August 10, 2007; Volume 03, Number 28

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Introduction
Negotiations with North Korea
A Change Japan-China Relations
Political Affairs After the LDP’s July 29th Upper House Election Thrashing
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Remains in Office
The Assumption of Responsibility for the Election Upset
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, August 10th, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 28, of the Japan Considered Podcast.

Introduction

Hot as the dickens here. Has been for a week. Ah, the price we pay to enjoy the benefits of living in South Carolina! I’m Robert Angel, creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project. And creator and host of this podcast.

Home again at last. After a glorious 24-day trek. That began in Columbia, South Carolina. And went way up north through the Finger Lakes Region of the Allegany Mountains. Then back home. Enjoying terrific natural and social scenery throughout. Both the Mobile Studio and its tow vehicle performed flawlessly. Well, with the exception of the air conditioner roar on the last program that some of you commented on! Sorry about that. The alternative, though, was your host collapsing from the heat. Which would have complicated program production even further! Good to be back home here. And looking forward to the beginning of classes at the University on the 23rd of this month.

Thanks for dropping by again, to you regular listeners. And a hearty South Carolina welcome to those of you tuning in for the first time. Without listeners, there’s not much point in producing the programs. So I appreciate your attention.

Fortunately, the audience continues to grow. Both in the United States, and abroad. For some reason, during the past few weeks, European subscriptions have risen more than others. Maybe they appreciate the photos of the campgrounds! Continue to send your comments and suggestions for the program to me at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. I read them all. Respond directly to as many as possible. And take each one into consideration when planning new programs.

This week again domestic political news from Japan continues to pour in. It’s still interesting. If somewhat puzzling. At least to me. So, we’ll spend most of our time today on the aftermath of the July 29th Upper House election. It’s been nearly two weeks now since the election. The dust should have settled a bit. By now. Allowing us to better see what happened. And to assess its effect on Japan’s domestic politics. But, really, “should have” is the key term here. I’m still amazed by events there. Especially reports of the behavior of the Abe Kantei.

Negotiations with North Korea

First, though, we’d better consider a few important developments in Japan’s conduct of international relations. The negotiations with North Korea over their nuclear weapons development continues to chug along. Since we last mentioned this important issue, there’s been another meeting of the Group of Six. North and South Korea have agreed to hold a summit meeting later this month. And commentators continue to describe North Korea’s progress on dismantling their nuclear capacity. All I’ve read so far, spinning the facts they present to support their own position on whether a tough or conciliatory approach would be best now in dealing with Pyongyang.

In Japan, a good portion of the news about, and analysis of, this important event relates to Japan’s insistence that North Korea address Pyongyang’s abduction and imprisonment of Japanese citizens. Unfortunately, this aspect of Japan - North Korea relations has become complicated by entanglement in Japanese domestic politics. Specifically, the fate of the Abe Cabinet.

Shinzo Abe has long supported the families of abductees. It was hardly the main reason for his popularity while he was Koizumi’s Chief Cabinet Secretary. As some political press reports suggest now. But commentators today are likely correct in concluding that his position on the issue has raised, rather than weakened, his public approval rating.

Therefore, Abe’s critics feel it necessary to criticize his firm position on the abduction issue as part of their anti-Abe Cabinet campaigns. To the extent that Abe’s support may have become something of a mixed blessing for the Japanese families hoping to learn what happened to relatives abducted by the North Korean government!

The abduction issue is complicated by another factor we’ve mentioned on this program in the past. That is concern over Japan becoming “isolated” within the international community. For refusal to take a more conciliatory posture toward North Korea during the current round of delicate negotiations. Especially, the Abe Cabinet’s insistence on inclusion of the demand for progress on the abduction issue in the negotiations. Article after article has appeared in the Japanese press speculating that the Abe Cabinet’s refusal to downplay the abduction issue has offended other countries. Especially the United States. The implication being that Abe’s tough diplomatic posture has alienated Japan’s most important international partner.

Critics of Abe’s hard line recognize it would be difficult to persuade Japan’s attentive public that their government should abandon its commitment to the families of the abductees. And agree to ignore Pyongyang’s outrageous assaults on innocent Japanese citizens in the recent past. But it might be possible to gain a more sympathetic public hearing by claiming that Abe’s hard line on the abductees is damaging Japan’s relationship with its most important international partner.

Some American commentators on Japan outside Bush Administration circles have agreed with this speculation. Based, it’s hoped, on reliable personal sources they have within the Administration. But Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, and other important Bush Administration officials – including the President himself – have denied it. Repeatedly. Raising the suspicion that U.S. domestic politics as well may be at play here.

