January 4, 2008; Volume 04, Number 02

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

The Long-Awaited Lower House Two-Thirds Over-Ride Vote
Consequences of the Lower House Over-Ride Vote
Constitutional Provision for Diet Passage of the Budget Bill
The Long-Awaited Fukuda-Ozawa Parliamentary Debate
The Future of Japan’s Political Party System
Why Japan May Experience A Significant Political Party System Realignment
Why Japan May Not Experience A Significant Political Party System Realignment
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, January 11th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 02, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Back home again. And able to prepare this program in the home studio. No excuse this time for scratchy, poorly edited sound! This is still very much an amateur project. Those of you with radio backgrounds must cringe when you listen. But it’s slowly getting better, I hope. Listen to the first program and compare, if it doesn’t seem so now!

Weather here in the South Carolina Midlands is unusually warm. It was 61 degrees outside this morning around 4:00 a.m. And the prediction is for near 70 by noon or so. We’re also getting some badly needed rain. Both yesterday and today.

Well. Enough of this. As usual, we’ve got a lot to cover in this week’s program. Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations is back in full swing. Following the long year-end, new-year’s holiday. As promised on the last program, this week our focus is domestic politics. Just too much going on for us to ignore. We’ll begin with consideration of the passage of the anti-terrorism bill by two-thirds Lower House override. Then we’ll take a look at the long-awaited parliamentary debate between Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa. And see if it tells us anything about party politics in Japan these days. And then, hopefully, we’ll still have time to take a closer look at the structural rumblings within Japan’s overall political party system.

The Long-Awaited Lower House Two-Thirds Over-Ride Vote

Well, they’ve ‘Up ‘n done it!’ as we’d say OverHome. Japan’s anti-terror refueling mission law has been passed at last. Defense Minister, Shigeru Ishiba, immediately ordered his uniformed minions to prepare to resume refueling services. The Oumi, based in Sasebo, together with the destroyer, Murasame, based in Yokosuka, are expected to leave Japan toward the end of this month. To resume Japan’s refueling services in the Indian Ocean.

Thinking back, the critics are right! There really has been little discussion of the actual substance of the issues involved. Either during Diet debate. Or in the media. Rather, the overwhelming majority of Diet debate and media commentary has focused on the political atmospherics of the bill’s passage. This is significant, I think. And can’t be very encouraging for Japan’s attentive public.

Japan’s involvement in the international effort to combat terrorist attacks is a pretty important issue. Important for Japan. Important for how the rest of the world views Japan. Important for Japan’s international alliances. And for Japan’s overall conduct of foreign affairs.

As such, it would be nice to have more information about whether this refueling mission actually is all that important. Worth the risk? Worth the cost? And so on. For Japan itself! Instead, we’ve been treated to accusations of “You’re simply following in Washington’s wake,” from the Opposition. Or, the Government’s, “Why, if we don’t continue to refuel, Washington will be upset. So, there’s no getting around it. We’ll just have to do it!”

Both of those arguments are right out of the earlier post-WWII era! When Japan’s successive prime ministers and cabinets were able to justify difficult but unavoidable decisions by blaming them on U.S. pressure. Rather than having to assume political responsibility for their own decisions. The old “Gai-Atsu” ploy. While the Opposition focused most of its political energies on opposing Japan’s alliance with the United States. The good old days of the 1955 political party system.

Now, I don’t have the background necessary to evaluate the actual military significance of Japan’s effort. How much Japan’s refueling operations actually have contributed to the global effort to counter terrorist actions. But somebody must have. And those informed opinions and assessments should have played an important role in the parliamentary deliberations. The media too should have been full of them! It’s just not healthy to play “gotcha politics” with loaded guns … And it seems to me that’s what’s been happening in Japan with this issue.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that only the Opposition parties were to blame for this. Yes, they did focus to a bizarre degree on details of issues that were peripheral, at best. Such as the celebrated investigation into the guest list for a single dinner hosted by a company seeking government favors. And how Japan-supplied oil was divided up among the missions of the vessels receiving it. A question everyone knows ultimately is impossible to answer.

But the LDP too seemed more than willing to follow the old pattern. Relying heavily on the trusty old “gai-atsu,” or “foreign pressure” explanations of their behavior, as I just mentioned. As if the 1990s – or even 1980s – had never happened. Making far too little effort to justify their policy positions with practical explanations of need. And they had better access to the specifics than did the Opposition!

