April 4, 2008; Volume 04, Number 12

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Rise in Japan’s Political Media Interest in Party System Reconfiguration
Some Possibilities
Significance of the Incumbent Cabinet’s Public Approval  Disintegration for the Rest of the LDP
The Perils of Choosing a New LDP President and Prime Minister
Emergence of New Non-Faction Associations and Groupings
Comparison with the Political Reform Mania of the Early 1990s
Concluding Comments

Good Afternoon. From the Mobile Studio. Parked today, in the Beautiful Corps of Engineers Campground at Modoc, South Carolina. Right on the shore of what they now call Lake Thurmond! Today is Friday, April 4th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 12, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


I won’t try to describe what I see, looking out the windows on three sides of the Mobile Studio. You probably wouldn’t believe me, anyway. But, in compensation, I’ll try to add a photo or two to the transcript of this program. Go have a look at www.JapanConsidered.com. Just click on the “Podcasts” menu item in the center of the page. That will take you to summaries of this month’s programs, and links to the audio files and transcripts. The Archives section, on the left-hand menu bar, provides links to all previous programs, sorted by year and month. Also, don’t forget the convenient “search” feature at the bottom of the page. It allows you to search the whole website for words and phrases.

Oh, I’m Robert Angel, creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project. And creator and host of this podcast. Each week at this time. Or most weeks, anyway. We take between 20 and 25 minutes to consider the significance of events in the news related to Japan’s domestic politics or conduct of international relations. Often both! Now, longer-time listeners may snicker as they hear “20 to 25 minutes.” But that’s the target length of each program. Yes, in the past we have gone over that. But you have to admit! Recently it’s been much better! A New Year’s Resolution. More than 25 minutes a week is just too much! Even of a good thing!

Speaking of time, we’d better get right to this week’s topics. Some most unusual events in Japan’s domestic politics. That may have real significance for how Japan’s political leaders are selected. And once selected, how they perform their jobs. But first, thanks again to those of you who take the time to e-mail your comments and suggestions. Keep ‘em coming! To RobertCAngel@gmail.com. Even if you don’t receive a direct reply, you can be sure that I’ve read, and appreciate, your communication. Mail has picked up considerably during the past month or so. Don’t know why. Maybe because of the increase in listenership. Lots of good ideas coming through.

Oh, and when you have a comment, please let me know if I can mention your name as the source of that comment. Or if you wish to remain anonymous. I’d prefer to give you credit directly for your input. But certainly will respect your desire for privacy, if that’s necessary. Truth be told, many, if not most, of our regular e-mail commentators prefer anonymity. Usually because of the sensitivity of their jobs. So, that’s just the way it is. I appreciate the input.

Rise in Japan’s Political Media Interest in Party System Reconfiguration

During the past few weeks quite a few listeners have written in to ask for more commentary on the possibility of party system reconfiguration. A topic we’ve considered from time to time for the past year or so. Well, judging from the recent surprising increase in Japanese mainstream political media discussion of that topic, it’s high time we turned our attention in that direction.

This isn’t a new topic in the Japanese media, by any means. Though most of the more interesting articles to date have been in the Shuukanshi, or weekly magazines, rather than the mainstream media. Not uncommon for such speculative topics. But for some reason, or reasons. Reasons I’ve yet to discover. Mainstream Japanese media attention to political party system reconfiguration has increased sharply during the past two or three days. What accounts for it?

News, or most news, anyway, is a manufactured product. Probably has its own SITC code. Or it should have, anyway. Widespread media attention to news items doesn’t normally “just happen.” Sooo, I became suspicious when several items from both Japan’s print and electronic media speculating on party system reconfiguration jumped onto my screen during the past couple of days. I naturally began to suspect there must have been some sort of a “trigger.” An event, or rumor of an event, that made Japan’s mainstream political reporters feel they should get something out about this subject before it happens.

But what could it be? Most of the articles were hooked onto quite different events. Or rumors of events. All they had in common was focus on party system reconfiguration. So, what’s causing this increased attention to party system reconfiguration? All I can offer here are a few possibilities. Some more plausible than others. But all simply speculation. Informed speculation, hopefully. But still speculation.

Some Possibilities

First, and most likely, for now, anyway, is the continued sharp decline in the Fukuda Cabinet’s public approval ratings. This decline is reflected in every opinion poll I’ve seen. Not just those of the usual LDP-allergic suspects. Polls reported in Yomiuri and Sankei are as dismal as those in Asahi, Tokyo Shimbun, and Mainichi. Worse for Fukuda, in some cases!

There’s no getting around the conclusion that Japan’s attentive public really does disapprove of the way Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is doing his job. Japan’s political journalists have decided that anything below a 30 percent approval rating means the incumbent prime minister is in trouble. Well, the Fukuda Cabinet has dropped well below that in many of these surveys. And I can see no indication that Prime Minister Fukuda is capable of reversing the trend.

True, he did take a very public whack at the Doro Zoku, or the Road Zoku. With his surprise announcement about the proceeds of the gasoline tax surcharge. That beginning with the next fiscal year’s budget, it would go in with general funds. Rather into the road construction special account so dear to the hearts of the road construction industry. And the politicians and bureaucrats who support them.

