September 21, 2007; Volume 03, Number 34

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Introduction
Developments in the LDP Presidential Election Campaign
Emergence of Two Candidates
Consequences of the Return to Factionist-Based Selection of Japan’s Prime Minister
Changes Under Koizumi
Shinzo Abe’s Experience
The Abe Legacy
The “Reform” Discussion
The “Scandal” Scandal
The Real Scandal
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From the shore of Beautiful Lake Thurmond. Coming to you this time from the Mobile Studio. Today is Friday, September 14th, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 34, of the Japan Considered Podcast.

Introduction

It’s cooler here on South Carolina’s border with our southern neighbor, Georgia. An ideal time again to visit this beautiful Corps of Engineers camping facility, near Modoc. As with previous Mobile Studio broadcasts, the sound for this program may not be quite what you’re used to. The home studio is better equipped. And, you may hear a fish jump from time to time in the background …. Well, at least hear the waves slapping on the shore!

I’m Robert Angel, creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project. And creator and host of this podcast. Each week at this time, nearly every week, anyway, we consider recent events in the news from Japan. Not all events. Just those that seem to have the potential for helping us to understand longer-term trends in Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations.

I was tempted to take a break from the weekly schedule this Friday. But really! How often do we get a chance to study events like this? A “campaign” by two senior LDP leaders to succeed Shinzo Abe as the LDP’s next president and Japan’s next prime minister. A “campaign” that’s turned into something like the good old LDP presidential campaigns we remember from the past. But, a contest now being conducted within a domestic civic environment quite different from the Japan of decades ago. We’ll have to see how that works out. So, we’ll take a look at that first. And if time permits, we’ll consider the significance of the domestic political finance “scandal scandal” that I’ve been talking about for the past few weeks.

I began this Podcast series in mid-November, 2005. So this is around the 86th or 87th show in the series. Now, that’s a long run, for a podcast, they tell me! You can access the audio files and full transcripts for each program by visiting the Japan Considered Project website at www.JapanConsidered.com. Click on over and have a look. You’ll also find there other resources related to Japan’s domestic politics, international relations, and the U.S.-Japan relationship. Thanks to kind treatment by the Google indexing spiders, I suspect, it’s become quite a popular site. The increase in listenership for the podcast, and viewership for the web site, has been most gratifying. Somebody must be using all that information for something! And that makes the effort worthwhile.

Internet access is quite limited here, in Modoc. My wife tells me that normal people don’t even think of such things when they’re “camping”! So don’t mention it. Lest I be considered even more peculiar. Oh well.

In fact, a new WiFi access point popped up four months ago in McCormick, South Carolina. At a Subway Sandwich shop! That’s closer than Augusta, and far more convenient to reach from here. But it’s still fifteen miles away. Which will complicate the production process this week. Taking another day or so to get this program up and running. It’s remarkable, though, how fast free WiFi sites are proliferating. Even in decidedly non-metropolitan places like McCormick. Let’s hope the trend continues.

Developments in the LDP Presidential Election Campaign

This LDP presidential contest is interesting for a number of reasons. In spite of the fact that little unexpected has happened since Prime Minister Abe announced his intention to resign. The campaigns of the two main candidates, and the commentary on those campaigns provided by Japan’s political media, punditocracy, and tenurate, all are what we expected to see. Still, the predictability of the whole business shouldn’t blind us to its genuine significance. There are some important developments, I think. With longer-term consequences.

Emergence of Two Candidates

On Saturday, the day after last week’s program, both Taro Aso and Yasuo Fukuda officially declared their candidacy for the LDP Presidency. All other contenders whose names had been suggested , or who’d suggested their own names, had dropped out by the official filing deadline. These included Sadakazu Tanigaki, Fukushiro Nukaga, and a few others really too minor to mention.

Last week I mentioned the possibility that Taro Aso too might abandon his candidacy at the last minute. Once it became obvious that he had only a slight chance of winning. To avoid unnecessarily irritating the eventual winner of the contest. That’s the Traditional Way, doncha know. Well, as of today, with only two more days to go before balloting, he hasn’t. It looks as if he is in the race until the end. That’s good for the LDP. And especially good for Yasuo Fukuda. Should he be the winner.

Even if Aso loses, which most everyone in Japan now expects him to, Aso’s continued candidacy is, I believe, quite important for this contest. The frontrunner, Yasuo Fukuda, has been endorsed by the leaders of eight of the LDP’s nine traditional factions. It is this massive faction leader support that makes Fukuda the likely winner. Not the results of the “campaign” we’ve been watching all week.

