March 7, 2008; Volume 04, Number 08

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Tainted Gyoza Negotiations Between Tokyo and Beijing Continue
Introduction of Antique Parliamentary Tactics into the 21st Century Diet
Why the 1955 System Worked
Majority Decision Rules in Japan’s Constitution
Outdated Political Tactics Inappropriate for 21st Century Japanese Politics
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From beautiful Lake Wateree State Park. In the Piedmont region of South Carolina. Today is Friday, March 7th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 08, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Thanks for dropping in today. 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 one or more recent events in the news from Japan. Selecting those items with the greatest potential for helping us better understand changes in Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations. There’s a lot to choose from, so we can’t cover every issue in the news. That’s for sure! And, as you long-time listeners may have noticed, I try to follow the progress of the issues we do discuss for more than one or two programs. Getting as much out of them as we can. It varies, though, according to how things develop.

Speaking of long-time listeners, a hearty South Carolina welcome to those of you who are joining us for the first time today. As well as those of you who have been with us only for the past couple of weeks. We’ve had quite an increase in listenership recently. Both in Asia, and in Europe. Not sure why. But the more the merrier. That’s the whole purpose. Not much sense in creating these shows if I’m just listening to myself talk!

So, a sincere welcome. I hope the program meets your expectations. Drop an e-mail to me when you have time, with your comments and suggestions for the program. I do read them all. And respond directly to as many as time permits. Even if you don’t receive a direct reply, you can be sure I’ve read your comment. So your time’s not wasted! The e-mail address is

I’ve mentioned it before. But if you have a correction or suggestion, and would rather not have your name mentioned on the program, that’s fine! I won’t. Of course, if you don’t mind, I’d rather give you credit for your contribution. It’s up to you.

Lake Wateree State Park is another of those jewels of the South Carolina State Park System. It boasts a number of campsites right on the shore of a pristine lake. This lake has, I’m assured, some of the best fishing in South Carolina.

And speaking of “pristine,” I’ve never seen a better-kept campground anywhere. No litter; everything ship-shape. And with a very small staff. It’s hard to imagine a nicer place to park our Little Tin House. Also known as the Mobile Studio. Now, this is out in the country. No WiFi access, to be sure. Barely a cell phone signal. But that’s a small price to pay. I’ll try to put a photo up in the transcript. It’s cloudy today. You may even hear a few rain drops on the roof of the Mobile Studio. And almost certainly some birds. Hope you don’t mind.

This week, as usual, we have a full plate. Lots to consider. There have been some more interesting developments in the bilateral negotiations between Japan and China over the tainted gyoza problem. Nothing definitive yet. But the conduct of bilateral relations between those two important countries certainly has changed from what it was only a few years ago.

After getting up to date on the gyoza saga, we’ll consider the parliamentary tactics employed by the ruling coalition and opposition. With special attention to what I consider the antique, or outdated, tactics recently resurrected by Ichiro Ozawa’s Democratic Party of Japan.

Then, to the extent time permits, we’ll review recent indications that Diet members from both the LDP and DPJ are preparing for a reorganization of Japan’s national political party system. Events surrounding “Sentaku,” the newly organized national political reform organization I mentioned on this program earlier in the year, appear to me to be growing in importance. But that’s just one indication. So, let’s get right to it, beginning with Japan-China negotiations over tainted gyoza.

Tainted Gyoza Negotiations Between Tokyo and Beijing Continue

Last Friday we looked in briefly at these negotiations. And concluded that things weren’t going quite as smoothly as I’d hoped the week before. Well, reports of events during the past week offer no more encouragement. It appears that both sides have dug in, determined to maintain their positions.

However, let’s not get too pessimistic about the future of Japan-China relations. Based only on these tainted gyoza-related reports. First, we need to consider the quality of the information we have to base our judgments on. It won’t come as news to any of you that statements to the news media of both countries – from both sides of the negotiations – are themselves an important element in the overall negotiations. Made more to influence the process than to accurately inform the public.

