April 14, 2008; Volume 04, Number 14

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Japan’s Relations With China: Struggling for Appearance of Normalcy
Appearance of New Non-Factional Associations in the LDP: Party Reorganization?
Types of Non-Faction Parliamentary Associations
Policy-Focused Associations
Reform-Oriented Associations
An Interesting “Reform” Organization: “Sentaku”
Concluding Comments

Good Morning. From beautiful Iron Station, North Carolina again. Today is Friday, April 18th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 14, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Yup. The Mobile Studio’s up here again in Iron Station. Enjoying a few more days with my dad. And having a great time. Weather here is beautiful today. Temperatures near 80 degrees, with just a touch of rain forecast for Saturday and Sunday. I hope all of you are enjoying the same.

We’re nearing the end of the semester at USC now. So there’s a flurry of final exams, papers, and theses to be read and commented upon. And all of the other tasks that generally accompany the end of semester at any college or university. For us, it means we’re not likely to have a program next week. And it may take a while even to get this program up and running on the Web. Day-job responsibilities have to take precedence, doncha know. But, barring accident, flood, or pestilence, I’ll be back at the same time, same station, the week following. Which should be May 2nd. Let’s hope nothing wild and unpredictable happens between now and then. At least, in Japan’s domestic politics or conduct of international relations.

This week we can focus on the blossoming of cross-factional associations within the LDP. Maybe even a few cross-party associations. All created in anticipation of some sort of political party system reconfiguration. Or, at least, the next general election. I don’t do predictions on this program. Or any other parlor entertainments. But I do think examination of these new associations from the proper perspective can help us understand what’s happening in Japan’s domestic politics these days. Maybe even give us some insight into what’s likely to happen in the future.

Japan’s Relations With China: Struggling for Appearance of Normalcy

But before we consider these new cross-factional associations, we should mention, at least briefly, developments in Japan’s relationship with China. We’ve followed Japan’s relations with China regularly on this program. Since the beginning. Arguing that the Japan-China bilateral relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in Asia. Probably, in the whole world. And therefore, we’d better keep an eye on it. I can help with that from the Japanese perspective. China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, arrived in Japan yesterday for four whole days of talks. He has his work cut out for him! As does his Japanese counterpart!

The latest challenge for diplomats on both sides has been preparations for Chinese President Hu Jintao’s early May visit to Japan. With maintenance of an environment, in both Japan and China, within which the visit can be made “successfully.” Success here defined as coming off in a way that allows the central political executives of both Japan and China to boast of their role in arranging it. Rather than trying to cover it up.

It’s been a decade since President Jiang Zemin visited Japan in 1998. So, the visit is long overdue. And, thinking about it, the leaders of both countries have much to gain from a friendly visit at this time. Perhaps especially on the Japanese side. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda attracted considerable support during his selection as LDP president from LDP members eager to be more accommodating toward China. A “successful” visit would almost certainly slow, at least, Fukuda’s downward-sliding public approval ratings. Most of Japan’s political media could be relied upon to enthusiastically approve. On principle alone! Regardless of concrete accomplishments. And, a successful visit with positive press coverage might even provide Fukuda with some insulation against attacks from potential rivals for the LDP presidency and premiership. Those considered less friendly to China. Especially, Taro Aso! More about that in a moment.

But the benefit of a successful visit wouldn’t be at all one-sided this time. A visit that could be described as “successful” also now should benefit China’s top leadership. As China prepares to host the Olympics. An international event China’s political leaders have invested heavily in. But that’s faced a slew of unexpected challenges. Everything from publicity of China’s pollution problems to political unrest in Tibet! Beijing just has to be frustrated with the successive tsunami-level waves of negative publicity from capitals around the world. So, a positive response from Japan should be most welcome at this time. Even if it isn’t wildly enthusiastic.

Anyway, President Hu Jintao has publicly declared his intention to make the visit. So cancellation at this point would be traumatic indeed. It would have to be justified by eruption of  public “outrage” of some sort in China. Something both sides wish to avoid.    

But, what should have come off as a simple exercise in mutual expediency, has been complicated by several knotty problems. First, and undoubtedly the most important – substantively, at least – the long-festering East China Sea gas exploitation dispute. An issue that the political leadership of both sides finds difficult to compromise on. Given its immediate significance for acquisition of natural resources. And its medium- and longer-term potential for definition of national boundaries.

This issue has been around for some time. And both sides hoped the pressure of planning for the Hu visit to Japan would drive significant progress. Toward a formula that would allow both sides at home to justify concessions they’d have to make to achieve agreement. While at the same time claiming “success.” A tricky, delicate business. They’re still working on it. In secret. And there’s still hope progress may be announced during the visit. But prospects appear dimmer today than they did a few months ago.

