September 7, 2007; Volume 03, Number 32

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Prime Minister Abe at the Sydney APEC Meeting
Japan-North Korean Bilateral Negotiations on Normalization of Relations
Why is Shinzo Abe Still Prime Minister of Japan?
Why Hasn’t the LDP Traditional Leadership Removed Abe?
What about the anti-Traditionalist, or Reform Elements in the LDP?
Fear of Another Split in the LDP?
A Private Understanding?
Concluding Comments

Good Morning from beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. It’s Friday again. September 7th, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 32, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


September already! And a week into the month. Hardly seems possible. Time goes so quickly these days. Thanks for tuning in.

I’m Robert Angel, creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project. And creator and host of this Podcast. One of the Project’s most active undertakings. Certainly, the one that takes up the most time! Each week at this time – or, most weeks, anyway – we consider recent events in the news from Japan. Events that seem most likely to help us understand longer-term trends in Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations. Our “objective” is a twenty-minute program. But they usually run somewhat longer than that. Lack of discipline on my part, I guess.

Last week’s program was an exception. Apologies for considerably exceeding the twenty-minute objective. But, judging from your e-mailed responses, it was time well spent. Nearly the whole program was taken up with commentary from three informed, thoughtful experts. All looking at different aspects of the consequences of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet shake-up. That he announced last Monday. Thanks to our three expert commentators, Dennis Yasutomo, Ed Lincoln, and Gregg Rubinstein, for your contributions. Your checks are in the mail!

I probably shouldn’t joke about that. Gokai wo maneku … and all of that. The Japan Considered Project, including this Podcast, does not have any sponsors. Does not receive any external funding. I’ve had some inquiries about that, and should make the point clear. It doesn’t cost much, beyond my time, to produce. But I pay all of those costs out-of-pocket myself. So, don’t worry about silent partners.

This week we continue with last week’s general theme. The consequences of the cabinet reshuffle. But our focus will be domestic this time. Trying to understand how this cabinet change is likely to affect Japan’s domestic politics. If at all. This too will take some time. So, let’s get right to it. Or, once again we won’t have time for our usual bluegrass clip at the end of the program. And all those letters of complaint will pour in …. Well, maybe one or two, anyway. This week’s bluegrass selection is a barn-burner, though!

International Developments

Before we get to the domestic political material, though, we need to at least make mention of some important international developments since we last looked.

Prime Minister Abe at the Sydney APEC Meeting

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left today for Australia. Few neutral observers would blame him for availing himself of another opportunity to get out of town. Given the reception his new cabinet has received. He left this morning for two days of talks in Sydney, with APEC leaders. And bilateral meetings on the side with U.S. President Bush, Australian Prime Minister Howard, Russian President Putin, and others. Abe hopes during the talks to encourage other nations to support his idea for reducing adverse effects on the global environment by 50 percent, by the year, 2050. As well as confirming the support of the United States and others for Japan’s position on negotiations with North Korea. Abe is scheduled to return to Japan on Sunday. Just in time to step into what is predicted to be a buzz-saw-like session of the Diet, which opens the next day. Hmmm. Who’d want that job? Well, we’ll talk more about that in a moment.

Japan-North Korean Bilateral Negotiations on Normalization of Relations

Speaking of North Korea, on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, representatives of Japan and North Korea held the first bilateral meeting of the Six-Party Talks working group on normalization of bilateral relations since last March. This time in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Mongolia maintains diplomatic relations with both Japan and North Korea, making that venue convenient.

The best that could be said of the talks was that they were held in a less hostile environment than that of the first round of meetings held last March in Hanoi. And the two sides agreed that they should continue talking. Beyond that, nothing much seems to have been accomplished. Or, at least, nothing that’s been reported publicly.

Both sides continue to pursue concerns about the past. For Japan, that’s the more recent past. Especially the North Korean government’s admitted kidnapping of innocent Japanese citizens. And their subsequent imprisonment in North Korea. Japan wants Pyongyang to be “more forthcoming” on that issue. Presumably, providing family members with more information about the fate of those innocent victims. And the return of any Japanese victims who have survived their ordeal.

