2008; Volume 04, Number 09

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Comments on Last Week’s Program
Introduction of Physical Violence in the Diet
Parliamentary Majority Vote Decision Rules and Their Alternatives
Tensions Between Parliamentary Responsibilities to Establish Policy and Select the Executive
Possibility of Party System Reconfiguration and Its Significance
“Empty Diets,” and Refusal to Debate or Vote
Diet Debate Over Appointment of the Bank of Japan Governor
An Anti-Ozawa Plot???
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From beautiful Lake Wateree State Park. In the Piedmont region of South Carolina. Today is Friday, March 14th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 09, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Yes, back at Lake Wateree with the Mobile Studio again this week. Just couldn’t stay away. Well! Those of you who saw the photos in the transcript last week certainly must understand. I’ll add a couple more today from this week’s trip. This really is an incredible place to visit. I arrived Wednesday afternoon. Temperatures during the day ranged from the high 60s to mid-70s. With sunshine. Today has been a bit more cloudy. And we may even get some light rain tonight. All fine weather for camping. Or this sort of “camping,” anyway. Virtually all of the comforts of home. And a beautiful view of the lake to boot!

Comments on Last Week’s Program

Thanks for joining me again this week. And a special thanks to those of you who took the time to send in your comments and reaction to last week’s program. The resurrection of antique parliamentary tactics seems to have struck a nerve. Lots of interest in that. Judging from the volume of e-mailed comments. Of course, not everyone agreed with my interpretations. And that’s good! This program isn’t intended just to confirm conventional wisdom about domestic political Japan. Or about Japan’s conduct of international relations. There are plenty of other sources  – much more reliable sources! –for that sort of thing.

Introduction of Physical Violence in the Diet

Many of the listener comments were directed to introduction of physical violence in the Diet chambers. Nobody wrote in to justify such violence. Thankfully. But several suggested I should have put it in proper perspective. As in: Such incidents erupt in other democratic political systems. Some of them quite functional democracies. Several other listeners suggested I should have addressed political violence overall. Not just physical violence within the halls of the Diet.

Three other commentators cautioned me about exaggerating the intensity, or seriousness, of such violence. Reminding me that much of what we saw under the 1955 System was, in fact, tightly scripted. Not really violent at all. More like American professional wrestling. With all participants knowing what to expect. And what was expected of them. Suggesting a degree of cooperation – even collusion – among the various Party Diet elites well beyond what any of them would have liked their constituencies to see or understand. Hmmm. Maybe resurrection of that sort of party Diet elite collusion is another antique parliamentary tactic we should consider….

Two other listeners were left with the impression that I was condemning the parliamentary violence of only the “Left.” While ignoring that of the “Right.” That, certainly, was not my intention. Both have occurred. And I believe both are serious threats to Japan’s parliamentary democracy. Both sides of that traditional political cleavage have demonstrated themselves disastrously capable of resorting to violence. Both within and without the halls of the Diet. In the past there’s been a tendency of observers to justify – or at least to excuse – the violent behavior of “their team.” While condemning that of the “other team.” Not good! Both are equally corrosive for parliamentary democracy. This isn’t a soccer match we’re watching here!

All of these e-mailed comments had important suggestions. That make sense. Especially the need to address overall political violence. But I’m still concerned about the willingness of political parties to indulge in such violent tactics. Or even to threaten them. And, equally concerned about the casual response of Japan’s political communications media. Reporting it languidly, as if they were covering a spirited soccer match. Soccer teams, though, don’t control state resources! Including the state’s coercive forces! There’s far more at stake here.  

Japan has a long history of democratic parliamentary politics. Democracy and democratic principles weren’t introduced into Japan after World War Two. By  a benign, all-knowing Allied Occupation. As is sometimes suggested, or assumed. Rather, Japan’s political elite created its own system of parliamentary government, beginning in the late 1880s. That’s well over a century of experience with parliamentary institutions. Over half a century of experience by the time Japan entered the Great Pacific War!

However, after quite a promising start – even including introduction of universal male suffrage in 1925 – things went downhill quickly. We don’t have time to explore comprehensively the “what” and “why” of that misfortune. But important for our purposes here, political violence, and the threat of political violence – especially during the 1930s and 1940s – played an important role. Including well-known political assassinations. This, I believe, is worth remembering! Worth remembering as we consider introduction of physical violence in Japan’s 21st century parliament. It’s far more than a matter of social etiquette. Properly of concern only to Japan’s versions of Amy Vanderbilt and Miss Manners . 