Were Aso too to abandon the field, it would be even more obvious that this “election” is little more than a formality. Confirmation of a decision made by the LDP’s faction leaders before the campaign even began. Just like the Good Old Days for the LDP.

Well … That’s true. It’s shaping up that way. But in politics, as in most human enterprises, appearances matter. Sometimes more than reality. And at least some opposition is better than a total absence of opposition. So, Aso’s presence on the campaign trail helps to legitimate the LDP’s selection process. If only a little. Making it appear a bit less as if the LDP had returned to its earlier Diet faction leader-dominated paleo-past. Giving the individual eventually selected a bit more credibility as a democratic leader.

But there’s at least one more reason Aso’s presence in this campaign represents a big plus for the LDP. And for Fukuda. That’s because some of Aso’s policy positions are strongly opposed by the Left-leaning elements of Japan’s political media. Fukuda has been careful to distance himself from those positions. Especially conduct of relations with Mainland China. And negotiating strategy for dealing with North Korea. The differences aren’t great. But they’re there.

Vigorous criticism of Aso’s positions on these issues has distracted, to some extent, the attention of Japan’s political media from the means through which Japan’s next prime minister is being selected. Selected, that is, through good old traditional horse-trading among the LDP’s faction leaders.

Consequences of the Return to Factionist-Based Selection of Japan’s Prime Minister

The means through which Japan’s prime minister is selected, I believe, does matter. We’ve discussed this issue many times on past programs. Factionist-based versus Popularist-based premierships. Briefly, the argument is that prime ministers who owe their initial appointment – and their continued tenure in office – to a small group of the LDP’s senior leaders must be responsive to the interests of those faction leaders.

Responsive to their recommendations for cabinet and party personnel appointments. Responsive to their suggestions for supervising the operation of the government. Even responsive when it comes to supporting or opposing particular policies. Policies that may affect the interests of the faction leaders who placed them in office. Or the interests of the private-sector supporters of those faction leaders. Especially if those policies affect major government procurement decisions, or allocations of governmental subsidies of various kinds. Factionist prime ministers who displease their faction leader supporters soon find themselves out of a job. Ask Toshiki Kaifu about that! That was some time back. But he’ll probably remember….

This is nothing new, or surprising. It’s a problem regularly described by supporters of “political reform” since at least the early 1990s. And before! Even by Japan’s communications media and punditocracy. Back when they were concerned about genuine political reform.

Changes Under Koizumi

Junichiro Koizumi’s assumption of the LDP presidency and prime ministership was a dramatic break with that LDP Factionist tradition. Rather than factionist support, he relied upon – at least the perception of – broader popular support to achieve the LDP presidency. This too was widely recognized at the time by all observers. The LDP’s Diet delegation initially expressed their support in that race for former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. But LDP prefectural branch balloting was observed to go heavily for Koizumi, before the Diet members voted. So the LDP’s Diet members shifted their support from Hashimoto to Koizumi. Fearing that continued support for Hashimoto would cast the LDP in an undemocratic light. Make it appear that LDP presidents got their job through back-room dealing with faction and zoku leaders responsive to the special interests that provided their political funding. And that each of them would pay the price of that public dissatisfaction in the next general election.

So, Koizumi entered office with little to fear from the LDP’s faction leaders. Indeed, he reveled in his public commitment to reduce their power! To “destroy the LDP,” as he put it at the time. This, of course, left him more vulnerable to ups and down in his public approval ratings than had been his predecessors. But Koizumi turned out to be unexpectedly adept at explaining his intentions and actions persuasively to the public. And at maintaining public approval.

The overwhelming majority of Japan’s political media, punditocracy, and tenurate positively evaluated this reduction in the influence of the LDP’s faction bosses as genuine “political reform.” At least, in the beginning. Koizumi during his nationwide campaign blitz from prefectural branch to prefectural branch was covered most sympathetically by all of Japan’s media. By the time he assumed office he enjoyed near-rock star status.   

But some of Koizumi’s policies, though widely supported by the public, were more conservative than much of Japan’s media liked. Political journalists appeared gradually to lose interest in Koizumi’s anti-factionist campaign. Koizumi, however, by then had learned how to communicate effectively with Japan’s attentive public. And he thereby was able to maintain his position and his policies. His critics called it “Koizumi theater.” His supporters described it as effectively communicating with Japan’s attentive public.

Shinzo Abe’s Experience

Shinzo Abe’s experience as prime minister has been quite different. Abe, during his ill-fated premiership, has pursued most of Koizumi’s political and administrative reform policies at home. And his more assertive foreign policy abroad. Abe entered office with high expectations for his public approval. Based largely on his effective performance as Koizumi’s chief cabinet secretary and official government spokesman. His position on the North Korean government kidnap victims, often mentioned by Abe’s critics, was only one part of that overall performance.

