November 23, 2007; Volume 03, Number 42

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Introduction
Fukuda Singapore Trip
Should Fukuda Have Been More Assertive?
Longer-Term Significance of Prime Minister Fukuda’s Singapore Visit
DPJ Candidate, Hideo Hiramatsu, Elected Osaka Governor
LDP Performance in the Osaka Mayoral Election
Voter Turnout in the Osaka Mayoral Election and the Appeal of “Fusion” Candidates
Traditionalists Versus Popularists
One Baffling Point: Talk of a General Election
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, November 23rd, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 42, of the Japan Considered Podcast.

Introduction

Thanks for dropping by today for this post-Thanksgiving Day program. I hope all of you who celebrate Thanksgiving Day had just the sort of holiday you’d been wishing for. We certainly did. Nothing like joining family and friends for such a celebration.

No Japan Considered Podcast next week, by the way. I’ll be traveling, and am unlikely to have adequate Internet access. It’s about time to take a week off, anyway. So, the next scheduled program will be on December 7th. “December 7th”!! Oh my. 

Anyway, I’m Robert Angel, creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project. And creator and host of this Podcast. Each week at this time – or, most weeks – we consider the longer-term significance of events in Japan’s news. For domestic politics. And for the conduct of international relations. The programs are intended to run from twenty to twenty-five minutes. Though there have been instances when they ran a few minutes longer than that. Well, quite a few minutes. But I’m working on timing self-discipline.

For those of you who’ve just found us, you can find transcripts for each program in the “Podcasts” section of the Japan Considered Project website, at www.JapanConsidered.com. As well as a complete archive of all earlier shows. You’ll also find links there to sites that provide useful English language information about political Japan. So go on over and click around. Hope you find it useful.

This week a lot’s been happening in Japan that’s of interest to us. Both domestically and internationally. Prime Minister Fukuda left for a series of international meetings with his Asian counterparts on Monday night. And returned to Tokyo yesterday. Only to jump from the international frying pay right into the domestic political fire. Lots going on in both areas.

We’ll begin today with what has to be a preliminary discussion of the significance of Prime Minister Fukuda’s meetings in Singapore. I’m more comfortable discussing Japan’s domestic politics and U.S.-Japan relations. So, my comments today will be only preliminary. Describing what happened. And what appears to me to be its larger significance. We’ll have to wait until I can persuade one of our expert commentators to come on the program to give us a better “read.” I talked to one yesterday, in fact. But failed to persuade him to join us this morning. Maybe he will on the next program.  

Then we’ll consider the Osaka mayoral election on Sunday. Quite an important event, I think. But media coverage of that election has been overshadowed by Prime Minister Fukuda’s international travels and parliamentary politics in Tokyo.

Then we’ll consider the two baffling developments in Japan’s domestic politics I mentioned on last week’s program. They’re still just as baffling. But let’s consider them and see what we can come up with.   

Fukuda Singapore Trip

Good to his promise, Prime Minister Fukuda left Tokyo once again Monday afternoon, the 19th, feeling a little better, it was said. For the long flight to Singapore. And an important series of multilateral and bilateral meetings. Where he expressed Japan’s interest in becoming more involved in Asia. Promoting more effective relationships with and among East Asian countries. Fukuda spent a total of three days in Singapore. Returning to Tokyo early Thursday morning.

Fukuda followed a punishing schedule while in Singapore. With a number of bilateral and multilateral meetings. Some of them quite important. Rather than present a laundry list of those meetings here, I’ll only hit the highlights. Those that seem to have the most longer-term significance.

Beginning with his first big bilateral meeting with China. Fukuda on Tuesday morning met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. The two know each other, of course, from Fukuda’s days as Chief Cabinet Secretary. But this was their first meeting since Fukuda became prime minister. After being joined by South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun for specific discussion of Korean Peninsula issues, Fukuda and Wen talked for just over two hours. Including lunch.  

This meeting with Wen, I think, was significant. If only symbolic. The two wisely passed over thorny bilateral issues with just a mention. Focusing instead on how pleased China was to see their old friend, Yasuo Fukuda, serving as prime minister. And how important for both countries it was to improve the atmosphere of their relationship. Wen went out of his way to praise the contributions Takeo Fukuda, Yasuo’s father, made to Japan’s relationship with Asia. And with China. When he served as prime minister in the 1970s. And Fukuda emphasized his interest in raising Asia’s profile in Japan’s overall diplomacy.

In short, an ideal meeting between the leaders of two important nations. Whose cooperation is essential for the longer-term stability – even peace – of Asia overall. Both China and Japan, in different periods of history, have dominated Asia. Both countries now see themselves as the natural, and most qualified, leader of 21st century Asia. And, neither country will accept peacefully the domination of Asia by the other. This delicate situation raises considerably the value of such friendly summit meetings, I think! 

