June 22, 2007; Volume 03, Number 23

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

North Korea Nuclear Negotiation Developments
Prime Minister Abe Demands Extension of Current Diet Session
Significance of the Change of Date
Upper House LDP Caucus Leader, Mikio Aoki’s Reaction
Prime Minister Abe’s Role in Extending the Diet Session
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, June 22nd, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03. Number 23, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Thanks for dropping by again, to you long-time listeners. And Welcome Aboard to those of you who are joining us for the first time. I hope you all find the program interesting. That it adds something to your understanding of what makes political and international Japan tick. Each week at this time we spend twenty minutes or so together, considering recent events in the news. Not every event. Or even every important event. Just those that seem to have longer-term significance. That will help us better understand how Japan actually works.

Every year the number of news items about Japan in the U.S. communications media increases. I recall in the early 1970s when an article devoted entirely to Japan in the New York Times or Washington Post was quite an event. A sure topic of discussion in the graduate student lounge!

Many, if not most, of those articles were feature-type stories. Articles that emphasized unusual differences between Japanese and Western cultures. Mixed nude bathing. Peculiar foods. The odd religious festival, here and there. That sort of thing was quite popular. Articles on political developments in Japan, domestic or international, were few and far between.

These days the situation is quite different. There are scads of articles in the U.S. communications media today about Japan. Those good old “local color” type stories endure. They’re much easier to do, I suppose. Especially for the short-term visitor to Japan with no local language skills. And they still attract interest. But in addition, there are plenty of articles about political and international Japan. And, most abundant, about economic Japan. These articles range widely in quality, originality, and reliability, of course. But at least we now have something to read in English! This program is intended to give you additional background and perspective on domestic politics in Japan and Japan’s conduct of international relations. So you can make better sense of all those articles. Separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. So, let’s get right to it.

North Korea Nuclear Negotiation Developments

This week we’ll concentrate on the domestic political scene. Quite a few important developments there. Most focused around extension of the current Diet session. Considering what this means for Japan’s domestic politics will take most of our time today. Next week we’ll consider how the Abe Cabinet has handled, or mishandled, a couple of critical political issues. As Japan approaches the late July Upper House election.

First, though, Japan’s media this week has been chuck-full of articles about the North Korean nuclear problem. About Pyongyang finally agreeing to allow U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors back in to have a look at their nuclear activities. This hasn’t happened yet. And, if past experience with Pyongyang is any guide, it may not happen. At least for a while. Pyongyang says their agreement to shut down their nuclear facilities depends on return of that illusive 25 million dollars we mentioned last week. Apparently they want to make sure the currency they receive is all genuine. An understandable sensitivity for Pyongyang, I guess ….

The surprise visit of Washington’s chief negotiator, Christopher Hill, to North Korea yesterday, the 21st, has heightened interest in the issue. More than the anticipated IAEA inspection team’s invitation to return. Hill wasn’t expected to include Pyongyang in his Asian tour itinerary. And it’s been a while since a U.S. government representative has made an official visit there. Progress? Let’s hope something comes of it.

Hill’s surprise Pyongyang visit once again has inspired speculation in Japan’s political press that the U.S. has decided to abandon Japan. In order to facilitate their own agreement with the North Koreans on the nuclear issue. Leaving Japan isolated. Speculation intended to criticize the Abe Cabinet’s tough negoti  ating stance. And to urge Tokyo to adopt a more conciliatory posture.  But most of this, as in the past, has been pretty obvious anti-Abe Cabinet politicking. Both that within Japan, and that coming more directly from abroad.

Washington seems to have recognized the situation for what it is. Bush Administration officials, including the President himself, have gone out of their way to reassure Japan’s public. Insisting the U.S. will include Tokyo’s concerns over the abduction/human rights issues in their discussions with North Korea.

This is no absolute guarantee, of course. And it won’t stop the “we’re being abandoned,” “we’re isolated in world opinion,” type stories from appearing in Japan. At least, not until the dust has settled from the Upper House election. But hopefully those comments won’t be taken as seriously by Japan’s attentive public as they might have been without Washington’s assurances. It’s also interesting that the media outlets least supportive of Japan’s security alliance with the United States have been the ones expressing greatest concern over the danger of Japan being abandoned! Hmmm. That’s counter-intuitive.   