But it soon became obvious that Abe was more effective as a “Number Two” than he was able to be as a “Number One.” Simply put, he lacked the public political communications skills necessary to perform effectively as a “Popularist” prime minister. And, he failed to harness the public communications skills of those in the LDP who might have helped him overcome that weakness.

I’ve often wondered why. Was it his over-reliance on his trusted friend, Yoshihisa Shiozaki? The man he selected to serve as his chief cabinet secretary and official government spokesman? Did he allow Shiozaki too much control over the operation of the Kantei? Which allowed Shiozaki to suppress the efforts and visibility of anyone who might outshine Shiozaki as Abe’s likely successor? Maybe so. That appears to have happened, anyway. Anyone with the potential to help Abe solve the problem, virtually disappeared once they entered the Kantei. Consider the fates of Yuriko Koike, Hiroshige Seko, and Yoshimi Watanabe. All very effective public communicators. Who shared Abe’s policy positions and commitment to genuine political and administrative reform. 

Or, as some listeners to this program have suggested, did Abe rely too heavily on his trusted political aide, Yoshiyuki Inoue. Allowing Inoue too much discretion as door-keeper, and filterer of political information? No chief executive can afford either of these problems. But to correct them, the incumbent must first recognize the problem. And have the personality characteristics necessary, once they’re recognized, to correct them. Immediately and decisively. Even when it requires firing long-trusted friends and supporters. And replacing them with people able to do the job. Abe, it appears, either didn’t realize what was happening. Or couldn’t bring himself to turn against long-trusted friends who’ve proven dysfunctional. Either is a fatal flaw in a political chief executive.

For whatever reason, for nearly a year, Japan has been left with a “Popularist” prime minister who has lacked the public communication skills necessary to maintain his public popularity. While maintaining policies, domestic and international, that inevitably would invite the criticism of much of Japan’s Left-leaning communications media. And the more subtle, but even more effective, opposition of special interests inconvenienced by implementation of those policies.

Naturally, as a “Popularist” LDP president and prime minister, Abe lacked the traditional support of the LDP’s Factionist and Zokuist leaders as well. In fact, experienced their intense opposition. Often supported by the bureaucracy, it’s said. The result was inevitable.

The Abe Legacy

We’ve seen the results of all this in the record of the Abe premiership. This experience will – or should, anyway – attract the attention of researchers attempting to explain how Japan’s political system really works. For years to come. Some observers have concluded already that the Abe premiership demonstrates relapse to the traditional Factionist/Zokuist domination of Japan’s central political system. That the Koizumi experience was simply a short-term aberration. That Japan now is returning to “normal.”

Maybe so. Those elements within Japan’s political media, punditocracy, and tenurate who in years past were such strong advocates of “political reform,” “seiji kaikaku,” as they called it, appear to have redirected their concerns now. To the even more traditional concerns of the 1955 System: Class and regional economic inequality. And promotion of a more conciliatory conduct of foreign relations. And that’s a powerful influence. At least in the short- and medium-term.

However, I suspect that Japan’s attentive public remains concerned about the negative effects of political corruption on their government. And will continue to support candidates for election who demonstrate both willingness and ability to counter it. In other words, that the trends we’ve observed in Japan’s civil, or civic, society, for some time now, continue. This, if true, will determine the longer-term trend of Japan’s electoral politics, and the role of elected officials in Japan’s national government. Whether we pundits like it or not!

The “Reform” Discussion

This week, I’ve watched closely reports from Tokyo of the “debates” between Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso. As they go through the motions of taking their “campaigns” out and around Japan. The biggest challenge for both candidates seems to be trying to distinguish their own policies and intentions from those of their opponent!

In the end, there’s really not much difference between Fukuda and Aso. The differences in domestic and international policies they articulate are unlikely to have much effect on how Japan’s government behaves after the election. Perhaps foreign relations, especially relations with other Asian countries, is the biggest point of difference. But, when all’s said and done, both candidates will face the same problems. The same international and domestic environments. Aso, should he be the choice, won’t be able to pursue a much more severe line with either China or North Korea. And Fukuda, if selected, won’t be able to pursue a much more conciliatory set of policies. Differences of degree is about the best we can say. Responsibly.

One thing, though, in these debates has attracted my attention. That is the discussion of “Reform.” Both candidates are absolutely committed to “reform.” Neither candidate will tolerate back-sliding on “reform.” Both candidates, in other words, hope to be seen as committed “Reformists.”

