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March 23, 2007; Volume 03, Number 11

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Introduction
Ministry of Agriculture Modifies its “Sushi Police” Program Plans
Six-Party Talks Break Down Again
Japan’s Upcoming Prefectural and Local Elections
What Elections? When? and Where?
Gubernatorial Races
Mayoral Races
Prefectural and Mayoral Assembly Elections
Significance of These Elections
Anticipation of Heavy Spin on News Reports of These Elections
Causes and Effects of Strict Regulation of Election Campaigns
Concluding Comments

Good Morning, from beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, March 23, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 11, of the Japan Considered Podcast.

Introduction

Thanks for dropping by. I’m Robert Angel, creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project, and creator and host of this Podcast. Each week at this time we consider items in the news with longer-term significance for Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations.

We’re not a comprehensive news source, now. Nothing that complex. Rather, we focus on only those issues and events that can help us better understand how political and international Japan works. With a bit more analysis than we normally find in the regular news. Either in English or in Japanese. Also, from time to time, we’re joined by other specialists on Japan. When I can persuade them to come on the program, that is. They’re usually selected to give an alternative view, or assessment. And, I also introduce useful websites here and there. Those that provide English language information related to our topics.

Ministry of Agriculture Modifies its “Sushi Police” Program Plans

Another busy week in Japan. Piles and piles of news. Both in English and in Japanese. Some, this week, even encouraging! Well, at least one item, anyway. Late last Friday, the Ministry of Agriculture announced plans to “tone down” its plans for governmental inspection of restaurants abroad that claim to serve Japanese food. The plan wasn’t completely scrapped. That’s not the way experienced bureaucrats do things. Especially not when the project considered has as much bureaucratic “boondoggle” potential as this one! But, in response to international criticism – even ridicule – much of the responsibility for the entity making those culinary judgments has been shifted to the private sector. And, inspections will be performed only when restaurants request them. Sooo…. No midnight culinary swat team raids, it seems.

The whole thing, however, is still a mess. And there’s little evidence – at least that I could find – that the Kantei itself put its foot down. Which is why we considered this silly issue in the first place! Though, to be fair, a quiet word may have been passed from the Head Shed that would allow Agriculture Minister Matsuoka and his team to save face by announcing something themselves.

Six-Party Talks Break Down Again

Not all news has been as encouraging, however. As we anticipated, the Six-Party Talks held in Beijing this week ended in disappointment. The Chinese hosts announced what they described as a “recess” yesterday afternoon, Beijing time. After four days of on-and-off talks there. With no date announced for the next session.

The spoiler was reported to be disagreement over whether $25 million claimed by North Korea had been transferred from a bank in Macao to a bank in Beijing. Where, presumably, the North Korean regime could access it. North Korea’s representatives at the talks were adamant about actual receipt of the funds before anything else could be discussed.

Twenty-five-million dollars? That seems like a small sum to disrupt such an important international negotiation. Why, the participating representatives, their assistants, and their assistants’ assistants, must have spent that much already on airfare and hotels alone. North Korean representatives tried to blame the United States for the foul-up, of course. But, judging from media reports, their complaints didn’t carry much weight, at least in Japan. Beyond the pro-North Korean press organs there. And the more strident anti-Abe political activists. Japan’s attentive public just wasn’t buying it. And no wonder! Even Asahi Shimbun declined to support North Korea’s position on this one, describing them as self-centered. Now, that’s extraordinary.    

The transfer, again, according to the press reports, was supposed to be made between a bank in Macao and a Chinese bank. After Washington agreed too allow authorities there make the transfer as they wished. What, observers in Japan wondered, could be the hold-up? What inspired North Korea’s reaction? Possibly the fear of further revelations of money-laundering-type activities? An effort by North Korea to withdraw good money for bad money deposited? All most unseemly. Almost as bad as the legacy of the abduction operations conducted against Japan and various other countries a couple of decades ago.

Pyongyang will end up spending far more than twenty-five million dollars on counter-propaganda to offset the bad publicity all of this attention will flush out. State-sanctioned money-laundering; counterfeiting; and other even more reprehensible activities. All recognized as state-sanctioned. Hardly the sort of thing to inspire confidence in Pyongyang’s reliability as an international negotiating partner. They’d have been better off just to have absorbed the twenty-five million dollar loss.

But, of course, everyone with a stake in the Six-Party Talks is optimistic that missions will be accomplished and deadlines met. We’ll just have to wait and see. Though again, it seems unlikely that we’ll see significant progress anytime soon. These sorts of negotiations just don’t work that way.

