May 18, 2007; Volume 03, Number 18

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

The Constitutional Revision Referendum Bill Passes the Upper House and Becomes Law
On-Going Debate Over the “Collective Security” Issue
Continued Consideration of Japan’s Domestic Political Environment
Campaign Issues
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From the Beautiful Norris Dam State Park in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee. Today is Friday, May 18th, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 18, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


What a week it’s been! Both in Japan. And here. Another program from the road. I’ve spent most of this week enjoying the scenery and people here in Eastern Tennessee. What a place. Many of you won’t have the opportunity to visit this beautiful park. But if you can, I highly recommend it. Camping, if possible. Mark Morgan, the managing Ranger, heads a great staff. It’s hard to imagine how a crew of around 20 can accomplish so much. Campsites here are nicely wooded, and widely spaced. Facilities are carefully cleaned at least once a day. Ms. Wendy and the rest of the office staff couldn’t have been more helpful. Wish I could stay another week, at least. So, thanks to the Norris Dam State Park folks for providing a great environment in which to create a podcast! 

Tokyo too has had quite a week. Beginning with final Diet passage of the Constitutional Revision Referendum Law. This highly controversial legislation is significant in and of itself. But it also has great significance for the domestic political scene. We’ll consider this in more detail today. Related to this, we’ll continue our effort to unravel the complex domestic environment within which Japan’s political competition occurs. Also important is Japan’s sometimes acrimonious debate over “collective security.” I’d hoped to have a knowledgeable, broad-gauged guest commentator this week. To put this issue into perspective for us. But my persuasive powers proved inadequate to the challenge. Still, we do need to consider this potentially important issue, and its significance for both Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations.

Thanks for all of your comments on last week’s program. All very much appreciated. Whether you agree or disagree with the interpretations presented, it’s all helpful. Glad to learn that so many of you enjoyed Dr. Ed Lincoln’s commentary on FTAs and EPAs. That’s another of those topics where the noise-to-signal ratio is quite high. That is, folks like me, with only limited backgrounds in economics, tend to do much of the talking. With predictable results! Ed, in contrast, knows what he’s talking about. And, as usual, he gave us his analysis in a way that even non-economists could understand it.

Other folks wrote in to say that it sounded as if I had ended last week’s discussion of Japan’s domestic political environment in mid-paragraph. Well, maybe not mid-paragraph. But certainly before getting a chance to explore other important themes. So, I’ll return to that subject this week.

The Constitutional Revision Referendum Bill Passes the Upper House and Becomes Law

First, though the Constitutional Revision Referendum Bill. This Monday, May 14th, a plenary session of Japan’s Upper House passed the bill that defines how public referenda on proposed constitutional revisions will be conducted. Debate over the content of the Bill, and over scheduling the vote, has been intense. Constitutional revision is to national politics in Japan what abortion is to American national politics. Sort of a “Third Rail” issue.

The LDP/New Komeito ruling coalition insisted during Upper House Steering Committee meetings that 40 hours of parliamentary debate and six public hearings was adequate to bring the Bill to a vote.

The DPJ and other Opposition parties, however, insisted the Bill had been inadequately debated, that the public was not fully informed of its significance. Nothing unexpected here. The Ruling Coalition has a majority in the Upper House. Making passage of the Bill, once voted upon, inevitable. Opponents, therefore, saw delay in the vote as their only hope of showing their supporters that they were doing what they could to prevent it. 

As we discussed on earlier programs, Article 96 of Japan’s Constitution defines the complex procedures necessary for amendment. First, both Houses of the Diet must pass any proposed amendment. And pass it with a super-majority of two-thirds of each House’s total membership. Not just two-thirds of those voting. Once passed by this parliamentary super-majority, the amendment then must be approved by the Japanese people in a national referendum, which “… shall require the affirmative vote of a majority of all votes cast thereon.”

Now, that may seem pretty straightforward. But some opponents of constitutional revision in Japan have a different interpretation. They insisted the Bill should include a minimum percentage of Japan’s eligible voters to participate in the referendum. To make sure the referendum could not be approved – or rejected – by an inappropriately small minority of Japan’s public.

Supporters of the Bill argued such a limitation would encourage opponents to organize boycotts of the referendum vote. This isn’t a trivial issue. Both sides made reasonable arguments. But, in the event, the opponents agreed to hold the vote in return for assurance that Prime Minister Abe himself would attend the plenary session debate. Agreement, in principle, that Japanese 18 years of age and older should be eligible to vote in the referendum. Once the voting laws are changed. Addition of 18 supplementary resolutions agreeing to further discussion of contentious issues. And agreement that no amendment can be put before the Diet for three years from the date of the Bill’s passage.