The North Koreans, of course, also support this line. I’m not suggesting here that Abe critics are supporting the North Koreans! But I am suggesting that the North Koreans are supporting the anti-Abe elements within Japan. To the extent they can. Pyongyang correctly sees Prime Minister Abe as a hard-nosed conservative. That he is intent upon applying pressure on Pyongyang for meaningful action. That he won’t accept only promises to play nicely once others agree to forget the past. Just in order to get the issue off the front burner.  

All of this is most unfortunate. Rather than being considered on its merits, it means the abduction issue has become a marker in the intense domestic political struggle ongoing in Japan. Its difficult to find a prominent critic of the Abe Administration who supports maintaining the demand for progress on the abduction issue. Too bad! Though it’s likely the Japanese public would respond negatively should the Abe Kantei decide to give in to its critics. To abandon its demand for progress on the issue of North Korea’s state-sponsored abductions. The abductees families must hope he understands that.

A Change Japan-China Relations

There is another development worth considering in Japan’s conduct of international relations. This one more gradual – cumulative – rather than the result of a single event. Or so it seems to me. That is a change in the overall tenor of the Japan-China relationship.

For years – decades, really – the tone of the Japan-China bilateral relationship has been dominated by Chinese complaints about one aspect or another of Japan’s behavior. Past or present. And Japan’s efforts to explain why China’s complaints are unjustified. And promises to do better in the future. Never adequate. But from time to time, just enough to quiet the complaints from Beijing for a while.

That pattern of bilateral relations seems to have changed subtly during the past few years. Beginning, as I recall, with Japan’s heated reaction to the suicide of a Japanese foreign service officer in their Shanghai Consulate. A person with highly sensitive responsibilities for diplomatic communications. Driven to suicide, it was charged, by blackmail-type pressure from officers of China’s intelligence service. A messy business all around, that Japan’s Foreign Ministry initially made efforts to keep under wraps. Once the information was leaked, in late 2005, however, the Koizumi Kantei pursued it with some vigor. Beijing then was hard-put to present convincing explanations of what happened.  

More recently, we’ve seen Japanese representatives encouraging China to be more forthcoming in its effort to fight pollution. To reduce emissions of gasses thought to intensify global warming. China has responded with expressions of concern. And explanations of the difficulty poor countries have with pollution while industrializing. We considered the significance of this issue for Japan’s relations with China briefly on a past program.

More recently bilateral consultations have been held between Japanese and Chinese representatives to discuss incidents of tainted Chinese exports. Including food and personal care products. Again, the pattern has been expressions of concern from the Japanese side. And efforts at explanations from the Chinese side.

There are other examples of this. But time is limited. Again, I’m not suggesting there has been a sudden, earth-shaking change here. Or that the Chinese side has altogether stopped making demands of Japan. Neither of those are true, of course. But I do see increasing evidence that those responsible for the conduct of Japan’s relations with Mainland China have, at least, made some course adjustments. That it’s not as easy to summarize the bilateral Japan-China relationship with “Beijing Complaining; Tokyo Explaining,” as it was a few short years ago.

If there’s anything to this observation, what might be the cause? Well, one thing could be changes in Japanese leadership. Changes in the Kantei, and perhaps even in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Arrival of political leaders who are more sensitive to Japanese attentive public opinion than were their predecessors. And, as we saw with Koizumi’s manipulation of the Yasukuni Shrine Visit Issue, Japan’s attentive public is about sick of conciliating China every time Beijing decides it’s “outraged.” That’s one possibility.

Another explanation has been suggested to me by two well-informed observers of Asian affairs in Washington, DC, and its environs. During phone conversations about the subject. These two Asia Hands both opined that China’s international posture now reflects the Beijing leadership’s acute concern over the 2008 Olympics. Both of them suggested that I underestimate the degree to which the CCP political leadership believes its credibility – even legitimacy – depends upon international approval of China’s role as Olympic Hosts.

Could well be. Most likely, a combination of those two explanations. And others. IF – and that’s quite an imposing “if” – there’s anything to my observation in the first place. Something to keep our eye on, though. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Political Affairs After the LDP’s July 29th Upper House Election Thrashing

Now, let’s turn to domestic political affairs in Japan. And continue last week’s consideration of the causes and effects of the LDP’s incredible loss in the July 29th Upper House election. Make some effort to understand just what’s going on now, and why. And how it’s likely to affect Japan in the future.