Japan’s Upcoming Prefectural and Local Elections

Several times since the beginning of the year we’ve mentioned the significance of upcoming prefectural and local elections. Quite a few e-mails have arrived asking for clarification. Some of them confusing the mid-July Upper House elections with the April prefectural and local contests they hear about on the news. So, just briefly, let’s review what’s what. It’s far too early to forecast winners and losers. But we can review the schedule and consider the overall significance of these campaigns. At least in passing.

One caveat. My comments today are in no way intended as comprehensive electoral analysis. There are lots of Japan specialists in the United States who devote most of their time to studying Japan’s electoral contests. I’m hoping to have one or two on the program just before or after the elections. To give us more credible assessments. Today we’ll just try to put the issue of these prefectural and local elections into broader domestic political perspective.

What Elections? When? and Where?

First off, in response to many of the e-mails, what types of elections are scheduled? When? And where? This is the easy part. Between now and the July 2007 Upper House elections, Japan will hold prefectural gubernatorial elections, mayoral elections, and city and prefectural assembly elections throughout the country. These local elections have been scheduled together as much as possible to facilitate administration of the electoral system. Japan’s government structure includes a lot of positions that must be filled by election. Especially at the prefectural and local levels. No simple administrative task.

Gubernatorial Races

Yesterday, March 22nd, official campaigning began for the thirteen prefectural gubernatorial elections, with the vote to be held on Sunday, April 8th. Not much time between the beginning of the legal campaign period and balloting. Just over two weeks. Of course, furious campaigning was under way long before that. With campaigners taking care not to break the letter of the law, while twisting the spirit of the law into knots. More on that in a moment.

Tokyo is the big one, of course. But twelve other prefectures are electing their governors at the same time. Among these thirteen gubernatorial races, Japan’s political media have identified five in which they say an LDP-backed candidate faces a serious challenge from a DPJ-backed candidate. A real horse-race, in other words. With voters given a choice between at least two credible candidates.

Overall in these 13 gubernatorial contests, the LDP has managed to support 9 candidates. But the DPJ was able to agree upon only five. Even after DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa’s admonition for prefectural branches to refrain from joining the LDP in endorsing a single candidate. That almost certainly means that attention will focus on the five “genuine horse-race” contests, and the others will become “data.” Attention, that is, of Japan’s political journalists and Japan’s voting public. Why bother to vote if it’s just a formality with a pre-ordained outcome. The voters, as V.O. Key concluded toward the end of his illustrious academic career, are not fools.

The Tokyo contest pits two-term incumbent, Shintaro Ishihara, against a younger and less conservative former governor of Miyagi, Shiro Asano. Ishihara, in spite of – or could it be because of – his sometimes outrageous politically conservative and politically incorrect public statements, has been very popular. Not with Japan’s political press, of course. But with the general public. Even in Tokyo. But Asano is poised to give him a run for his money this time around. Attracting far more attention to this gubernatorial electoral contest than it otherwise would draw. Probably out of concern for the negative effect their support would have on Tokyo’s floating, or unaffiliated, voters, Ishihara and Asano have avoided official endorsements from their supporting parties. But everyone knows. We’ll watch this race closely. Both for the role substantive issues play in the campaigns and for overall voter turnout. Given the location, it’s really difficult to see the Tokyo gubernatorial race as indicative of national political trends in Japan. Any more than a New York City mayoral race would reflect American opinion nationwide.

Mayoral Races

In addition to the thirteen gubernatorial races, mayoral elections will be held in Japan’s four government-defined “major cities” on April 8th. The same day as the 13 gubernatorial elections. These are Hiroshima, Sapporo, Shizuoka, and Hamamatsu. Official campaigning for these races doesn’t begin until Sunday, day after tomorrow. In these mayoral races, only Hiroshima and Sapporo expect to see direct confrontation between the LDP and the DPJ. Here too, we’ll watch carefully to see the extent to which genuine political issues play a role in the campaigning. And, of course, the voter turnout.

Prefectural and Mayoral Assembly Elections

As if this wasn’t enough, Sunday, April 8th, also will see voting for over 2,500 prefectural and city assembly seats nationwide. With so many contests to cover, it’s unlikely we will hear about much more than campaign violations, human interest stories, and aggregate numbers for all of the se races. Though we may get more information about the mayoral and assembly elections scheduled for April 22nd, which will cover the rest. Please send me an e-mail if you have information about these local races that might be of interest to our listeners and readers. I’ll even pay the postage!

Significance of These Elections

Sooo. Japan is poised for what amounts to a nationwide electoral festival. With definite points of interest. Maybe not as much as a Lower House general election would generate. But still, lots for us to consider.