But what kind of reform are they talking about? There are about three options: Economic reform; Administrative reform; and Political reform. Those have been the big three so far, anyway. It seems interesting to me that neither candidate has paid much attention to the last, “political,” category of reform. Especially to continuing the efforts intended to reduce illegal collections and expenditures of political funding.

This seems odd to me. Virtually every poll taken before and after the July 29th Upper House election indicated that Japan’s voting public has been concerned about political funding scandals. Especially in the LDP. The drip, drip, drip of “sloppy bookkeeping” revelations by Japan’s political media has been taken seriously by Japan’s public. As well as the announcements of prosecutions for bid-rigging, and governmental facilitation of bid-rigging.

To the point that one of the key criteria for appointment in the second Abe cabinet became an absence of embarrassing lapses in political funds collection or expenditure. That all “i’s” must be dotted, and all the “t’s” crossed, in the annual political funds reports filed each year since they’ve been required. Why? Because everyone in politics recognizes that Japan’s public is fed up with their elected representatives’ blatant violation of political funding laws and regulations. They want it stopped. And when it’s discovered, they want it vigorously prosecuted.

Yet, neither Fukuda nor Aso has said much at all about this important issue. That just seems odd to me. Certainly it is an issue that Japan’s attentive public worries about. And hopes their leaders will continue to pursue. Public commitment to pursuit of political corruption would be bound to appeal to Japan’s attentive public. Even the Opposition DPJ has mentioned it! In spite of the vulnerability of some of their most senior members to similar charges. A public commitment by one – or preferably both – of the LDP’s current presidential candidates. To guarantee the independence of the Prosecutors Offices around the country. To allow them to pursue their political finance investigations – and prosecutions – would be most encouraging at this point.

However, this LDP presidential selection process really isn’t about public approval. Well, public approval is important – in the medium- and longer-term. But it isn’t what will win the LDP presidential contest this time around. In the immediate term. And everyone knows it. Sooo, the prudent LDP presidential candidate in September, 2007, directs his appeal to the LDP’s Factionist and Zokuist leaders. Hmmm.

Everyone recognizes that traditional Factionist/Zokuist management of the LDP requires money. A LOT of money. We can only hope that the return of the LDP’s traditional Factionist and Zokuist leaders, even if only temporary, will not lead to a return to the massive flows of questionable political funds that characterized the Party in the past. If it does, somebody’s eventually bound to notice. And once again the public credibility of not only the LDP, but Japan’s whole electoral system, will suffer. Nobody wants that.

The “Scandal” Scandal

Though we’re pressed for time, just one more quick point on the current domestic political situation. It involves the stream of political media “discoveries” of funding scandals within the LDP. And to a lesser extent, if we include the more conservative Sankei Shimbun, and even Yomiuri Shimbun, the Opposition parties as well.

How, observers ask, has it been possible that such scandals continue to erupt? After the July 29th election! An election during which political funding scandals badly hurt the LDP. And after Prime Minister Abe took a full month to select his new cabinet members? It’s hard to imagine! Baffles science, as W. C. Fields, would have said.

All of this is titillating. Efforts to cover up collection and/or expenditure of political funds that go beyond the law! Few subjects of a non-sexual nature attract as much attention in the media. But, beyond that, I think this continuing stream of media “discoveries” provides an important, longer-term insight into Japan’s domestic politics today. After a “honeymoon” period, Japan’s next prime minister and cabinet are likely to have the same experience. IF they pursue policies that are opposed by Japan’s mainstream communications media. And, equally likely, we’re likely to hear much less about it, IF the next prime minister agrees to avoid pursuit of such policies.

We needn’t list here the specifics of the various “discoveries” to consider the real significance of the issue. We know that Prime Minister Abe left for his South and Southeast Asian tour after instructing his political secretary, Yoshiyuki Inoue, to “vet” the records of all candidates for cabinet positions. Inoue’s political skills have been called into question. But no one questions his diligence. Or his complete loyalty to Abe. So we can be sure he “vetted” the candidates to the best of his ability. That he reviewed every scrap of information available to him.

However, the decision already had been made to include more experienced LDP members in this second cabinet. Well …. It’s pretty hard to find experienced LDP members who don’t have at least a few political funding skeletons in their closets. And some of the LDP’s faction and zoku leaders, maintain enough skeletons there to do credit to a medium-sized public grave yard! Even some of the more recent arrivals to the Party have similar problems. Those who were sponsored during their elections by the Traditionalists. That is, the Factionists and Zokuists. And who’ve adopted their sponsors’ patterns of fund raising and expenditure.