Last week we discussed the surprising results. The excitement those results have generated among those of us who spend most of our time thinking about Japanese politics. Some odd things about voter turnout figures. The distinction between positive and negative voting. With the July 29th election characterized by more negative than positive voting. And its significance. And Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to remain in office. Despite the loss, and public demands from even within his own Party that he resign.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Remains in Office

First, let’s return to Prime Minister Abe’s decision to remain in office. Well, he’s still in office! To my surprise, at least. And today, five days after the election, it appears that he will be able to remain there. At least for a while. He’s ridden out the immediate demands for his resignation. Demands that appeared for a while to come from everyone who wasn’t related to him directly. Either by blood or by marriage.

Naturally the anti-Abe elements of Japan’s news media excitedly reported those demands. And added their own editorial opinions. Leaders of the Opposition parties all agreed. Adding that Abe had a moral responsibility to call a General Election of the Lower House now since “The People Have Spoken.” Even prominent individuals within the LDP were emboldened during publicly reported Party meetings to demand that Abe resign.

Well, that’s cooled off somewhat. More senior traditional LDP leaders have publicly chastised their colleagues who publicly demanded Abe’s resignation. Calling them “irresponsible.” And younger LDP members, including quite a number of those first elected in September 2005, have organized support for Abe remaining in office.

This development must have come as a huge relief to the Opposition party leadership. It would be difficult to predict just who might replace Abe as LDP president, and prime minister. But it might well have been someone who not only supported his commitment to political and administrative reform. But who could communicate with Japan’s attentive public. What a nightmare for the Opposition that would be! Better to stick with Abe.

Prime Minister Abe himself has made a reasonable defense of his decision to stay on. He insists that he has to remain in office to continue implementation of the reforms he inherited from his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. This implies that any successor would be likely to abandon those reforms.

That’s a reasonable justification for remaining in office. But the assumption about a successor is far from justified. First, a number of the LDP politicians mentioned as possible replacements for Abe are as committed as Abe to political and administrative reform. They’d likely pursue it, should they find themselves in the Big Chair.

Second, it could reasonably be argued that Shinzo Abe himself isn’t the best choice now to lead the reform effort. If he ever was! That this election loss has weakened whatever ability he had to perform his job. Even, that he’s become something of a lightening rod for opposition to political reform these days. Opposition from the opposition parties. And more important, opposition from senior LDP traditional Factionist/Zokuist members. Who’ve long relied on the very relationships Abe has been trying to “reform” to collect the funds they need. Needed to maintain their expensive vote-collection machines! I mean! Talk about breaking rice bowls!

One example: Within three days after the election, reports began to appear in Japan’s political press from critics of administrative reform. They argued that the LDP’s election loss represented public rejection of Abe’s political and administrative reform agenda. That the whole thing needed to be reviewed. In light of the election loss. And most of these calls came from within the LDP!

This isn’t true, of course. If anything, it was public suspicion about Abe’s real commitment to reform that hurt the LDP in this last election. Fear that Abe was too willing to appease the anti-reform Traditionalists within the LDP. To abandon political reform for the sake of a peaceful premiership.  

That point may be controversial. But it’s undeniable that the public responded negatively to the way the Abe Kantei pursued its reform objectives. Not the policies. But the perception of incompetence in the pursuit of those policies! How they ran the government, in other words. So, Abe’s continuation in office guarantees continuation of that criticism. To the detriment of the overall reform effort. It might well be argued. Still, it appears that Abe will be able to hang on. At least for the time being.

The Assumption of Responsibility for the Election Upset

We considered this “responsibility” issue briefly last week. Since then, much attention has been given to apportioning responsibility for the loss. LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa immediately offered himself up as the “responsible person.” That makes sense. Since traditionally the LDP’s secretary general has been the Party official most responsible for election strategy and oversight of campaigns. It isn’t as true today as it was a decade or so ago. But still, it was a nice gesture. And Nakagawa risked little, since his replacement in the next personnel reshuffle was considered inevitable.

Abe himself, during repeated press conferences since Monday, has insisted that he personally accepts responsibility for the election loss. That’s closer to the mark, I think. Shotoku Taishi himself as LDP Secretary General would have had difficulty pulling election victory out of the bag, given the Abe Kantei’s handling of politics during the past ten months.

But, what, you may reasonably ask, were the options? The shocking LDP electoral loss required a dramatic response from the ruling coalition to recover public confidence. And soon, if not immediately, after the election.

I believe there were three possibilities.

First, Abe could announce dissolution of the Lower House and call a General Election. On the grounds that Japan’s voters had expressed a complete loss of confidence in his government.

Second, Prime Minister Abe could resign. Satisfying the anti-Abe elements within the media. At least for the time being.

Third, Prime Minister Abe could announce an immediate and dramatic reorganization of his Cabinet and of LDP senior personnel. On the grounds that he just didn’t have the help he needed to implement his policies.

