow to 40, was not formed as an anti-Aso faction or the predecessor of a new party. But nobody believed that, either. One of the doubters was Koga Makoto, his faction boss and current head of the party’s Election Strategy Council. He made a point of warning his charges, including Mr. Shiozaki, to hold their tongues where Aso Taro was concerned.

Other party elders are getting as snippy as a flock of old maids chaperoning a college mixer. Earlier this month, Mr. Machimura noted:

“Attacking another person’s weakness and preventing them from advancing is not the action of a responsible adult. I hope he (Watanabe) keeps running further away.”

But Mr. Watanabe did not back down. He repeated his call for a new election, and retorted:

“If that voice becomes a chorus, it’s possible (I’ll leave). I’ll prepare myself for any activity to bring down the Cabinet.”

There’s another curious aspect to this situation. When Ozawa Ichiro was fishing for someone to replace Hosokawa Morihiro in 1994 as the head the only non-LDP government of the past half-century, he nearly coaxed Watanabe’s father Michio, a former foreign minister and LDP faction leader, to leave the party and serve as prime minister. (He settled on Hata Tsutomu instead.)

It’s also worth noting that while Mr. Watanabe’s name has not been linked to the DPJ, the party has declined to officially sponsor a candidate for his lower house seat–one of only five seats nationwide that it’s conceding.

YKKK

Another most unusual platypus is not to be found among the reformers, bogus or otherwise, but in a bunk full of strange bedfellows whom the press immediately dubbed YKKK.

Mr. Y

Mr. Y

During the 1990s, Yamasaki Hiraku, Kato Koichi, and Koizumi Jun’ichiro worked together as a band of LDP reformers the press called YKK for the initials of their family names. Mr. Kato, assisted by Mr. Yamasaki, led a failed insurrection against Mori Yoshiro in 2000 that ultimately cleared the way for the third musketeer Mr. Koizumi to become prime minister about six months later.

This time, the YKKK platypus is:

  • Yamasaki Hiraku (AKA Taku), a faction leader
  • Kato Koichi, no faction
  • Kan Naoto, acting president of the opposition DPJ
  • Kamei Shizuka, representative of the People’s New Party, a splinter group formed of politicians thrown out of the LDP by Prime Minister Koizumi for opposing postal privatization and who chose not to return when invited to do so by Prime Minister Abe.

YKKK appeared together on a recent TV program in the political equivalent of a jam session to discuss political realignment. Mr. Yamasaki riffed:

“Let’s face it–political realignment will happen in the future. An axis is necessary to promote political realignment. At that time, the four (of us) could form one such axis….The gridlock phenomenon must be eliminated. It is clear that a political realignment will occur regardless of what conditions prevailed before or after the election.”

Kato Koichi:

“The LDP has borne an historical mission, and now confusion is deepening among both the LDP and the DPJ, which have neither a mission nor an ideology.”

The other two members of the team are trying to coax Y and K1 to bolt and form a supergroup.

Kamei Shizuka:

“After the next lower house election when an Ozawa Ichiro government (DPJ) is formed, it will be meaningless to say, ‘Me too’.”

Mr. Kato downplayed his suggestion that he leave the party by saying that’s not in the cards for now.

Kan Naoto:

“(What happens) next will not be a mere breakup and reassembly. It will be a major transformation of the system…I would like those people who have courage to leave the LDP, just as Mr. Ozawa fled from right in the middle of the party.”

It’s difficult to see just what’s going on here. Mr. Kato and DPJ head Ozawa Ichiro have not been on good terms for some time. Mr. Kato values party loyalty, and he was highly critical of Mr. Ozawa when he left the LDP. In fact, he fought against his readmission to the party when that was discussed in the late 90s.

It’s also difficult to imagine that he and his longtime ally would join the DPJ. One possible area of agreement might be a shift in foreign policy away from an American orientation toward closer relations with East Asian countries. Mr. Kato in particular is strongly opposed to the hard line against North Korea. But foreign policy questions have little or nothing to do with the crisis in Japanese politics.

Still, Mori Yoshiro didn’t care for this development at all. In Yamagata City earlier this week, he said:

“(YK) joining forces with Mr. Kan and, depending on the circumstances, forming a new party…Mr. Nakagawa joining forces with the DPJ and, depending on the circumstances, opening up a third axis…They say it’s for the benefit of the LDP. But if they start taking off in different directions, it will cause instability among the younger party members. That’s shameful…Japanese politics seems to have nothing but these lightweight, shallow-minded politicians. I apologize to all of you who have worked so hard to create politics (in this country)”.