Pyongyang, on the other hand, emphasizes the more distant past. They hope to persuade Japan to resume economic assistance. And even hope to persuade Tokyo to pay indemnities for Japan’s colonization of Korea in the first half of the last century. Until a few years ago, Japan was the Kim regime’s most important source of hard currency. Japan’s decision to close the hard currency spigot, including informal transfers of funds from Japan to North Korea, seems to have seriously complicated the lives of the Kim regime.

The North Korean nuclear disarmament issue promises to occupy negotiators from both sides for some time to come. North Korea has little to fear from delaying compromise. Beyond the suffering of its population from severe economic deprivation. And it gets, in return, more time to develop its nuclear weapons. The Abe Cabinet recognizes the public popularity of its demands for progress on the abduction issue. Even the most actively anti-Abe elements within Japan’s communications media are reluctant to insist the Abe Cabinet drop that demand.

As we’ve discussed on past programs, all this has been complicated by domestic political concerns in Japan. Concern over the fate of the kidnapped Japanese citizens has been associated with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Who’s continued to take a tough line on the issue. Anti-Abe Cabinet commentators in Japan, therefore, face a dilemma. They know better than to call directly for abandonment of that objective. Recognizing the damage such a proposal would do to their public credibility. Sooo, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, their criticism focuses on speculation that maintenance of the policy will lead to Japan’s isolation on the world stage. Even, damage to the all-important U.S.-Japan relationship. Washington, fortunately, seems to understand the domestic political dynamics involved, and does what it can to assure Japan’s public that such concern is unnecessary.

Effect of the Cabinet Reshuffle on Japan’s Domestic Politics

Now, let’s turn to the effect of the cabinet reshuffle on Japan’s domestic politics. I’m tempted to say simply that little has changed, and leave it at that. But, in fact, more careful consideration will provide us with better understanding of parliamentary politics in Japan today. Under somewhat different conditions.

Why is Shinzo Abe Still Prime Minister of Japan?

In order to understand the larger significance of the cabinet reshuffle for domestic politics in Japan, I think we should first try to understand why Shinzo Abe is still Japan’s prime minister. Why, after learning how badly the LDP had fared at the hands of the voters, didn’t Shinzo Abe take responsibility, like a “good soldier,” and resign? Making way for someone else. That’s the way it would have played out in the past. Were he reluctant to leave office, he’d have been unceremoniously pushed by LDP leaders who’d be concerned about the cost of the next election.

The short answer to this question is that Abe decided that he wanted to remain in office. And, that nobody had the power to remove him, once he decided to stay.

Well, that’s true. But it doesn’t shed much light on the current operation of Japan’s domestic political institutions or processes. We have to take a closer look at both parts of this simple – even simplistic – explanation to achieve that.

So, first, let’s consider why Prime Minister Abe decided to remain in office?

Well, there's the natural human inclination to retain power, including political power, once it’s acquired. Shinzo Abe appears to be a natural human being. So we can conclude reasonably that he shares this human inclination.

Further, along these same lines, if Abe had resigned immediately following the election, history certainly would have been less than kind in its assessment of him as a Japanese prime minister. He would have become the prime minister who’d received the office on a silver platter. Only to botch the job so badly he and his Party were turned out by the voters. With the voters rejecting his policy program, as well as his performance as the government’s chief executive officer. Two quite different things, as we’ll discuss in a moment.

So, in addition to the natural inclination to retain power, once acquired. Abe had the further motive of trying to avoid being described by historians as a failure. A prime minister run out of office by the voters. He may have wanted to stay in office long enough to “prove himself” a competent leader. And had the confidence that he could do it. Given time.

Political journalists time and again since the July 29th election have asked Abe himself why he decided to stay. Why he didn’t resign to assume responsibility for the loss. Why he didn’t step aside and allow someone else to take over. Someone who might be able to restore at least some of the LDP’s appeal to Japan’s attentive public.

Abe has been consistent in his responses. He replies that he accepts ultimate responsibility for the electoral defeat. But, he feels obligated to remain in office. In order to see his program of political and administrative reform implemented.

Hmmm. Is this sincere? Or a none-too-subtle rationaliz ation of his selfish decision to try to retain power? Impossible to say for sure. Certainly, both factors have played a part in determining Abe’s behavior. And probably even Abe himself can’t definitively calculate the weight of each. If he’s honest with himself. Of course, commentators positively disposed to Abe and his policy agenda will be more inclined to believe his public explanation. And those opposed to Abe and his policy agenda will be inclined not to believe him. That’s human nature too.

