January 25, 2008; Volume 04, Number 04

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

The New Sentaku Political Reform Group
Education About Asia Interview Introducing the Japan Considered Project
The LDP and DPJ in the Current Ordinary Diet Session
Prime Minister Fukuda’s Policy Speech
Why the Negative Reaction to Prime Minister Fukuda’s Speech?
DPJ Performance in the New Diet Session
The Question of Party Leadership: Ichiro Ozawa as Japan’s Karl Rove
Significance of All This for Japan’s Domestic Politics
DPJ National Budget Proposal
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, January 25th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 04, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Brrrrr. Still cold here this morning. Down into the mid-twenties over night. And here in South Carolina, that’s really cold. Even for January. Oh well, it’s bound to improve. The sun is out. And that Carolina Blue sky showing through the pine trees outside the studio windows is just a sight to see.

Thanks for dropping in today. For our fourth program of 2008. The last for the month of January. I’m Robert Angel. Creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project. And creator and host of this Podcast. Each week at this time we consider recent events in the news that seem to have longer-term significance for Japan’s domestic politics, and conduct of international relations. This isn’t a comprehensive news program, now. Rather, an effort to consider just a few events in more detail. In the hope we’ll thereby better understand just what makes Japan tick, so to speak.

Please send your comments and suggestions for the program to me directly at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. I read them all, and respond directly to as many as possible during the week. I’m a little behind on e-mail responses recently. We’ve had quite an increase in audience. But, they’re all saved, and I’ll get to them as soon as I can.

Last week two listeners wrote in concerning parliamentary budget procedures. With a very good point. I’d gone to some pains the week before to explain the Constitutional procedures for passage of the budget. Including the considerably lower threshold for Lower House over-ride of any objections the Upper House may have. Well, that’s true. But as the two listeners pointed out, that’s Only true for the budget bill itself. Accompanying, or enabling, legislation must go through the regular procedures. And that’s likely to make a difference during this current Diet session. Good point, and thanks for the comments!

The New Sentaku Political Reform Group

Several other listeners wrote in asking for more information about the new political reform group I mentioned last week. “Sentaku.” Well, last Sunday, the Sentaku organizers held their planned press conference in Tokyo to announce creation of the organization. A few of the Japanese media outlets covered the press conference politely. But hardly extensively. Asahi Shimbun’s coverage, in fact, was the best of the lot. And that’s the last I’ve heard about it.

Sentaku was created by the “National Congress on 21st Century Japan.” A reform-minded group of between 100 and 200 prominent figures in Japanese public life. From government, academia, media, and business. It was formed, if memory serves, in 1992. At the height of public concern over “seiji kaikaku,” or political reform. The organization has long urged Japan’s political parties to formulate clear statements of their policy positions. Or “manifestos,” as they’re called. And then to base their election campaigning on those manifestos. They also were, earlier on, interested in reform of the electoral system. And they’ve encouraged elected officials to assume their official responsibilities for supervising Japan’s professional bureaucracy. So, their creation of Sentaku is hardly a surprise. And Sentaku is likely to promote similar reforms in the future.

Just because there’s been little media coverage of Sentaku’s activities, doesn’t mean its organizers aren’t busy gathering support, and recruiting incumbent Diet Members to their cause, of course. Given current conditions, I imagine they’d be more effective now working below the media radar. Anyone with more information on this potentially interesting organization, please write and let me know. You can do so anonymously, if you wish.

Speaking of writing in, last week I also mentioned the significance of government funding of political parties. As an aspect of Japan’s political party system reconfiguration. And asked listeners for more specific information about the allocation of those funds. Especially allocation to newly formed parties. Well, the response to that request has been less than overwhelming. In fact, not a peep! Now, I know there are members of the audience who know all about that topic. So, just take a moment to send me an e-mail and set me straight on the procedures. Again, I won’t mention your name on the program, if you prefer. And, of course, will be glad to credit you directly if you’re willing.