Should Fukuda Have Been More Assertive?

A few of Fukuda’s critics at home have charged that important differences between Japan and China were glossed over. Suggesting that Fukuda should have taken a more assertive public stance during the talks. If only to demonstrate that he’s not such a good friend of China that he’s unable to represent Japan’s national interests!

Such criticism seems to me unwarranted, however. It seems unlikely that Fukuda would have gained any advantage by going all prickly. Forcing Wen to assert China’s own claims in that particular forum. And, it appears Fukuda did gain some potential advantage by renewing his personal relationship with Wen. Plenty of time later to haggle over specifics. And plenty of other government representatives on both sides to do it! In more appropriate fora.

Fukuda also represented Japan at three important multilateral gatherings in Singapore this week. In addition to his one-on-one meetings with Wen, Roh, and the other Summiteers. He began with the eleventh meeting of “ASEAN Plus Three.” That is, the ten ASEAN countries, plus Japan, China, and South Korea. That was on Tuesday afternoon. Then on Wednesday he met with just the ASEAN Ten. The ASEAN-Japan meeting. To discuss the long-delayed Japan-ASEAN free trade agreement. Or “Economic Partnership Agreement,” as it’s called. They seem to be finally getting that together. Though it wasn’t ready to sign yet at that meeting, as planned.

And finally, Wednesday afternoon, he joined the third meeting of the East Asia Summit. This latter conclave brings together the leaders of the ten ASEAN nations, with Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. A somewhat different balance of nations, once India and Australia are added to the mix. You may recall our discussions of China’s concerns over the membership of this group. And Japan’s support. Anyway, this East Asia Summit was the venue Fukuda chose to present Japan’s offer of $2 billion in aid during the next five years to support Asia’s efforts to clean up its natural environment. While maintaining rapid economic growth policies.

Fukuda’s participation in all three of these multilateral gatherings was significant, I think, as a demonstration of his determination to raise Asia’s profile in Japan’s overall international relations. Fukuda himself stressed this objective in his opening statement to the press on Wednesday. Just prior to his departure.

According to the translation provided by Japan’s Foreign Ministry, Fukuda began his comments with: “Ladies and gentlemen of the press, during this visit to Singapore I believe I was able to firmly mark the first step towards an active diplomacy vis-à-vis Asia.” Fukuda then went on to explain that he’d discussed all of this with U.S. President George Bush during their meetings a few days ago in Washington. Explaining that this new emphasis on Asia runs parallel with, and is supported by, Japan’s long-standing alliance with the United States. Not an effort to improve Japan’s relationships in Asia at the expense of the Japan-U.S. alliance. A “synergistic approach” to relations with both the United States and Asia. We’re likely to hear a lot more about foreign relations “synergy” during the next few months.

Longer-Term Significance of Prime Minister Fukuda’s Singapore Visit

Sooo, what does all of this mean? We’ll have to wait until I can persuade a real expert on Japan’s overall foreign relations to join us to answer that question. One who has paid more attention to Japan’s relations with Asia over time. Hopefully on the next program. But I think we can conclude, at least tentatively, that Japan now is clearly expressing its intention to be more involved in Asian affairs. At least, more involved than it has been in the recent past. Determined this time to play a supportive, facilitating role. Rather than that of a military or economic aggressor.

I think we also can conclude that Japan’s increased interest in Asian affairs will be watched closely by other Asian nations. Especially Mainland China. For all the obvious reasons. So, more on all this in the next program.

The English language text of Prime Minister Fukuda’s press conference that I mentioned a moment ago is on Japan’s Foreign Ministry English language website. I’ll put a link in the program transcript to the site. There you’ll also find documents related to the various summit meetings held in Singapore. The Gaimusho webmasters are getting better at this all the time.

While you’re at it, click on over, for comparison, to the English language site for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I’ll put that link in the transcript as well. There you will find China’s take on the Singapore summit meetings. Another very impressive English language website. I guess these resources illustrate how important web-based communications has become around the world. And in only a few years.

DPJ Candidate, Hideo Hiramatsu, Elected Osaka Governor

Turning now to domestic political developments. On Sunday, the 18th, former Mainichi Broadcasting television newscaster, Hideo Hiramatsu, was elected Mayor of Osaka, Japan’s second largest city. Second largest, at least, during the day. Only third largest, at night! This election was given little coverage in the English language press from Japan. Or even the Japanese press! Pushed off the front page by Prime Minister Fukuda’s intercontinental diplomacy. And bizarre political happenings in Tokyo, I guess. But it still seems to me to have longer-term significance for Japan’s domestic politics.

