free web stats Transcript of the Japan Considered Podcast for April 27, 2007


April 27, 2007; Volume 03, Number 15

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Prime Minister Abe Visits Washington
Differing Interpretations From Washington
Positive Developments
Less-Than-Positive Developments
Sunday’s Round of Unified Prefectural and Local Elections
A Tragedy in Nagasaki
Fukushima and Okinawa Hold Upper House By-Elections
Results of the Prefectural and Municipal Elections
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, April 27th, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 15, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Good to be back with you again after a two-week absence. It seems like longer than that! And, with all the topics we have to cover – or at least mention – that makes sense. The spring semester at the University is winding down now. Only final exams, grading, and Commencement left until the summer break begins officially. Once it’s all done, I’ll have more time to work on the new Japan Considered Website. Especially on getting the rest of the site migrated, and more interviews transcribed and up for you. Some very interesting material is just waiting to be processed. So keep an eye out for the changes.

Oh, for those of you who just found the program, I’m Robert Angel. Creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project. And creator and host of this Podcast. Those of you curious, can find out more about me on the Japan Considered Project website. At Go have a look, and while there click through the rest of the site as well. Lots of useful information for those of you interested in Japan.

Each week at this time we consider the longer-term significance of recent events in the news for Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations. We have to be choosy. Selecting only those items likely to help us better understand how Japan’s political system actually works. That means we have to ignore many topics that have generated news coverage. We’re just not a comprehensive news service here.

This week’s been no exception to the “more than we can cover” rule. So, we’ll begin with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Washington. He’s there today. Leaving tomorrow for a longer trip to several Middle East countries. So, our observations will be only preliminary. Then, as promised during our last program, we’ll look at the results of the second round of unified prefectural and local elections. And what those elections tell us about domestic politics in Japan. Finally, if time permits, we’ll consider events back in Tokyo related to “collective self defense.” This topic is potentially quite important. And it’s received little coverage in the English language press.

Prime Minister Abe Visits Washington

So, let’s begin with consideration of the longer-term significance, if any, of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official visit to Washington. He arrived on Thursday, the 26th. And is scheduled to leave for a five-nation tour of the Middle East tonight, Friday, the 27th. Quite a short trip, when you think about it. And observers have thought about it.

As you might imagine, I’ve been reading everything available on preparations for this summit meeting for some time now. And consulting everyone I can in Washington and Tokyo who might provide insights into the significance of the event. All normal practice. But the information and opinion I’ve collected during the past week or so has been decidedly mixed. Even confusing. Political supporters and opponents of the Bush Administration in the U.S. appear to be providing conflicting assessments.

Differing Interpretations From Washington

Some of the better informed anti-Bush folks have suggested there are significant points of disagreement between Japan and the United States that need to be addressed. That the Bush Administration really is dissatisfied and frustrated with Japan in general. And especially with the Abe Administration. But that they aren’t saying much about it in public, in an effort to promote bilateral cooperation.

Bush Administration supporters, on the other hand, some currently serving in one capacity or another, have told me, when asked, that isn’t true. They say their critics are “playing politics” with the issue by trying to exaggerate bilateral problems. That their descriptions of friction and dissention are only wishful thinking on their part.

“Playing politics” in Washington? Hard to imagine! Especially when it comes to international relations! Well, I shouldn’t be ironic or cynical here. But, any experienced Washington watcher recognizes this, and expects it. The 2008 race for the White House is in full swing. And Washington is in the midst of what old friends in the Department of State used to describe as “the silly season.” Unfortunately, much of the American Media, the Tenurate, and the Punditocracy get caught up in the race as well.

Like Japan, the United States is a genuine pluralist democracy. Important political decisions are made here through political competition. Usually peaceful competition. So, the mixed – even conflicting – messages coming from Washington are, in one sense, a sign of political health. One can only hope that observers in Japan recognize the phenomenon for what it is, and don’t take any single source too seriously.

Of course, Japan has its own version of the “silly season.” And some observers there too are more interested in using Washington events in their own political competition than they are in providing accurate explanation. Including examples of the old fashioned gai-atsu, or foreign pressure, strategy. More on that in a moment.

Positive Developments

For me, this latest bilateral summit meeting has had both encouraging and disappointing features. First the encouraging part.

No two large independent countries share completely congruent national interests. There are bound to be differences. Even the United Kingdom and the United States have had – indeed, continue to have – their disagreements over important issues. And, of course, countries as different as Japan and the United States are bound to have even more genuine differences of interest. Some very important. In one sense, then, the maturity and health of a bilateral relationship is reflected in how effectively the representatives of the two nations in question are able to deal with those genuine differences of interest.