Parliamentary Majority Vote Decision Rules and Their Alternatives

I define “politics” as the effort to resolve important disagreements non-violently. Most critical to that process, in genuinely democratic political systems, is the responsibility of central political institutions to resolve their disagreements through public debate among representatives of the attentive public. With said attentive public looking on! Approving and disapproving, as appropriate. With that approval or disapproval affecting their votes in the next election.

Parliamentary decisions should be determined by success or failure in that debate. Not by the average age, physical condition, or martial arts training, of those elected representatives! And that’s become, I believe, even more important under the more fluid conditions of Japan’s political party system during the 21st century. More on that in a moment.

Certainly, consensual decisionmaking is ideal. In any society. An ideal to strive toward. But, in societies as large and complex as Japan, it’s often impossible to achieve society-wide consensus on issues of real importance. Sooo, what happens when efforts to achieve consensus fail? When one side – or all sides – are unwilling to compromise to achieve that consensus? Absent a “Deus ex Machina,” with the power to impose a decision, or force society-wide agreement, options are limited.

Japan’s constitutionally defined parliamentary system – like most genuinely democratic systems – recognizes that situation, and requires parties unable to agree to bring those decision to a vote. A vote – with very few exceptions – decided by numerical majority. There’s nothing in either the Meiji Constitution, or its post-World War Two amendment, about numerical parliamentary majorities “forcing” or “ramming” a decision through the process.

So, before we analysts and commentators adopt the “ramming” and “forcing” rhetoric, we should give the most likely alternative serious consideration. That, simply, is decisions made by force. And that, really, isn’t what “politics” is all about.

Tensions Between Parliamentary Responsibilities to Establish Policy and Select the Executive

Of course, parliamentary institutions have constitutional responsibility for more than just peaceful resolution of important government policy issues. Elected representatives of the population also are responsible for selecting and supervising the executives who control the machinery of government. For, as I put it last week, deciding who gets to sit in the big chairs. And this dual responsibility complicates both processes.

This theme also is too complex for me to treat comprehensively on this program. But we should at least mention it. And recognize, its significance. Since it helps to explain some of the behavior we’ve observed.

Not all political parties represented in the Diet believe they have a chance of becoming the majority party. Or, even believe they have a chance of leading a majority coalition of smaller parties. In the near or medium-term. During last century’s 1955 System, for example, only the LDP had such expectations. The Socialists, as I noted last week, had to content themselves with keeping the LDP’s majority below two-thirds. This expectation affected their tactics in parliamentary competition.

That, in a sense, simplified Japan’s parliamentary processes. Or, if it didn’t simplify them, it at least provided some regularity and predictability. However, conditions have changed. Today we have two parties – the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan – that both believe they not only should be the party occupying the Big Chairs. But that they have a real chance of achieving that objective. In the near-term.

This, obviously, has intensified parliamentary conflict in Japan’s 21st century Diet. Tempting the party out of power to relate any policy decision that comes before the Diet to their own political power objective. We’ve seen vivid evidence of that since the success of the DPJ in the July 2007 Upper House election. It’s only natural. Indeed, required! In a genuinely democratic political system. Competition is what makes it work.

Also, this inclination isn’t unique to Ichiro Ozawa’s Democratic Party of Japan. The LDP would behave in the same manner were parliamentary fortunes reversed. And it occupied the role of aspiring minority party. This, I believe, makes Japan’s 21st century parliament more volatile. And this increased volatility makes adherence to established rules of competition even more important.

Possibility of Party System Reconfiguration and Its Significance

Consider too the real possibility of fundamental change in Japan’s political party system within the next few years. Or even next few months! It’s hard to predict the exact course of that reconfiguration. But, for me at least, the current structure – to the extent there is any real structure – seems temporary, and ripe for change. With no indication that the top-level leadership of either the LDP or the DPJ is competent, or willing, to head it off.