It’s encouraging to see Washington recognize the domestic political motivations of these expressions of concern in Japan. To make efforts to prevent them from weakening U.S.-Japan  cooperation on this important issue. Secretary Hill is expected to stop off in Tokyo on his way home to brief Japan’s negotiators on the results of his talks. We’ll just have to continue to watch developments there, and hope for progress.

Prime Minister Abe Demands Extension of Current Diet Session

Last week we briefly discussed the timing of the Upper House election. It’s long been expected on Sunday, July 22nd this year. Following scheduled dissolution of the Lower House tomorrow, June 23rd. Last week, I mentioned rumors the Kantei would demand an extension of the current Lower House session. And noted that any extension of over five days would mean the Upper House election would have to be rescheduled.

Well, they’ve gone ‘an done it, as we’d say OverHome. Earlier this week the LDP and New Komeito leadership agreed to support a 12-day extension of the current session. Not five days, but 12! This extension passed the Lower House today. So, now it’s official. The Upper House election will have to be pushed back a week. From Sunday, July 22nd to Sunday, July 29th. Now, this is a significant political development. For a couple of reasons. So, let’s consider it in some detail.

Significance of the Change of Date

Last Friday at Podcast Time, I thought extension of the session was unlikely. And extension of more than five days Very unlikely. I suspected that the wheel of the Nagatacho political rumor mill was being spun largely by under-the-table threats from the Kantei to extend the session. As a means to pressure the reluctant Upper House leadership to push politically critical legislation through before dissolution.

That all made sense last week. And, in fact, it still does! Think about it! This change of date is no small matter. Or minor inconvenience. Upper House incumbents elected in 2001, now up for election – and their challengers – have been planning for years to compete in an election that will be held on Sunday, July 22nd. Campaign materials have been printed. Facilities have been rented. Campaign personnel have been contracted. Election campaign strategies have been devised, and pursued. In some cases, for years! With a target date of July 22nd. Indeed, many local governments have already made arrangements for polling places on July 22nd.

Yes, yes. I know. Japan’s election campaign law limits official campaigning to a short time before the election. To reduce the costs of campaigns and corruption, doncha know.

Well, that’s the law. And any incumbent or challenger caught openly engaging in prohibited activities before the official campaign period will be punished. But that doesn’t mean incumbents and challengers wait until the night before the beginning of the designated campaign period to decide whether or not they’ll stand in the upcoming election! That’s silly.

As with U.S. House of Representatives biennial elections, planning – and fundraising – for the next election begins the morning after the last election! So Upper House incumbents and their challengers have been preparing for this July 22nd contest for years! And, in Japanese elections, timing is at least as important as it is in U.S. elections. Peak too soon – or too late – and you’ve wasted your effort and money. So, this change in the date of the upcoming election is a big deal. A very important decision.

Rumors the Abe Kantei would demand extension of the current Diet session intensified last weekend. By Tuesday it seemed a near-certainty. Reliable sources reported that the LDP and New Komeito leadership had agreed on the extension. And that agreement was announced officially on Thursday. Today, Friday, the extension became official. So, a lot of people have been inconvenienced. Important people. People whose cooperation the Abe Kantei needs to get things done.

Upper House LDP Caucus Leader, Mikio Aoki’s Reaction

One such person is Mikio Aoki, leader of the LDP caucus in the Upper House. Hardly an insignificant figure. Especially now, since it’s his patch upon which the election will be held.

Aoki and Abe are not be the closest of comrades in arms. In fact, conflict between the two has been a staple of the Japanese political gossip columns since Abe became prime minister. Aoki has publicly urged the Abe Kantei to place more emphasis on the economic inequality gap issue in their policy agenda. Rather than on broader, more conservative, issues such as constitutional revision.

Aoki also was quick to join the attack against Health and Welfare Minister Hakuo Yanagisawa. When Yanagisawa’s women as “birthing machines” comment was reported so widely. Aoki even released a list of Abe Cabinet members he thought should be replaced. “To regain the public’s trust,” doncha know. Hmmm.

As a leader of one of the LDP factions not affiliated with those supporting Abe, all of this may be understandable. Factional politics as usual. Aoki is a traditional-style LDP factionist/zoku politician. On the order of Taku Yamasaki and a few other sympathetic elderly factionists traveling around Asia urging Abe to change his foreign policy.