The Resolution bill passed 122 to 99. With support from all LDP and New Komeito Upper House Members. And the yea vote of DPJ Member, Hideo Watanabe. Four other DPJ Members weren’t present for the vote. But the remainder of the DPJ, plus all Members of smaller parties, voted against it. This time there was no effort by the Opposition to disrupt the vote through massive walk-out, or delays in casting ballots. This out of fear of public censure, according to DPJ Upper House Caucus Chairman, Azuma Koshiishi.  

Passage Monday of this referendum bill is only one preliminary step toward constitutional revision. But it’s a step advocates of constitutional reform have been unable to take for the past 60 years. Its passage was inconceivable as late as a decade ago. So, we have to consider it significant.

Most controversial, of course, is the fate of Article IX, and constitutional limitations on exercise of military force in pursuit of Japan’s foreign policy objectives. For decades Japan’s Opposition Parties have put opposition to expansion of Japan’s military at the top of their policy agenda. As well as opposition to alliance with the United States.

It certainly made political sense for Japan’s Socialist and Communist parties to highlight foreign policy issues, and opposition to the exercise of military force, in their efforts during the post-World War Two era to appeal to Japan’s attentive public. Nationalization of the means of production, or massive government economic redistribution programs, would have been a tough sell during Japan’s years of rapid economic growth. Or in subsequent years, for that matter. And it so remains. Anti-militarism, and anti-U.S. alliance policies, were better choices to head the Opposition Socialist and Communist Party policy agendas. More on this in our next program.

On-Going Debate Over the “Collective Security” Issue

Another contentious military-related issue has been bubbling along beside constitutional revision. That concerns the constitutionality of Japan’s military participation in collective security arrangements. That’s collective security. Or collective self defense. This issue too has been debated throughout most of the post-World War Two era.

Does the postwar Constitution allow Japan to exercise military force in aid of an ally under attack from a third party? The question is far from academic! Consider the implications for Japan’s relationship with the United States. Recognized as the most important element of Japan’s overall national security system. The American public would find it hard to understand why Japan would be unable to help defend U.S. military forces under attack by a third power. Especially if those U.S. military forces had come into harm’s way while defending Japan!

The Cabinet Legislation Bureau, or Naikaku Housei Kyoku in Japanese, since the 1950s has been given responsibility for interpreting the constitutionality of government action. We can’t discuss this important institution in any detail today. But those of you interested can read a comprehensive article on the subject by Dr. Richard Samuels of MIT. It’s freely available on the JPRI website. I’ll include a link in the transcript. Click here for the article.

The Cabinet Legislation Bureau has ruled that Japan, as a sovereign state, naturally has the right to exercise collective self defense. However, the Bureau’s officials argue, Article IX of the Constitution prohibits Japan from exercising that right. Unless Japan itself is under direct attack. There’s really nothing inconsistent or illogical in this interpretation. But it’s been ridiculed as legal double-talk in Japan’s media since its release in the early 1980s.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed his determination to settle this issue of collective self defense. Before it creates serious friction in the U.S.-Japan relationship. In late April of this year the Kantei announced that Abe had ordered the Cabinet Legislation Bureau to re-study collective self-defense. And that he would appoint an advisory panel of outside experts to further study the issue. Dissenting voices – anonymous, of course – were heard the same day from the Bureau denying that any such order had been received. Suggesting resistance from there to Abe’s plan for change. And perhaps a warning for him to respect the Bureau’s independence.

Names of the deliberative panel members, however, were released at the same time. Along with instructions for them to consider four specific hypothetical cases in which collective self defense might be exercised beyond a direct attack on Japan itself. The cases were Japan’s right to intercept a missile headed for the United States as it flew over Japan. Helping to defend a U.S. vessel under attack in open seas. Helping to defend foreign troops under attack when Japan’s troops are engaged with them in joint operations. And providing logistical support for foreign troops, such as transport of weapons. Cases all carefully selected, it appears, in the hope of bringing the argument down from the ethereal theoretical level to real-life brass tacks.  

The panel of experts was appointed as planned. And held its first meeting today, May 18th.  Chaired by former Ambassador to the United States, Shunji Yanai. Other members included a few noted pro-defense academics, and former officials of the Defense and Foreign Ministries. Thirteen in all.