As we’ve often discussed on this program, such reconfiguration is likely to result from irreconcilable differences between Japan’s parliamentary “Traditionalists” and “Reformists.” Not from the specifics of policies considered. Or the traditional “Left-Right” policy orientations we usually think of. More likely is a split over how electoral candidates relate to the attentive public. How they appeal to the Japanese public for votes. More on this important point later.

But, briefly, I expect a traditionalist-reformist split to lead a significant number of LDP members to abandon the LDP, and its traditionalist leadership, to form a “reformist” party. Non-traditionalist members of the DPJ, and possibly a few more from some of the smaller parties, then will join the LDP reformist renegades in their new party. Depending on the number of DPJ members who leave the Party, it’s also quite possible that another DPJ contingent – conceivably under the leadership of Ichiro Ozawa – then will leave the DPJ and join – or return – to the traditionalist-dominated LDP.

This issue of party system reorganization requires more detailed consideration. Which we’ll do on another program. But here, the critical point is that party system reconfiguration will lead to more intense competition among Japan’s political parties. With more parties believing they have a real chance to obtain majority status. Or at least to lead a majority coalition. Which is likely to intensify inter-party competition in the Diet. The “take-away” theme here is that the more intense parliamentary competition, the more important it becomes that all parties abide by the formal rules. And those rules do not include introduction of violent tactics.

“Empty Diets,” and Refusal to Debate or Vote

Another point raised during last week’s program generated quite a few comments. That is the issue of “Empty Diets.” Refusal of opposition parties to debate or vote when parliamentary decisions are going against them.

We’ve discussed this issue before on this program. It’s less corrosive than perpetration of physical violence within the halls of the Diet. But it does, in my view, obstruct genuinely democratic parliamentary practices. But on this issue, several listeners wrote to justify parliamentary boycott as a legitimate political practice. Well, I remain unconvinced. And I’m not so sure that all of the defenders of this practice were even convinced themselves.

Rather, I suspect their views were shaped more by particular than general considerations. That is, their approval or disapproval of the policy decisions under consideration. What was being voted on, in other words. Or, more likely, the parties doing the approving and disapproving. Were the tables turned, I suspect they would reconsider their positions …. But that may be too cynical an interpretation.

Anyway, Japan’s parliament recently faced just such a situation. Ichiro Ozawa’s Democratic Party of Japan announced following passage of the FY 2008 budget bill through the Lower House that they would be unable to participate in parliamentary debates or votes for one week. Because they had “lost faith” in the sincerity of the ruling coalition parties. The LDP and New Komeito. When they decided to “ram” the annual budget bill through the Lower House. Oh my! We considered this briefly last week.

Fortunately, most of Japan’s communications media criticized the DPJ’s antique “absenting” strategy this time around. It’s not the first time, after all. The media commentary suggested the country – including the DPJ’s supporters – would be better served by DPJ Diet members maintaining their seats and debating the issues. Explaining their opposition to the budget bill passage, and providing alternative proposals. While forcing the LDP to justify it’s own behavior. Some of the media commentators even mentioned Ichiro Ozawa recently flouncing out of the Lower House plenary session before the Lower House two-thirds over-ride vote.

The DPJ’s hope, of course – or, those in the DPJ who approved the “absenting” strategy, anyway – was that the confusion created would force Prime Minister Fukuda to dissolve the Diet and call a general election. A response it appears we’re unlikely to see for some time now. In spite of so much optimism earlier this year!

DPJ boycott of the Upper House, where the DPJ has a near majority raises the problem of quorum. Giving the DPJ more leverage with its absence. But the basic point here remains the same. Parliaments in genuinely democratic systems are intended as arenas of debate and decision. To play those roles, they have to continue to operate. And to operate non-violently.

Diet Debate Over Appointment of the Bank of Japan Governor

I’m determined this week to end well within our established time frame. But we have to consider just one more domestic political issue. Not only because it has dominated Japan’s political news all this week. But because it provides us with yet another opportunity to observe the delicate condition of Japan’s parliament. That is debate over Diet approval of Bank of Japan Governor, Toshihiko Fukui’s successor. The revised Bank of Japan law requires that Bank of Japan governor and deputy governor nominees be approved by both houses of Japan’s Diet. With no Lower House over-ride provision in the case of Upper House disagreement.