Perhaps Mr. Mori needn’t have worried abut YK forming a new party, though that seems to have been Mr. Kato’s intention. This week’s edition of the Shukan Bunshun quotes an unidentified member of the Yamasaki faction saying that Mr. Kato had dreams of leading a second rebellion:

“Mr. Kato has been trying to form a new party with an eye on the political realignment after the next lower house election. He thinks it’s possible the head of a small party could serve as prime minister, depending on the election results, just as Hosokawa Morihiro became prime minister in the non-LDP coalition in 1993.”

According to this source, Mr. Kato, now unaffiliated with a faction, called on his former faction members for help, and asked Mr. Yamasaki to “lend” him a few members temporarily. He also suggested that Mr. Yamasaki could join later.

Mr. Y put the kibosh on Mr. K pretty quickly:

“Even if I were to say that I was forming a new party, no one would join. It’s entirely out of the question for me to lend my faction members to anyone.”

But a “new axis” in an informal alliance with opposition party members? That seems possible.

A ruling coalition breakup?

No talk of platypuses is complete without mentioning the ruling coalition of the LDP and New Komeito, an alliance that never has made much sense from an ideological perspective. The latter party is more interested in domestic social welfare policies, and they do not care for the LDP’s more assertive military stance in international affairs. For example, they’ve had to be cajoled into supporting the Indian Ocean refueling mission for NATO forces that the LDP used its supermajority to pass.

Rumors are circulating that both the LDP and the DPJ want to end New Komeito’s influence for good. One story had the two parties continuing discussions about another grand coalition, despite the failure of the first effort, and eliminating the proportional representation districts in the lower house. That would effectively neuter New Komeito as a political force, because the allocation of seats based on the percentage of votes is the reason most of their lower house members are in the Diet at all.

Earlier this week, Koga Makoto (photo below) casually dropped a bomb when discussing the dates of a possible lower house election at a party gathering in Tokyo:

“I’ve said it will be when the cherries bloom. But they bloom in Okinawa in February, and Aomori in May. In fact, there is such a tree as the “October Cherry”. Taking all that into consideration, the current Diet term could end when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.”

This was an astonishing statement on several levels. First, it potentially pushes back an election until the end of the full Diet term next September—nearly a year after Aso Taro was elevated to party president on the assumption that he would have already led the LDP election campaign by now.

koga-makoto1

Of course the LDP wants to delay the election to prevent a catastrophe at the polls, but that’s not the surprise. Rather, their coalition partner New Komeito has been demanding an election as early as possible to enable them to play what many think is their favorite voting game. Japanese election laws require three months to establish official residency, so the party needs that interval between the national election and local Tokyo elections in July to switch the registered residences of their supporters.

Could this mean the LDP is thinking of writing off their partners?

It might. At the same party, Mr. Koga also hinted that the LDP might reevaluate—a Japanese euphemism for stop—automatically allocating some proportional representation candidacies to New Komeito and keep them for themselves. The Aso ally Mr. Suga is also said to have suggested this to the Prime Minister, who surely must be tempted.

Yet that would alarm those LDP members who won their seats by narrow margins. The voter mobilization efforts of New Komeito and their assumed allies, the lay Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, provides an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 vote advantage in some districts. Those LDP members who squeaked by in the last election could be bounced from office without the New Komeito foot soldiers, as the party ruefully discovered in a recent Yamaguchi by-election.

Still another sign of a possible ruling coalition rupture is that Prime Minister Aso insisted that the party include an increase in the consumption tax in three years in its plan to reform the tax code. He claims this is the only responsible and realistic choice Japan faces to pay for the care of its aging population.

New Komeito is opposed for obvious reasons. It’s not easy to win elections when a tax increase for voters is a key campaign promise. And tax increases are the last thing the small(er) government Nakagawa Hidenao/Koizumi reform wing wants to hear about. Put that all together and it starts to look as if the LDP platypus is an endangered species.

Economist J.A. Schumpeter referred to progress in the free market system as “creative destruction”. By that, he meant that the replacement of obsolete businesses by those with technological and organizational creativity was a natural and beneficial process.

That’s an excellent analogy for the next step that must occur in Japanese politics. But in this case, however, creative destruction must be combined with another natural process—Darwin’s survival of the fittest.

For that next step to occur, the political platypuses must turn pterodactyl.

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