From the very beginning, announcement of the deliberative council’s membership and mandate drew sharp public criticism. Not only from the Opposition parties. But even from within the LDP. Even from some LDP Members known to favor constitutional revision! And, ultimately more important, from the LDP’s junior partner in the Ruling Coalition, the New Komeito.

The first problem involved the Council’s membership. Clearly, Abe intended to use the conclusions of the Council’s study to legitimate his determination to clarify Japan’s right to exercise collective self defense. Much as former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone had used deliberative councils so skillfully to support his reform efforts. But such external deliberative councils require at least a façade of neutrality concerning the issues under deliberation if they’re to have any credibility or legitimacy.

Abe’s Council was immediately described as a “stacked deck” by Japan’s media. And, with some justification. At least twelve of its thirteen members were known to be sympathetic to a greater military role for Japan. Not a very skillful move. Again suggesting the Kantei still has problems with the “public communication” thing.

In addition the charges that Abe had “stacked the deck,” LDP leaders such as Taku Yamasaki argued publicly that any change in the interpretation of Japan’s right to collective defense should be handled through constitutional revision rather than by forcing changes in the Cabinet Legislation Office’s long-standing interpretation.

Now, attentive observers of Japan’s current domestic political scene might be forgiven for some degree of skepticism when it comes to assessing Yamasaki’s motives. He’s a quintessential elderly LDP Factionist. Who’s consistently opposed Abe’s efforts to reform the LDP. Who hopes, at best, to replace Abe as prime minister. Or at least to revive the sagging fortunes of the LDP’s factions. And to increase chances for his own re-election with the resulting publicity. For all that, though, Yamasaki has expressed a reasonable point of view.

Prime Minister Abe’s rejection of this point of view too can be seen as reasonable. He faces growing U.S. frustration over Japan’s reluctance to participate more fully in security operations intended to stabilize Asia. Which may explain why he mentioned creation of the panel to President Bush during their Golden Week talks in Washington. Can’t shoot down a missile headed for the U.S., even given the opportunity? For heavens sake! Constitutional revision is certain to take at least three years. Probably more. And may well be derailed in the process. Realistically, too long to wait.

Sooo, what’s likely to happen to this issue. Well, there are a number of possibilities. The panel of experts is likely to release their findings later this year. We’re unlikely to be surprised by the results. In fact, the predictability of their conclusions weakens the utility of that whole operation. But that won’t be the end of it. If history is any guide, the Cabinet Legislation Office will continue to dig in its heels. Refuse to knuckle under to such blatant, public, political pressure. The director may threaten to resign. Or actually resign. To the delight of Abe Cabinet opponents in the media. And within the LDP. It’s also possible the American side will become more active in the public debate. Not a good idea. But it may happen. Increasing pressure on the Abe Administration to get something done. I’ll just have to keep you posted.

Continued Consideration of Japan’s Domestic Political Environment

Last week we began our long-delayed consideration of Japan’s domestic political environment and the run-up to this year’s Upper House elections in July. This is an important and interesting topic. But one so complex we can only brush the surface here on this program. Hoping we’ve chosen at least some of the more important themes within it.

Some of you have written in to suggest I may have bitten off more than can be conveniently chewed here. You may well be right. Though it does seem important to better understand the environment within which Japan’s major political contenders compete. And to better understand those major political contenders themselves. Things are changing in Japan. Changing more rapidly than I recall at any time during the past 30 or 40 years.

Last week I focused on recent changes in the relationships between Japan’s electorate and the candidates and political parties that compete for the ballots of those potential voters. Suggesting that traditional methods of appealing to voters had become more difficult to manage. Especially reliance on individual Koenkai. A number of you wrote in to remind me that Koenkai still exist. That some even flourish!

Quite true. I didn’t mean to imply last week that the traditional means of appealing to voters had disappeared completely. That just isn’t true. It is true, however, that it’s become increasingly difficult for candidates or incumbents to maintain those Koenkai. That surviving Koenkai have had to adapt to changing times. Adapt to changes in electoral district boundaries. Perform their functions with less generous funding than they had in the past. And compete for the loyalty of their members against new appeals. So, while Koenkai survive. They certainly are not the electoral campaign instrument of choice for new candidates.

As I’ve often said on this program, reliable information about election district-level organization and planning is very difficult to get. There just isn’t much current information available on the subject in print. And most of my contacts in Japan are based in Tokyo rather than in local electoral districts.

