September 14, 2007; Volume 03, Number 33

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

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Introduction
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Announces His Intention to Resign
Abe Admitted to Hospital for Intestinal Problems
The Succession Battle Following Abe’s Resignation Announcement
The Shift from Aso to Fukuda as Front-Runner
Taro Aso’s Sharp Decline
Yasuo Fukuda’s Rise in the LDP Presidential Sweepstakes
The LDP Presidential Election Details
Political Consequences of the Abe’s Surprising Announcement
Policy Consequences of Abe’s Surprise Resignation Announcement
Concluding Comments

Good Morning from Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, September 14th, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 33, of the Japan Considered Podcast.

Introduction

A bit cooler here in South Carolina’s Midlands yesterday and today. So far, anyway. Maybe even some real rain later on. Which would be a treat. Soon I’ll be able to resume crowing about South Carolina’s weather here on the program!

Last week we spent most of the program considering why Shinzo Abe was still prime minister of Japan. I said we’d continue along the same lines this week – Unless there was some unexpected event.

Well! We certainly did have an unexpected event. Wednesday afternoon, Japan time, day before yesterday, Prime Minister Abe announced his intention to resign. What a surprise. I, like most every other informed observer, didn’t expect that announcement to come so soon. It seemed likely, especially after we had a look at his second cabinet, that he wouldn’t last for long. But Wednesday’s announcement came as a real surprise.

This week we’ll look more closely at Abe’s resignation announcement. Considering the various explanations given by Abe himself, and others. And subsequent developments related to Abe’s personal health.

Then, even more important, we’ll consider the longer-term consequences of the resignation. Both on the LDP and on Japan’s overall domestic political situation.

We won’t try to “crystal-ball” predict the name of Abe’s successor. Or guess anybody’s age or weight. No parlor tricks on this program. We’ll know soon enough the name of the winner. But we can consider the significance of the events we see unfolding before us. For Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations.

In closing, as promised last week, we’ll consider the “scandal scandal.” That is, the drip, drip, drip of information about political funding irregularities.

So, let’s get started straight away, so we’ll have time at the end for an inspirational clip of bluegrass music.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Announces His Intention to Resign

Well! What exactly happened? First of all. What do we know for certain? And what do we have to speculate about?

We know for certain that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a press conference at the Kantei on Wednesday, at 2:00 PM, Tokyo time. He opened the press conference by saying he had decided to resign the premiership. He mentioned the negative outcome of the July 29th Upper House election. And added that he decided then to remain in office, in spite of the election results, because he believed that reforms underway must continue. And that the “postwar regime” must finally be ended.

He went on to discus the importance of Japan continuing to participate in the global war against terrorism. And DPJ leader, Ichiro Ozawa’s refusal to meet him to discuss the problem. A refusal that Ozawa later denied, by the way.

Following Abe’s brief – for him, at least – opening statement, members of the Kantei press corps asked a few questions. Both the questions and Abe’s responses were predictable. Nothing exciting. Abe said he hoped his decision to vacate the office would improve chances the government could continue to meet its international obligations. I watched the video of the news conference several times on Wednesday. And read one transcript of the event.

In addition to what we know from Abe’s televised press conference, we know that the same day most everyone who matters in Japan’s political world expressed surprise – even shock – at the announcement. First, of course, Ichiro Ozawa, head of the main opposition party, the DPJ. Understandably put out by Abe’s announcement to resign just hours before the two were to meet for open debate in the Diet! Ozawa had probably spent some time preparing. But also members of Abe’s own Liberal Democratic Party where shocked. Even members of Abe’s own Cabinet.

It appears that, with the exception of Taro Aso, Abe confidant and LDP secretary general, none of them had been informed of Abe’s decision until a few hours before his 2:00 PM press conference. This state of affairs, led to bitter reactions and recriminations from all sides throughout Wednesday and early Thursday, Japan time.

Politicians and pundits competed for print and airwave space to describe Abe as reckless, childish, petulant, and selfish. His sudden, irresponsible, resignation proved conclusively he was just too young to be prime minister. Even those sympathetic to Abe described him as irresponsible for not consulting more widely before announcing his decision to pack it in. The immediate reaction was surprisingly harsh – even vitriolic. Or, so it seemed to me.