First, a growing number of these prefectural and local races have become genuine electoral contests. Not just reinstatement exercises for long-serving incumbents whose multi-party support has been based on provision of short-term tangible rewards. Such as the opportunity to participate in prefectural- or city-let construction contracts. Or provision of government-purchased services of various kinds. Good old pork-barrel politics, in other words. A game played at or near the top of the demographic pyramid, with little tangible participation by the attentive public.

In these races, anyway, it’s no longer enough for the incumbent to show up white-gloved and passably sober, promising to do his best! And that’s encouraging. For those, at least, who believe Japan will be better served by broadening the scope of meaningful involvement in national and local politics.

Also, it will be interesting to observe the role significant issues will play in these campaigns. And have played during the pre-campaign period! Which issues will attract the most attention? And the most votes? According to political news reports from Japan so far, concern over the growing gap between Japan’s rich and poor will be important. As well as growing geographic inequality. With rural Japan missing out on much of urban Japan’s prosperity. Japan’s declining birthrate and the rapid aging of the Japanese population also has inspired prominent mention. But, as any experienced politician would guess, local specific economic problems and what to do about them, trumps every other issue the candidates and parties can table. What’s new, right?

Anticipation of Heavy Spin on News Reports of These Elections

Japan’s major political parties have a lot invested in these prefectural and local elections. Whether they’re directly endorsing candidates or not. This alone guarantees heavy investment in influencing press coverage and analysis of the results. Beyond that, Japan’s political press already has concluded that these elections, especially the big gubernatorial elections, will influence the outcome of the mid-July Upper House election. And that could well become important. For both domestic politics and Japan’s conduct of international relations. As usual, I’ll try to peer through the dense fog, slow down the spin, and consider what’s actually happening. No easy task. No matter how many sources of political news one monitors.

Causes and Effects of Strict Regulation of Election Campaigns

A moment ago I mentioned the short duration of Japan’s election campaigns. This, I believe, is symptomatic of Japan’s experience with political campaign regulation in general. Legal election campaigning activity is tightly regulated. As is election campaign finance. Indeed, so tightly regulated, as we’ve mentioned before on this program, that it’s virtually impossible to win highly contested races without violating the law.

What accounts for this? And what effect has it had on Japan’s electoral politics? One important cause, I suspect, has been the response of past incumbent governments to embarrassing revelations of campaign law violations. The easiest response to “Well, what are you going to do to prevent this in the future?” is to announce “draconian” tightening of election campaign laws. We see the result today in regulations that even extend to the size of the lantern a candidate is allowed to display in front of his or her election campaign offices! Let alone the unrealistic limitations on election campaign spending.

All of this is significant, I believe, for Japan’s electoral political environment. Especially for public attitudes toward electoral politics. Unrealistically strict regulations guarantees large numbers of violations. Repeated public exposure of such violations reduces public confidence in Japan’s elected representatives. Even in the political process overall.

It also means elected representatives guilty of election campaign violations are vulnerable to exposure. Perhaps even to a sort of blackmail, should the necessity arise. Not a good thing at all! And, it intensifies the “Gotcha Politics” revelations of the sort we’ve seen recently concerning “sloppy bookkeeping” in the reporting of office expenses. With all the hypocritical finger-pointing that entails. The attentive public, after all these years, surely has tired of the game. This may help to explain the growing number of “unaffiliated” voters, and the decline in voter participation over the years.

What, then, is to be done? Well, like so many things in politics, the prescription is simple. But administration of the medication is far more difficult. If not downright impossible. The simplest solution would be to relax campaign activity and finance restrictions to more reasonable levels. While simultaneously increasing prosecution of violations to a level that would assure compliance with the more realistic standards.

But what administration in its right mind would even consider proposing such a solution? A new definition of political suicide. So it’s unlikely to happen. At least in that form. We’ve seen some modest progress s recently. Specifically, relaxation in February of prohibitions on distribution of leaflets during the official campaign period. At least in the gubernatorial and mayoral elections. Changes too are under consideration for restrictions on the way websites and e-mail can be  used in elections. All undoubtedly to the good. At least from the perspective of those who approve broader public participation in the political process. 

Concluding Comments

I’d hoped to be able to look more closely at the administrative reform proposals announced earlier this week. They’re much more important than their current footprint in Japan’s political news would suggest. Even if minister-in-charge Yoshimi Watanabe and the Abe Cabinet are able to implement only half of their proposed changes. But that will have to wait until next week.

Or we won’t have time for our usual refreshing bluegrass clip. This week, let’s return to “Fork in the Road.” This remarkable first CD was released recently by the “Infamous Stringdusters” of Nashville. I’ll put a link in the show notes and transcripts again to Sugar Hill’s on-line store. This a short piece of   their “Poor Boy’s Delight.” Just let this mellow sound roll across your mind.

[bluegrass clip]

Goodbye all. Until Next week.