But most of Japan’s political commentators agree that the support of prefectural and local assembly members, and the support of existing organizations with solid local membership, remain important for both Lower and Upper House Diet election campaigns. That’s why the loss of LDP supporters in the recent prefectural and local assembly contests we discussed a few weeks back so concerned LDP officials with responsibility for elections. Municipal mergers had reduced the overall number of elected assembly seats. And on top of that, the DPJ picked up seats during the election! The LDP maintains an overwhelming advantage in terms of total numbers. But the trend is worrisome for LDP candidates. We’ll talk more about reliance on other organizations when we discuss the LDP and DPJ in future programs.

Campaign Issues

Issues are another important aspect of the environment within which Japan’s political competition occurs. An increasingly important aspect, I believe. Much of the political reform effort of the 1980s and 1990s was intended to reduce the personalistic, pork-barrel, aspects of election campaigning. And to increase the significance of issue-based election campaigns. I believe those reform efforts have had some success.

If so, what issues will be important during the upcoming Upper House election? First, though, we have to be a bit more specific. Important to whom? To the attentive public? Or to the major political parties and candidates? We’re nearly two months away from the election. But there appears to be a gap between the two.

Published results of public opinion polls are no more reliable in Japan than they are in the United States. Especially prior to important elections. Maybe even less reliable! I don’t mean to imply that it’s impossible to poll public opinion accurately. In either country. Rather, given the importance of public opinion in any genuine democracy, it’s only natural that contenders for political power and their supporters – whether interest groups or communications media outlets – will publish opinion polls that most effectively support their own election campaigns! Or the campaigns of the parties and candidates they favor. And that they’ll conduct polls intended for publication in ways that most effectively support those campaigns. It’s a well-honored tradition in democratic politics the world over. So, we have to be careful when we rely on the results of published opinion polls.

Having said that, every published opinion poll I’ve seen during the past few months indicates that Japan’s attentive public is most concerned about reform of Japan’s social security and national pension system. By a long shot. Followed by concern over other economic issues likely to influence their lives directly. Including employment issues. Then well down the list of potential voter issue concerns comes things like constitutional reform, collective security, amakudari reform, regional inequities, and even North Korea policy.

Compare this with the issues Japan’s two major Parties are highlighting. As we mentioned last week, Prime Minister Abe has said he intends to make constitutional reform a key issue in the July election. As well as collective self defense. And education reform. And the North Korean abduction hardy perennial. These appear in the public opinion poll lists. But way down toward the bottom.

The DPJ seems to be doing a little better. After a rocky start. For months now, Party Leader Ichiro Ozawa has been touring the country in the company of Japan Trade Union Confederation, or Rengo, Chairman, Tsuyoshi Takagi. At every stop he describes DPJ plans to address the problem of growing economic inequality in Japan. That’s a theme designed to please trade union members, to be sure. And trade union leaders, like Takagi. But a little too general, or ethereal, for the average Japanese voter.

Ozawa and the DPJ also have worked hard to attract the support of Japan’s agriculture cooperatives. As well as the rural agricultural vote. With proposals of massive government support for agriculture. Including price supports for rice. Again, an obvious effort to appeal to a particular well organized interest group. Rather than a broader, or general, appeal to Japan’s attentive public.

More recent information from sources within the DPJ suggest that Party election managers recognize the problem. That at least some of the Party Members realize they have to develop a policy platform, or “manifesto,” as they’re called in Japanese, that appeals more broadly to Japan’s attentive public. Or potential voters. That the election campaign can’t be run by only espousing policies intended to please special interest groups such as Rengo or the Agricultural Cooperatives. Or, conservative political groups. There are even suggestions that the DPJ is experiencing tensions within the Party between older, more traditionally-oriented Members, and younger, more modern Members.

One final point on issues. It’s too early to predict with any confidence which issues Japan’s attentive public will consider most important by the time the July Upper House election is held. There’s plenty of time yet for both the LDP and the DPJ to exercise their persuasive powers through Japan’s communications media. As well as unanticipated external events that may direct public concern to issues not yet considered.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’d better stop here. Lots more to say on this topic. But it all will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, here’s a cute clip from the Original Seldom Scene’s “Act I” album, “Philadelphia Lawyer.” Listen to John Duffey describe the fate of this foolish visitor to an earlier Reno, Nevada.


Goodbye all. Until next week.