That is, like nearly all delicate international negotiations I’ve ever observed, information provided to the public from both sides is tightly managed. Managed as part of the overall negotiating strategy of the side making the announcement. It’s rare that we ever come across straight factual statements in this sort of thing. Beyond the most mundane details, observable to all. That’s in no way intended as criticism of the news media. They report what they can. Or, even, criticism of the parties directly involved in the negotiations. It’s just the way things work when a genuinely democratic state is involved in a diplomatic negotiation. Even, when not-so-democratic states are involved, if their publics aren’t totally under the control of the government. And that’s rare indeed, these days!

Sooo, as we observe and try to understand the significance of this tainted gyoza issue, we have to remember we’re working with information that’s highly suspect. And treat public announcements from both sides with considerable caution.

Especially since there’s much more at stake here than tainted gyoza. For example: Especially critical is the bilateral dispute over exploitation of natural resources in the East China Sea. This issue involves disagreement over definition of national borders. Or, at least, exclusive economic zones at sea. Which has implications for national borders. An incredibly difficult issue for any two nations to negotiate. Under the best of conditions. Given their long history of turbulent relations, Japan and China aren’t negotiating under anything near ideal conditions.

Chinese president, Hu Jintao, has publicly announced his intention to visit Japan during “cherry blossom time.” Or, as it’s been assumed in Japan’s media, some time during April. Both President Hu and Prime Minister Fukuda have publicly committed themselves to settling this ticklish issue before or during Hu’s historic visit to Japan. After making this announcement, President Hu surely would resent being forced to cancel the visit. The East China Sea issue is not the only bilateral problem. Just the most difficult. And the one likely to have been receiving the most immediate attention when the tainted gyoza issue made its sudden and unwelcome appearance on the diplomatic stage.

This is all to say that it seems likely to me this newest addition to the bilateral diplomatic menu we’re reading about in the news actually is being considered within the larger context of other outstanding issues. Or, at least, the most immediately pressing, East China Sea, issue. In fact, that likelihood is what inspired my optimism week before last. Hoping that this new issue might provide the representatives on both sides with additional give-and-take, face-saving, opportunities during the negotiations.

Well, that doesn’t seem to have happened. After relatively encouraging early negotiations, it appears the Chinese side dug in their heels. Or, at least some of the actors on the Chinese side dug in. Decided to play hardball. Insisting the tainting of the gyoza couldn’t have happened in China. That it could have occurred in Japan. Catching the Japanese side, apparently, completely by surprise.

This Chinese assertion was made at a press conference by police investigative authorities. So there’s little doubt about their position, at least. Motivation is another matter entirely. Why’d they do it? Japan’s press has been full of speculation. Much of it focused on conflict within China’s government. Efforts by those responsible for exported food safety to avoid blame. Reluctance to compromise with Japan for fear of offending military, or other Chinese interest groups, thought to be less eager to cooperate with Japan. Fear of adverse effect on the Olympic games China will host later in the year. And so on.

One other possibility, I’ve yet to see mentioned, is that the Chinese side simply miscalculated Japan’s reaction to their shift in posture. Could it be that the Chinese side expected Japan simply to accept the notion that the gyoza had been tainted once it arrived in Japan? That’s certainly possible. Japan’s elaborate efforts to avoid offending Beijing during bilateral negotiations since the mid-1960s might well have led Beijing to such a miscalculation. Especially under the premiership of what they consider to be the Chinese-friendly Yasuo Fukuda. Led them to assume Japan would be more eager to compromise on this issue. Perhaps out of fear that any other reaction on Tokyo’s part might lead President Hu to cancel his visit to Japan. Hmmm. Those days are over, it seems.

Another possibility is that the tainted gyoza negotiations are, in fact, combined somehow with the East China Sea negotiations. As a face-saving gesture for the Chinese side. Or, some other complex game of “who-blinks-first” concerning Hu’s Tokyo trip. That the latest hard-nosed statements from Beijing are just part of the run-up to other announcements.

