July 13, 2007; Volume 03, Number 25

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Introduction
International Developments
Publication of the First Ministry of Defense White Paper
Official Campaigning Begins for the July 29th Upper House Election
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From Beautiful Spring Valley. Home of the Japan Considered Project. Here in the Midlands of South Carolina. Today, you are listening to Volume 03, Number 25 of the Japan Considered Podcast.

Introduction

Thanks for dropping in again. You’re always welcome. We’re still gaining listeners, according to the folks who count tho se things. Many new listeners are from European countries. And Asian countries, other than Japan. Had a bunch there from the beginning. Please send your comments and suggestions for the program directly to me at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. I’ll read them all, and respond to as many as possible. They’re a big help when planning new shows.

We’re well into summer here in the Midlands of South Carolina. Hot as the dickens, truth be told. That’s the price one has to pay to live here, and enjoy the other advantages! A great bargain! Fall classes don’t start at the University until late August. So, I’m planning to escape the heat for a few weeks with trip to the mountains, and points North, in Our Little Tin House.

Our Aliner serves nicely as a Mobile Studio for our weekly programs. But, publication on the Web requires good WiFi access. And where I’m going that will be sporadic – at best. So, advance warning. For the next few weeks – until mid-August – these programs may not be as regular as they normally are. I’m not “Pod-Fading,” now, as Scott Fletcher used to say. Just having difficulty finding WiFi access spots where I can download political and international news from Japan. And then upload programs once they’re produced. I’ll do my best, though. So don’t give up, and unsubscribe. Well! As long as the bears don’t get me. And that’s unlikely.

This week we’ll have to focus on preparations for the Upper House election, now scheduled for July 29th. There isn’t much that’s really new to consider. But the election news from Japan is so heavy, it would be odd if we didn’t say something.

International Developments

Before we get into that, however, a couple of items of significance in the international realm. First, some developments concerning the international campaign to denuclearize North Korea.

During any given week there usually are some indications of progress in the international effort to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its effort to develop nuclear weapons. And to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This week there have been a few more than usual. So it may be worth mention. I’m not predicting, now. Not predicting that we will see a breakthrough in the near future. In fact, based on observation of this problem for a number of years, I really doubt it. But, there have been some developments worth mentioning.

First, after discussions public and private for the past few weeks, yesterday, Mainland China’s Foreign Ministry finally announced formally that all parties had agreed to hold the next session of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing next week. On the 18th and 19th. The last meeting of the whole group was held in March. It ended in stalemate, though. With Pyongyang insisting they had no obligation to make good on their February 13th commitment to shut down their Yongbyon nuclear facilities. Because they had yet to take delivery of the $25 million we’ve discussed a number of times on this program. In good bills. So, everyone went home with no agreement on the time or place of the next meeting.

The timing of this next meeting is hardly ideal from Tokyo’s perspective. Everyone’s busy campaigning for the July 29th Upper House Election. But the very fact that everyone has agreed to meet again has to be good news.

Also encouraging is Pyongyang’s agreement to allow an inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency to return to North Korea. A nine-member delegation is in Beijing at the moment. Scheduled to leave tomorrow for Pyongyang. This is considerably behind the sixty-day schedule agreed upon at the February 13th Six-Party meeting. But, better late than never. Their mission is to verify shutdown and sealing of the nuclear facilities. Once that’s been done. So, some more good news on the North Korean nuclear issue.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, the chief US representative to the Six-Party Talks, was in Tokyo today, meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Kenichiro Sasae, Foreign Ministry Bureau Chief for Asian and Oceanic Affairs. Hill is scheduled to leave Tokyo on Sunday for Seoul and China. To prepare for the July 18th and 19th Talks.

As expected, Sasae and Hill in their public statements encouraged Pyongyang to begin shutdown of their nuclear programs. But in addition, during his public statements, Hill went out of his way to confirm U.S. support for Japan’s demand for progress on the issue of abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean government agents. As we discussed last week, we still hear talk of Japan being abandoned and isolated. And this may have inspired Hill to repeat his comments on this subject.