I believe post-World War Two United States-Japan relations have matured to the point that the fiction of completely congruent national interests is no longer necessary. That differences can be discussed openly, and dealt with, without danger of permanent diplomatic rupture. That – again, borrowing a phrase often heard in Washington’s bureaucratic halls during the 1960s and 1970s – the “fragile fabric” of the bilateral relationship between Japan and the United States now is a bit more durable than it used to be.

If this is correct, then some expressions of difference during bilateral ceremonies actually represent progress and maturity in our bilateral relationship. We no longer have to pretend, in other words, that “we’re just the same,” or that we “think exactly the same” about every issue. Just to get along. That, of course, was never true. And the diplomatic acrobatics it necessitated resulted in a good bit of teeth-grinding and residual resentment on both sides when they had to be performed.

And there were some points of bilateral disagreement at this summit meeting. Perhaps the best example can be seen in discussion of American beef exports to Japan. Progress has been made. But not enough to satisfy both American beef producers and Japanese consumers. It’s being worked on! Next issue!

The second encouraging feature of this latest bilateral summit, at least for me, was the number of significant agreements the Sherpas from both sides were able to cobble together in time for announcement at the meetings. These included agreements for genuinely bilateral cooperation in development of nuclear energy resources. Agreement to cooperate in other efforts to reduce CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions. Agreement to work together to create an effective treaty to reduce international trade in pirated goods. Agreement on how to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue negotiations. Including the abduction issue. And mutual efforts to cope with leaks of secret military information. With a “general security of military information agreement” to be announced at the upcoming two-plus-two security and diplomacy meetings next month. These are all important agreements that required recognition of the real interests of both sides to negotiate. That’s significant progress. On genuinely significant issues! Which is what summit meetings should be about.

A third encouraging feature of this summit, at least for me, was that the “comfort women” operation didn’t derail, or overwhelm, the bilateral meetings. Prime Minister Abe explained the true intentions of the remarks he made during Diet debate. The remarks said to have ignited the issue. Making his personal views important here. And he did so directly to U.S. congressional leaders soon after his arrival in Washington. He’d already explained the situation to President Bush during a 20-minu  te telephone conversation on the 3rd of this month. Still, the issue has been given top billing in most media coverage of the Abe-Bush summit. In spite of its prominence in media coverage, it appears to have played little role in what actually happened in the meetings.

When asked about it – in Japanese – by a reporter toward the end of their joint press conference, Prime Minister Abe responded that he explained his personal views to U.S. Congressional leaders the day before. And that he hoped for progress throughout the world on human rights during the current century. President Bush said he “accepted” the Prime Minister’s apology. Presumably, accepted it as genuine. And complimented Prime Minister Abe on his handling of the issue. Now, we’re bound to hear more about this issue in the future. As well as the Yasukuni Shrine visit issue. And other war memory issues. But it appears that these efforts had little effect on the substance of this bilateral summit meeting.

Less-Than-Positive Developments

But not all news from the bilateral summit was quite as encouraging. Emphasis on the two leaders calling each other by their first names. And the attention given that “news” by Japan’s political press, for example. Contrived! And painfully reminiscent of the 1980s. The whole “Ron-Yasu” business again, from the Nakasone era. And that was more than 20 years ago! Seems as though we’d be beyond that by now. Guess we’re not.  

Indeed, there were a number of such nostalgic moments for those of us who’ve been watching these summit meetings for thirty or more years. One was speculation before Abe’s arrival about the size and significance of the “present” he would bring with him to Washington. That is, the negotiating concessions Tokyo would be willing to make to assure that the visit would be a success. With “success” here defined as little or no public criticism of the Japanese prime minister by the U.S. side. Criticism anti-mainstream LDP faction leaders then could use to justify his removal from office.

Well, there was some justification for that speculation. Again, Tokyo’s recent concessions on beef imports provides a good example. As well as the lobbying efforts of the American beef producers. But since Koizumi’s “populist” premiership, the vulnerability of a Japanese prime minister to criticism of that sort from Washington has changed. Indeed, given the right issue, such criticism might even prove politically advantageous for a Japanese prime minister. We may not yet have reached that point. But there’s no reason in the world to test the idea now.