Education About Asia Interview Introducing the Japan Considered Project

One final item before we get to our main topics for today. Late last year, Professor Lucien Ellington of the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, interviewed me about creation of the Japan Considered Project. Lucien, as you probably know, is the founding  editor of Education About Asia. An Association of Asian Studies journal. So I was delighted to see the interview appear in the fall 2007 edition of EAA.

Those of you subscribing to EAA can find the interview on pages 53 to 56 of the latest edition. I’ve also put a copy of the interview text up on the Japan Considered Project website. And will put a link to it in the transcript.

Well worth a read. As is Education About Asia! These days it’s rare to find an academic periodical written for a broad, informed audience. EAA is just that. Full of material not only useful for those of us who teach about Asia. But also for the attentive public. Give it a read. And even subscribe! A real bargain at $15 per year for AAS members, and $25 for non-AAS members. If you’re listening to this podcast, though, you also probably should be a member of AAS.

The LDP and DPJ in the Current Ordinary Diet Session

Well, as noted last week, the 169th Ordinary Session of Japan’s Diet opened on Friday, the 18th. Just a few days after the official closing ceremonies for the Extraordinary Session, that ended on Tuesday, the 15th. Let’s take a closer look at the first few days of this current Diet session. Maybe we can find clues to what’s actually going on in the shadowy world of Japan’s domestic politics. That’s a broad topic. So on today’s program we’ll focus first on Prime Minister Fukuda’s opening policy speech. Then we’ll consider how – or how not – the DPJ has taken advantage of the LDP’s difficulties to strengthen their own public credibility as a potential ruling party.

Prime Minister Fukuda’s Policy Speech

[Opening of Speech Sound Clip]

That was Prime Minister Fukuda beginning  his policy speech to the Diet on opening day. This speech, given to each session of the Diet by the incumbent prime minister, is arguably the most important public statement of the government’s political intentions and aspirations. You might compare it to State of the Union speeches given by U.S. president. In some ways, anyway.

To be successful, such a speech has to be inspiring. While at the same time remaining realistic in its objectives. So it isn’t just dismissed out-of-hand as so much political hot air. But no matter what the prime minister says, this speech is bound to generate immediate praise and criticism. Praise from supporters of the incumbent party or coalition. And criticism from its opponents. That’s inevitable. So to make any sense of the reaction. To assess the speech’s political significance, in other words. We have to somehow weigh each to get a notion of how these speeches actually went.

Again, you can access video of the speech on the excellent video server maintained by the web folks at the Lower House. I’ll put a link in the transcript for you. [http://tinyurl.com/32tadg]. Just click on “plenary session,” answer the questions about your equipment, and away you go. You have to wait for the first five or six-minute video to play before the longer segment with the Prime Minister’ speech comes on.

What to say …. I watched the whole speech on the Lower House’s video server. I read the transcript. First in Japanese; then in English. And then I read ten or fifteen Japan media commentaries on the speech. They All were negative. Japan’s media was really tough on poor Prime Minister Fukuda. Both the left-leaning and the right-leaning news outlets. It can’t be encouraging!

Why the Negative Reaction to Prime Minister Fukuda’s Speech?

Why such a negative – almost hostile – reaction to the speech?

Well … a number of factors combined, I think, to create it. First, there’s the possibility that Prime Minister Fukuda might be browbeaten into dissolving the Lower House. If the political media complains loudly enough. It doesn’t seem likely to me. But maybe. And journalists can always hope. Now that would create a real contest to report on! What a story! Everybody wins a Pulitzer! Well, Japan-style.

We’ve talked about this before. Any journalist worth his or her salt would rather cover a boxing match than a bridge tournament. Conflict makes news. Especially high-stakes conflict. Which the next general election certainly will be. It must be frustrating for on-looking journalists to watch Prime Minister Fukuda and his government simply ignore the demands of the Opposition to dissolve the Lower House and “face the judgment of the people.” To dismiss repeated threats of an Upper House motion of censure against the Fukuda Cabinet as having no legal authority. Safe to ignore …

[Clip of Frenchman’s taunt: "Now, Go Away! Or I shall taunt you a second time!"]