South Korea, under the Roh government, has been well ahead of the curve here. Yesterday they dispatched a ship-load of heavy fuel oil to North Korea. To satisfy one of Pyongyang’s most critical demands. Speaking of those demands, Secretary Hill today confirmed the rumor that North Korea has demanded that the U.S. provide a light water nuclear reactor as part of the package of in centives to shut down their nuclear program. Hill said that would be considered only after the North had completely dismantled their nuclear facilities, and had returned to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

So, some steps forward; some steps backward. The negotiations go on. Churchill certainly was correct to conclude that jaw-jaw-ing is better than war-war-ing. No question about that. As long as one side isn’t secretly improving their war preparations behind the curtain, while jaw-jaw-ing at the table. These negotiations have continued for years, under quite different political leaders in both the United States and Japan. Let’s hope we see some genuine progress.

Publication of the First Ministry of Defense White Paper

Last Friday, Defense Minister Yuriko Koike presented her Cabinet colleagues with copies of Japan’s first White Paper to be released by the Ministry of Defense. Past Boei Hakusho, as they’re known, of course, were published by the Defense Agency, not the Defense Ministry.

There are a couple of points of interest here for us, I think. First, Koike was appointed Defense Minister only on July 4th. After her predecessor’s resignation the previous day. This year’s Defense White Paper had already been written, finalized, and tens of thousands of copies printed. Then Minister, Fumio Kyuma, wrote and signed the foreword of the document, of course. Koike would have been well within her rights to have demanded revision of this first Defense Ministry White Paper. Substituting her own photos and foreword at the beginning of this historic document. Perhaps even changing some of the text. She didn’t. She described it as Kyuma’s “graduation thesis,” and said she decided against revising it to reflect her appointment since that would have been a waste of paper. Good decision. No Makiko Tanaka-like behavior here!

As for substance, like most routinized government reports, this Defense White Paper was pretty much like the last one. The incremental differences that appear, therefore, get a lot of attention. Of particular interest was the section on China’s military. This year, the Ministry expressed more specific concern over three aspects of China’s military. First was what the Boeisho Hakusho writers called the problem of “transparency.” That’s a polite way of saying China has been unwilling to let other countries know what they’re doing militarily. With specific mention of the surprise January 2007 anti-satellite weapons test. If the military expansion is defensive in nature, why not let the outside world know what they’re up against? Should they be foolish enough to attack. Sound defensive theory. Of course … if it’s not defensive, that’s another matter…. Truth be told, every nation state maintains some military secrets. But China has been unusual in this regard. And, according to this White Paper, that concerns Japan.

The second point of concern was the continued remarkable expansion of the budget. At the current rate, doubling every five years. That’s a lot of money for a poor country to spend on its military. And, the White Paper diplomatically noted, China’s official military expenditure figures and actual figures are thought to vary considerably. It was interesting to see that they provided a footnote to confirm this conclusion. The footnote cited an earlier U.S. Defense Department report on China!

But of greatest concern, according to this report, has been the actual expansion of China’s military capabilities. With the military balance between China and Taiwan tilting increasingly toward China. And China’s naval and air capabilities being developed well beyond what they would need to cope with problems on Taiwan. That’s a nice way of suggesting that even Japanese interests might be threatened.

So, nothing bellicose or shocking here. Foreign Minister Taro Aso has made more frank comments on the subject repeatedly, for example. But such blunt language concerning China in a government report of this sort would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. Times are changing. Japan’s international environment is changing. And Japan seems determined to adapt to and cope with those changes. Sooo, I think we all should pay close attention to these changes. Not just in China. But also in Japan. They matter!

Official Campaigning Begins for the July 29th Upper House Election

Yesterday, July 12th, the official campaign kicked off for the July 29th Upper House election. It’s hard to know what to say about this election campaign that I haven’t already said. The major media continue to commission and publicize polls that indicate the LDP is headed for a loss. A BIG loss. They continue to speculate on how that big loss will affect national politics in Japan. And even Japan’s conduct of international relations.