Anyway, we’ve observed weeks of parliamentary deliberation. Months of consideration. The new anti-terror bill passed the Lower House on November 13th, last year. And finally was voted on just this week in the Upper House. First in the Upper House Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Where it was rejected. Then today, Friday, in the morning, the full Upper House rejected the Bill. With a 133-106 vote. Following the Upper House rejection, as expected, the full Lower House took another vote on the Bill. This time passing it: 340 votes for, and 133 votes against.

[Sound Clip of Lower House Speaker Yohei Kono announcing the results.]

That was former Young Turk, now distinguished Speaker of the Lower House, Yohei Kono, announcing the results. Taro Kono’s father. Who walked out of the LDP in 1976 to create the Shin Jiyu Club. The 340 votes, of course, totaled well over the two-thirds of those Lower House Members voting required to pass the bill.

One interesting note. DPJ Leader, Ichiro Ozawa, got up and left the Chamber before the Lower House vote was taken. An action he’s likely to regret if it’s noticed. Perhaps another example of his undisciplined ego overwhelming his usually solid political judgment. Not as bad as his notorious DPJ presidency resignation press conference last November. But not a move likely to raise public confidence in his ability to assume the premiership either. Hmmm. Not helpful. To him. Or, to his Party.

Consequences of the Lower House Over-Ride Vote

The over-ride vote was just taken today, Japan time. And Monday’s a national holiday in Japan. “Seijin no Hi.” What now is being translated as “Coming of Age Day.” So we’ll have to wait a few more days to assess the response of Japan’s attentive public. Most immediately, how the decision to over-ride with a Lower House two-thirds over-ride vote will affect public support for the Fukuda Cabinet. The majority of Japan’s journalists and media commentators for some time have been predicting that it would seriously damage public support for the current government. That Japan’s attentive public wouldn’t “understand” the decision to hold the second vote. That it will be perceived as legislative “ramming-through” of the worst kind. Well, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m sure that the major media companies are conducting opinion polls on this very subject right now. We’ll look them over next week. As always, I’ll try to keep you posted.

Constitutional Provision for Diet Passage of the Budget Bill

One additional point on the constitutional relationship between the Lower and Upper Houses of Japan’s Diet. As usual, passage of the national budget bill will be the Fukuda Cabinet’s number one priority in the next ordinary session of the Diet. There will be other important issues as well. But the national budget is a “must do” agenda item. The next session is scheduled to begin on January 18th. Next Friday.

Japan’s political media has covered this issue fairly extensively. Speculating on how the budget issue will be handled. Including the right of the Lower House to override Upper House opposition. But one important point I’ve not seen mentioned is the difference between budget bills and other legislation. And there is an important difference.

Week before last, if memory serves, I quoted Article 59 of the Constitution. The one that defines the two-thirds Lower House over-ride of Upper House rejection. Budget bills, however, are covered under Article 60. It reads:

“The budget must first be submitted to the House of Representatives. 2) Upon consideration of the budget, when the House of Councillors makes a decision different from that of the House of Representatives, and when no agreement can be reached even through a joint committee of both Houses, provided for by law, or in the case of failure by the House of Councillors to take final action within thirty(30) days, the period of recess excluded, after the receipt of the budget passed by the House of Representatives, the decision of the House of Representatives shall be the decision of the Diet.”

Key here is that the waiting period is only 30 days. Not 60 days. And that the Lower House need not vote again to pass the budget. At all. No two-thirds over-ride requirement. A considerably lower threshold. That I assume we’ll hear talked more about in the coming weeks.

The Long-Awaited Fukuda-Ozawa Parliamentary Debate

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Fukuda and DPJ Leader Ozawa finally held their long-awaited one-on-one debate. Before a joint Lower and Upper House meeting of the Committee on “Fundamental National Policies.” You can access the video of this debate on the Lower House video website. I’ll put a link in the show notes that will take you directly to the site. Just click on the “Fundamental National Policies (joint meeting of both houses) link on that page, and follow the instructions.

Really, this Internet TV service, provided on both the Lower and Upper House websites is a valuable source for all of us. As is the video provided on the Kantei website. Even if you still have difficulty with the language. And I certainly still do. Though I’ve only been studying for only 45 years or so …. These sites still are worth the time to access. Watching the proceedings gives those of us who make our livings as analysts with a lot of useful information. Information that a transcript simply can’t provide. Including a better sense of the atmosphere in which the event took place. Anyway ….

[Ozawa opening sound clip]

That was Ichiro Ozawa opening this particular “debate.” Well, I’ll have to put debate in quotation marks in the transcript. This party leader debate exercise, if I remember correctly, originally was proposed by none other than Ichiro Ozawa himself. Back in the more turbulent years of the 1990s. Back when Ozawa still described himself as a “conservative.” As an opportunity for the main party leaders to present and defend their political programs before the Japanese people.

