June 6, 2008; Volume 04, Number 18

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

An Upper House Resolution of Censure at Last?
The Roles of  the Lower and Upper Houses in Japan’s Diet
Significance of an Upper House Resolution of Censure
Some Possible Explanations
SDF Aircraft to Carry Japan’s Earthquake Relief Supplies to China?
Concluding Comments

Good Morning from Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, June 6th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 18, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Thanks for dropping in again. Hot as the dickens here for the past few days. And it’s only early June! Let’s hope this isn’t a trend. South Carolina’s hot enough during the summer months without turning up the outdoor thermometer any more. Back in the regular Japan Considered Project studio this week. It’s a joy to use this desktop computer to create the program. Much newer, and much more capable, than my elderly laptop. Built it myself! It may not improve the program’s content. But it sure makes production quicker and easier.

Once again this week we have a lot to cover. Quite a bit going on in Japanese politics  since our last program. Both in domestic politics and in the conduct of international relations. First we’ll look at recent progress on the DPJ’s plans for an Upper House resolution of censure against Prime Minister Fukuda and his cabinet. We’ve considered this before. Maybe it will happen this time. Then we’ll shift to international affairs. And consider the strange saga of military transport aircraft in Japan’s relief efforts for China’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province. And to the extent time permits we’ll return to domestic politics again with a look at Lower House Member Takeo Hiranuma’s efforts to create what he describes as a genuinely conservative political party. And what that means for the party reorganization we’ve been talking about for the past year or so on this program.

An Upper House Resolution of Censure at Last?

We’ve considered the DPJ’s threat to pass a resolution of censure against Prime Minister Fukuda and his cabinet a number of times on this program. Virtually since the end of July 2007. When then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe led the Liberal Democratic Party to an astounding defeat in the Upper House election. Incredible, when you think of it. For a party that just two years before had won nearly two-thirds of the Lower House seats in a general election. Just incredible! But it happened. I concluded at the time that the July 2007 Upper House election results represented a loss for the LDP. Rather than a win for the DPJ.

That is, Japan’s attentive and voting public – for good reason – expressed its exasperation with the LDP in that election. Rather than expressing their confidence in the DPJ. Also for good reason. A higher percentage of Japanese now choose “none of the above” when asked for their political party preference. Since the July 2007 election, parliamentary politics in Japan has focused on what Japan’s political journalists describe as the “Twisted Diet.” By which they mean, a Diet whose Lower House is controlled by the ruling parties. And whose Upper House is controlled by the opposition parties.

The Roles of  the Lower and Upper Houses in Japan’s Diet

Before considering the censure resolution threat, though, we need some perspective on the role of the Upper House in Japan’s government. Japan’s 1947 Constitution does provide for a bicameral parliament. But the Lower House clearly is intended to dominate. And does! Indeed, several times since 1947, serious commentators have even questioned the overall utility of the Upper House. With some suggesting it should be abolished. Since it’s expensive and really doesn’t amount to much. Those suggestions never went very far. But the notion they were made at all, by serious people, confirms the constitutional intent. We’re not considering the prewar House of Peers here. Or even the U.S. Senate.

This discussion reminds me of an incident 25 or 30 years ago back in Washington, D.C. One venerable Upper House Member loved to visit Washington. Every time he visited, though, it was a struggle to get senior U.S. government officials and members of the U.S. House or Senate to even give him a brief appointment. Let alone lunch or dinner. He must have known it. But was undeterred!  

One year he arrived in Washington carrying some enormous English language meishi. He’d had them printed up especially for the trip. They were about half again as large as normal meishi. And those roof-tile-sized meishi identified him as “Senator” so-and-so. I asked him about them soon after he arrived. Hoping he’d take the hint and leave them in his hotel room as he made the rounds of Washington. He didn’t. He said he thought they’d make a better impression on the American government officials he was scheduled to meet.

That elderly Upper House Member and his bizarre meishi provided amusement for weeks after his visit for the Japanese press corps and embassy crowd in Washington. Everyone knew, of course, that election to the Upper House was very much second prize for aspiring Japanese politicians. Which helps to make the main point here.

Discussion of the Upper House within Japan’s political media changed considerably following the LDP’s July 2007 Upper House election defeat. Now an Opposition party dominates that chamber. Where it’s able to exercise greater influence over legislation. If only by delaying major bills and personnel appointments. This naturally has excited those elements of Japan’s political media who are fed up with the LDP. And, I believe, as a result, they’ve since been inclined to exaggerate the significance of the Upper House in their analysis.