It reflected, I suspect, the intense resentment of Abe’s policies and management of the Kantei from many directions. The political opposition, of course. That’s their job! They especially resented Abe’s refusal to call a general election, as they demanded. Or to agree that his policies were responsible for the LDP’s defeat in the recent Upper House election.

But they were joined by those in the LDP and in the bureaucracy who’ve been made anxious by Abe’s pursuit of political and administrative reforms. Reforms that limited the ability of senior politicians and bureaucrats to “facilitate” government procurement decisions, or other government expenditures. To do favors for those providing the services who were willing to pay, in other words. And his failure to blunt the threats of investigations by the Prosecutors Offices. Investigations that, one after another, have ruined the careers of long-serving elected and appointed government officials. Added to this was the bitter opposition of most of the Left-leaning communications media, punditocracy, and tenurate to Abe’s more active, ideals-driven foreign relations. Especially vis-à-vis Asian countries. So, the result, I suppose, was a sudden eruption of bitter omni-directional condemnation.

Abe Admitted to Hospital for Intestinal Problems

Chief Cabinet Secretary and government official spokesman, Kaoru Yosano, was left to answer the press corps questions after Abe’s departure. Little notice was taken during those first critical hours of Yosano’s comment that Abe’s decision was, in part, dictated by his deteriorating physical condition.

By yesterday, however – Thursday – the situation had changed. Abe was driven in the morning from the Kantei to nearby Keio University Hospital. For what spokesmen described as a “check-up,” when reporters spotted him being driven away. Within hours, Abe’s personal physician, Norifumi Hibi, told the waiting press corps that Abe’s condition would require hospitalization of at least three or four days.

Public announcements concerning politicians’ personal health are delicate matters in any country. But especially so in Japan. I was surprised by the detail provided in this public briefing. Dr. Hibi told the press that Abe was physically exhausted. That he had lost more than ten pounds during the past few months. And that he had a “gastrointestinal disorder” that if not treated would be serious. Additional information about Abe’s condition trickled out from other sources during Thursday afternoon and today. Including news he had been fed largely through intravenous drip since his visit to India in August. And that the last trip to Sydney had taken a severe toll on his health.

Since at least June of last year, rumors have circulated through Japan’s political world about Abe’s delicate health. Especially gastrointestinal problems. An old family friend was even quoted last year as saying Abe’s delicate health would prevent him from becoming prime minister. His popular wife, Akie-san, told a friendly interviewer that she gave Abe stomach massages every day. And other less delicate details were reported. Most without substantial sourcing. Older members of the press corps might recall that Abe’s father, Shintaro, was prevented from becoming prime minister at the very end by stomach cancer.

By today it had become obvious that it was far more than “possible” that Abe’s declining health had determined the timing of his resignation announcement. It took a while longer for the international press to get the message, of course. But soon, accusations of childish, petulant behavior had all but disappeared. To be replaced by questions of why Abe himself had not mentioned his health during his 2:00 PM press conference at the Kantei. Good question! Maybe he suspected that he’d have been accused of providing excuses and playing for sympathy. We’re unlikely ever to know.

The Succession Battle Following Abe’s Resignation Announcement

Speculation about Abe’s likely successor began almost immediately. The opposition parties, one and all, continued to demand that the LDP dissolve the Lower House and hold a general election. But nobody expected the LDP to take that advice seriously. Probably even those making the demands.

No, Japan’s next prime minister would be selected according to other constitutional procedures. That is, majority vote of the currently elected Lower House of the Diet. The LDP currently holds over 300 of that body’s 425 total seats. So the real election contest would be held within the LDP itself. The race to succeed Shinzo Abe as president of the LDP.

LDP secretary general, Taro Aso, was mentioned frequently during Wednesday and Thursday as the likely winner of that contest. We considered this on last week’s program. He continued to enjoy incumbent Prime Minister Abe’s support, while confirming that he hoped to succeed Abe when he left office. Aso, then, was the man to beat. At least through Wednesday and much of Thursday.

That situation changed, however, beginning yesterday. Thursday, the 13th. Literally hundreds of articles in Japanese and English poured from Tokyo describing Japan’s tense political situation in the wake of Abe’s resignation announcement. And early Thursday morning, Japan time, the name of senior Machimura Faction member, Yasuo Fukuda, began a steady rise in the lists of possible candidates that were presented.