It’s a good idea. Or so seemed to me at the time. And still does. But to be of any value. At least, to accomplish its original objectives. The debates would have to be held at the beginning, rather than at the very end, of the parliamentary session. As this one was. And would have to be more spontaneous than this latest heavily scripted, Kabuki-like performance. Well, that may be an exaggeration. More like a Noh play than Kabuki. Those of you who’ve had the opportunity to sit through each will understand the distinction, I’m sure. One Japanese media commentator reported that Ozawa had been asked to submit his questions to the Kantei in advance! For heavens sake. I watched video of the whole debate. And it certainly sounded that way. All they needed were the samisens in the background, and a few O-nigiri to pass around, to put the audience in the mood.

Ozawa went on at some length about the pension record issue. An important issue, to be sure. Perhaps the most important of all. But he didn’t break any new ground. Simply kept saying, one way and another, that government stewardship of the people’s retirement money has been shameful. Fukuda then just agreed with him. And promised his Government would do their best to correct the unfortunate situation. Though it would be difficult, given all the problems involved. Well! Hardly the stuff of large-type front-page headlines!

There was some back-and-forth about the new anti-terror refueling bill. But again, nothing new. And nothing very impressive. No effort, for example, to compare the DPJ proposal with the LDP proposal. Unless I missed it in the linguistic cloud. Though Japanese media commentary yesterday and today hasn’t been at all positive. Significantly, both media outlets and commentators who are traditionally Left and Right criticized the performance of both Fukuda and Ozawa.

But this debate was significant, I think. Or, at least, the manner in which it was conducted was significant. In a way unintended by the participants. Since for me, at least, it exemplified the manner in which both Fukuda and Ozawa perceive their relationship to Japan’s attentive public. Their performance made American-style professional wrestling seem downright realistic. Both participants took care first to avoid mistakes that might reflect badly on themselves. Well, that’s understandable, I guess. But they further took care not to cause their counterpart any unnecessary discomfort. Two mature men, each with a lot to lose personally, doing their best to avoid that fate. Parliamentary politics as the ultimate insiders’ game. Played by and for the benefit of the Diet Member participants.

Well, that may be too harsh. Can’t the same thing be said for most public parliamentary performances in most democracies? Maybe so. But when this self-interested orientation of elected representatives becomes too obvious, the attentive public loses confidence in them. Loses confidence in their willingness to represent their constituents’ interests.

And that leaves the attentive public vulnerable to appeals from alternative representatives. In other words, it’s one thing for an elected representative to become self-interested. A career politician, concerned more about perpetuation of that career than representation of his or her constituents’ interests. But it’s quite another to be blatant about it. That is, if the electoral system allows the emergence of realistic alternatives.

How about Japan’s case? Hmmm. Let’s think more about that. It wouldn’t matter as much for Japan’s attentive public, if they had confidence in the ability and integrity of their career national bureaucracy. And, they believed their presumed “representatives” would stay out of the way and let the bureaucrats run the government. Japanese public confidence in their national bureaucracy has eroded significantly, however, in the past few years. Confidence in both their ability, and in their integrity. More on that too in a moment.

The Future of Japan’s Political Party System

For some time now on this program I’ve mentioned the possibility of a significant reconfiguration of Japan’s overall political party system. Key here is “significant.” By which I mean a change big enough to affect the ruling coalition-opposition balance. Most likely, through defections from both the LDP and the DPJ. With the defectors forming a new party. A new party with enough members to destabilize the current balance between the ruling coalition and the opposition. Not, in other words, something like a repeat of Yohei Kono’s short-lived experiment with the Shin-Jiyu Club. Or similar defections.

Now, this isn’t a “prediction.” I’m not in that business. And would charge a whole heck of a lot more for these programs if I were! I really don’t know whether this will happen or not. And if it were to happen, I’m even less sure about the specific configuration the reorganization would take. But under current conditions, it appears to me that a significant reconfiguration of Japan’s political party system at the national level is a definite possibility. And, whether it actually happens or not, I am certain we’ll hear a lot about the possibility in the months to come.

So, let’s consider all this. Beginning with reasons why we may well see a significant reconfiguration. Then consider an equally persuasive list of reasons why, in the end, it’s unlikely to happen.

Why Japan May Experience A Significant Political Party System Realignment

First, a few reasons for thinking we may see a significant party realignment in the not-too-distant future. There’s a lot to be considered on each of these topics. But our Old Clock on the Wall already has begun to beam its stern message of temporal moderation. We’re bound to return to this topic over and over in the weeks, and months, to come. So there’ll be plenty of time to elaborate on each topic then. Probably one at a time.

