December 11, 2007; Volume 03, Number 43

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

When is a “Joint Communiqué” Not a “Joint Communiqué”?
Tokyo’s Reaction
So What!
Domestic Political Developments
Extension of the Current Diet Session
Significance of the Diet Extension
Concluding Comments

Good Morning from Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Tuesday, December 11th, 2007. And you are listening to Volume 03, Number 43, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Yes, Tuesday, December 11th. Not Friday, the 7th, as expected. Busy as the dickens here with my day job. End of semester flurry of papers, exams, and preparation for the next semester. Why, it’s almost like working! This time of year, anyway.

Incredible weather here for the past few days. It’s nearly 80 degrees outside, and will be warmer tomorrow. Apologies to all of you in more Northerly Climes who are experiencing ice storms. And worse.

The trip to South Carolina’s Edisto Beach State Park in late November was terrific. The Park is right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. But Internet Access is not one of it’s strong points! I’ll put a couple of photos in the transcript to give you an idea of just it’s like down there. Hope to go again soon.

Since the last program Japan’s political news has been interesting. But for heavens sake! Hundreds of news articles in Japanese and in English! Many of them too important just to scan and ignore. On both domestic politics and on international relations. Even a little interesting commentary. Though most of Japan’s Punditocracy have wisely limited themselves to vague, heavily qualified generalizations. Of the “things may change …” variety.

So, lots for us to cover this week. I’ll keep our time limit in mind, though.

When is a “Joint Communiqué” Not a “Joint Communiqué”?

Let’s begin with a potentially worrisome development in Japan’s relationship with Mainland China. As we’ve often discussed on this program, relations between Japan and China are “delicate,” at best. Even “touchy,” as we’d say OverHome. Both sides have serious reservations about the actions and intentions of the other. Fundamental differences in governmental system further complicate the process. Yet no bilateral relationship is more important for the prosperity and stability of Asia overall.

Recently, both Beijing and Tokyo have signaled interest in a more cooperative relationship. Both sides avoiding public mention of those difficult issues they’re able to avoid. The Yasukuni Shrine Visit Operation we covered for so long on this program pretty much a thing of the past. No loud complaints about the transparency of China’s rapidly expanding military budget. While handling difficult issues that can’t be avoided as gently as possible. At least in public.

That’s all to the good. For everyone concerned. And we’re all concerned! Prime Minister Fukuda is expected to visit China in the near future. And Chinese President Hu Jintao is expected to visit Japan early next year. The first visit of a Chinese head of state to Japan since 1989. Prime Minister Fukuda’s meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Singapore last month came off without a hitch. Lots of smiling all around.

Indeed, things have been going so well between Japan and China that the two Asian giants were able to hold their first cabinet-level economic meeting in two decades at the beginning of December. Some of the most difficult issues were left unresolved during the Beijing meetings. But Japan’s press was unanimous in its optimistic assessment.

Japan’s leading economic daily, Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Monday before last, the 3rd, for example, published a laudatory editorial about the meetings. They noted in that editorial that relations between the two countries had progressed to the point it was even possible during the meetings to discuss difficult problems. Including the international value of China’s Yuan. And the even more difficult problem of the East China Sea gas field.

Nikkei’s editorial writers weren’t just speculating about closed-door meetings either. The Japanese side released what they described as a joint communiqué to Japan’s press on Saturday night, December 1st. It got wide coverage the following day in all of Japan’s national media. All appeared to be going well. More multilateral smiling.

However, last weekend, Japan’s print and electronic media began reporting problems with the Chinese language version of the joint communiqué. I’m still unable to discover the original source of that information. Which would be interesting to know. For reasons I’ll mention in a moment. But, by last Sunday night, the 9th, all of Japan knew that China’s Ministry of Commerce had posted a different Chinese language version of the “joint communiqué” on their website. On December 3rd. And that the same Chinese language version had been published by the official Xinhua  News Agency and People’s Daily. A version that omitted any mention of the value of the Yuan. Or of China’s participation in the Energy Charter Treaty. Two issues important to Japan, that were considered “inconvenient” for China.