By today, smart money in Tokyo – even abroad – had shifted from Taro Aso to Yasuo Fukuda. Fukuda, press prognosticators confidently predicted, would be Japan’s next prime minister. And he may well be. For reasons we’ll consider in a moment. Nominations close tomorrow, Saturday. And it seems certain that both Aso and Fukuda will be in the running. Possibly others as well.

The Shift from Aso to Fukuda as Front-Runner

What explains this sudden change of fortunes within the LDP? Japan’s political press has been full of explanations. Both for Aso’s  sudden decline from front-runner status. And for Fukuda’s rise to that position. All-told, the explanations focused on Fukuda are more persuasive.

Taro Aso’s Sharp Decline

First, though, let’s consider Aso’s decline. While there’s nothing like a consensus in Japan’s political press, many observers have opined that close association with Prime Minister Abe shifted suddenly from an asset to a liability for Aso. Immediately upon Abe’s resignation announcement. Aso, they argued, must share responsibility for the ineffectualness of the Abe premiership. He also must accept responsibility for not revealing Abe’s plan to resign when he first learned of it two days before the announcement. Also, his policy inclinations, especially foreign policy, were said to be too extreme for the majority of the Party.

Well, maybe. But it seems more convincing to me to consider Aso the victim of Abe’s rapidly declining health. Abe agreed to appoint Aso as LDP secretary general. The most influential office in the Party. The ideal perch for Aso as he maneuvered to consolidate support for his own candidacy. When the time came. Thing is, he just didn’t have enough time! So we’ll never know whether that strategy would have worked for him or not. Given time.  

We considered this too on previous programs. But it’s well to remember that Aso has been a Diet Member for nearly 30 years. During most of that time, he’s been quite a localized taste. Usually popular in his Fukuoka electoral district. But, by his own description, “Japan’s most disliked politician” in Tokyo.

During the past few years Aso’s worked hard to rectify that problem. Trying to appeal to Japan’s growing number of young, floating voters by publicizing his love of manga. And making an effort to blunt the sharpness of his tongue during meetings with the press. He’s made some progress. Far more than I ever expected. Having observed him for years. But, he just hasn’t had time to complete the job.

Sooo, once again, if the Pundits are right, once again, Aso will become an LDP presidential also-ran.

Yasuo Fukuda’s Rise in the LDP Presidential Sweepstakes

What about Yasuo Fukuda’s rise in the LDP presidential sweepstakes? How did that happen? Here, reports and commentary from Japan’s political media seem to be a little more useful. Fukuda, simply put, has become the candidate supported by the leaders of eight of the LDP’s nine Traditionalist Factions. He is the man they trust to restore their influence within the Party. And to return operation of the LDP to its more predictable traditions. Sooo, that means, according to every account I’ve seen, Yasuo Fukuda has become the traditional Factionist/Zokuist candidate to lead the LDP.

That’s probably true. Certainly, no responsible observer can accuse Yasuo Fukuda of grand-standing. Of trying to attract the support of Japan’s attentive public to his cause. Or, even of doing much to appeal to those members of the LDP known to be anti-Factionists, or Reformists. If he’s done so, he’s been very quiet about it.

He’s also made an important gesture likely to win him the support of the Left-leaning elements of Japan’s political media. That is, to reiterate his intention, if selected, to pursue a more conciliatory policy toward Mainland China. And to offer North Korea further “incentives” to persuade them to be more forthcoming in the current round of negotiations.

This will please much of the media, punditocracy, and tenurate in Japan. It may well trump all other issues for them. Persuade them to overlook the significance of his LDP factionist support as they report and comment on the LDP presidential race from today until Sunday after next, when voting takes place. It may even staunch the relentless drip of political money scandals we’ve experienced over the past ten or eleven months. At least for a time. We’ll talk more about that in a moment.

The LDP Presidential Election Details

Before we consider the longer-term consequences of all this, let’s review the specifics of LDP presidential election that Abe’s announcement necessitates. These details may become important later on.

First, nominations for the LDP presidency will be accepted until tomorrow. Saturday, the 15th. Any LDP Lower House member who wishes to be considered must submit a petition signed by a minimum of twenty LDP members. Once candidacies become official, “campaigning” will begin.