Significance of an Upper House Resolution of Censure

This includes the threats regularly made by the major opposition party to pass a resolution of censure in the Upper House against the incumbent government. Of course, there’s no provision within Japan’s Constitution for such a procedure. That is, an article parallel to Article 69. The article that defines Lower House procedures for non-confidence resolutions. Article 69 reads: “If the House of Representatives passes a non-confidence resolution, or rejects a confidence resolution, the Cabinet shall resign en masse, unless the House of Representatives is dissolved within ten(10) days.”

But, of course, there’s no constitutional prohibition either! The Upper House certainly is free to express its collective opinion on the incumbent government. However, that’s all it is. The expression of their opinion.

Now, let’s look at this issue from a practical perspective. Everyone in Japan knows that a majority of the votes in the Upper House is controlled by the opposition parties. Further, everyone realizes that those “opposition” parties are – well … - “opposed” to the ruling party or parties. Given that, it doesn’t seem to me that an Upper House resolution expressing the collective sentiment that Japan’s opposition parties oppose the government of the ruling parties should come as much of a surprise! Indeed, it would be a real surprise should such a vote express support!

So, why all the fuss now in Japan’s political media? Over whether or not Ichiro Ozawa’s DPJ will submit a censure resolution against the government? Well, one reason may simply be confusion. Or the hope of creating confusion. The hope that Japan’s public will equate an Upper House censure resolution with the really serious Article 69-based Lower House Vote of No Confidence.

It sounds that way now, anyway. When making their threats to pass such a resolution, Ichiro Ozawa and other DPJ leaders usually add that passage of the vote means the Fukuda cabinet should either resign or call a general election! Just as Article 69 requires for a Lower House Vote of No Confidence.

Well, the two legislative acts are quite different. And Prime Minister Fukuda has repeatedly said as much. That an Upper House censure resolution has no constitutional authority. And that even if one is passed, he has no intention of resigning or calling a general election. Of course not! Why should he?

Some observers argue, such a resolution indicates the Upper House has lost confidence in Prime Minister Fukuda’s government. Well. That’s hardly news! Of course they have. In fact, they’ve never had it! The Upper House is dominated by the “opposition,” after all. And they’ve opposed the Fukuda Cabinet’s legislative proposals and personnel appointments regularly. As one might expect from an “opposition.”

So, all of this talk of an Upper House censure resolution has the taint of soap-opera-level political theater about it. At least for me. This isn’t to say that Prime Minister Fukuda’s management of Japan’s central political executive does not deserve censure. That’s another issue entirely. And an argument more easily made. But the notion that an Upper House resolution of censure can force Prime Minister Fukuda to dissolve the Diet is not really worth considering.

Indeed, such a move might well trigger the cabinet to call for a vote of confidence in the more powerful Lower House! Perhaps the DPJ supporters of the censure vote believe such an effort would divide opinion within the LDP. Leading to failure of the Lower House confidence vote. Perhaps recalling the fate of Prime Minister Miyazawa in 1993. Well, anything’s possible. But I seriously doubt that outcome is likely under current conditions. And should a “counter” Lower House vote of confidence pass along Party lines, the DPJ would be worse off than they were before triggering it with their Upper House censure resolution. It would confirm where power actually lies in Japan’s parliament!

So this parliamentary tactic simply doesn’t make sense to me. Nor, it seems, has it made sense to the experienced DPJ leadership. Judging from their reluctance to follow through on the threat. That is, the censure resolution has more utility as a threat. As long as Japan’s political media will go along with it. Once done, the Opposition loses even that advantage. Which probably explains why it hasn’t been carried out yet.

Some Possible Explanations

Well, maybe there’s a political explanation. Judging from yesterday’s and today’s political news from Japan, the DPJ now is determined to make good on their threat. To pass a resolution of censure through the Upper House. Next week we’ll know whether or not it actually happens. But there are a few things of interest to consider about the vote.

First, the timing. Japan’s political media reports that Ichiro Ozawa and the DPJ leadership has been under pressure from younger members of the Party to make good on the threat for some time. Ozawa has resisted that pressure, arguing the timing isn’t right. Indeed, this time, passage has been delayed until the very end of the current Diet session. So that essential legislation could be passed. Very polite and orderly.