The second major problem facing Japan’s and China’s summit meeting Sherpas is the eruption of serious incidents of food poisoning in Japan. Incidents that were traced back to eating gyoza imported from China. We’ve considered the significance of this issue in some detail since it first was reported. So there’s no need to review the specifics here. But after promising early negotiations, determination of responsibility seems to have bogged down. With investigators and negotiators on both sides casting suspicious eyes and off-the-record comments toward the other.

Where were the gyoza contaminated? In Japan or in China? What can be done to prevent future incidents? Should Japanese consumers avoid imported foodstuffs from China? It’s hard to respond to these genuine public concerns in Japan without agreement on where the contamination occurred. But, naturally, Chinese authorities are as eager to avoid personal or institutional responsibility, as Japanese authorities are to respond to Japanese consumers’ concerns. There’s been little public evidence of progress. Though it’s quite possible something’s happening behind the scenes. Given the seriousness of this issue for Japan’s food supply, let’s hope the conclusions ultimately drawn are based on solid scientific evidence. Rather than on political expediency.

The situation in Tibet, of course, is the third Excedrin-level headache for Japan’s and China’s summit Sherpas. We considered this issue on recent programs. Beijing has faced a public relations nightmare around the world. Once videotaped evidence of recent political events in Tibet leaked to the international news media. Demonstrators sympathetic to Tibet – and/or hostile to China – have targeted preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games. Especially the route of the Olympic Torch. The protests continue. As, of course, does international media coverage of the protests. Governments around the world are under pressure to respond. To issue formal protests against Beijing’s response to the Tibet demonstrations. Or, to boycott the opening ceremonies in Beijing.

This puts the Fukuda Cabinet in a difficult position. A volatile amalgamation of interests within Japan is pressuring Prime Minister Fukuda to take a principled stand. In favor of the Tibetan protestors, and against Beijing’s response. Those interests include individuals and organizations traditionally hostile to Beijing, some genuine human rights organizations, and some Buddhist religious groups. Even some of the more opportunistic political enemies of the Fukuda Cabinet. International commentators, private and governmental, have added their voices to the chorus. Foreigners just love to give Japan’s government advice.

To date, the Fukuda Cabinet’s official response to the Tibet crisis has been measured and cautious. With repeated appeals to both sides to resolve their differences non-violently. And cautious suggestions that Beijing’s government should agree to negotiations with the Dali Lama.

The Fukuda Cabinet also has strong motivation to resist domestic and international calls for aggressive action. Calls Beijing naturally would consider hostile to their interests. In the first place, Japan would lose an important source of leverage in ongoing bilateral negotiations with China. Should Tokyo publicly and sharply criticize Beijing’s reaction to the Tibet situation. Japan’s negotiators must realize now their maintenance of a more sympathetic posture concerning Tibet is worth concessions from China on other points. As they prepare for President Hu’s visit. Should Tokyo adopt a more aggressive tone, that advantage would be lost.

We can only speculate on the actions of Japan’s and China’s representatives as they wrestle to reach some mutually acceptable agreement prior to Hu’s arrival in Japan in early May. But we can be certain that the negotiators on both sides are watching official and unofficial statements from the Kantei as they meet. And Tokyo’s statements on the Tibet issue are among the statements most carefully watched.

Speaking of which, Beijing must consider President Hu’s visit to Japan to be very important. This is evidenced by the arrival of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Tokyo yesterday, as I mentioned a moment ago. For four days of talks. Think of it! Given all of China’s international problems at the moment, the Foreign Minister was willing to leave his office for four days to visit Japan! That’s quite remarkable. Or so it seems to me.

Late yesterday, Tokyo time, Foreign Minister Yang met with his Japanese counterpart, Masahiko Komura, to formalize preparations for President Hu’s trip. The two foreign ministers held a press conference after their meeting. During which they made predictable statements. Yang then met for over half an hour with Prime Minister Fukuda at the Kantei. After which he met the media once again. Again, predictable statements to the press corps. Again, responding to the soft-ball questions Japan’s reporters typically ask at such formal gatherings.

Sooo, what’s going on? Hard to tell. But both Tokyo and Beijing have a great deal to gain from a “successful” visit to Japan by Chinese President Hu Jintao between May 6th and May 10th. And a great deal to lose from a failure! This is worth keeping an eye on. And I’ll try to keep you posted.

Appearance of New Non-Factional Associations in the LDP: Party Reorganization?