We do know for certain that as early as the evening of the election, Sunday, July 29th, Abe told Japan’s expectant press corps that he had no intention of resigning. And sounded as if he meant it. By then he knew that the election results were very, very bad for the LDP. Far worse than even the pessimists in the Party expected. And, today, well over a month has passed. So it’s clear he did, in fact, mean what he said that fateful Sunday night. Whatever the personal motivation, the result is the same. Now, a month later, Shinzo Abe is still prime minister of Japan.

Why Hasn’t the LDP Traditional Leadership Removed Abe?

A more interesting question to consider is why the LDP leadership didn’t remove Abe from office. Whether he wanted to stay or not! Following the long-term decline in his public approval ratings. And then the disastrous outcome of the July 29th Upper House election. As I said a moment ago, LDP Party presidents and prime ministers have been removed for far less! Most recently, Yoshiro Mori’s case comes to mind. For his shoot-from-the-lip style. And Shin Kanemaru’s November 1991 removal of Toshiki Kaifu might be described as a virtual summary dismissal! For excessive zeal in his pursuit of political reform, by the way! Which had begun to inconvenience the LDP’s powerful Factionists and Zokuists. Replacing Kaifu with the presumably more cooperative and understanding, Kiichi Miyazawa.

Sooo, such a response from the Traditional Party Leadership to an incumbent Party president and prime minister thought to be dragging the Party down was hardly unknown. Even the norm! So, why hasn’t it happened now? Why is Shinzo Abe still in office?

It seems to me the most credible explanation is that the LDP’s traditional Factionist/Zokuist leadership has been too weakened by a decade of change to force their will on an incumbent prime minister. Even if they could get together to determine a collective will. And, a candidate. Which now might be difficult.

Also, as we’ve often considered on this program, Shinzo Abe did not achieve office through the approval of the LDP’s Faction leaders. And the horse-trading traditionally required to receive that approval. He was selected because of his presumed public popularity, the support of his Reformist predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, and the not-inconsiderable support of the anti-Traditionalist “Reformist” members of the LDP Diet delegation. True, the Faction leaders jumped on the Abe band wagon once it was rolling. But they weren’t the ones who brought out of the barn! Therefore, they had less influence overall on Abe as prime minister than they otherwise would have had. Including the power to force him from office after such disastrous performance.

What about the anti-Traditionalist, or Reform Elements in the LDP?

Well, what about the anti-Traditionalist, or Reformist, elements within the LDP? They were strong Abe supporters from the beginning. And certainly expected Abe to do more for their cause than he has. They must be disappointed in his performance. Not in his political objectives, or policy agenda. But in his efforts to implement that agenda. And, most especially, in his inability to turn around the steady decline in public approval of him and his Cabinet. Which has set back the whole reform “Cause.”

Why, it’s reasonable to ask, hasn’t this Reform group demanded that Abe step down in favor of a more capable Reformist LDP president and prime minister? Here again, the likely answer is that they simply don’t have the clout required to do it! First, there’s the issue of solidarity among the Reformers to consider. If anything, they’re even more diverse, and less effectively organized, than are the Traditionalists. So, a consensus among the Reformers would likely be difficult to achieve.

Second, there’s no LDP Reformist candidate that stands head-and-shoulders above all other candidates as Abe’s replacement. Achievement of consensus on any Reformist replacement for Abe would be sure to inspire a potentially divisive battle. With consequences hard to predict, given the lack of institutionalization of the LDP’s Reformist crowd. The nasty fight between Yoshihisa Shiozaki and Yuriko Koike we’ve discussed on this program recently illustrates that problem nicely, I think. There’s bound to be the fear that an open battle to become the Reformist replacement candidate would lead to defections of less dedicated LDP reformists to the Traditionalist camp.

Sooo, the Reformists, like their Traditionalist counterparts, have found it difficult to respond to Shinzo Abe’s lackluster performance as LDP president and prime minister. They too have been left with no option but to support his decision to remain in office. As best they can. 

Fear of Another Split in the LDP?