Most thoughtful folks in Washington have come to realize the good old “gai-atsu” game with Tokyo has changed. As well as most thoughtful folks in Japan. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still tried when there appears to be some short-term political advantage for the players themselves. Regardless of longer-term damage to the overall bilateral relationship.   

Sooo. By the time you hear this program, Prime Minister Abe will have left Washington. For a five-nation tour of the Middle East. An important part of Japan’s energy diplomacy initiative. We’ll have to wait to see how Japan’s punditocracy evaluates this latest bilateral summit. But for me, at least, it represents a milestone in the post-World War Two normalization of our bilateral relations. And Japan’s overall conduct of international affairs. Next week we’ll consider the Middle East leg of Abe’s international tour, and the implications of that new energy diplomacy initiative. Hope you can tune in.

Sunday’s Round of Unified Prefectural and Local Elections

Next, as promised on the last program, let’s consider the unified prefectural and local elections held last Sunday, April 22nd. They included two Upper House by-elections to fill vacant seats, just over 8,000 municipal assembly seats, and nearly 100 mayoral elections around the country. That’s a lot of electioneering. A lot of voting. And a lot of pre- and post-election reporting. So, naturally, it’s hard to shrink the results and their significance into a neat, but still meaningful, package.

A Tragedy in Nagasaki

A few days before the election, all Japan was shocked by the brutal assassination of popular incumbent Nagasaki Mayor, Itchu Ito. He was shot twice in the back on Tuesday, just in front of his campaign headquarters. And died on the operating table the next day. Ito was a highly respected left-leaning opponent of nuclear weapons. His name was known around the world. This is the second time a Nagasaki mayor has been assassinated. Though it appears that this incident was motivated by simple greed rather than ideology.

His accused assassin, one Tetsuya Shiroo, gave himself up at the scene. He was reported to be a member of the local branch of the yakuza Yamaguchi-gumi. Japan’s press reports he confessed to the shooting right away. Later reports noted that Shiroo for some time had been demanding a large compensation package from the city for damage to a vehicle caused by a pothole in a Nagasaki road. It seems Mayor Ito had had enough of such yakuza shakedowns of local and prefectural governments. And had refused payment.

This tragedy naturally cast a dark shadow over Sunday’s elections around the country. Leaders of all political inclinations expressed outrage over the murder. Ito’s campaign organization, after some considerable debate, drafted Ito’s son-in-law, Makoto Yokoo, to run in his place. He’s a reporter for Nishi Nihon Shimbun, who isn’t a Nagasaki native. In the event, neither the LDP nor the DPJ were willing to support Yokoo’s candidacy. And he lost narrowly to a long-serving Nagasaki City Office administrator, Tomihisa Taue.

That surprised me. Since such “sympathy candidates” in Japan nearly always win their first election. It’s their second election that tells whether they have staying power or not. Yokoo came close, though. Winning 77,133 votes to Taue’s 78,066 votes. And, the political press reported later, more than 15,000 invalid votes were cast. An unusually large number. Most of which appear to have been intended for the assassinated Ito.

Taue shaped his short election campaign around his three decades of experience in local government. And, significantly, around the idea that family ties alone shouldn’t determine elections. This latter point, according to exit polls, appears to have resonated with Nagasaki’s 364,000 eligible voters. Though not enough to raise their participation in the election above 55.28 percent.

Fukushima and Okinawa Hold Upper House By-Elections

 During the first round of unified local and prefectural elections this year, held April 8th, it was the Tokyo gubernatorial contest that monopolized coverage. Well, this time, it was the two Upper House by-elections. One in Fukushima Prefecture and the other in Okinawa. There’s no denying the importance of those contests. Both seats were held by DPJ incumbents. Both elections featured head-to-head contests between LDP/New Komeito-endorsed and DPJ-endorsed candidates. And, of course, the outcome affects the partisan balance of Japan’s Upper House. So, these two elections were important.

As expected, Ichiro Ozawa’s DPJ took the Fukushima race, and the LDP/New Komeito coalition won in Okinawa. The Fukushima winner, DPJ-backed Teruhiko Mashiko, had served three terms in the Lower House. An experienced, well-known candidate. But turn-out in Fukushima was disappointing, not even breaking 57 percent. A DPJ loss in Fukushima, though, home of the charismatic senior DPJ leader, Kozo Watanabe, would have been disastrous for the Party.

