free web stats Transcript of the Japan Considered Podcast for April 13, 2007

 

April 13, 2007; Volume 03, Number Number 14

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Introduction
Constitutional Revision Referendum Agreement
Renewed Interest in Constitutional Revision
Constitutional Revision Events This Week: The Referendum Bill
Charges of “Playing Politics” with Constitutional Revision
Significant Issues Remain to be Considered
Assessment of Sunday’s Gubernatorial and Unified Local Elections
Tokyo’s Gubernatorial Election Dominates Coverage
Prefectural and Municipal Assembly Elections
Larger Significance of These Elections?
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao Visits Japan
Some Substantive Progress
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From Beautiful Sesquicentennial State Park in the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, April 13th. And you are listening to Volume 3, Number 14, of the Japan Considered Podcast.

Introduction

Good to have you along this week. Welcome aboard to you first-time listeners, and welcome back to those of you who have joined us before. I hope the program meets with your expectations. Just commentary and analysis on Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relation. But, really, that’s a lot to cover in only twenty minutes or so just once a week. There’s plenty to keep us busy every day, of every week, of every year. But my day job tends to get in the way!

I’m Robert Angel, creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project. And creator and host of this Podcast. Yes, once again I’m broadcasting – or, more accurately, narrow-casting – from Our Little Tin House. Parked in this beautiful South Carolina State Park. The weather’s beautiful. Though tomorrow we’re expecting a storm. The scenery in this park once again is truly spectacular. The Dogwood blooms are mostly gone. But other things have taken their place. Just can’t stay away! This week I’ll make an extra effort to improve the quality of the sound. No promises as to result, though! As you long-time listeners know, it’s very much a work in progress.

As usual, a lot going on in Japan this week that’s of interest to us on the program. Some of it quite important. Today, we’ll focus on just three of those topics. First, passage today by the Lower House of a Constitutional reform referendum bill. Then, all results from last Sunday’s first round of unified prefectural and local elections are in. So, as promised last week, we’ll consider what they can tell us about Japan’s longer-term political – and even diplomatic – prospects. And finally, after an interval of more than seven years, China agreed to send one of its top-level leaders to Japan for a summit meeting. Premier Wen Jiabao, arrived in Japan on Wednesday, the 11th, and left for home today, the 13th. He seemed to leave happy.

By all accounts the trip was a success. But informed assessments differ on definitions of “success,” and the degree of that success, once defined. We’ll try to sort through the fog and political spin to see just what was accomplished. And just what wasn’t accomplished.  

Constitutional Revision Referendum Agreement.

So, let’s begin by considering recent developments related to constitutional revision. This is certainly an important issue. One Japan’s political leaders have been debating on and off throughout most of the post-World War Two era.

As late as ten or fifteen years ago, the likelihood of constitutional reform was remote. It was discussed, to be sure. Promoted as essential to the recovery of genuine sovereignty by more conservative elements within the Liberal Democratic Party. And at the same time, denounced by the Socialists, Communists, organized labor, most of the media, and the tenurate, as the first step toward reversion to the militaristic propensities they believe led Japan into World War Two.

But even the LDP itself has been divided on the issue. Incapable of developing consensus within the Party adequate to raise “constitutional reform” very high on the agendas of successive LDP cabinets. Overall, opposition was simply too intense to make the battle worth fighting. Instead, the less contentious path taken was reinterpretation of the “true meaning” of the Constitution’s clauses. Avoiding what inevitably would have become an epic political showdown. This has resulted over the years in linguistic acrobatics worthy of the Olympics.

Renewed Interest in Constitutional Revision

That has changed during the past few years. Perhaps most significant, has been the virtual collapse of Japan’s Socialist Party. With the subsequent weakening of the muscular Left’s clout in central political circles. This, combined with the passage of time, has inspired more of the LDP’s leadership to regard constitutional reform as both desirable and politically feasible. Constitutional reform committees have been meeting now for some time. Considering just what parts of the current Constitution require change. And how to go about it. And then presenting their views to the public. Shinzo Abe has been a public supporter of Constitutional reform for some time.

However, constitutional reform is one of those issues upon which even the consensus-venerating Japanese find it impossible to agree. Attitudes of the attentive public, judging from published opinion polls, are decidedly mixed. For example, NHK Television sponsored a national telephone opinion poll in early April of this year. The poll found an increase of 5 percent in those who believe Japan’s constitution shoul d be revised. Reaching 40 percent favorable. With only 20 percent of their sample opposing revision.