All of this, of course, is highly speculative. In the end, we’ll just have to wait to see how things turn out. One thing we can say with certainty at this point, however, is that Japan’s behavior during negotiations with China has changed significantly during the past few years. And that’s worth thinking about. Worth think about in Washington as well!

Introduction of Antique Parliamentary Tactics into the 21st Century Diet

Now let’s turn to our second topic today. That is introduction of antique parliamentary tactics from last century’s “1955 System” into today’s Diet. And the communications media’s response to that effort. This is a theme we’ve considered before on this program, and undoubtedly will consider again. At least, it appears, for a few more years.

“Antique parliamentary tactics?” What in the world…?” You may well ask. I use the term to describe introduction of maneuvers used by opposition parties during what some observers and participants think of as Japan’s parliamentary “Golden Era”: That is, the “1955 System.”

Such artifacts of that earlier parliamentary era include rejection of majority parliamentary decision rules, party-wide refusal to participate in parliamentary debate, and threat – or even exercise – of physical violence within the Diet chambers. We’ve recently seen all of these tactics employed by party leaders who received their training and early experience within the 1955 System. More amazing, virtually all of Japan’s political media have been willing to overlook the unsuitability of those antique tactics for Japan’s 21st century political system. Even, recently, the exercise of physical violence within the halls of Parliament. Given the “watchdog of democracy” role Japan’s media has defined for itself, I’m puzzled by their reaction.

Before we turn to specific examples today, let’s consider parliamentary activities in Japan under the 1955 System. Including the tactics I mentioned a moment ago.

During the 1955 System, which most analysts date between 1955 and 1993, the LDP dominated the system. A “permanent majority party,” it was considered at the time. Their main opposition party then was the Socialist Party, or Shakaito. Which still survives, but as only a ghost of its former profile. There were other parties, of course. Some significant at various times. But those two were the primary actors. As the LDP and DPJ are now.

The Socialists under the 1955 System had no chance of becoming a majority party. Their realistic parliamentary objective for most of the period was to prevent the Liberal Democratic Party from winning two-thirds or more of the Lower House seats. Thereby preventing the LDP from achieving its platform pledge of revising Japan’s national constitution. Especially, the Article Nine “peace clause.”

During this era, much of Japan’s political media and punditocracy supported the left-leaning policy orientation of the Japan Socialist Party. And most of the rest, if not outright supporters of the Socialists, were at least hostile to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

Sooo, under these conditions, the Liberal Democratic Party was constrained from using the parliamentary majority it regularly won in fair and open elections to pass legislation that was opposed by the Socialists. Such passage, it then was argued, would have been “undemocratic.” Since it ignored the policy interests of the Socialist Party, and of those voters who supported the Socialist Party. Hmmm.

LDP leaders at the time were usually willing to go along with this reconstruction of democratic theory. Violations were rare. After all, the overwhelmingly dominant LDP required some credible parliamentary opposition. If only to buttress their own legitimacy. And the Socialists were it! Had the Socialists not existed, the LDP would have had to create them! So when violations of the Japanese democratic theory corollary did occur, Japan’s political media and punditocracy described them as “ramming through,” or “forcing” legislation. Language intentionally suggestive of violent behavior on the part of the LDP. This in spite of the LDP’s undisputed majority in the Lower House. In both Houses, in fact, during that period.

During the 1955 System, in addition to describing majority votes with which the opposition disagreed as “ramming through,” or “forcing,” another unusual political term came into Japan’s political media vocabulary. That was the “Empty Diet.” Votes taken during an “Empty Diet” were considered illegitimate. Worthy of condemnation. And they certainly would have been. Were the Diet Chambers actually “empty” when the votes were recorded.

However, 1955 System “Empty” Diets weren’t really empty at all. The emptiness referred only to those seats assigned to Opposition Party members. Seats they refused to occupy. Either for purposes of debate or to vote. There was no suggestion of forcibly barring them from the chamber. Or, of failures to notify them in advance of the votes. They chose to absent themselves as a means of protest. To provide the media and punditocracy with the opportunity to describe the Diet as “empty.”