Now, it’s entirely possible that only one “consensus” candidate may ultimately stand for the “election.” The person who appears to have the strongest support within the Party. With other aspiring candidates dropping out in order to avoid the costs of a futile campaign. A campaign that could only further alienate themselves and their supporters from the winner. That’s happened before, certainly.

It’s likely, however, that the LDP will avoid conducting such a “consensus” selection process. If only to avoid accusations that the LDP Diet delegation had reverted to the “bad old days” of secret dealing in smoke-filled back rooms. Better to have at least two candidates who can, at least, make a show of discussing issues for the attentive public.

Voting for this LDP presidential election is scheduled to take place Sunday after next, on September 23rd. Japan’s political media has reported strong support within the LDP for an earlier vote. On Wednesday, September 19th. “To avoid confusion,” doncha know. But after some semi-public wrangling, the “campaigning” time was extended to Sunday, the 23rd. To avoid giving the attentive public the impression that the next LDP president had been selected in the good old fashioned way. I guess.

Each LDP member of the Lower and Upper Houses of the Diet receives a single vote in this election. At present, that totals 387 votes. In addition, each prefectural Party branch receives three votes. Regardless of population. For a total of 141 votes. So, obviously, the LDP’s parliamentary delegation overwhelmingly dominates the process. Commanding nearly three-quarters of the total vote. So, this gives us a total of 528 votes. Meaning the next LDP president must receive at least 265 votes in this contest.

Now, before long commentators in Japan are likely to recall the LDP presidential election in which Junichiro Koizumi bested Ryutaro Hashimoto. A victory he earned by traveling the country like a U.S. presidential candidate. Speaking to as many LDP prefectural chapters as he could. Guided, as it happened, by Makiko Tanaka.

Prior to that election, former prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, was the odds-on favorite to win. Because he had the support of an overwhelming majority of the LDP’s Lower and Upper House members. Koizumi and Makiko Tanaka, however, turned that around by winning an overwhelming majority of the prefectural votes. Which were announced earlier. A performance that struck fear into the heart of the LDP delegation! Rejection of the popular Koizumi by the LDP’s Diet delegation would appear to be rejection of “the people’s” choice! So, support turned ultimately from Hashimoto to Koizumi. And the rest is history, to coin a phrase.

The LDP has learned its lesson, however. Its prefectural chapters are still allowed to participate in the vote. But, their votes are to be counted on Sunday, the 23rd, at the same time the Diet delegation’s votes are counted. A change made precisely to avoid the Koizumi public grandstanding effect. To maintain the Diet delegation’s control of the Party. So, while we’re bound to hear discussion of the prefectural chapter vote, it won’t have the same effect this time around.

Political Consequences of the Abe’s Surprising Announcement

So, what are the longer-term consequences of Abe’s surprise announcement for Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations? It’s way too early to make a comprehensive assessment. But we can consider a few areas in which it may make a difference. Depending on the ultimate winner of the race.

First, what if the current prognostications of Japan’s political pundits prove accurate? And Yasuo Fukuda succeeds Shinzo Abe as LDP president and prime minister?

Certainly, Yasuo Fukuda is well qualified to sit in the big chair. He’s a prudent, hard-working, intelligent, and very senior LDP member who’s seen it all, so to speak. Those of you who have been listening for a while will recall that I provided a positive assessment of him during the last LDP presidential race. Not long before he withdrew!  

But, if Fukuda wins this time around, he’s bound to be considered a traditional Factionist. Installed in office through bargaining among the LDP’s faction leaders. In the Good Old Fashioned Way. That would be likely to prove a heavy burden.

His commitment to take a more conciliatory line in foreign relations, especially in Asia, will earn him positive coverage in much of Japan’s press for a while. And will likely slow down media “discoveries” of political funding violations. But this honeymoon won’t last forever. Indeed, there’s some discussion of exactly this Factionist problem already in Japan’s press. And Fukuda hasn’t even agreed to run yet!

And, Fukuda will, if selected, become a traditional Factionist LDP president and prime minister! We’re likely during the next week to see a succession of media polls intended to demonstrate his popularity with the public. Especially if he should compete in this contest against the unapologetically conservative Taro Aso. But Fukuda will know, and Japan’s attentive public will know, that it was the support of the LDP faction leaders that put him in office. Not his appeal to the attentive public.