In the same poll, however, 44 percent opposed any revision of Article IX! The usual target of constitutional revision efforts in the first place! While only 25 percent supported it. A Yomiuri Shimbun-sponsored nationwide face-to-face poll taken in mid-March of this year found 46 percent of Japan’s public in favor of constitutional revision. Interestingly, though, that number, according to Yomiuri, was 9 percent lower than the support rate recorded during last year’s Yomiuri-sponsored poll. And nearly 40 percent of this years sample said they opposed the whole business!

So, “constitutional revision” is unquestionably an important issue. An issue that an overwhelming majority of Japan’s attentive public follows. And one upon which informed public opinion is genuinely divided. In other words, it’s not just another “gotcha politics” topic, used as a tool of convenience by Japan’s contending parties to gain political advantage.

Constitutional Revision Events This Week: The Referendum Bill

So, what happened this week? Well, yesterday evening, Japan time, Taro Nakayama’s Lower House Special Committee for Research on the Constitution passed a bill defining the procedures through which a popular referendum on constitutional reform will be conducted. Passed with support from the majority LDP and Komeito. And the strident opposition of the DPJ and other parties. Lots of political theater. Upon passage, the Bill was sent immediately to the Lower House, where it passed today, again with only Ruling Coalition support. The Upper House is expected to pass it quickly next week, given the Ruling Coalition’s majority there. 

Article 96 of Japan’s Constitution requires a “public referendum,” as well as two-thirds support in both Houses of the Diet, for any amendment. But the Constitution doesn’t specify how that public referendum is to be conducted. And that, as we’ll see, is not as simple as it may sound.

Constitutional revision advocates in the LDP had hoped to reach agreement with the DPJ on the terms of the referendum bill. Not as a political nicety. But because any amendment eventually crafted and voted upon would require a two-thirds majority in both Houses of the Diet to become law. LDP proponents even accepted, in principle, the DPJ’s key demand that the age for eligibility to vote on the referendum be lowered from 20 to 18.

Indeed, consensus seemed a foregone conclusion until Ichiro Ozawa assumed the DPJ presidency. But Ozawa’s basic principle that an opposition party worth its salt “opposes,” seems to have gotten in the way. The DPJ proposed their own version of a referendum bill that was unacceptable to the LDP. Probably precisely because it was unacceptable.

Charges of “Playing Politics” with Constitutional Revision

Supporters of constitutional revision within the LDP, and even within Japan’s political media, now are blaming Chairman Ichiro Ozawa and his DPJ for lack of cooperation on this bill. Accusing Ozawa of “playing politics” with this important issue, manipulating it in anticipation of the Upper House elections scheduled for July. Accusing Ozawa of pandering to the former Socialists within his Party. Since they’ve long fought against any constitutional revision, and remain adamantly opposed. Ozawa, these critics charge, hopes to maintain their support, and the support of the national trade unions with which they maintain good relations, to win Upper House seats.

That charge makes sense. Chairman Ozawa has adopted a traditional electoral strategy for the Upper House elections that depends heavily on the support of national organized labor. And Ozawa has focused above all else on winning elections by any means necessary. Cooperating with any group willing to cooperate. Even the Communists. Regardless of their basic policy objectives.         

All that said, it was recently elected LDP president and Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who announced in early January this year his intention to make constitutional revision an important issue in the upcoming Upper House elections. So, one needn’t become an apologist for Ozawa to conclude that Ozawa had little choice but to accept the challenge. So Ozawa isn’t the only one “playing politics” with this important political issue. As usual, accusatory fingers rightfully point in all directions.  

Significant Issues Remain to be Considered

Further, there are substantive issues related to the referendum to be considered. That should be discussed and debated. For example, the voting age. Yes, the LDP did agree to reduce the age to 18 from its current 20. But, the Bill as it stands, leaves the age at 20 until the Public Office Election Law and Civil Code are amended to reduce Japan’s overall voting age to 18.

Also, the bill just passed requires only a majority of votes cast in the referendum to pass the bill. Critics proposed the required percentage be set higher than that “50 percent, plus one.” And, more important, that a minimum percentage of eligible voters be required to cast ballots before the referendum poll would be considered valid. To guard against a small minority of voters determining such an important issue. Labor groups also naturally opposed limitations the Bill places on government employees, including teachers, campaigning for or against the bill. As well as other restrictions. These issues go well beyond political nit-picking. In spite of the three-year moratorium on submitting specific amendment bills to the Diet after passage of the Bill. They eventually will matter.

So, what’s next? The manner in which the Bill was passed today virtually guarantees that Prime Minister Abe will get his early January wish. Constitutional revision will loom large in campaigns for the July Upper House elections. Failure to pass the Bill would have been interpreted as an important failure for the Abe Cabinet. But, in the longer term, today’s events may make it more difficult to achieve the consensus necessary to win the Lower and Upper two-thirds majorities required to pass any amendment agreed upon. Perhaps, in the end, this will become a plus for opponents of Constitutional reform! It certainly will assure that this divisive political issue will be around for some time to come. It’s important, and I’ll try to keep you posted.