This was an encouraging sign. A sign that Prime Minister Fukuda may at last have realized just how much his loyalty to the LDP’s zoku traditionalists was costing him. In the currency of public approval. But since that announcement there’s no indication Fukuda knows how to take advantage of the action he’s taken. The action that’s earned him the eternal enmity of the Party’s zoku traditionalists! It’s as if he’d paid cash for an expensive automobile. But then decided to keep it covered with a tarp in the garage. Without driving it. Yasuo Fukuda must be a nice, competent, hard-working man. But he’s simply not much of a politician. In both the good and the bad senses of that term!

Significance of the Incumbent Cabinet’s Public Approval  Disintegration for the Rest of the LDP

This alarming decline in the public approval of their party leader and prime minister has to concern other members of the LDP’s Diet delegation. As we’ve often considered on this program, no Diet incumbent wishes to face an election battle with an unpopular leader at the helm of his or her Party. Indeed, I believe the only thing that’s kept Prime Minister Fukuda in the job for so long has been the gross incompetence of the main opposition party’s leadership. DPJ public approval ratings too have been nothing to write home to Mother about. And the DPJ leadership seems as clueless as Fukuda about how to reverse the trend. Or, as unwilling!

Since the LDP’s disastrous performance in the July 2007 Upper House election, Ichiro Ozawa and his DPJ supporters have demanded that Fukuda resign and call a general election. Over and over and over again. To the point it’s become near risible. We’ve yet to hear the DPJ demand a general election over the color of the tie Fukuda wore to a Diet session. But it wouldn’t surprise me.

It’s possible, I suppose, that Ozawa genuinely believes he may be able to stampede Fukuda into doing just that. Giving the DPJ the opportunity to challenge the LDP in the House of the Diet that actually matters most. However, Fukuda, wisely, has rejected those demands. Citing the LDP’s overwhelming majority in the current Lower House. And the importance of the ruling coalition being able, if necessary, to over-ride Upper House objections to legislation they consider essential should the need arise. While continuing to appeal publicly for the DPJ to join them in genuine negotiations to thrash out necessary legislation.  

However. As we discussed at the time, the July 2007 Upper House election results were more of an LDP loss than a DPJ victory. And Fukuda is well within his constitutional rights to refuse to call a general election now. But he hasn’t figured out how to stop the fall in his public approval ratings. This leaves the rest of the LDP Lower House delegation with a serious problem.

Especially those members who focus their appeals for votes through presentation of positions on issues of importance to the electorate. Rather than on the enormously expensive traditional personalistic koenkai. Good old fashioned pork-barrel politics. And maintenance of the financial support from grateful government contractors that’s required to operate their electoral machines back home. Of course, even the traditionalists can’t help but be concerned. Unpopular LDP leadership raises the costs of even their election campaigns. While declining central political executive public approval provides them with a solid rationale for demanding a cabinet reshuffle. With the hope of providing their allies with the cabinet experience that forever labels them as “Daijin.” Or, “Minister.” And, add to that the recent kick in the teeth Fukuda delivered to the LDP’s Road Zoku!   

The most likely solution to the LDP’s problem, as we discussed last week, is to force Fukuda to resign his position as party president and prime minister. Without calling a general election. Giving way to a more competent LDP leader. One who can revive the Cabinet’s – and the LDP’s! – public approval ratings before incumbent Lower House members must face a re-election battle. This, in fact, is the logical scenario. Not a general election. Just a change in the LDP presidency and selection of a new prime minister.

The Perils of Choosing a New LDP President and Prime Minister

However, that move is more easily described than accomplished. There’s no shortage of willing candidates within the LDP Diet delegation. No shortage, in fact, of Members who believe themselves to be the most deserving of the Party’s support. Indeed, that’s part of the difficulty! There are several deserving aspirants for the biggest of the big chairs. Most with quite plausible justifications for their ambitions! So, how to select one, without engendering the eternal hostility of all the rest?

Further complicating the problem, is lack of agreement on the criteria by which the candidates to succeed Fukuda should be judged. And even the informal aspects of the process of selection. Formally, LDP presidents are selected according to complex Party rules. Rules that give voting rights to the LDP’s Lower and Upper House Diet Members. And also to representatives of the prefectural LDP chapters. We’ve discussed this in some detail on past programs. Just before selection of Prime Ministers Abe and Fukuda. I’ll try to remember to put a link in the transcript to the earlier programs. Have a look, if you’re interested in the details.

Traditionally, though, it’s been the LDP’s Lower and Upper House Diet Members who’ve made the decision. Even after inclusion of the prefectural chapters in the process. A change made to give the appearance of greater democratization. Prefectural chapter delegates are still allowed to vote in the Party presidential elections. But following Junichiro Koizumi’s surprising exploitation of his popularity in prefectural chapters around the country, their influence has been reined in.