In summary, then. The most important factor encouraging a significant party realignment, I think, is the memory of the “Koizumi Effect.” That is, Koizumi’s success, once he became prime minister, with pursuit of political reform. That’s a big and controversial topic. But whether approving of his policies or not. Everyone has to recognize Koizumi’s remarkable victory in the 2005 Lower House election. And the fact that he was one of the very few Japanese prime ministers to leave office with rising public approval ratings. So, it’s only natural that some elected representatives today would study Koizumi’s performance for clues. When they do, they’ll discover that his success depended simply on persuading Japan’s attentive public that he was both willing and capable of pursuing genuine, meaningful “political reform.” More on all this in future programs when we have more time.

A second factor encouraging a significant party realignment is related to Koizumi’s 2005 electoral success. That is a fairly large number of incumbent LDP members who were elected for the first time in 2005. Elected on the grounds of their support for Koizumi’s political reform agenda. Some of them have been persuaded to join traditional LDP factions. Others have joined Tsutomu Takebe’s “New Breeze,” anti-faction group, established in late December, 2006. Others still simply identify themselves as having no factional affiliation.

Many members of this 2005 crop of LDP lawmakers maintain a degree of allegiance to Koizumi. Or, at least, to Koizumi’s political reform ideals. They fear the LDP’s current drift away from political reform will damage the electoral chances of its candidates. But more on that in a moment.

Another factor has emerged. That may be even more important for them. Prime Minister and LDP president, Yasuo Fukuda, appointed LDP traditionalist and faction leader, Makoto Koga, as the LDP’s new election czar. When he reshuffled the LDP leadership just after his election as party president. Koga and those now helping him prepare for the next general election have stated clearly, time and again, that LDP members elected in 2005 will be given no special consideration during the next general election.

Hmmm. Understandable tactically. Perhaps even strategically. If analyzed from the traditional LDP perspective. But certainly NOT a move designed to inspire loyalty to the LDP in the hearts of the LDP’s 2005 class. Especially those who have maintained their Koizumi-inspired anti-Faction orientation within the Party. So, official statements coming from the Party’s election headquarters push, I think, in the direction of significant change.

A third factor I see encouraging a significant party realignment is the unmistakable drift of the LDP under Yasuo Fukuda from the Koizumi-inspired “political reform.” And willingness to return to the Good Old Fashioned Way of doing things. Especially visible in the way the Party has responded to their stunning defeat in the July 2007 Upper House election. More emphasis on providing funds for regional pork-barrel projects all around. Pure Pork. Fed, fattened, slaughtered, and distributed, under the pretext of addressing the “geographic inequality” problem. This is evident in on-going national budget discussions. In the “road tax” debate, likely to be a major feature of the next ordinary Diet session. Pandering to the agricultural vote, with promises of new agricultural subsidies. And in reluctance to address issues such as the SIA pension records scandal head-on, regardless of bureaucratic resistance. As well as LDP handling of other issues that illustrates reluctance of the LDP to confront Japan’s national bureaucracy and demand genuine reform. More too on these points in the weeks and months to come.

A fourth factor is somewhat more complex. But nonetheless influential. It’s the eruption of a real doozy of a government corruption scandal at the Ministry of Defense. What we have been considering on this program as the “Moriya scandal” and the “Ministry of Defense procurement corruption scandal.”

Government corruption scandals of this sort are nothing new for Japan. There’s quite a history of them, in fact, for us to study. As we consider how this one is likely to play out. Each includes “discovery,” or admission, of the pattern of corruption. Promises of the political authorities to “reform,” and correct the problem. Passage of legislation of some kind. That minimizes inconvenience to those who pay and collect political money. And then a gradual return to the status quo ante.

We are, at the moment, half-way between the “discovery” and “promise of reform” phase in this well-established scenario. A time during which credible commitments to meaningful reform will be well received by Japan’s attentive public. This theme seems to me certain to resonate positively with Japan’s voters during the next general election. Greatly advantaging candidates seen as committed reformers. And disadvantaging candidates of traditional political parties. It will be especially bad should the prosecutors’ investigations spread by the time of the next general election to the LDP’s defense zoku members. Which now seems a strong possibility. So, the Ministry of Defense military procurement corruption scandal is likely to work in the next general election to the benefit of candidates and any party credibly espousing “political reform.”