New Abe Administration-related political scandals continue to be “discovered” and publicized. Most dramatic recently has been the discovery that newly appointed Minister of Agriculture, Satoshi Akagi, has reported political office expenses that appear difficult to explain. Akagi has denied any improprieties. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “stands by his man” in public statements. While nearly everyone else expresses at least skepticism. This “everyone,” of course, includes senior members of the LDP who hope the Upper House election results are so devastating for their own Party that Abe is forced to resign.

So, what’s new?

Well, one relatively new thing is that the Kantei finally appears to have recognized the political danger in the Social Insurance Agency’s lost pension record revelations. Even official LDP statements of objectives for the Upper House election at the end of the month include promises to assure that every Japanese who has paid will receive their pension. About time! It’s not as if this issue appeared suddenly from nowhere. SIA’s severe institutional dysfunctionality has been recognized for decades! Since the 1960s, according to information released in the course of these ongoing investigations.

My archives are chuck-full of revelations of SIA problems, government investigations, and Cabinet proposals for institutional reform. The revelations of DPJ Member, Akira Nagatsuma, are only the most recent in a long chain of disclosures. Charges of bid-rigging in the early 1990s, inappropriate relationships between senior SIA officials and private companies dependent upon SIA contracts, and the recurrent problems surrounding “amakudari,” have been matters of public record. All for a long, long time.

In mid-2003, reports began to surface that senior political leaders were among those who had failed to pay their national pension premiums. These high-profile instances of non-payment highlighted SIA’s overall supervision of payments. In July 2003 SIA admitted that overall national pension premium payment compliance had dropped below 70 percent during the previous fiscal year. An incredible figure, when you think about it. Who was watching the store?

The following year, SIA management revealed that the Agency had decided to sell off more than 75 social welfare-related facilities around the country because they were economically unviable. That’s a polite way of saying “bankrupt”! These facilities all had been financed with funds from social insurance premium reserves. It turns out that the Agency during the 1970s and 1980s built 13 five-star resorts, called “Greenpia,” around the country. With senior politicians competing to get on built in their districts. Every one of them had collapsed by 2004. Similar stories of waste of funds under SIA custody continued to trickle out throughout the year. No wonder Nagatsuma was motivated to attack the Agency! Somebody had to.

Now, all of this might be mistaken for the typical “gotcha politics” that has come to characterize national political competition in Tokyo as much as in Washington. But, it’s clearly more than that. In April of 2004, a former director-general of the Social Insurance Agency, Takeshi Shimomura, was arrested on suspicion of accepting bribes from the Japan Dental Association. Shimomura’s political and business connections were legendary. But by mid-2004 even he was unable to escape the glare of the prosecutor’s flashlight. Shimomura eventually admitted accepting the bribes. At the end of the year, he received a suspended two and a half-year prison sentence. Suspended in consideration of his confession, his age, and ill health.

Just how much evidence of fundamental institutional dysfunctionality is required before something is done to rein in problems at an organization like the Social Insurance Agency? Well, more than this, it seems. In July, 2004, not long before another critical Upper House election, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi appointed a senior private-sector businessman to the SIA director-generalship. To clean up the bureaucracy, doncha know. Kiyoshi Murase had been a vice president of the Sompo Japan Insurance Company. When announcing Murase’s appointment, and his mandate to “clean house” at SIA, the government also promised that dozens of other private-sector managers would be brought in to SIA to help Murase with his house-cleaning. Well, Murase’s been there since. But the organization’s problem’s, as we’ve seen, have continued.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to explain how an agency with a mission as critical to Japan’s general public as the Social Insurance Agency could be allowed to continue to malfunction so blatantly. To continue for decades! It’s not as if the organization were responsible for deciding the color of national road signs. Pensions affect people’s lives in fundamental ways. Any suggestion the system may be malfunctioning, or corrupt, is a political disaster just waiting to happen!