Sorry. Couldn’t resist. However, to be fair …. Really …. It would be difficult to describe Prime Minister Fukuda’s recent policy speech as an Inspiring Stem-Winder. Even for a sympathetic observer to do so. Rather, it was a long, carefully edited, very nicely written piece. And Fukuda delivered it very well too. Very carefully. Getting through the whole thing without making any serious mistakes. Sticking to the script. Wearing a very nicely tailored suit.

Clearly, the editors had their hands full. Stitching together the sections of text received from the various sections of the bureaucracy. With due attention to the political consequences of the overall document. And the political interests it would please or offend. Very balanced. Very neat.

Within a day or so, the mainstream media seemed to have settled on the interpretation that the speech lacked what they called a “Fukuda color.” That is, that Prime Minister Fukuda had failed to leave his own imprint on it.

Well, I disagree with that interpretation. It seems to me that Fukuda accomplished exactly that with this policy speech. That is, that this policy speech perfectly reflected the “Fukuda Color.” Cautious, balanced, attentive to all interests. And, to the degree possible, inoffensive. All very neatly packaged.

Fukuda made it clear with this speech that he intends to conduct his administration with the interests of the people in mind. The public and consumers will be at the center of the government’s concerns. Well! Okay ….

But, then again, it’s hard to remember an administration in Tokyo – or in any other genuinely democratic country, for that matter – that Didn’t claim to run the government with the interests of the people in mind. Hmmm. So I guess Japan’s media commentators can be excused for not getting terribly excited by that phrase.

Fukuda did identify, in good bureaucratic fashion, five areas he intends to focus his administration’s energies. They were the realization of a consumer-oriented society in Japan; an effective social security system; a prosperous economy; peaceful international cooperation; and a shift to low-carbon usage that will contribute to anti-global warming.

Certainly there wasn’t anything in the whole speech that could be described as offensive. But then again, for some observers, the very “inoffensiveness” of the speech was offensive! In that it made obvious the point that Yasuo Fukuda is not about to pursue fundamental changes in the way Japan’s government relates to special interests. He’s a Traditionalist, in other words. Well worthy of senior membership in the LDP’s traditional Factionist/Zokuist structure.

No mention of structural reform in this speech. Those reforms, it seems, are a thing of the past! Good news for the bureaucrats, private-sector interests, and their generously compensated cheerleader politicians, who were the targets of such reforms in the past. They, at least, must be pleased.

Perhaps one other group would have been pleased by this policy speech. That would be the new “Sentaku” political reform group. As well as individuals and groups within the LDP who are thinking about creating a new political party. One that will campaign again on the promise of pursuing genuine, basic, political reform. Pleased because the candidates of a non-reformist, or even anti-reformist Traditional LDP will make much easier election opponents. Hmmm. Even if privately pleased, of course, they won’t say so.

DPJ Performance in the New Diet Session

Now, let’s look at the main opposition party, the DPJ.

We have to conclude that the Fukuda Cabinet and LDP have made up little lost ground during the opening days of the current Diet Session. Ground lost with their disastrous Upper House election loss at the end of July last year. Approval ratings for the Fukuda Cabinet, and for the LDP, continue to decline. If less dramatically than a month or so ago.

But, the DPJ seems unable to take advantage of the LDP’s declining popularity. To present itself to Japan’s attentive public as a desirable – or at least, reasonable – alternative to the Fukuda Cabinet, and the long-ruling LDP. As a better choice for Japan’s ruling party. “No Party In Particular,” in other words, remains Japan’s most popular political party! A situation that can’t go unnoticed by Diet members and various groups now considering creation of a new political party. Maybe they could become that alternative choice! And scoop up most of those “No Party In Particular” votes. Such a possibility has to worry the LDP’s election campaign headquarters.