Tokyo’s Reaction

Yesterday, Chief Cabinet Secretary, Nobutaka Machimura, told the Kantei press corps the Chinese editorial effort was “unthinkable.” And said Japan had officially asked the Chinese side to quickly make a correction. Senior Foreign Ministry officials soon followed the Kantei lead. Adding they’d never heard of such a thing before! It was – well … -- undiplomatic. They couldn’t imagine how it could have happened! And that it must be corrected immediately. Or, the Ministry might publish its own Chinese translation of the joint communiqué. Real HardBall. At least, for the Foreign Ministry.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura, now, has never been considered much of a PandaHugger. But other senior Japanese government officials continued to express concern over the Chinese joint communiqué deletions in blunt language during their regular meetings with the press after today’s Cabinet meeting. METI Minister Amari, a participant in the summit meeting, was one of them. Amari said he was shocked by the news. He further predicted that the unusual move would weaken China’s credibility within the global community. Not just with Japan. Coming as it did during press briefings just after a regular cabinet meeting suggests the Kantei has no serious objection to such an official reaction to Beijing’s editorial efforts.

Official Chinese spokesmen in Beijing responded to Tokyo’s charges yesterday. And again today. A Commerce Ministry official said the document in question was just that. A document. A document only intended to provide each side’s description of the meetings. That’s why they were issued at different times. Not, in other words, a joint communiqué, in the diplomatic sense. That would require exact wording. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s official spokesman said much the same thing to the press corps during his official press briefing today. And added it would be unfortunate for such a small issue to derail recent progress in bilateral relations. The official spokesman went on to describe Tokyo’s “inaccurate” characterization of the document as contrary to cooperation and friendship.

So What!

Well. All of this is hardly surprising for those of us who’ve observed relations between Japan and China for any length of time. Isn’t it just a minor flap created by over-zealous bureaucrats that soon will be corrected and forgotten? Or maybe it simply represents a preventative international PR initiative from Tokyo. In anticipation of Thursday’s 70th anniversary of the “Nanjing Massacre.”

Well, maybe so. But I think there’s a bit more here that we should consider.

True, this event doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know about China.   Everyone involved – in both Tokyo and Beijing – realizes what actually happened. Senior officials in one branch of China’s central government stepped beyond what even more senior officials in another branch of China’s central government thought appropriate. During their negotiations with Japanese counterparts. Evidence of their misstep couldn’t be allowed to stand. In Chinese, at least. So, as has happened in the past, the Chinese version of events was altered in response to those criticisms. Case closed!

Really, just a typical Chinese internal flap that Japan shouldn’t be involved in. Should anything come to light, Tokyo could be relied upon – in the Spirit of Mutual Friendship, doncha know – to go along. By describing the whole thing as a misunderstanding, unworthy of further consideration.

But that isn’t what happened. This time Tokyo chose not to go along. And made – has continued to make – a high-profile international fuss about the whole thing. Probably giving China’s political leadership a genuine shock. And certainly inconveniencing them!

China is far from a pluralist liberal democracy. As the State Council Information Office went to great pains to explain in 2005. In a 45-page single-spaced official document. Responding to suggestions by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that China was moving in that direction. Still, China’s central leadership can’t afford to completely ignore domestic public sentiment. Or allow an issue to develop that might advantage any of its potential challengers. So, China’s reaction to the “joint communiqué” flap really was predictable.

But what about Tokyo? Here, I think, is where we find the real significance of this whole issue. In what it shows us about the Fukuda Administration’s strategy for conducting relations with its powerful next-door neighbor.

As we’ve often discussed on this program, Yasuo Fukuda was described by Japan’s political media as a “dove” during the contest in which he won the LDP presidency and premiership. In contrast to the “hawkish” Taro Aso. More specifically, Fukuda was – and continues to be – widely described as “pro-China.” Or sympathetic to China’s interests. To the point that more conservative commentators in Japan expressed concern that Fukuda would be willing to “give away the store,” so to speak, in order to be well received by Beijing. Commentators in China, to the extent I’ve been able to follow them, have adopted this interpretation as well. Probably with the hope of encouraging him.

But Tokyo’s handling of this “joint communiqué” flap suggests that Prime Minister Fukuda’s objectives for relations with China are more complex than the media’s antique Vietnam-era “dovish” characterization suggests. As are his strategy and tactics for pursuing those objectives. That is, that Fukuda is just as willing as his predecessors to play hard-ball with China. When it becomes necessary. And that, if true, will make for quite different dynamics in the Japan-China relationship. It’s certainly worth watching. I’ll try to keep you posted.    