But for all of this, Aoki and Abe certainly share an interest in the LDP doing well in this next election. One defining characteristic of the LDP since its 1955 formation has been its ability to unite in the face of Party-wide political threats. Abandoning intense personal and factionist rivalries, to cooperate in pursuit of mutual interests. This still characterizes the LDP, I think.

But Mikio Aoki, occupies a difficult position today. Well beyond his known factionist opposition to Shinzo Abe’s party presidency. Leadership of the LDP Upper House Caucus demands that he perform a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he has the immediate interests of his Upper House LDP colleagues to consider. To maintain their confidence, he has to demonstrate he’s doing all he can to support those interests. And that doesn’t include re-jiggering the date of their election!  

On the other hand, Aoki has to maintain the cooperation of the Opposition Parties in the Upper House to get anything done there. To get any significant legislation passed. To avoid disruptive, unseemly, behavior in that Chamber. That the majority of Japan’s political press is likely to interpret more sympathetically for the Opposition than for the LDP. Add to this the further complication of the diverse – even disparate – interests represented within his LDP Upper House delegation, and Aoki’s recent behavior makes more sense.

Since rumors of extension of this Diet session began to bubble toward the surface of Tokyo’s political stew, Aoki has been strongly – publicly – opposed to any extension of the current Diet session. Especially an extension that would require his Upper House candidates to change the date of their election. Certainly a reasonable position. Given Aoki’s current Upper House responsibilities. He’s also being pressured by the Abe Kantei to pass legislation they consider politically critical as soon as possible. Yet he’s naturally reluctant to do so in a way that will generate any more resistance from the Opposition than is necessary. And to avoid further criticism in Japan’s political media of the LDP “ramming through” legislation. We’ve talked before on this program about this somewhat peculiar charge. Or at least a charge that seems peculiar to those of us raised in democratic traditions that respect majority decision rules.

The result has been that Mikio Aoki has repeatedly warned Prime Minister Abe and other Kantei officials that it will be difficult to pass their cherished bills before dissolution of the current Diet session. He’s made these warnings publicly. Together with his public opposition to extension of the current Diet session.

Still, it was something of a surprise when Aoki bluntly told a Tottori Prefecture audience last Saturday night, the 16th, that it would be necessary to clarify responsibility for the outcome of the Upper House election. I don’t have a transcript of his comments. But several reliable Japanese news sources reported that Aoki said victory or defeat has been defined as the LDP and New Komeito maintaining a majority of the Upper House’s 242 seats. So failure to maintain a majority would represent defeat for the LDP. And that such defeat would require “clarification of responsibility” for the loss.

Aoki’s comments in Tottori made big news. Probably bigger than he had anticipated. Or wanted. Given the situation. If the reports are accurate, he as much as said Prime Minister Abe should resign should the ruling coalition fail to maintain its Upper House majority. That the decision to extend the current Diet election to the point it changed the election date was Abe’s personal responsibility.

Strong sentiments, indeed. Leaving Aoki open to criticism that he was suggesting before the election that the LDP might well lose. Something Aoki himself was reported to have lambasted LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa – and even Abe himself – for suggesting  during a mid-March meeting of the LDP Board. Times change, I guess. And consistency is more appreciated in religion than in democratic politics ….

Sooo, opposition to the decision to extend the current Diet session went well beyond the Opposition parties. They’re opposed, of course. That’s their job! But will the extension hurt or help them in the election? Hard to say. True, the ruling coalition almost certainly will use the extra time to pass bills they hope will assure Japan’s attentive public that they’re “doing something” about politically critical issues. But how will it affect Japan’s potential voters? Especially those important unaffiliated, or floating voters? Will they be repelled by the ruling coalition’s blatantly political tactics? And choose an Opposition candidate or Party in protest? Maybe so. Still, the Opposition Parties have to oppose the extension. If only in principle. And then make best use of the extra time to argue their own positions.

Prime Minister Abe’s Role in Extending the Diet Session

A second point of significance of this Diet session extension decision, I think, concerns the determining role of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself. Reading Japan’s political press, it’s clear that Abe has been the prime mover behind the decision to extend the Diet session. Were it not for his personal resolve to pass legislation he considers essential before the election, the extension wouldn’t have happened. There was just too much inertia. Too much opposition to the move, otherwise.