As I’ve mentioned before, my information sources other than regular media reports are better for the LDP than for the DPJ. From time to time I do hear from individuals with good inside connections there. But most of these comments on the DPJ are based on careful reading of media reports. So. As usual. Listener beware!

The Question of Party Leadership: Ichiro Ozawa as Japan’s Karl Rove

To begin with, the DPJ seems to suffer from a leadership problem. DPJ leader, Ichiro Ozawa, is both the DPJ’s greatest political asset and its greatest political liability. Anyone who’s studied Japan’s domestic politics for more than a few years will have recognized Ozawa’s tactical brilliance. He’s been at it for a long, long time. First elected in the late sixties during the premiership of the LDP’s paramount faction balancer, Eisaku Sato. Ozawa quickly earned the nickname “Sato’s Pet.”

After graduating from Sato’s tutelage and protection, Ozawa shifted his allegiance to Kakuei Tanaka. The LDP’s “Boss of Bosses.” Where he learned traditional LDP Factionist/Zokuist politics from The Master. Serving as a sort of “political enforcer” for Tanaka. Handling difficult face-to-face confrontations when necessary. Perhaps with just a touch of enthusiasm.

Following Tanaka’s incapacitation, Ozawa shifted once again to LDP Master Strategist and Fundraising Genius, Shin Kanemaru. Continuing to learn. Continuing to hone his reputation as a bare-knuckles “political enforcer,” who was dangerous to cross. Ozawa appears to have played the same role for Kanemaru as he did for Tanaka. And in the process learned the complex ins-and-outs of political fundraising, LDP-style. Again, from The Master.

As you’ll recall, Kanemaru’s inopportune departure from the political scene ignited a bitter factional leadership battle. A battle Ozawa lost to Keizo Obuchi. Who later became prime minister. And Ozawa stormed out of the LDP! Embarking on a career of forming, destroying, and re-forming political parties. All with the apparent objective of revenging his treatment within the LDP. Under whatever ideological or policy orientation suited his political objectives at the moment.

A history of Japan’s political party system since the early 1990s could be organized neatly, I think, around reaction to Ozawa’s political party maneuverings. And that appears to be where we are at the moment. With Ozawa stirring the pot. Yasuo Fukuda attempting to return to the status quo ante. And most members of the Lower and Upper Houses of Parliament just hoping somehow to maintain their seats!

Well, I see as a growing number of “political reformers” in the wings. Reformers who recognize the significance of changes in Japan’s domestic and international environments. Changes we’ve often discussed on this program. Changes that have rendered the LDP’s traditional Factionist/Zokuist/Koenkai-ist strategies of election campaigning over-priced and obsolete. This current crop of political reformers now appear to be screwing up their courage to mount a significant challenge to the status quo. But that requires effective leadership. A problem they’ve yet to sort out!

So, no responsible observer of Japan’s political scene questions Ichiro Ozawa’s tactical brilliance when it comes to electoral politics. He’s a master. Trained in the best traditions of the LDP, by the LDP’s best practitioners. But Ozawa’s talents as a political Strategist have yet to be proven. A political strategist able to inspire the confidence necessary to become an effective political leader for Japan under current domestic and international conditions.

In a way, Ozawa reminds me of Karl Rove. Nobody doubts Karl Rove’s political genius. Neither his supporters nor his adversaries. But nobody wants – or expects! – Karl Rove to become president. Least of all, Karl Rove himself. He remains most effective when serving as a tactical adviser – and when necessary, political enforcer – for a national political leader. An individual able to inspire public confidence. And public trust.

Such brilliant political tacticians as Karl Rove, or Ichiro Ozawa, operate effectively only as long as they have a patron, or boss, to provide strategic guidance for their tactical skills. And to keep them from self-destructing. A boss whose strategic vision is able to inspire public confidence. And public trust.