With the LDP’s Lower and Upper House Diet delegations dominating the process, the LDP’s personalistic factions have been the organizations to watch. Indeed, analysts such as Nat Thayer have long argued that prime ministerial selection is the primary reason for the existence of those LDP’s factions in the first place! So, Japan’s political journalists and pundits scrutinize the movements of each LDP faction. Like astrologers watching the stars. Then construct elaborate charts of relationships, alliances, formal and informal. And hostilities! In the hope their charts will allow them to predict the outcome of the next LDP presidential contest.

During the “good old days,” each LDP faction normally supported its own leader in the LDP presidential battles. Unless he was under arrest, on trial, or otherwise recently disgraced. Greatly simplifying the speculations of Japan’s political journalists and pundits. But the “good old days” are over. No matter how fervently Japan’s political traditionalists wish for their return!

A growing number of LDP Diet members recognize that the skills required to build and maintain a large personalistic LDP faction aren’t necessarily those required to serve successfully as prime minister in Japan’s new domestic political environment. Success at raising political funds through willingness to promote the legislative and bureaucratic interests of moneyed supporters is no guarantee of becoming a successful central political executive. Indeed, the exact opposite may be true!

So, while the LDP’s personalistic factions remain important variables in any effort to predict Japan’s next prime minister, that calculation is no longer a simple “mainstream,” “anti-mainstream” numbers game. The more astute faction leaders realize this. And put the support of their faction behind Lower House members more appropriate for the job. Hopefully, members of their own faction. Or, at least, someone who can be relied upon to be “helpful” to the faction once in office. Or, at least, to leave its fundraising activities alone. Whether those faction leaders can “deliver” all of their members’ votes is another question we’re likely to take up later. But this diversification of potential candidates raises the number of stars and planets our astrologers have to follow. As they create ever-more elaborate charts. Jumbling them to the point of Ptolemaic complexity.

Emergence of New Non-Faction Associations and Groupings

So, while the LDP’s traditionalist factions remain important actors, they are not the only organizations and groupings involved. Throughout most of the Fukuda Cabinet’s brief life there’s been a proliferation of cross-faction, non-faction – even cross-party – associations. All created with an eye toward the next general election. They’ve contrasted sharply with the LDP’s traditional factions. Associations that all-but-celebrate their focus on fund-raising and political horse-trading. With suspicion, if not disdain, for ideological, or even policy, considerations.

These new groupings usually describe themselves as supporting one or more commendable political objective or policy. Often, reform of the traditionalist political system itself. Next week, if time permits, we’ll take a closer look at several of these new associations. Considering their membership, their announced policy or political objectives,  and their prospects for exercising significant influence.

Comparison with the Political Reform Mania of the Early 1990s

In many ways, Japan’s domestic political environment today reminds me of Japan in the early 1990s. When “political reform” became a near-obsession with politicians, journalists, and the attentive public alike. When cabinets rose and fell on the perception of their commitment to “political reform.” And their ability to implement at least one reform measure. We might ask former prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa about this. Were he still with us.

It was a time of great confusion. During which incumbent Diet members struggled for survival. Trying to keep their heads above the waves of public revulsion against decades of the blatantly corrupt practices that scoured Japan’s political landscape. Everyone, it seemed, embraced “seiji kaikaku,” or “political reform.” And rejected the corrupt political practices of the past. At least in public.

Much of the rhetoric and frenetic politicking during the early 1990s was just that. Little more than the huffing and puffing of incumbent politicians desperate to survive. Even Ichiro Ozawa – perhaps the ultimate LDP inside operator – began a new career as a political reformer! But by 1993, the commotion did lead to the LDP’s loss of its “permanent” majority in the Lower House. For the first time since the Party’s creation. Though the general election held that year returned a surprisingly high percentage of incumbent Lower House members. Just under different Party labels. And, within a few years, it was the 1955 System’s Socialist Party that ultimately suffered near distinction. Rather than the LDP. Which survived to rise to even greater heights.

Perhaps that’s a bit too cynical. Some significant changes were implemented during the early 1990s. An era during which we saw a 17th generation daimyo family heir lead the party that gave Japan – for a time, at least – greatest hope for meaningful political change and democratization. I mean! You couldn’t make this stuff up! One significant change, however, was revision of Japan’s Lower House electoral system. A system that had survived wars, reforming foreign occupation, and decades of social and economic change. Since its creation in 1925, in response to Japan’s adoption of universal manhood suffrage. This medium-sized, multi-member, single-vote system did allow the survival of several small parties. But, as important, it also significantly raised the cost of effective participation in Japan’s political system. I’ve recently heard a number of quite credible rumors that efforts are under way to return to this traditional multi-member system. And scrap the current system of single-member districts. Perhaps the most important accomplishment of the early 1990s wave of political reform!

Concluding Comments

More on all of this next week. The “old clock on the wall,” as we used to say – actually, on the computer screen these days – now frowns its warning. Next week – unless something unexpected happens – we’ll consider the more interesting non-faction groups I mentioned a moment ago. And perhaps look further into the rumors of efforts to scrap the current single-member Lower House districts. Those rumored to be involved may surprise you. So,

Goodbye all. Until next week.