Now, let’s turn our attention to a phenomenon we’ve discussed for some time on this program. One I consider likely to change the configuration of Japan’s political party system within a year or so. Maybe sooner! Or, at least, represent manifestations of the forces that will. This is the blossoming of a fair number of cross-factional, or non-factional, associations of Diet members within the LDP. Even some cross-party associations. Let’s consider why these associations are emerging now. Why they are – or may become – important. And finally, look more closely at a few of them that may exercise some real influence.

First, why spend time considering these associations now? Japan’s Diet members have been forming and abandoning associations, clubs, leagues, and the like, for as long as I can remember. Many of those associations, at the core, have simply been efforts to impress a financial contributor. Or a potential electoral supporter. Or just attempts to attract some positive media coverage. So, is this current crop of cross-factional associations really different? Or just more of the same thing we’ve observed within the LDP over the decades. Well, let’s see.

For months I’ve been reading and saving articles from Japan’s media on these cross-factional associations. There are dozens of them now. Everything from the League to Establish a New Constitution, to the American Football Dietmen’s League. I’m not making this up! Some more important than others, of course. Though even the American Football Dietmen’s League is important in a way. Since it gives its members an excuse to meet socially. Without having to answer embarrassing questions at their next press conference. And, those members include perennial LDP presidential candidate, Taro Aso, former prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, and the DPJ’s Yukio Hatoyama. Any time those three get together, it’s worth paying attention! Football aside!

Anyway, I believe the current crop of cross-factional – or non-factional – associations within the LDP represents widespread dissatisfaction with the Party, and concern about the future. Dissatisfaction of a few types. One, with the way the LDP is run. Especially the overwhelming importance of the personalistic factions in Party personnel decisions. And even policy formulation. And second, dissatisfaction with the way the LDP has performed as a political party in recent years. Both the Party’s articulation and pursuit of policies, and its overall style of governance. And even more important, dissatisfaction with the way the LDP maintains its relationship with the electorate. And conducts its election campaigning. At least the reform-type associations, anyway.

These are old themes on this program. I’ve been droning on for years, it seems, about the growing divide between Traditionalists and Reformists within the LDP. Even within the DPJ, to some extent! As Japan’s domestic political environment has changed over the decades. With the distinction most important in the way each representative maintains his or her relationship with their constituency. And how they conduct their election campaigns.

Types of Non-Faction Parliamentary Associations

There are so many new associations, leagues, and clubs that it’s hard to categorize them neatly. But just off the top of the head, they seem to me to divide generally into two types. Those associations created to promote a particular policy line, or objective – or to oppose someone else’s policy line or objectives. And those created to promote “Reform.” “Political reform,” or “administrative reform.” Or a tasteful combination of the two. During the past few months, though, both types have turned their attention to selection of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s successor.

Policy-Focused Associations

The aforementioned “policy” type associations describe their purpose as pursuit of some – well … -- policy objective. Such as taking a more accommodating line in negotiations with North Korea. Or Mainland China. Groups formed by the LDP’s Koichi Kato and Taku Yamasaki typify this type of association. They also tend to support a more active role for government in Japan’s national economy. On the other hand, there are associations promoting “genuinely conservative policies.” Former MITI Minister, Takeo Hiranuma and the LDP’s Shoichi Nakagawa have proposed formation of a genuinely conservative political party, in fact. As has Masazumi Gotoda, another LDP Lower House Member. These, and similar associations, propose limiting the role of the government in Japan’s economy. And redirection of Japan’s international relations toward Asia. Though in a way quite different from that espoused by Koichi Kato and others!

So, these policy-oriented groups are typical of the traditional groups and cleavages we’ve observed in the LDP for years. They explain their existence as encouraging change in the incumbent government’s policies and activities. And, of course, they’re created as much to oppose the policy objectives of other individuals and organizations as they are to promote their espoused policy line. That’s important now. Given the LDP’s current leadership vacuum. Although they deny it, everyone realizes that much of their effort is directed toward influencing the inevitable contest to succeed Fukuda! Again, not much different from the sort of activity we’ve seen within the LDP under similar circumstances for decades.

Reform-Oriented Associations

The “reform-oriented” associations seem to me qualitatively different from those traditional “policy-oriented” groups. They too are nothing new, to be sure. In fact, they remind me of political associations created in the early 1990s. During the preliminary efforts at party system reorganization that agitated Japan’s national political landscape around that time. The one that ended up creating Nihon Shinto, and the short-lived Hosokawa Cabinet. And a series of “Opposition” governments that really were dominated by the old LDP. It’s important to note that all of these “reform-type” associations – or, at least, all of ‘em I’ve come across – include members with diverse views on domestic economic policies. And on foreign policies. Differences that in the future are likely to complicate the activities of those associations. But for now, firm commitment to “Reform,” political and/or administrative, is enough to sustain a reasonable level of solidarity.