I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with that conclusion. So, how could successive cabinets allow this situation at SIA to continue? How, for all of these years, could an organization like SIA avoid reformation and reorganization? Members of Japan’s attentive public might be excused for concluding that political and bureaucratic corruption were at, or at least near, the core of the problem. That business as usual there was simply too lucrative for too many senior bureaucrats within the Agency. And that too many political representatives charged with oversight were being paid in one way or another just to look the other way. A reasonable conclusion. Which, combined with concern over the stability of a national pension plan important to a large percentage of Japan’s population, has created political dynamite.

But, “What is to be done?” As I suggested a moment ago, this SIA pension problem represents far more than the typical “gotcha politics” we’re treated to before every election. This is a real issue. Pensions matter to people of limited means who depend upon them for income after they’re no longer able to work. This issue also epitomizes a far greater problem within Japan’s government. The relationship between appointed government officials and the representatives elected to supervise their work.

Clearly, the LDP, in power for most of the past five decades, has dropped the ball here. Current LDP leadership deserves every bit of the criticism hurled their way. And more. Whatever the real motivation of the critic. But, Japan’s potential voters are faced with a difficult choice. Are the electoral alternatives to the LDP likely to do any better job? Even with this particular issue.

DPJ member Akira Nagatsuma has done outstanding investigative work on this problem. But his Party now is led by Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa is considered by many observers to be the most opportunistic graduate of the LDP Factionist/Zokuist school of politics out of prison today.

Ozawa has made it clear that all of his efforts are directed toward crushing the ruling coalition’s majority in the Upper House. And to do that he is willing to cooperate with any group or individual who shares that objective. And, good to his word, he’s created a virtual alliance with Rengo, Japan’s national Trade Union Federation, in preparation for the election. And since, Ozawa has expressed support for Trade Union issues that have made more middle-of-the-road members of his own party cringe. This from a man who not many years ago was considered one of the most conservative political figures in Japanese national politics!

Japan’s potential voters are hardly fools. They recognize Ozawa and his strategy for what it is. So, while widespread voter support for the DPJ might give the LDP a well-deserved drubbing. It would be most unlikely to result in anything approaching reform of the Social Insurance Agency. Rengo member unions representing most of SIA’s employees would fight any effort at real reform – let alone privatization of the Agency – tooth and nail. Changes in work rules would be almost as bitterly resisted. No, it just wouldn’t happen. And Japan’s attentive public recognizes that unfortunate situation.

Opponents of the Abe Administration’s conservative polices might argue that loss of the ruling coalition majority in the Upper House – a BIG loss – would lead to Abe’s resignation of the premiership and LDP presidency. Giving the Party’s senior factionists and zokuists another opportunity to select a more “prudent” Party president and Prime Minister. That, I believe is what most of the anti-Abe forces within the communications media and the LDP actually hope for. Not for a non-LDP prime minister.

Well, that might work to rid the Kantei of what they consider to be the odious “Right-Wing” Abe. But, it would be most unlikely to do anything at all to clean up the mess at SIA. Or, to reduce overall political corruption. The other issue opinion polls suggest Japan’s attentive public finds troubling in their political system. If anything, it would have just the opposite effect. Make matters worse. On the two issues that Japan’s voters are most concerned about.

Sooo, I conclude that the majority of Japan’s potential voters will find all of their options on July 29th unattractive. Candidates of both major parties will genuinely appeal only to their most dedicated supporters. On the fringes. That, at least for me, makes the results of the election very difficult to predict. Most of Japan’s most sophisticated political reporters, Punditocracy, and Tenurate are convinced that Abe’s LDP is going to lose – and lose BIG – on Sunday, July 29th. It may. And, as intended, these widespread predictions of loss may help achieve that result. But the result may well be more complicated than that. Glad I’m not in the political prediction business. Hard enough to try to discover the longer-term significance of things once they’ve happened!

Concluding Comments

That’s all we have time for again this week. Thanks for dropping by. Continue to send your comments to me at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. And click on over to the Japan Considered Project website from time to time. To go out, here’s another snippet of the incomparable John Duffey, from the “Always in Style” album, compiled in 2000 after his untimely death. I’ll put a link in the transcript to the site where you can buy the CD, if you don’t already own it. This is from “The Old Hometown.” Enjoy.

[bluegrass clip]

Goodbye all. Until next time.