After months of speculation over the political stand-off between the ruling coalition and the DPJ, the Fukuda Cabinet finally submitted Deputy Governor Toshiro Muto’s name to the Diet for approval. With only days left in current Governor Fukui’s term. So DPJ refusal to accept the government’s nominee would run the real risk of leaving the Bank of Japan’s governorship vacant.

Judging from political reporting from Japan during the past few weeks, the Fukuda government gambled on the likelihood that Ichiro Ozawa’s DPJ would have to accept the government-nominated Muto. Out of fear that after rejection, the DPJ would be blamed for “playing politics” with this critical economic personnel issue. At a time when Japan could ill-afford any action that weakened Japan’s position in the global and domestic economies. In spite of the fact the ruling coalition tacticians themselves were equally guilty of “playing politics” with the issue.

But, it appears, the ruling coalition parliamentary tacticians miscalculated. Maybe – they miscalculated! At any rate, on Wednesday the Upper House did indeed reject the nomination of former Ministry of Finance administrative vice minister Toshiro Muto as Fukui’s successor. And one of the ruling coalition’s nominees for a deputy governor slot. While approving one deputy governor nominee. As expected, the Lower House approved the whole slate of government nominees yesterday. And that’s where we stand.

Japan’s political and economic press is full of speculation over the Fukuda Cabinet’s next move. Governor Fukui’s term expires next Wednesday. Will the Fukuda Cabinet insist on nominating Muto? Send his name back to the Upper House for another vote, that is. Or will they submit a different name next week?

Prime Minister Fukuda in public has been urging Ichiro Ozawa and his DPJ to enter into discussions prior to the event. To see if a compromise might be worked out. Ozawa has spurned the offer. Arguing publicly that the DPJ’s reasons for opposing Muto’s appointment are well known. And that nothing has changed. We’ll just have to wait to see what happens early next week. It seems likely that Prime Minister Fukuda himself will make this decision. And I doubt that he will confide his intentions to anyone likely to leak his decision to the press prior to his own announcement.

An Anti-Ozawa Plot???

But is that all there is to this issue? Just another game of parliamentary chicken? Maybe so. But an alternative interpretation comes to my politics-scarred mind. That is a more subtle strategy on the part of Prime Minister Fukuda and his parliamentary tacticians. An effort to further isolate Ichiro Ozawa within his own party.

Some members of the DPJ sincerely believe that Muto’s assumption of the Bank of Japan governorship would give the Ministry of Finance too much influence over the Bank’s activities. Would threaten the Bank’s independence, in other words. An old concern in Japan. These DPJ members believe Japan’s economy benefits from a sharp distinction between fiscal and monetary policy. A distinction that’s weakened when a former senior MOF official occupies the Bank of Japan governorship. This is, at least, a reasonable policy point. I’m not suggesting that it is The point. Or agreeing or disagreeing with its proponents. It’s just not my field. But at least it’s something that makes sense beyond pure power politics bickering.

As it happens, those DPJ members who most earnestly oppose DPJ approval of Muto’s nomination include many members known to be cool, at least, to Ozawa’s party presidency. If not outright opposed. Some of them are said to fear that “consultations” between Fukuda and Ozawa over the Bank of Japan governorship could lead to further cooperation between the two. And we all recall what happened the last time Fukuda and Ozawa managed to talk together privately!

Sooo, could it be the ruling coalition this time actually is the one “playing politics” with this important appointment? With the intention of further weakening Ozawa’s position within the DPJ? Perhaps even hoping to create conditions within the DPJ that will force Ozawa to resign and bolt the Party? Hmmm. Stranger things have happened. We’ll just have to wait to see what happens.

In the meantime, would a delay in appointing the outgoing Bank of Japan governor’s  successor really matter? Matter to Japan’s economy, that is. I simply don’t know. Informed opinion seems mixed. Everyone agrees it would have great “symbolic” significance. Especially in the international economic arena. Japan’s punditocracy has warned of the importance of not disappointing foreigners. But I’ve yet to come across any commentary that argues it would make a substantive difference in the Bank’s operation. Maybe I can get one of our economic commentators to opine on that subject next week.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re finishing this week right on time. Again, thanks for tuning in. And continue to send your comments and suggestions to me directly at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. Nobody filters that e-mail address for me. I receive and read them all. They’re most helpful in planning new programs.

So, goodbye all. Until next week.