Another thought comes to mind here, as we consider why Shinzo Abe remains prime minister of Japan. In spite of declining public approval and a disastrous Upper House election in late July. Now, this too is little more than informed speculation. And I present it as such.

But could it be that both the LDP Traditionalists and the Reformists feared that any serious effort to force Abe from office might result in another significant defection of Members from the LDP? Another split in the Party, in other words? With a significant number of the Reformists deciding to resign their LDP membership, and form their own reformist party. Perhaps hoping to attract like-minded members of the DPJ to their new group. Especially those DPJ members disenchanted with Ichiro Ozawa’s decision to align the Party with Rengo in the last election.

It seems a remote possibility. But stranger things have happened. Yohei Kono, the current Speaker of the House, left the LDP with five like-minded companions, in the wake of the Lockheed Scandal. In 1976. Wonderfully exciting the imagination of those of us observing Japanese domestic politics. They were back in the Party by 1986. But only after creating quite a stir.

Ichiro Ozawa left the LDP in June, I believe, of 1993. Taking with him this time, 44 like-minded LDP members. Ozawa’s dedication to “reform” was widely discussed at the time. But more cynical observers recalled that his departure followed quite closely on his failure to gain control of the LDP’s largest faction. A fight he lost to Keizo Obuchi.

So, defections of members – even very large defections – are not unknown in LDP history. Could it be that the fear of yet another mass exodus – this time of the Reformist crowd – led to the Party leadership’s reluctance to remove Shinzo Abe from office?

If so, it would be interesting to consider who might be suspected of leading such a defection. The obvious candidate would be former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. I suppose. Koizumi might well wish to recover the reformist legacy of his premiership. Perhaps current DPJ members unwilling to bolt their own Party to join the LDP, would be willing to join a new clearly reformist party. Koizumi also might be tempted by public opinion poll results that conclude the most popular political party in Japan today is “no party in particular.” Hmmm. Stranger things have happened. We can at least be certain that the Traditionalist, Factionist/Zokuist LDP leadership has worried about that possibility.

A Private Understanding?

Since we’ve advanced  so far into the realm of pure speculation, I might as well add a final explanation for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s continuation in office. That is the possibility that he has agreed to remain in office until another member of the LDP has had time to consolidate support for his own candidacy to replace him. This speculation leads, naturally, to Taro Aso.

Aso continues to express his unwavering support for Prime Minister Abe. While at the same time openly admitting his intention of succeeding him as prime minister. A hard part to play for anyone. And especially difficult for a person who has been “the most unpopular politician in Japan.” By his own admission. Until just a year or so ago.

Could it be that Abe and Aso assessed the situation soon before the July 29th Upper House election. And agreed that Abe would remain in office. That Abe would appoint Aso as the LDP’s secretary general. And that at the appropriate time, Abe would step aside to allow Aso to sit in the big chair? It would be a big gamble for both Abe and for Aso. These “you’re next” scenarios have rarely worked to the advantage of the party who agrees to wait. But in this case, it just might.

Aso during the past year has been making noises calculated to appeal to the LDP’s Reformists. While at the same time, forming his own faction. And taking care to avoid needlessly offending the LDP’s old Traditionalist Bulls. He undoubtedly had input in the current cabinet’s appointments. And his performance to date as LDP Secretary General has been quite skillful.

Even if accurate, would such an arrangement work? Well, it might. It certainly would be preferable to the LDP agreeing to hold a general election! Something I’ve always thought silly. If only because they hold a huge majority already in the Lower House. And could expect only disappointment from the election. Aso is more experienced than Abe. Probably a bit tougher too.

At least, it’s a scenario we would be foolish to reject out of hand. I’ll try to keep you posted. What an interesting time to be observing domestic politics in Japan.

Concluding Comments

Well, that’s all we have time for this week. Next week, we’ll continue on this general theme. Perhaps considering this business of continuing money scandals, and what they tell us about Japan’s politics. Among other topics bound to emerge in the interim.

It’s been a while since we’ve heard any bluegrass on the program. Shocking. And all of those letters of complaint! Well …. There were a few. At least two. Though from the same person. Still two. This week I have a clip you’re bound to enjoy. It features the remarkable voice and guitar playing of Tony Rice. With the Bluegrass Album Band. Remarkable stuff! Enjoy.

[bluegrass clip]

Goodbye all. Until next week.