Sunday’s Okinawa Upper House by-election was a bit different. The LDP/New Komeito-backed winner, Aiko Shimajiri, ran a spirited issues-based campaign. She emphasized “livelihood” issues, like child care, rather than national or international concerns. Such as the U.S. military base. And was frequently described in press reports as a “conservative mother of four children.” With this she earned 255,862 votes. We’ll have to wait to see whether she registers in the Upper House as an Independent, a member of the LDP, or a member of New Komeito.  

Her opponent, Yoshimasa Karimata, is a well-known senior Okinawa labor leader. He’s long been involved in the Okinawa anti-military base movement. And had strong support from the DPJ, as well as Okinawa’s Communist and Socialist Parties. But it just wasn’t enough. He was able to win only 228,844 votes. Not a disaster. But not anywhere near as well as he should have done.

Okinawa has the largest percentage of floating, or “unaffiliated” voters of any Japanese prefecture. Voters who decline, when asked, to associate themselves with any political party. As high as 60 percent of the eligible electorate, by some estimates. And, according to exit polls, just over 60 percent of those floating voters who went to the polls voted for Karimata. While the LDP’s Shimajiri persuaded only 37 percent of them. The trouble was, Karimata’s campaign just didn’t bring enough of those floating voters to the polls. Overall voter turnout too in the Okinawa race was surprisingly low. In fact, only 47 percent. So, plenty of information from the Okinawa by-election to keep political analysts busy for some time to come. But, like Tokyo, Okinawa is not typical of Japan overall. So, we have to be cautious when we apply the lessons learned there to elections in the rest of Japan.

Results of the Prefectural and Municipal Elections

Here, given the number of contests alone, it’s even more difficult to generalize. Nearly 100 cities around the country elected mayors. And more than 8,000 municipal assembly seats were contested. Though municipal mergers reduced the number of those seats by around 20 percent since the last election. A further complicating issue is the large number of candidates who run officially as “independents.” They accounted this time for 68 percent of the nearly 10,000 assembly seat candidates. Many of them, however, are well known to enjoy the support of one party or another. So it’s hard to know what’s actually going on without being closer to each election than Columbia, South Carolina! 

The LDP/New Komeito ruling coalition and DPJ managed to go head-to-head in only eight of the major mayoral elections this time. With the ruling coalition winning five and the DPJ three. And voter turnout nationwide for the 96 mayoral elections reached only 53.57 percent. A low figure indeed. That leaves large numbers of potential voters unaccounted for. Again making prediction difficult. Since they could participate in future contests – if motivated!

In municipal assembly seat contests, the LDP and New Komeito both were reported to lose some support, while the DPJ made significant gains. Though, as with the April 8th elections, we must remember the ruling coalition’s overwhelming advantage, which it maintains.

So, here again, plenty of “data” to consider. Both the LDP and the DPJ are able to find things to boast about publicly. As well as to be concerned about privately. Municipal assembly seat support is considered important for both Upper and Lower House Diet elections by all parties. So the DPJ’s success there should not be discounted. Winning candidates they supported directly increased to 374, from its pre-election total of 292. but is that enough to make a difference in the upcoming Upper House election? Or in the next general election, for that matter? Hard to say. They hope so, certainly. But as one LDP strategist commented recently, many of the municipal assembly members who describe themselves as “unaffiliated,” are actually LDP supporters.

It seems reasonable to me to conclude from all this that Japan’s “unaffiliated,” or “floating,” voters are growing more important. At all levels. Both the LDP and the DPJ to be successful in future elections must devise strategies to bring those voters to the polls on election day. That will require the parties and their candidates to identify issues of interest to unaffiliated voters. And then to fashion campaigns that will persuade the voters that they’re willing and able to do something about them, if elected. Traditional political organizations and personal support groups, or Koenkai, remain important, of course. But by definition, they don’t encompass Japan’s growing number of “floating” or “unaffiliated” voters.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re out of time again this week. Collective security will have to wait until next week. When I also hope to take a closer look at Japan’s current round of energy diplomacy. I hope you can join me. In the meantime, please continue to send your comments and suggestions to me at I read them all, and respond to every one I can. While you’re at it, click on over to the Japan Considered Project website at and have a look around. Suggestions there too will be greatly appreciated.

A number of you wrote to say how much you enjoyed that clip from Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” program before last. With two of you admitting  you’d never heard it before! Oh my! Well, here are a few bars from another of her signature songs, “I Fall to Pieces.” Another remarkable performance from this great artist. You can find your own copy on iTunes, if you want. Or, I’ll put a link to a hard-copy source in the transcript. Enjoy.

[Patsy Cline]

Goodbye all. Until next week.