A final, fifth, factor likely to encourage significant party realignment is the behavior of the current leaders of the two major political parties. Yasuo Fukuda and Ichiro Ozawa. It is difficult to paint either of them as the leader of genuine political reform efforts. Fukuda seems like a nice man. Responsible. Intelligent. Cautious. And so on. Very careful about his appearance. But he appears to have the soul of a bureaucrat. And sounds just like one in his public speeches and public behavior. We’ve considered this before on this program. More important, he seems far too willing to make compromises that will avoid “trouble.” A good thing, in many ways. But not a style usually considered “inspiring.”

It’s hard not to describe Ichiro Ozawa, on the other hand, as anything but a political opportunist. Ozawa, after all, in an earlier life, well within the memory of most Japanese voters, was the founder of Japan’s “Liberal Party,” or “Jiyu-to.” Assailed at the time as dangerously conservative by Japan’s Left-leaning media. Now he’s seen electioneering around the country, hand-in-hand with the national chairman of Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation! Espousing much of Rengo’s pro-labor, government redistributive policy agenda.

Further, any time Ozawa has come close to achieving the ultimate political victory, his enormous ego and fierce temper have blocked his path. Most recent was his decision to flounce out the Lower House before the vote on the new anti-terror bill over-ride. He’ll undoubtedly pay for that one. Then there was his petulant party presidency resignation press conference last November 4th. Not to mention the Grand Coalition discussions he held with Prime Minister Fukuda! The ultimate “national politics as an exclusive Diet Member insiders’ game” gesture!

No, neither the LDP nor the DPJ is headed by an individual likely to inspire much voter confidence in their commitment to meaningful political reform. They both are very traditional “seiji gokko” type politicians.

Why Japan May Not Experience A Significant Political Party System Realignment

That’s only an abbreviated list of the factors pushing Japan’s political party system toward significant realignment. And I realize we’re way over time again. But just briefly, there also are equally persuasive reasons to believe Japan’s political party system will avoid significant realignment. At least in the near- and medium-term.

Most significant here are the enormous benefits of LDP membership in the past. And still today. Most defectors from the LDP have lived to regret it. Indeed, most of them have returned to the fold sheepishly, after a brief blaze of glory. The LDP has demonstrated remarkable adaptability. Remarkable staying power. A tour through the impressive LDP headquarters building, just a short walk from the Diet building, nicely illustrates its durability. It’s a long-surviving, long-ruling political party that would be difficult for any serious candidate to abandon.

A second factor likely to discourage those considering abandonment of the LDP is the very instability and insecurity of the current political scene in Japan. It’s difficult to predict just what will happen. How things will work out. Members of the LDP awake one morning to discover their Party president has unexpectedly resigned. They awake again to discover their new Party president has been holding discussions with the leading opposition party about forming a Grand Cabinet Coalition. For heaven’s sake! Corruption scandals erupt, one after the other, out of the blue. And few members of the Diet can afford not to worry about such investigations, or how far they’ll go. The relative security of the LDP must be even more difficult to abandon under such turbulent conditions.

But perhaps the most important factor discouraging a significant political party system realignment, I believe, is the lack of an obvious leader of the new “political reform” party that would result. Junichiro Koizumi’s name has been suggested time and again. He’s the natural choice. But each time he’s asked, Koizumi insists that he won’t do it. He will support someone else, is about all we get out of him. But who will that person be?

There are a number of possibilities. Former Defense Minister, Yuriko Koike, comes immediately to my mind. But she seems to have ruffled the feathers of more leading members of the LDP’s “young reformers” group than those of the hapless Yoshihisa Shiozaki. That makes her leadership more problematic. Not impossible. But more difficult. Perhaps one of the leaders of an anti-mainstream LDP faction will step up to the plate. Hmmm. Hard to think of one who isn’t himself vulnerable to prosecutorial attentions in the future. Or who could even make a credible claim to being a genuine reformer.

Without going through the whole list of possible candidates, the point to consider here is that there is, in fact, a whole list of possible candidates. Not one obvious front-runner. Which means there’s sure to be a battle for that honor. A battle that will discourage emergence of a new party that can claim the title of genuine reformer.

So, these, and a number of additional factors, make it unlikely that we will see a significant reorganization of Japan’s political party system for a while.

Concluding comments.

Once again, we’re way over time. So I’ll have to stop here. And get this program up on the Web. We’ll return to this topic in the weeks and months to come. I’m sure. Continue to send me your comments and suggestions. About this, and about other topics, by e-mail to RobertCAngel@gmail.com. I read them all with interest. Next week I’m hoping to have Gregg Rubinstein of GAR Associates in Washington provide us with some background and analysis of the MOD equipment procurement corruption scandal I just mentioned, and its overall implications. No promise of that. But let’s hope.

So, Goodbye All. Until next week.