Thus, during the decades of the 1955 System, given the LDP’s parliamentary majority status, Japan’s political media described the legislative chambers as “empty” even when a solid majority of the seats were occupied. Because, it was argued, they were occupied by members of only one party. This happened a number of times. Whenever the opposition parties were unwilling to drop their opposition to legislation proposed by the majority party, LDP.

Why the 1955 System Worked

Nonetheless, in spite of these dysfunctional characteristics, the 1955 System worked. It worked for a variety of reasons.

First, and perhaps most important, during most of the 1955 System era Japan was preoccupied with accomplishment of an overwhelming national goal: economic recovery and catch-up. Appointed career bureaucrats dominated Japan’s government. Managing the affairs of state quite competently, with only modest “interference” from Japan’s elected national representatives.

That is, Japan’s national elected officials were relatively unimportant during that era. Not that politicians were powerless, and bureaucrats were all-powerful. That’s an old debate among students of Japanese politics. Now usually conducted by distorting the assertions of one’s opposition to the extreme, and then opposing that extreme. Not very useful.

The point here is during the latter half of the twentieth century, Japan’s national political system operated quite effectively with only minor involvement – or, “interference,” as some career bureaucrats openly described it in print – of its elected leaders. Even with a weak central political executive. Senior career bureaucrats assumed responsibility for policy and administrative heavy lifting. Under those conditions a certain level of parliamentary dysfunctionality was only a modest inconvenience. That, to anticipate part of my conclusion, is no longer true.

There’s a second reason the “empty Diet,” “ramming through,” and “forcing” of legislation concepts could survive throughout nearly four decades of the 1955 System. That was because Socialist Party leaders and rank-and-file Diet members eventually were willing to compromise quietly behind the scenes. And allow parliamentary business to move forward. After they’d had time to demonstrate to their supporters that they’d “done their best.”

The nature of those compromises varied over the lifetime of the 1955 System. If journalistic accounts and unpublished commentary from inside observers are to be believed, they included closed-door compromises on policy issues considered critical to the Socialists. And even cash payments from LDP politicians to their Socialist counterparts. Usually in the form of some face-saving device. Such as big losses in mahjong games. Or elaborate entertainment. But however it happened, once the Socialists had been allowed to protest publicly, for the benefit of their electoral constituency and the media, they were willing to allow the vote to continue. Often even joining the majority. In the spirit of consensus, doncha know!

These Opposition protests took the form of elaborate time-consuming voting, street demonstrations, and parliamentary walk-outs. These led, as noted a moment ago, to an “Empty Diet.” As well as periodic wild, moderately violent, protests within the Diet chamber. And hostile statements of explanation and threat to the press. Nearly everyone involved realized that eventually the Socialists would come around. That the LDP would make concessions or take actions of some sort adequate to persuade them. And parliamentary business would continue as before.

A third reason the “Empty Diet,” Ramming Through,” and “Forcing” themes endured throughout the 1955 System is less a reason and more enabling background. It’s the notion that passage of legislation through parliament by a majority that constituted the members of only one party somehow violated Japan’s cultural norms. Japan, it was argued, was a consensual society that emphasized groups rather than individuals. A culture within which decisions made by majority vote had little legitimacy. The “fifty percent, plus one” decision rule respected in other democratic systems simply did not apply in Japan.

There may be some truth in that. As anyone who regularly participated in Japanese university faculty meetings during that period undoubtedly would know. Many were run with the notion of protecting minority rights paramount. Down to the single individual! Everyone was given their say. Everyone had to agree. Before anything could be decided. Those faculty meetings often went on for quite some time.

But relevant here, this assertion that Japan was a consensual rather than a majoritarian society was used to legitimate the claims of Japan’s Socialist political minority that majority votes taken in the Diet lacked legitimacy. That, indeed, they represented violence against the principles of Japan’s domestic political culture. And therefore, they should not be exercised by the LDP majority. Further, should the LDP majority decide to violate those consensual decision rule cultural principles – to do “violence” to them, by “ramming through,” or “forcing” legislation – then the opposition was justified in exercising actual physical violence. In defense of the hallowed principles of Japan’s consensual decision culture. Which they did, from time to time.