Hiramatsu, first of all, ran with the endorsement of Ichiro Ozawa’s DPJ. Giving the DPJ a victory they needed badly after DPJ President Ozawa’s recent widely publicized antics. And that, I think, is important in Japan’s current domestic political environment. It also means Hiramatsu has heavy debts to Osaka’s metropolitan labor unions. That they will expect to collect on before long.

Second, Hiramatsu seemed to me a typical “Popularist” political candidate. Judged by the standards I’ve applied so often on this program. He’s relatively young, at 58. Extremely effective, as you might expect, at delivery of his message directly to the attentive public, via television. And, as far as I could tell, he ran a typical “Popularist” campaign. Demonstrating that it isn’t only conservative LDP candidates who can break successfully from the Traditionalist pattern. And win!

Running as he did, Hiramatsu was able to attract nearly half of Osaka’s large “floating,” or unaffiliated, voters. That’s according to a Yomiuri Shimbun exit poll. The only one I could find. His closest opponent was able to get only 18 percent of that critical vote. And, Hiramatsu even attracted 28 percent of LDP members. Enough to give LDP election managers serious heartburn!

In all, Hiramatsu ended up winning just over 367,000 votes. To his traditional LDP opponent’s 317,429. A very satisfying margin of victory. Perhaps not the stunning electoral grand slam Japan’s excited political reporters have made it out to be. But nonetheless impressive.

LDP Performance in the Osaka Mayoral Election

LDP election managers, in their infinite wisdom, decided to run 72-year-old incumbent mayor, Junichi Seki, once again. Hoping he’d be given a third term. Seki ran as a dyed-in-the-wool Traditionalist candidate. He’s a former senior Osaka City bureaucrat. Who before his entry into electoral politics, rose to the top bureaucratic post of deputy mayor. He’d already served two terms. Further, he’s no stranger to scandal. In 2005 he was forced to resign to assume responsibility for questionable payments to municipal employees. Only to be re-elected a month later to succeed himself.

Seki in his campaign stressed his efforts to reduce city government expenditures, and a program to privatize Osaka’s subway system. A platform certain to alienate Osaka’s powerful municipal union members. One has to wonder if LDP election managers learned anything at all from the last Lower House election in 2005. Or the July Upper House election, for that matter! Revitalization of Osaka City finances is an admirable goal. But it has to be presented effectively if it’s intended to re-elect an incumbent.

Voter Turnout in the Osaka Mayoral Election and the Appeal of “Fusion” Candidates

Another interesting development in this mayoral election. That I think has implications for Japan’s domestic politics overall. Osaka mayoral elections for more than two decades have failed to attract voter interest. Largely because the major parties supported a single candidate, rather than running their own candidates against each other. Leaving that single, “fusion,” candidate to face a few minor party candidates. None of whom had a chance in the world of winning.

This time, with Osaka’s voters offered a genuine choice, turnout increased by nearly 10 percent. To nearly 44 percent! That hasn’t happened for more than two decades. This result, once again demonstrates that Japan’s eligible voters are turned off by “fusion” candidates that give them no meaningful choice at the polls. Something the current proponents of Grand Coalitions between the LDP and DPJ might consider seriously.

As we might expect, Japan’s political press greeted news of the DPJ/Hiramatsu victory as evidence that the LDP will be in serious trouble during the next general election. And that the DPJ is likely to do much better than expected when the Lower House seats are contested again. Well, there may be some truth in that. But as we’ve discussed before on this program, journalists prefer to cover genuine races. Rather than “events.” They’d rather cover a boxing match than a bridge tournament. And therefore they’re inclined to exaggerate the competitiveness of any situation.

Traditionalists Versus Popularists

That doesn’t mean, though, that this election has no meaning for national politics. Perhaps we can evaluate the Osaka mayoral race from a slightly different perspective. As a contest between a Traditionalist candidate and a Popularist candidate. And conclude that the Osaka election, once again, demonstrates that a candidate running an effective Popularist campaign can handily defeat a Traditionalist candidate.

This distinction, or cleavage, among candidates may prove more important than the Party cleavages we’ve focused on in the past. Especially since both the LDP and the DPJ include both Traditionalists and Popularists. And both parties have ample opportunity to endorse new Popularist or Traditionalist candidates for the next election.

Indeed, it may be the Popularist-Traditionalist cleavage that will be responsible for the next reconfiguration of Japan’s political party system. Rather than the current political parties. Perhaps sooner than we might expect! I’ll try to keep you posted. But this one may sneak up on us!