Another point to keep in mind. Memberships in these groups and associations overlap. That is, individual Lower and Upper House members can and often do belong to more than one such association. Sometimes to several! Similar to the proliferation of bumper stickers on the cars in university faculty parking lots. I won’t bore you with a chart or table. Since the specifics hardly matter for our purposes today. But it’s a point we will return to, undoubtedly, in the weeks and months to come.

An Interesting “Reform” Organization: “Sentaku”

We’re running short of time. The Old Clock on the Screen just began to blink red. But before we conclude this program, let’s take a brief look at one of the more interesting examples of the current crop of “reform” associations.

Most interesting to me among them is “Sentaku.” For a number of reasons. We considered Sentaku on this program a week or so before its organization was announced officially. And I’ve mentioned its activities a couple of times since.

It’s especially interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it was organized outside of Tokyo. And although its activities now include a Dietmen’s League, it still makes an effort to emphasize its “regional” character. American listeners will immediately recognize the parallels here. Especially U.S. political groups and candidates who “run against Washington.” From the very beginning, Sentaku’s organizers -- former Mie Prefecture Governor Masayasu Kitagawa, Miyazaki Prefecture Governor Hideo Higashikokubaru, and others – emphasized their association’s regional, non-Nagatacho, focus. This reflects frustration with national politics at the moment. Kitagawa and his supporters have been a bit vague when it comes to policy proposal specifics. But governmental decentralization is one undeniable constant.

A second interesting feature of Sentaku, for me, at least, is its diverse membership. Sentaku’s organizers, also from the beginning, have emphasized the supra-partisan character of their organization. They insist they’re not working to elect candidates of any particular political party. Or, even to reorganize Japan’s national political party system through creation of another party. At least so far. Rather, their objective is overall reform of the political system. And anyone willing to pursue their brand of reform is welcome to join.

Although Kitagawa and his Sentaku colleagues continue to insist publicly they have no intention of promoting any sort of political party, or political party system, nobody takes that seriously. Not in Japan’s current political environment! The credibility of that assertion suffered further erosion in early last month. On March 3rd, Sentaku officially announced formation of the “Sentaku Parliamentary Alliance.” Or something like that. I don’t have the official English language translation. If indeed there is one. The announcement meeting was held in Tokyo, with over 100 members of the Diet said to be in attendance.

Once again, the public statements emphasized their reform agenda. And denial of plans to influence political party reorganization. Or formation of a new political party. Rather, Kitagawa and Higashikokubaru insisted they only intend to work through their national politician members. To encourage existing political parties to focus their next election campaign on substantive issues. Through release of meaningful party “manifestos,” and so on. And, of course, continue to promote decentralization of Japan’s overall political system. From Tokyo to the prefectural and local levels.

I’ve mentioned all this in the past. But “Sentaku” was created on January 20th by the People’s Conference for a New Japan. That’s one of Japan’s well-established non-government organizations. The chairman is Masayasu Kitagawa, now a lecturer at Waseda University. But more important, he’s the former governor of Mie Prefecture. The group boasts support from other influential prefectural governors. Hideo Higashikokubaru, the wildly popular governor of Miyazaki Prefecture, is the best known among them. He ran an effective reformist campaign for the Miyazaki governorship that we followed on this program some time back.

Sentaku supporters also include a number of well-known, publicly active, businessmen. Some senior labor union officials. And a sprinkling of policy-oriented academics. So it’s not just a fly-by-night, association-of-convenience. Likely to disappear as soon as Yasuo Fukuda’s successor is decided. This one, I think, will be around for a while.

Sentaku, as I said a moment ago, describes its objectives as political decentralization, and encouraging political parties to make clearer statements of policy as the basis of their election campaigns. None of this is new. These are themes we have heard from aspiring reformers for some time. Hasegawa and other Sentaku spokesmen continue to deny they have plans for a new political party. Or for influencing national political party reorganization. But it’s obvious the organization will play some role in the upcoming reorganization of Japan’s political party system. Probably a significant role. We’ll have to keep our eye on it.

Concluding Comments

Well, that’s it for today. The Clock seems about to blow a fuse. We’ll have to continue this discussion during the next program. When we’ll consider perhaps the most significant of the new associations. That recently organized by names long familiar to Japan Considered Podcast listeners. Hidenao Nakagawa, Junichiro Koizumi, and Yuriko Koike. Among others. Quite a confederacy! Hmmm. That may be a poor choice of words. We’ll have to see.

So, Goodbye all. Until next time.