I do not dispute the credibility of the claim that Japan’s culture differs from that of Western cultures. Or, that features unusual, if not unique, to Japan account for it. There’s something to it, undoubtedly. However, it’s quite a leap from the Department of Anthropology to the Department of Political Science.

Majority Decision Rules in Japan’s Constitution

Cultural anthropology aside, political life in Japan, for the past six decades, has been conducted under a national constitution that includes clear, obvious, undisputable majority decision rules. This constitution was written and imposed, it is true, by a foreign, occupying power. But it has become revered, if not sacred, for an overwhelming majority of Japan’s population. No credible commentator argues that Japan’s national constitution should be completely abolished, or completely rewritten. In fact, since its promulgation in 1947 the constitution has yet to be revised. And, the very individuals and political groups in Japan today who appear to question the legitimacy of majority decision rules are among the strongest defenders of that constitution – jot and tittle!

Also consider that Japan’s Meiji Constitution was written in Japanese by Japanese when Japan was not under foreign military occupation. No one describes the Meiji Constitution as a foreign-imposed document. Yet it too included parliamentary majority decision rules.

Further, majority decision rules have determined elections, parliamentary and otherwise, since their inauguration in Japan. And still do. No credible commentator describes the results of an election for political office as illegitimate simply because the winner didn’t receive all, or nearly all, of the votes cast. Indeed, even the results of close elections are not disputed; are considered legitimate. Even when the winner represents the interests of the LDP.

A case in point. The city of Iwakuni recently held a mayoral election. An election closely watched by Japan’s political media. One candidate opposed Japanese government plans to relocate U.S. military fighter planes to the airbase nearby. Another candidate refused to flatly reject the government’s relocation program.

Up until the vote, the government plan-opposing candidate, former mayor Katsusuke Ihara, was expected to win. But, in the event, he lost. Only narrowly, by about 1,800 votes. But he lost. And the government plan-sympathetic candidate, former LDP Diet Member, Yoshihiko Fukuda, won. While the election result received less attention once it was clear the government-supported candidate won, I have seen no commentary suggesting the result of the election was illegitimate. Illegitimate because it was decided by majority vote. Nor would there have been such commentary had the candidate won who had been expected to win.

In other words, at least in this case, and in thousands of similar cases since elections have been held to fill Japan’s government positions, a majoritarian decision rule was recognized as legitimate. Indeed, there is little reason to hold elections if the candidate receiving the most votes is not accepted as the winner of the contest. The alternative is appointment to office by incumbent elites, I suppose. Or decisions based on negotiations among top-level elites. But more on that point in a moment.

So, it seems reasonable to conclude that Japanese political culture accepts majority electoral decision rules in at least some instances. Which means, at least, that there is no universal rejection in Japanese political culture of majority decision rules. Suggesting other explanations for the continuation of the 1955 System-based “Empty Diet,” legislative “Ramming Through” and “Forcing” commentary and reaction.

That, of course, is political opposition to the legislation being “rammed through.” Or, more likely, in this case, political opposition to the sponsors, “rammers,” or “forcers”! Pure, unadulterated tactical “politics,” in other words. That seemed to pass without serious consideration during the last century. For the reasons I mentioned just a moment ago.

Outdated Political Tactics Inappropriate for 21st Century Japanese Politics

But, those antique political tactics recently have been resurrected from an earlier era. By some of today’s political tacticians who trained and operated within the 1955 System when it was at its peak. Those artifacts of an earlier era are inappropriate today. Perhaps even dangerous. Here’s why.