Domestic Political Developments

Now, let’s turn to domestic political issues. Lots going on there too. Much of it as potentially confusing as the international developments. Especially that related to management of the “Nejire Kokkai,” or “Twisted Diet.” In which the Democratic Party of Japan has a majority in the Upper House. And the Liberal Democratic Party has an overwhelming majority in the Lower House. The results of the late July 2007 Upper House election.

This state of affairs has generated great excitement among Japan’s Political Punditocracy. Especially among those who’ve long resented the staying power of the conservative LDP. It’s inspired Japan’s political media to elevate the Upper House of the Diet to near ecclesiastical court status these days. After decades during which these same media analysts questioned whether the Upper House should even be abolished! Since it has so little significance! Now, suddenly, the Upper House is important. And might even force Prime Minister Fukuda to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election. A general election in which the DPJ might have a chance of driving the Odious LDP from power. Well, we considered the significance of an Upper House censure motion during the last program. More on that in a moment.

Most of this commentary about the inevitability of a general election can be dismissed as wishful thinking. Or as media and punditocracy efforts to influence Japan’s political processes. Rather than as analysis. It may happen, of course. But it seems to me unlikely for a while. Given the LDP’s current bloated majority in the Lower House. And the two-thirds majority there of the Ruling Coalition. Still discussion continues in the Japanese press. And that, of course, is picked up by the English language media as well.  

So, in a sense, Tokyo is having its own SillySeason. Much like Washington experiences during the months before every presidential election. At least, those in which the outcome is in doubt. Major news media players join – if only informally – one campaign or the other. In the role of badly paid PR cheerleaders. Publishing information and analysis designed more to influence the outcome of the political contest than to inform the attentive public.

Something similar is happening in Tokyo today. And, I think, serious analysts of Japanese political affairs should watch out for it. Tokyo’s SillySeason these days is complicated further by the annual national budget compilation cycle. With ministries and agencies releasing news of their “plans” to the media. Hoping to drum up at least the appearance of public support for them. As they struggle to persuade the MOF’s steely-eyed budget examiners to fund their new projects. American political scientist, John Campbell, and others have written extensively about this in the past. Recent examples of the complicating trial balloon budget operations include programs justified as contributing to revitalization of local areas. Modification of foreign aid programs. More effective weapons systems. And so on. Again, something for serious analysts of the Japanese political scene to watch out for.

Extension of the Current Diet Session

One other topic frequently mentioned in Japan’s political media during the past couple of weeks has been extension of the current Diet session. For reasons that aren’t altogether clear to me, Prime Minister Fukuda decided right after he took office to make passage of the new anti-terror bill the top legislative priority for his government. Even discussed it with President Bush during his visit to Washington! Made it an International Commitment. And all that.

Yes, yes. I’ve heard the justifications. Maintenance of Japan’s credibility as an international actor. Fear of further offending Washington. And so on. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why – if the issue really is so important – Fukuda didn’t simply let the bill die in this Diet Session. And then blame its demise on the DPJ’s opposition! In order to get on with passage of the budget, cleaning up the Pension Record fiasco, and other politically critical issues. Maybe it’s too late for that now. But still ….

Anyway, this Diet session extension issue has become quite interesting politically. And may give us something significant to consider. According to news reports from Tokyo yesterday and today, Prime Minister Fukuda and New Komeito coalition partner leader, Akihiro Ota, have finally agreed that the current session of the Diet should be extended until January 15th. Since there’s already been one extension, this would be the last allowed under Constitutional rules.

The reason usually given for the extension in media reports is to provide the Ruling Coalition time to over-ride DPJ opposition to the anti-terror Bill through a two-thirds vote in the Lower House. Now, Constitutional rules governing this procedure are somewhat complex. Understandably, they’re not always interpreted correctly in media articles. So, it may be useful to quote the exact text of the relevant constitutional article here:

Article 59. (1) A bill becomes a law on passage by both Houses, except as otherwise provided by the Constitution.
(2) A bill which is passed by the House of Representatives, and upon which the House of Councillors makes a decision different from that of the House of Representatives, becomes a law when passed a second time by the House of Representatives by a majority of two-thirds or more of the members present.
(3) The provision of the preceding paragraph does not preclude the House of Representatives from calling for the meeting of a joint committee of both Houses, provided for by law.
(4) Failure by the House of Councillors to take final action within sixty (60) days after receipt of a bill passed by the House of Representatives, time in recess excepted, may be determined by the House of Representatives to constitute a rejection of the said bill by the House of Councillors.