One Baffling Point: Talk of a General Election

We’re near the limit of our time for today’s program. So I’ll mention only one of the two points that have been baffling me for the past few weeks. This is all of the talk we’re hearing about the possibility of a general election, or a “snap election,” in the near future. I must be missing some critical information here. Since it just doesn’t make sense to me.

Japan’s journalists, punditocracy, and tenurate have been publishing article after article speculating on the likelihood of Prime Minister Fukuda dissolving the Lower House of the Diet and calling a general election. Reasoning varies, usually according to the latest political news out of Tokyo. But three of the more durable explanations behind this puzzling prediction have been:

None of these explanations, however, make the least bit of sense to me. Why in the world would Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda call a general election now? When the LDP controls 305 of the Lower House’s 480 seats? And its coalition partner, New Komeito, controls another 31. Giving the ruling coalition well over a two-thirds majority. This parliamentary advantage is unprecedented since the Party’s creation in 1955!

Japan’s Lower House members are elected for four-year terms. Japan’s last Lower House election was held in September 11th, 2005. That means no Lower House election is required until mid-September 2009.

Granted, Lower House elections in Japan usually are held more frequently than every four years. Because Japan’s prime ministers have the right at any time within that four-year term to dissolve the Lower House and call a new election. And it’s exercise of this “awesome power” that predictions of a “snap election” anticipate. That the explanations I mentioned a moment ago are directed toward.

But really! I can understand why the DPJ leadership might express such views. Hoping to stampede Prime Minister Fukuda into taking the plunge, I suppose. But that’s not “analysis.” That’s political posturing! Pure and simple. So it doesn’t explain why media and academic commentators have taken up the argument. Unless they too are hoping to influence the political process through their explanations and predictions.

I mentioned my reservations about the term “Twisted Diet” a week or so ago. When applied to the DPJ holding a majority in the Upper House. And the LDP holding a majority in the Lower House. Japan’s Constitution includes rules for handling such a situation. Which are being followed! Why should the DPJ’s electoral good fortune be criticized as “twisted”? Certainly, Japan’s attentive public is capable of assessing the performance of both the LDP and the DPJ under these conditions. And of expressing their views.

If “essential legislation” fails to pass the Diet, then the ruling coalition has to explain to Japan’s attentive public just why it’s “essential.” And the DPJ has to explain to the same audience why they believed it necessary to oppose it. Failure of either Party to make their case would inevitably lead to further loss of public confidence.

Also, I fail to see how a general election would “un-twist” Japan’s Diet, if that’s the objective. Even if a general election were held under current political conditions, it’s highly unlikely that the DPJ would be able to win anywhere near a majority of the Lower House’s seats. DPJ President Ozawa himself said as much during his astonishing Sunday afternoon press conference a couple of weeks ago!

Indeed, it’s unlikely that the DPJ and all of the other opposition parties and splinter groups together would amount to a majority of Lower House seats. A general election held now would be likely to weaken the LDP’s over-inflated current majority. But it wouldn’t be likely to end the LDP’s majority status in the Lower House. And certainly wouldn’t change the situation in the Upper House. That will remain just as it is until the next Upper House election. And probably the one after that!  That’s six years!

What about the possibility of the DPJ passing a motion of censure against Prime Minister Fukuda, and the Fukuda Cabinet? Perhaps some observers have confused censure motions with Lower House no-confidence votes. But they’re not the same thing. An Upper House censure motion would inform Japan’s attentive public that DPJ Upper House members aren’t happy with Yasuo Fukuda serving as Japan’s prime minister. Well! That hardly comes as a surprise. And, it could – and would, I suspect – be ignored by the Fukuda Cabinet. Perhaps not ignored. But it certainly wouldn’t shock Yasuo Fukuda to the point he would abandon his post and call an election!

Now, what about the public’s loss of confidence in the LDP? Certainly the results of the July 29th Upper House election demonstrated public disappointment with the LDP’s performance under Shinzo Abe’s leadership. Unquestionably. And understandably. But, as we discussed at the time, the July 29th vote was a vote against the LDP. Not a vote for the DPJ! A negative vote, in other words, demanding that the LDP clean up its act. Do its job. Not a vote expressing confidence in the ability of the DPJ to assume control of Japan’s national government.

And that housecleaning task, it seems to me, is the challenge facing Prime Minister Fukuda today. We have to wait to see if he’s capable of restoring at least a majority of public confidence in the LDP’s leadership, or not. The jury’s still out on that one.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re ending up close to our advertised time limit today. Just a bit over. If we eliminate our usual bluegrass closing. And remember, no Podcast next Friday, November 30th. So, good bye all. Until next week after next.