First, and most important, Japan’s political system no longer operates with the single, undisputable, universally accepted objective of economic recovery and rapid growth. That objective has been accomplished. Accomplished some time ago, in fact. Today, Japan’s government must devote considerably more attention to goal formulation. Not just goal implementation. Goal formulation in genuinely democratic political systems is dominated not by appointed senior bureaucrats, but by democratically elected representatives. For this domestic reason – and others – Japan’s elected political representatives are more important to the successful functioning of the national political system today than they were under the 1955 System of the last century.

Another important domestic political change is evaporation of the permanent LDP majority. The lopsided single-party dominated political party system no longer exists. No longer exists as justification, or legitimation, for those antique political tactics of the permanent opposition described a moment ago. The situation today is much more fluid. The opposition DPJ, for example,  now has a near majority in the Upper House! Their efforts to revive the former Socialist Party’s parliamentary antics are not justified.

That’s on the domestic side. Japan’s international environment too has changed. Japan no longer conducts its international relations under the tutelage and direction of the United States. As it did during the Cold War. Japan has become a more important, and more independent, actor. An actor expected to make and take responsibility for its own international decisions and actions. Not simply to implement the wishes of Washington.

This too requires a strong, effective central political executive, capable of collecting and analyzing information about Japan’s international environment, formulating decisions based upon that information and Japan’s needs, implementing those decisions, and creating and maintaining domestic political support for the actions taken. This is no job for an appointed bureaucrat! Or even for an elected official who behaves like one! It requires an effective central political executive. And effective central political executives in genuinely democratic parliamentary systems are selected and sustained only by effective parliamentary systems.

This means, Japan can no longer afford a parliament that operates as an inward-looking elite club. A club in which tactical partisan advantage takes precedence over effective governance. And a national communications media and punditocracy that serve as their enablers, rather than as their critics. Japan’s government during the current era requires effective central political recruitment and oversight. Effective leadership. As well as effective oversight of the national bureaucracies that make up the national government.

Japan’s attentive public appears to recognize that. To expect it, even! Though many of the more senior, long-serving members of the parliament appear oblivious. Eager to get back to the Old Game they know so well. No serious observer of domestic politics in Japan now would argue that faction membership and length of parliamentary service should  be the most important determinants for appointment to cabinet positions. That wasn’t always true.

Another reason such resurrected parliamentary tactics are inappropriate today, and perhaps even dangerous, is that they risk inviting, or at least, risk justifying, exercise of physical violence within Japan’s parliament. Violence that Japan’s political media may well prove reluctant to give the condemnation it deserves. In fact, we’ve recently seen an example of just that. On January 19th. During Lower House debate over the supplementary two-month bill designed to get around DPJ opposition to the LDP’s plan to extend the “provisional” tax on gasoline for yet another ten years. And to earmark the proceeds for road construction!

This issue of physical violence in the Diet, in fact, has received far too little attention from Japan’s political media, academic commentators, and punditocracy. Exercise of violence, and refusal to participate. Creation of an “Empty Diet,” and so on. It’s almost as if these normally staunch defenders of Japanese democracy considered physical violence as acceptable – under certain conditions. Those conditions, of course, being exercise of said violence by “their team,” against the “other team.” But this isn’t a sports team we’re talking about! History provides ample and tragic examples of the danger of such thinking.

Concluding Comments

Well, I’ve gone way, way over time again this week. Doing Violence to our New Year’s Resolution. There’s much more to say about this issue of antique parliamentary tactics. But I fear we’ll have ample opportunities during the next few months to return to the topic. Indeed, Ichiro Ozawa’s DPJ announced earlier this week that it would refuse to participate in parliamentary affairs for at least a week. Since it “lost confidence” in the ruling coalition once they “rammed” the budget bill through the Lower House. What a surprise! But, genuinely surprising was the reaction of Japan’s communications media. Across the board they picked up the “ramming,” and “forcing” terminology in their response to the DPJ’s actions. Not encouraging! The public knows better, of course. Everyone beyond the fanatic fringes of both sides. They’re offended. Or at least embarrassed. This resurrection of antique parliamentary tactics has hardly increased attentive public confidence in its perpetrators.

So, goodbye all. Until next week.