Assessment of Sunday’s Gubernatorial and Unified Local Elections

As we noted last week, Japan held another round of important elections on Sunday, the 8th. Governors were elected in 13 prefectures. While assembly representatives were elected in 44 prefectures and 15 major cities. Four of Japan’s large, so-called “ordinance-designated,” cities also elected mayors. Quite a few elections! So what can we learn from the results of all of this electioneering? If anything.

First off, a majority of the gubernatorial elections were non-contests. Or, at least, contests in which the LDP and DPJ didn’t manage to field directly competing candidates. But the two major parties did manage to go head-to-head in five of those contests. Quite good tests of electoral strength. And electoral strategies.

Second, in Japan, as in most democracies, “all politics is local.” Or, in other words, national politics depends heavily on local politics, and on local political organization. So prefectural and large municipal assembly elections give us an unusual opportunity to assess the degree of support each party can expect at the local level when it comes time for national elections.

Tokyo’s Gubernatorial Election Dominates Coverage

Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of trying to understand what actually went on behind the smoke, Tokyo’s gubernatorial election has monopolized the lion’s share of Sunday’s election coverage. That was true in the Japanese language political press as well as in the English language reports. Yes, Tokyo’s a big place. 12 million people are important. But political journalists and other members of Japan’s Punditocracy, have been inclined to extrapolate overall political trends from the Tokyo gubernatorial election experience. And Tokyo is no more representative of Japan than Manhattan and Washington, DC, are of the United States! It’s a mistake to assume that, “As Tokyo goes, so goes the nation.”

No informed political observer expected Shintaro Ishihara to lose Sunday’s election. Even after all the negative publicity Ishihara managed to generate during the past few months. The real miracle was that Shiro Asano did as well as he did! He won nearly 1.7 million votes! Against Ishihara’s 2.8 million. Not bad, considering that Asano and everyone else knew that he would lose. And some observers even suspected Asano actually was preparing to run for a seat in the Diet. Rather than conducting a serious campaign for Tokyo’s governorship.

In the four remaining gubernatorial head-to-head campaigns, the LDP and DPJ each won two contests. The LDP taking Hokkaido and Fukuoka. The DPJ Kanagawa and Iwate. However, keep in mind that four of the five winners were incumbents. We didn’t see a repeat of the recent Miyagi Prefecture performance of former comedian, Sonomama Higashi.

Prefectural and Municipal Assembly Elections

Assessment of the outcome of the prefectural and municipal assembly elections has been mixed. Depending largely, as one might expect, on the political sympathies of the assessor. In the 44 prefectural assemblies, LDP-backed candidates remained in firm control. Winning 1,212 seats. But they went into the election with 1,309 seats. Representing a fairly significant drop. The DPJ, on the other hand, backed 375 winners. Going into the election with only 205 seats.

This sharp increase for the DPJ was judged significant by DPJ leaders, and some media observers. Suggesting the DPJ may benefit from stronger local campaign structure during the Upper House elections. LDP leaders, of course, emphasized maintenance of their overwhelming dominance in prefectural assemblies, even though they dropped a significant number of seats. And overall, preferred to talk about Shintaro Ishihara’s big win in Tokyo. Politics as usual, I guess. But we shouldn’t completely ignore the DPJ’s assembly electoral successes. That at least suggests to me that Ozawa’s traditional electoral strategy is not a complete failure at the local level in many places.

We also have to consider the four city mayoral elections held on Sunday. In Hiroshima, Sapporo, Shizuoka, and Hamamatsu. The one surprise was victory of DPJ mayoral candidate, Yasutomo Suzuki, in Hamamatsu. He bested ruling coalition-endorsed incumbent mayor, Yasuyuki Kitawaki. Suzuki, to be sure, was no political newcomer. Having served as a DPJ Member of the Lower House. And Suzuki was able to garner local business support for his campaign. His success appears to have depended on successful local organization, more than anything else. And the way he ran his campaign.

Larger Significance of These Elections?

So, what can we conclude from all of this? Really, it’s hard to generalize. Or at least, hard for me. Incumbency still seems a powerful advantage. Incumbents, for example, won nine of the thirteen gubernatorial elections held Sunday. An advantage, that is, as long as the incumbent faces no widely publicized, embarrassing, scandal to tarnish the image.