One or two points here are significant, I think. First, the Upper House can reject a bill passed by the Lower House by either majority vote against it. Or, by simply refusing to take a vote on the bill.

But passage of 60 days from the time the Upper House receives the bill constitutes rejection. Exclusive of any time the Diet’s in recess. The anti-terror bill, of course, has already been passed by the Lower House and submitted to the Upper House in late November. The constitutionally-prescribed 60-day deliberation period will expire on January 12th. January 13th and January 14th are both holidays in Japan. So the current session must be extended until at least January 15th to give the Ruling Coalition time to take the two-thirds over-ride vote in the Lower House. If that’s what actually happens. The possibility it can happen may persuade the DPJ to actually vote.

A second point worth mentioning here is that passage of the rejected bill by the Lower House requires only two-thirds of the members present. Not two-thirds of the Lower House total membership. Making it impossible for the vote’s passage to be derailed by one or more parties absenting themselves from the chamber during the vote.

And, as prescribed in the third section of Article 59, the Lower House could before voting the second time try to resolve the problem through a joint conference of representatives of the Lower and Upper Houses.

Significance of the Diet Extension

The possibility that the Ruling Coalition could actually over-ride Upper House rejection of the Bill through a second, two-thirds Lower House vote, has inspired considerable commentary in Japan’s political press. Opposition party Diet members, and their supporters in Japan’s media, have insisted that exercise of the Article 59 two-thirds over-ride by the Ruling Coalition would never be understood by Japan’s attentive public. That it would constitute “ramming through” of the worst kind!

Opposition party members have warned that such action could trigger passage of an Upper House censure motion against the Fukuda Cabinet. Which could force dissolution of the Lower House and a general election. Hmmm. I wonder if they really believe that it would.

Well, the LDP and its coalition partner, New Komeito, now have agreed to extend the current Diet Session until January 15th. So now the DPJ will have the opportunity to make good on their censure motion threat. Thing is, not everyone in the DPJ agrees that actual passage of a motion of censure is such a good idea. Indeed, as we’ve discussed on past programs, such a motion would have no legal force. It would only confirm that Opposition party members in the Upper House don’t like the idea of the LDP’s Yasuo Fukuda serving as prime minister. Hardly a surprise! And, Fukuda would be free to ignore the motion and continue on about his business. Ending the possibility of the Opposition using passage of a censure motion as a threat in the future. It having been proven ineffective when first tried.

Indeed, some anonymous DPJ members have given another reason for opposing actual passage of an Upper House censure motion. That is the very likely possibility that the ruling coalition in the Lower House would respond to the Upper House motion by calling for a vote of confidence in their own chamber. Given the combined LDP and New Komeito overwhelming majority there, the vote of confidence would be certain to pass. Wiping out any damage the Upper House censure motion could possibly do. Probably leaving the ruling coalition in better shape than it was before the whole thing started! I hadn’t thought of that before reading it in Japan’s political press late last week. But it certainly makes sense.

Sooo, all of this discussion of Diet session extension, censure motions, significance of the Upper House, provides those of us who spend our free time studying Japan’s domestic politics with lots to think about. One additional point to remember. It is the Lower House that’s under consideration here. Not the Upper House. So, it’s the Lower House alone that determines the length of the Diet session. And the formal vote must be taken by Saturday if that’s what finally happens. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Concluding Comments.

Well, that’s all we have time for this week. We’re just a little over time. Not much, though. Next time I hope to consider the fate of the “political reform” efforts we heard so much about during the Koizumi – and even Abe – premierships. What’s happened to all the “reformers”? And what does it mean for the future of Japan’s political party system?

Thanks for dropping by. You will find a full transcript of this program, and all previous programs, on the Japan Considered website. At Click on over and browse around. You’ll also find links to enough useful English language information about political and international Japan to keep you busy for months.

No time for bluegrass this week. So, goodbye all. Until next week.