Of these three dramatic actions, the first – dissolution of the Lower House and a General Election – seemed to me the least likely. The most unrealistic. Yes, yes. There have been repeated demands from the political media, the opposition parties, and even from abroad, for dissolution of the Lower House. On those very grounds.

But why in the world would a rational political leadership agree? The LDP now has over 300 seats within the 425-member Lower House. An overwhelming majority! The largest, in fact, they’ve ever had. Even under the best of conditions, the LDP is bound to lose seats in the next election.

Their current majority was artificially inflated during the 2005 election by conditions difficult – if not impossible – to duplicate. And given the current state of attentive public opinion in Japan, the result now would most certainly be even worse. The current House was elected in September 2005. It is constitutionally able to continue in office until September 2009. That’s two more years! An eternity in politics.

Proponents of Lower House dissolution argue that Abe has a moral responsibility to dissolve the Lower House because “The People Have Spoken.” And spoken in opposition to the current Cabinet. And, given that, Japan’s attentive public will be irritated or offended by being denied the opportunity to vote against the LDP in the Lower House as well.

Maybe so. But how could the LDP possibly benefit from a Lower House election? Would a rational political party leadership be willing to suffer another big electoral loss just to make the public a bit happier with them? I doubt it! More important, Shinzo Abe and his close advisers too must recognize that. Absolutely nothing to gain, and much to lose. Therefore, this seemed a most unlikely option, to me.

The second alternative – Abe’s resignation as prime minister and LDP president – he already has rejected. Such a move would have made more sense than agreement to dissolve the Lower House. A lot more. But, with more than 300 seats in the Lower House, there’s no need for Abe to resign. It’s the Lower House, after all, that selects the prime minister. Those now demanding Abe’s resignation wanted him out even before the election.

Sooo, certainly – as we’ve seen! – Abe isn’t required to resign. That said, Abe’s resignation would have been a dramatic response indeed to the Upper House debacle. It would, at least, have made sense. In contrast to dissolution of the Lower House.

The third alternative, reshuffling the cabinet and key LDP personnel, perhaps made the most sense of all. But to accomplish its objective, the personnel changes would have had to have been dramatic. AND, most important, done promptly. Instead, Prime Minister Abe said the day after the election that he intends to reshuffle personnel. At first, it was reported he planned to do so some time in September. A day or so later, perhaps in response to the surprise that plan elicited, the timing was moved up to August 27th.

Well …. That’s somewhat better, I guess. Abe might have announced that he saw no need to change anything. That the election failure was all his fault. And that he promised to work harder in the weeks and months to come.

A little better, anyway. But not much!

Think about it. Even August 27th is nearly a whole month from the electoral defeat. One whole month under such conditions is an eternity! What in heaven’s name could be taking so long? It’s not as if the Prime Minister and his advisers were prohibited by law from considering possible replacements until the day of the election! Few things are more important. The subject must have been on everyone’s mind for some time.

Well, apologists may say, this time Abe needs to make sure there’s nothing in the backgrounds of the appointees that might embarrass the new Cabinet. That’s certainly true. But those politicians who have had to depend upon “sloppy bookkeeping” to disguise inappropriately collected or spent political funds are well known to everyone. It certainly doesn’t take a month to conduct such investigations. Or if such investigations should take a month, then the process should have been underway well before the election. That only makes sense.

I can see the e-mails flooding in now. Accusing me again of anti-Abe bias. But it appears to me that Prime Minister Abe has selected the third of the possible responses to the electoral disaster I listed a moment ago. And that by delaying action he has made certain that even a dramatic reshuffle will have little effect. Sad to see. Further, the longer announcement of final personnel decisions is delayed, the longer highly destructive tension will continue within the LDP. As potential candidates – real and imagined – battle to be the ones selected. It just makes you wonder….

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re way over time again this week. And we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this election post-mortem. But additional comments will have to wait until next week. Perhaps events between today and next Friday will make more sense to the outside observer. Next week we’ll consider the effect of the election on the LDP and the DPJ. And try to determine how each Party benefited from the result. And how each Party is likely to suffer the consequences. Between now and then I’ll try to find an explanation for the Abe Kantei’s apparent reluctance to counter-attack the DPJ in and out of the Diet. And consider in more detail how Cabinet and LDP personnel changes are likely to affect Japan’s domestic politics and even conduct of foreign relations.

It’s been two weeks since we’ve been able to go out with our traditional clip of inspiring bluegrass music. Even though we’re well over time this week, there’s just no excuse. So, here’s a real treat. The closing bars of “Changes,” from the enigmatic Tony Rice. A remarkable musician who’s hard to define, or characterize. This available on his “Native American” album. I’ll put a link to the site where it’s available in the show notes.

[bluegrass clip]

Goodbye All. Until next week.