Soooo, Vetter-In-Chief Inoue had his work cut out for him. In the current transitional environment, it was virtually impossible to assemble an “experienced” LDP cabinet that didn’t include members who might be “discovered,” after announcement of their appointment, to have made mistakes on their political funds reports. Who practiced “sloppy bookkeeping,” as they put it. Soooo, stories of political funding “scandals” have continued to appear, day after day.

Perhaps only appointees with the personal wealth of a Kunio Hatoyama will prove immune to such disclosures. I thought when the new cabinet was announced, it was significant that Abe appointed Hatoyama as Minister of Justice. Since the Justice Ministry exercises ultimate supervision over the prosecutors and their investigators. A critical position in past cabinets. Hatoyama, at least, should be immune to threats of funding violation exposure. And therefore, able to do his job as he sees fit.

Please don’t misunderstand my intentions here. I’m not trying to excuse political corruption on the part of the LDP. Or on the part of any other political party in Japan. Since it’s not exclusively an LDP problem, by any means.

It’s true that Japan’s election finance laws have been screwed up to unrealistic levels of severity. As we’ve discussed on this program in the past. As “quick fix” responses to earlier scandals. But they do define the rules of the game when it comes to financing political campaigns. As such, they should be followed by all participants. All violators should be exposed and punished. Until someone has the courage to propose changes in the laws that will make them more realistic. 

The Real Scandal

But the real “scandal” here, I believe, is the way that knowledge of these violations has been manipulated in pursuit of political objectives. Especially by Japan’s political media.

Japan’s political journalists have long maintained relationships with the political and senior bureaucratic figures they cover that are quite different from those maintained by their American or Western European journalist counterparts. Background information on one aspect of this topic can be found in the English language literature criticizing Japan’s “Press Club” system over the years.

For as long as I can remember, politicians and the journalists who cover them, have shared confidences and information that never make it into print. Often throughout most of the journalists’ careers. Not only details of the personal lives of the politicians they cover so closely. But, inevitably, knowledge of their sources of political funding.

It’s disappointing to see this pattern continue even today. And even more disappointing to see the information so collected being manipulated by the media in pursuit of their own political objectives. Rather than using it in an apolitical fashion to inform the public. Instead of immediately providing the public with the information required for them to form their attitudes on the parties and candidates they support. Whatever happened to the principle of the public’s right to know? And media support for genuine political reform? Which everyone still claims to support!

No informed observer of Japanese domestic politics can believe that the Japanese political media’s “discovery” of these recently reported violations has been purely coincidental! That it all just came to light. That their long-standing investigative campaigns just suddenly bore fruit. On a large scale. Or that it was only available with the release of the 2006 government reports on political funding. Plenty of this sort of information has been available all along. Or, if not the specific information, they knew where to look to find it. IF they’d wished to report it.

Now, for me, this too is a scandal!

And, it also gives us something else of significance to consider about Japan’s domestic politics. How can Japan’s elected officials do the job they’ve been elected to do if they enter office knowing they are vulnerable to disclosure of such information? Perhaps this helps to explain why Japan’s elected government officials have been considered so weak in the past. Including even prime ministers and cabinet members! Something to think about, anyway.

It certainly helps – if any help is needed – to explain why genuine political reform is so important. Political reforms that force changes in illegal funding of political activities in Japan. Genuine reform is much more than simply rejiggering the way the central government redistributes tax money.

Japan’s elected officials can’t be expected to do their jobs if they are vulnerable to virtual blackmail by anyone who might oppose the consequences of their actions. Be they politically active journalists. The bureaucrats those politicians have been appointed to supervise. Or, even other politicians in their own party! It really is more than a nicety to clean that up. To make questionable funding and questionable expenditures of such funds the unusual exception rather than the rule.

For me, at least, that’s the real “scandal scandal.” Let’s hope that under the new cabinet, political and administrative reforms continue to the point that such problems will be minimized. That “reform” is not redefined in a way to make the lives of large-scale violators of election funding laws more comfortable. That Japan’s new prime minister isn’t forced to muzzle the prosecutors as they strive to enforce the law and level Japan’s political playing field.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re way over time this week. Sorry not to have more discipline when it comes to length of program. I should have been trained as a journalist rather than as a political analyst!

As always, thanks for listening. Continue to send your comments and suggestions for the program to me at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. You don’t have to agree with the interpretations I present to have your comments read and taken seriously. No time for our traditional bluegrass clip this week. So, next week I’ll have to find a real winner! Until then,

Goodbye all. Until next week.