That’s not all. During discussions of the censure motion, DPJ spokesmen have said they’ll have to boycott Upper House proceedings following passage of the censure resolution. And the Japanese political media accounts I’ve seen have reported this as if the DPJ would be required to boycott subsequent Diet proceedings. Indeed, one reason given by DPJ and DPJ-sympathetic commentators for not passing a censure resolution has been that Japan’s public would object to the DPJ absenting itself from Diet debate following passage of the resolution.

Well, one can understand why a party or parties passing a censure resolution might be unwilling to participate in parliamentary debate. But, there’s no constitutional or legal requirement for them to withdraw! Perhaps we’re back to the old “the public would never understand” explanation. Hmmm. I think the public understands far more about Japan’s national politics than some of the parliamentary commentators think. Or wish! Which explains the “no party in particular” as their top choice in the polls!

So, we’re left with an Upper House opposition that “opposes” the incumbent government. To the point they feel forced to pass a resolution of censure in the Upper House. Still, they’ve been able to contain their feelings until the very end of the current Diet session. Scheduled to end next Friday. It all seems a little Machiavellian and contrived to me. Just a little too clever. And, if the DPJ insists on passing the censure resolution next week, I don’t think it will work out to their advantage. I also suspect that the experienced DPJ leaders know this. Especially those who lived through – even participated in – the Miyazawa Cabinet episode I mentioned a moment ago.

Sooo, why is this happening now? Some cynical observers in Japan have suggested another motive. One having to do with the Party Leader’s Debate expected next week between Prime Minister Fukuda and DPJ President Ichiro Ozawa. Ozawa, most observers agree, isn’t a very good public debater. He’s smart as the dickens, and an excellent political tactician. But he’s never been very good at quick presentation of his ideas in parliamentary debate. We saw an example of that during the last Party Leaders’ Debate. Neither he nor Fukuda proved to be a Demosthenes. But Ozawa was the worse of the two. Could it be, as those cynical observers suggest, that Ozawa finally agreed to the censure resolution in order to have an excuse for canceling the scheduled Party Leaders’ Debate? Certainly the debate could be held anyway. We’ll just have to see what happens next week. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

SDF Aircraft to Carry Japan’s Earthquake Relief Supplies to China?

Next, let’s shift our attention to international affairs. Specifically to an unfortunate aspect of Japan’s relief efforts for Chinese earthquake victims. We discussed Japan’s response to the May 12 Sichuan earthquake on the last program. Japan immediately offered any assistance China needed. Through a message to President Hu from Prime Minister Fukuda. Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura on the 14th told the Kantei Press Corps that Japan offered 500 million yen’s worth of relief supplies and cash grants. All in response to requests from China. So far, so good. Japan clearly was doing the right thing. Responding compassionately and generously to the needs of a neighbor in distress.  A definite plus for the bilateral relationship. Following closely on the successful bilateral summit in Tokyo.

And for the most part, things have gone smoothly since. Search teams were dispatched later in the week. Too late to be of much use, unfortunately. But that wasn’t Japan’s fault. Tokyo had to wait until they were requested by Beijing. Then medical teams replaced the highly specialized search teams. And shipments of tents and other natural disaster relief supplies. Japan has considerable experience with this sort of thing. And that experience has been put to good use.

There has been, though, one distressing development in all of this. One that, unfortunately, illustrates the enduring sensitivity – and insensitivity – in the Japan-China bilateral relationship. That is eruption on the Japanese side of discussion about using SDF military aircraft as part of Japan’s relief effort for China. Here’s how it came about.

The day after news of the Sichuan disaster reached Japan, the LDP’s national defense committees met to discuss Japan’s response. According to Japanese press reports on Wednesday, the 14th, several members of that Committee insisted that Japan should include SDF aircraft in the relief effort. To ferry relief supplies and personnel to and from China. The Chinese earthquake, proponents of the plan argued, gave Japan an ideal opportunity to demonstrate that the SDF included international rescue efforts in its primary mission. The benign international face of Japan’s military forces.

Well! Such a reaction should come as no surprise. There’s nothing wrong with their argument. As far as it goes. The same thing has worked domestically. The Defense Ministry, formerly Defense Agency, has given intensive publicity to the domestic rescue activity of the SDF. Subsequent polling has showed this effort has had the desired effect on Japanese domestic attitudes toward the SDF. Then why not extend this to the international realm!  