Absent that strategic vision, we see only naked political ambition. Problems develop of the sort we’ve seen time and time again. For Ichiro Ozawa and his political party of the moment. Unbridled ego and temper obstructing his path to ultimate political success. Bitter announcement of resignation as DPJ Party Leader, and subsequent reversal of the decision. Flouncing out of the Diet before the two-thirds Lower House over-ride vote. And subsequent explanation that political campaigning was more important than Diet voting! The recent to-ing-and-fro-ing about Ozawa’s attendance at the Davos international economic conference. Including insufficient time allocated in U.N. Secretary General Ban’s schedule to meet with Ozawa. And many other examples. To be fair to Ozawa, he has a terrible – in every sense of that term – reputation with Japan’s political journalists. As I’ve often mentioned on this program, few political journalists really like him. All fear him. And will take a swipe at him when they think they can get away with it. But still, taking that into account, he seems to me to be his own worst enemy.

Significance of All This for Japan’s Domestic Politics

The DPJ under Ozawa’s leadership, I fear, has little chance of persuading Japan’s attentive public that it is a desirable – or even reasonable – alternative to the LDP as Japan’s ruling political party. And that’s too bad. At best, it can only expect reliably to collect negative votes. Votes cast Against the LDP. Rather than cast in Support of the DPJ. That’s what happened during the July 2007 Upper House election. And, as we discussed then, the electoral results of both positive and negative vote-casting are the same. But post-election public expectations and political party credibility are quite different. With important consequences for post-election behavior of the victorious party.

It’s not as if the DPJ lacks for ideologically consistent, reliable members. Upper House President Satsuki Eda and Lower House Vice Speaker, Takahiro Yokomichi, for example, are ideologically consistent, reliable Socialists. Former DPJ president, Seiji Maehara and other Matsushita Seikei Juku graduates, are equally consistent, reliable pluralist liberals. But neither group – or any other group – seems capable of inspiring Party-wide support and allegiance. Hence, Ozawa’s rise to the Party presidency. A decision some members of the DPJ now appear to regret. Though, how to correct it without splitting the Party? And ending any chance – however remote – of deposing the LDP? No easy solution there.

DPJ National Budget Proposal

There has been, however, one recent bit of encouraging news from the DPJ. That came earlier this week. On Tuesday. According to several media reports, the DPJ’s Budget Research Committee has prepared an overall national budget counterproposal. The Party intends to present it to the Diet in the near future. The proposal, according to one source, lacks numerical indicators. Rather, it’s more conceptual. Proposing fundamental changes in Japan’s national budgetary processes. As well as reevaluation of the way government expenditures are apportioned.

This news of a DPJ budget proposal is encouraging for a number of reasons. First, it represents an initiative from the main opposition party well beyond simple rejection of any Government proposal, or “gotcha-type” political moves. Second, the DPJ proposal includes some interesting suggestions. Including reexamination of the notorious system of government “special accounts.” Which would include those involved in road construction boondoggles. And reassignment of responsibility for national budget formulation from the Ministry of Finance to the Kantei.

It’s far too early to evaluate this proposal with any degree of confidence. Just not enough information available yet. But its emergence alone should be enough to attract our attention. Certainly more impressive than repeated threats to pass an Upper House motion of censure against the incumbent government. I’ll keep an eye on it, and keep you posted.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re out of time. Almost within our agreed-upon limit. As always, thanks for tuning in. Continue to send me your e-mailed comments and suggestions. To RobertCAngel@gmail.com. Especially any additional information you may have about “Sentaku,” or the allocation of government funding for election campaigns.

Let’s go out today with another clip of inspiring bluegrass. This from North Carolina’s celebrated WindRiders. Paul and Silas will smooth away your cares. I’ll put a link in the show notes to the web page of this remarkable North Carolina band. Enjoy!

[Bluegrass Clip]

Goodbye All. Until next week.