Opposition from the Opposition Parties, of course. But more important, opposition from within the LDP. And from the LDP’s ruling coalition partner, the New Komeito. Which might well have been even more important than that. New Komeito leadership had been on record for some time now in opposition to an extension. And their continued support in this upcoming election is critical to maintenance of the ruling coalition’s majority. Their leaders can’t afford to be seen by New Komeito potential voters as simply rubber-stamping LDP decisions.    

So what? Well, this, to me, is further evidence of the increasing importance of the prime minister and central political executive in Japan’s national political processes. Even evidence of some “institutionalization” of this greater importance. To use one of those impressive-sounding academic terms. That is, influence associated with the office, or institution, itself. Not just with the individual occupying the office. If so, that’s significant!

Few observers accuse Shinzo Abe of practicing the “theater politics” of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Rather, Abe’s image in Japan’s political press has been that of a more staid, buttoned-down – even dull – political figure. A diligent student, who expects Japan’s public eventually to recognize his good deeds. Without resorting to the unseemly razzle-dazzle that characterized his predecessor’s public antics. We’ve discussed all this before.

I’m inclined to agree with that assessment. Abe is no public showman. Indeed, I believe he avoids the responsibility a popular political leader has to communicate his intentions to his attentive public. And to communicate them persuasively! In ways designed to penetrate the hostility of most of Japan’s political media to his fundamentally conservative political agenda. Or, at best, he finds this hard to do. If he does recognize that responsibility. 

To be fair, his position since assumption of the LDP presidency and premiership has been difficult. Senior LDP leaders have publicly criticized his political agenda, and his political strategies for achieving that agenda. Upper House LDP Caucus Chairman Mikio Aoki is only one of the elderly factionists and zoku giin who’d like to turn back the clock to a more predictable era. An era in which they could pursue their traditional methods of political campaigning and fundraising without fear of the Prosecutor’s knock on the door.

But even Abe’s LDP leadership supporters from time to time have made statements in his defense that only tended to illustrate his weaknesses. One example was LDP Secretary-General Hidenao Nakagawa’s widely reported outburst on February 18th. When he rebuked cabinet members for not showing Abe the respect due a prime minister during cabinet meetings. Not something Abe will soon forget. Talk about “arigata meiwaku”! 

I mention all of this to remind us that it it’s hard to think of Abe as a strong political leader. He simply hasn’t been that. Maybe someday. But not yet. I’ve received quite a few e-mails charging me with anti-Abe bias. And others informing me that as a foreign observer I simply don’t understand “leadership” in the Japanese cultural context. These all from podcast listeners more inclined to be sympathetic to, or supportive of, Abe. As far as I can tell.

Well, maybe so…. I don’t mean to present a biased characterization of Prime Minister Abe. But I do think we have to conclude that he and his Kantei colleagues have been quite ineffective in presenting their positions to Japan’s attentive public. For a prime minister selected on the basis of his presumed public popularity, that’s a serious problem! One that requires consideration. No matter how nice a fellow he is. And each report of a decline in public approval of his job performance weakens his influence as prime minister. And emboldens his opponents and potential successors within the LDP.

Yet, to return to the point, even the less than overwhelmingly powerful Abe was able to extend this Diet session. When almost everybody else who mattered was opposed to the move. That’s a development worth considering, I think. One that provides some insight into the evolution of the central political executive in Japan’s rapidly changing domestic political environment.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re out of time this week. Next week, absent startling international developments, we’ll continue our consideration of Japan’s domestic political scene. With focus on the two issues that appear to be most important for the upcoming Upper House election. And for Japan’s attentive public in general. They are the government’s handling of the national pension records fiasco and political corruption. Now, “corruption” is a harsh term. But I know of no other way to put it. We’ll see next week.

In the meantime, though, here’s another clip of inspiring bluegrass to tide you over. From the unrivaled Tony Rice. Who teamed up in 1994 with mandolinist,  David Grisman, to produce “Tone Poems.” Another album well worth having. I’ll put a link in the transcript to an on-line source. In case you don’t already own a copy. This from “Wildwood Flower.” A great sound. Enjoy.  

[bluegrass clip]

Goodbye all. Until next week.