Then on Wednesday, May 28th, after rescue operations were well under way, the role of Japan’s SDF in the relief effort took center stage in Japan’s media. NHK and other news services reported that a Chinese government official had approached the Japanese embassy in Beijing. That during his appeal for relief aid from Japan he said that Japanese SDF aircraft could be used in the effort. One wire report even had it that Japan had been asked to send SDF troops to help out with the relief work in Sichuan. Though that story quickly disappeared.

These reports appear to have been based on a comment made by Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura during his regularly scheduled Kantei press conference. Yet, later reports indicate Machimura was a bit more cautious in the information he provided. He said only that the Japanese and Chinese governments were “studying the possibility” of including SDF aircraft in the relief effort.

But this was all it took for Japan’s press corps to focus their reporting and analysis for the next couple of days on the use of SDF aircraft in the relief effort. Crowding out emphasis on the relief effort itself. Front-page articles blossomed in all the major newspapers – right and left – celebrating the possibility. Other senior Japanese government officials were interviewed. Including Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura. Who confirmed the Chinese request to use SDF aircraft in the relief effort. Article after article appeared discussing the significance of such a development for the SDF’s international image. And for Japan-China relations! Never mind “freezing and thawing.” Now Beijing was willing to allow Japanese military planes to fly in with relief supplies. A couple Japanese political commentators even speculated on the domestic political motives of Chinese President Hu Jintao. In requesting the use of Japanese military aircraft.

By late Thursday, the 29th, however the situation had changed. The elation of Japan’s communications media over China’s government requesting that SDF aircraft participate in the Sichuan relief effort created the predictable backlash in China. Websites in China spouted commentary hostile to Japan. Chinese government spokesmen expressed disappointment at the misunderstanding. And said China was not ready to have Japanese military aircraft fly into Sichuan Province yet again. And so on.

Reports Thursday and Friday, the 30th, gave more details on the Chinese “request” mentioned by Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura on the 27th. It turns out to have been made by an unidentified Chinese “military official” during conversations with Japan’s military attaché at the Beijing Embassy. Not a top-level request, in other words. And perhaps not even a request. But more of a disinclination to rule out the use of SDF aircraft during that military official’s appeal for more aid.

Late Thursday, the 29th, Japan’s media learned that plans to dispatch three SDF C-130s had been scrapped. That SDF aircraft would not participate in the relief effort. A development confirmed the following morning in all of Japan’s news media. Again, with predictable results. Most notable, everyone involved doing their best to avoid blame for the false alarm.

What does this incident tell us about Japan’s conduct of international relations? Especially relations with China? First, it demonstrates that Japan and China have a long way to go before their bilateral relations “normalize.” If they ever do. China is not yet ready to discard, or even wash, the “bloody shirt.” And won’t be for some time to come. Japan’s government officials and media must recognize that fact, and behave accordingly.

It also illustrates that Japan has a genuinely free press. A factor that complicates the lives of Japan’s government officials responsible for foreign relations. I’m certain that Chief Government Spokesman Machimura would have given a great deal that Wednesday morning to silence press reports of SDF aircraft flying to China. Well, it couldn’t be done. The genie was out of the bottle, to coin a phrase.

By all accounts, Japan’s earthquake relief workers and medical personnel have performed heroically. Premier Wen Jiabao even made a point to thank them himself. With a personal visit. And China’s press – quite different from its Japanese counterpart – has commented favorably on their effort. This undoubtedly has helped to improve Japan’s relations with China. We can only hope that those efforts, and Japan’s generosity, will be remembered. Rather than the two or three days of excitement over the possibility of sending SDF aircraft to China.

Concluding Comments

Well, the Old Clock on the Screen is blinking its warning again. Time to wind up here, to stay within our time limits. Our consideration of Takeo Hiranuma’s efforts to create a new really, really conservative political party will just have to wait until next program.

Thanks to all of you who wrote in about the last program. I was pleasantly surprised to hear so many positive comments about the work of the “Infamous Stringdusters.” Yes, they’re the Real Deal. Here’s a clip from another song on their latest album, “Well, Well.” Giving you some idea of the vocals this group is capable of producing. Enjoy.

[Bluegrass Clip]

Goodbye all. Until next time.