And the faction leaders who lend their support will know too! They’ll expect to be taken more seriously than they have been since Koizumi’s arrival on the scene. Taken more seriously in Party and Cabinet personnel decisions. Taken more seriously in formulation and implementation of policies. At least those policies that might affect the interests of their faction’s private-sector supporters. That’s what the traditional Factionist pattern of LDP management is all about! They might even expect some effort by the Kantei or the Justice Minister to redirect the zeal of the Prosecutors Office. Especially in pursuit of election finance violations. Or investigations of bid-rigging that involves government procurement.

Such changes in the fortunes of the LDP’s factions and faction leaders couldn’t be kept secret for long. They wouldn’t allow it! And even if, under current conditions, Japan’s political media were to ignore it, the opposition parties would be certain to notice. And to integrate criticism of the LDP’s return to its Factionist past as a key element in their anti-LDP campaign. And to buttress their demand for a general election.

So, it seems to me that even should he declare his candidacy and win the LDP presidential election, life will be difficult for Yas uo Fukuda as Japan’s next prime minister. After an initial period of press euphoria, Fukuda will be torn between conflicting demands. Even from within his own Party.

His Factionist supporters naturally will expect to have their demands taken more seriously. While rank-and-file members of the LDP will worry about the next election. And how Japan’s voters will respond to candidates endorsed by a Party that appears to have reverted to its Factionist past. And therefore demand that Fukuda demonstrate his independence of the faction leaders who put him in office.

These rank-and-file members are not only the “Koizumi Children.” But all LDP incumbents who haven’t inherited safe districts, or who can’t rely on Koenkai-guaranteed election victories. And that’s no small number of Party members these days! Indeed, even proportional representation-returned LDP incumbents will grow concerned about the total number of votes the LDP will attract if it’s seen as a relapsed faction-dominated Party. And therefore, how far down the Party’s endorsed PR list the line between success and disappointment will be drawn.

Add to all this Ichiro Ozawa’s Opposition DPJ. Recently empowered by its majority status in the Upper House. This majority will enable the DPJ to hold investigative hearings. For which they can call sworn witnesses! A result of the Upper House election that’s been given too little attention to date. So, victory in the LDP presidential election will prove a mixed blessing, no matter who wins.

Policy Consequences of Abe’s Surprise Resignation Announcement

Well! All of this is just “politics,” you might conclude. Not as important as the results of this political process. Some truth in that. Japan’s political press is full of predictions – mostly pessimistic – about the consequences of Abe’s surprise resignation announcement for Japan’s domestic economy and conduct of international relations.

But, I’m a bit more optimistic. I suspect that little will change under the incoming prime minister. If anything, policy implementation should be smoother than it has been for some time. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faced formidable resistance to implementation of his policies from Japan’s national bureaucracies. And from the private-sector clients of those bureaucracies. As well as the LDP Zoku members who worked to facilitate the government-private sector relationships.

If Japan’s next prime minister should assume office as a maintaining chief executive, rather than a reforming chief executive. Striving to “stabilize” the situation rather than to reform it. Then, Japan’s national bureaucracies and their private-sector clients should become more cooperative. Less combative. And all should go more smoothly.

Now, that’s all based on the assumption that Yasuo Fukuda will succeed Abe as prime minister. Should Taro Aso win, and prove today’s Punditocracy wrong, all bets are off. Judging from his past behavior, and from his statements yesterday and today, he remains determined to maintain an assertive, values-based foreign policy, and the spirit of domestic political and administrative reforms, if elected. Aso thus would enter office as the sworn enemy of the LDP’s traditional factions. And engender even greater hostility from most of Japan’s political media for his foreign policies. Would he be able to counter that negative pressure with public approval? As did Koizumi in years past? Hmmm. Hard to tell. He’s made some progress toward improving his public image. But, as of today, an Aso victory doesn’t seem likely.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re way over time. My assessment of the political funding “scandal scandal” will have to wait again until next week. But, as promised, here’s a wonderful clip of inspiring bluegrass music. Featuring Jonathan Edwards with the Seldom Scene in their 1985 Sugarhill album, Blue Ridge. I’ll put a link in the transcript to an on-line source for the album, for those of you who don’t yet own a copy. This from the haunting “Seven Daffodils.” Listen to these voices blend.

[Bluegrass Clip]

Goodbye All. Until next week.