Ozawa’s strategy of emphasizing “politics” over policies, and relying on local chapters of national labor organizations, appears to have been successful in some elections. Or, at least, we can see it hasn’t been a total failure. These elections also confirm that genuine electoral contests tend to raise interest in elections and increase the number of eligible voters participating. Japan’s voters are no longer as willing as they once were to participate in elections with inevitable outcomes.

We’ll just have to wait to see the outcome of the second round of these unified prefectural and local elections. Scheduled for Sunday after next, April 22nd. They will include by-elections for Upper House seats in Fukushima and Okinawa. The LDP is expected to take Okinawa and the DPJ to win in Fukushima. Any change in that outcome would be news indeed. I’ll keep you posted.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao Visits Japan

As noted a moment ago, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Japan from Wednesday to Friday this week. By all accounts, the visit went smoothly. All according to plan. It’s reasonable to describe Wen’s visit to Japan as important symbolically. Extremely important. Had Beijing declined to reciprocate Prime Minister Abe’s official visit to China, or had Wen’s visit been canceled abruptly in the midst of the planning, it would have been a serious set-back for Japan-China relations. So, the visit must be evaluated as a step forward. If only because of that.

But beyond that, the pickings seem a little thin to me. Surely, Wen’s visit, and the tone of Wen’s statements while in Japan – including his speech to Japan’s Parliament – all point to change in Chinese assessment of Japan’s significance for China. Beijing no longer sees advantage in encouraging open hostility toward Japan. So they don’t. Not now, anyway. Or, perhaps, Beijing has concluded that the domestic political benefit they gain at home by encouraging hostility toward Japan is no longer worth the economic cost of that hostility. Makes sense. And there’s plenty of evidence to support that idea. They’re probably right.

But this is a topic best left for Chinese domestic politics experts to sort out. I just don’t have the expertise or experience! We’re more concerned on this program about what the visit tells us about Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations. Including relations with China. And here, I find little to consider.

Tokyo, it appears to me, hasn’t changed much at all. Their China-related policies seem to me pretty consistent. Since at least the beginning of the Koizumi premiership. As well as their efforts at implementation. So, any ice-thawing –that over-used, even abused, phrase – that occurred, occurred because of changes on the Chinese side. And that’s important.

Some Substantive Progress

Still, beyond the symbolic significance, and what it tells us about the current state of domestic politics in Beijing, a few things of real consequence were accomplished. First, and potentially significant, was agreement to establish what was described as a bilateral “communications mechanism” between the Japanese and Chinese ministries of defense. Details are sketchy. But it sounds like a “hot-line” of sorts. A means of communicating quickly in the event of “unforeseen circumstances at sea,” as they described it, between Japanese and Chinese naval vessels. Given increasing military traffic in areas such as the East China Sea, this could prove very useful in the future. Maybe avoid a serious misunderstanding some day.

Second was formal agreement to improve bilateral cooperation in the area of environmental conservation. Japan has agreed to provide China with environmental protection technologies. And China has agreed to use them. This is a win-win arrangement. As evidenced by the enthusiastic reaction it elicited from Japan’s business community. China clearly can benefit from Japan’s experience in this area. And Japan’s delighted to provide it. Hopefully, to sell some of it.

These, and various bilateral exchange agreements, were significant. But perhaps even more significant were those items on Japan’s agenda that received little or no notice. Topping that list has to be the “significant progress” on the East China Sea natural gas exploitation dispute Japan had hoped for. The two countries agreed to continue to agree on joint development. But that’s about it. Japan’s representatives before the visit were pretty frank about their expectation of a breakthrough on this difficult issue. They didn’t get it.  

Second was Japan’s desire for China to support reform of the United Nations Security Council. Reform that would make Japan a permanent member. But both countries just agreed to support “necessary and rational” reform of the Security Council. That was about it. This, of course, was a long shot for Japan anyway. But still …

So, with this visit, the Abe Cabinet has insulated itself from immediate, intense criticism for mishandling relations with Mainland China. But it seems likely that Abe will face at least some criticism from within the LDP, and possibly from the political opposition, for not persuading Beijing to be more cooperative on substantive issues. We’ll have to wait and see how the Punditocracy handles this issue next week. And h  ow the visit affects Abe Cabinet public approval ratings. If it does.

Concluding Comments

We’re a bit over time this week. So let’s end here. Next week I’ll be traveling, and won’t be able to produce a program. Stay tuned, though. Or subscribed. Since I’ll be back the following week with further discussion of all of these topics and more. In the meantime, here’s a short clip from the incomparable John Duffey. From his 2000 Sugar Hill album, “Always in Style.” I’ll put a link in the transcript to the album, for those of you who don’t already have your own copy. Enjoy!

[bluegrass]

Good bye all. Until week after next.