June 13, 2008; Volume 04, Number 19

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Listener Comments on the Censure Resolution
The Upper House Censure Resolution Saga
Another Challenge to Japan’s Party System Status Quo: Takeo Hiranuma’s “Conservative” Challenge
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From beautiful Lake Wateree State Recreation Area. In the Piedmont region of South Carolina. Today is Friday, June 13th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 19, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Yes, on the road again this week. Producing this program from the Mobile Studio. On the elderly laptop computer mentioned last week. But that’s a minor inconvenience compared with the opportunity to enjoy this remarkable State Park. Right on the shore of Lake Wateree. I’ll try to include a few photos from this visit in the podcast transcript. All taken early in the morning. Quite hot here during the day. But early morning temperatures are manageable. So, you nature lovers, click on over and have a look.

South Carolina is famous for the abundance and variety of its recreational water resources. From mountain river whitewater, in the Western part of the state. To salt-water marshes, that have to seen to be believed, near the Atlantic coast. And everything in between. Lake Wateree here is almost exactly “in between.” A large lake made by damming a river years ago. Now well established. Just the sight of it made me take up kayaking some months back! At this advanced age! Well worth the trouble to learn. I can’t say enough good about this Lake Wateree State Recreation Area. It’s well managed and beautifully maintained. By an over-worked staff who give all visitors a genuine South Carolina welcome. Stop by for a visit when you come through!

But we’ve got other things to talk about today. Including the long-promised look at former MITI Minister Takeo Hiranuma’s plans – or threats – to form a new, genuinely conservative, political party. And the latest developments in the Upper House Censure Resolution Saga. So let’s get to it.

Listener Comments on the Censure Resolution

First, though, thanks to all of you who wrote in with thoughts on last week’s program. Most were comments on my interpretation of the Censure Resolution Saga in the Upper House.

Yes, it’s true that tradition, precedent, and local “political culture” matter. That not everything in politics is determined by legal and/or constitutional definitions. Quite true. Some commentators noted that Japanese political tradition and the “Japanese way of doing things” also help determine how a censure resolution will be received by Japan’s attentive public.

I heartily agree with that observation. Tradition, precedent, and local “political culture,” for lack of a better term, all matter. And certainly, Japan is not the United States. Which often is described as more “legalistic” than Japan. Also quite true. It’s a point I’ve made myself time and again in Washington over the years.

However, there’s something else to think about here. Yes, Japan is quite different from the United States. And even quite different from parliamentarian Great Britain, for that matter. But Japan itself isn’t static! As much as Japan is not the United States or Great Britain, Japan today also is not the Japan of 40 years ago! Or even 20!

Observing Japanese politics and international relations over the past four decades, I’ve been most impressed with Japan’s adaptability. Its ability to adapt to changes in its environments while pursuing its major national objectives. Japan’s domestic and international environments have changed dramatically during those four decades. This remarkable adaptability has been one of the few constants.

So, the “Japanese way of doing things politically” today isn’t the same as the Japanese way of doing things politically ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. The end of the Cold War created dramatic changes in Japan’s international environment. Changes Japan has had to adapt to survive. And to continue to prosper. Most international observers seem to recognize the more important changes in Japan’s conduct of international relations that have resulted.

But many of those same international observers seem to have difficulty recognizing the significance of changes in Japan’s domestic environment. Significance for Japanese domestic politics. It’s very different today than it was four, three, or even two decades ago. The LDP, and Japan’s national government overall, can no longer justify itself primarily as the architects and engineers of rapid economic growth. Rapid growth that allowed Japan to “catch up” with the other advanced industrial powers of the world.

Japan has caught up! Now what? That makes things today a bit more complex. Japan no longer enjoys that universally accepted national goal of economic catch-up. Now, basic goal formulation is required as well as basic goal implementation. Japan’s national political system now has to change in ways that will allow it to more effectively formulate those basic national goals. And “sell” them to the public. As well as continue to implement them, once formulated!

Highly competent, well disciplined bureaucrats do a fine job of implementing goals. They have more difficulty formulating the goals to be implemented. That’s what politicians – elected political representatives – are supposed to do. That, and supervise the implementation efforts of the bureaucrats. Yes, yes. The dividing line between goal formulation and implementation isn’t as sharp in practice as it is in theory. But it’s the proportion of responsibility for elected and appointed government officials that counts here.

Also, the Cold War is over. The LDP and national government no longer can justify itself as the only realistic alternative to the imported socialism espoused by the national Opposition parties. The socialist dream may live on in the hearts of some now-elderly Zengakuren graduates within Japan’s intellectual community and communications media. And in the hearts of some younger labor union executives. But it really has little credibility within Japan’s national political realm.

Yes, a Japan Socialist Party survives in the Lower and Upper Houses of the Diet. If under a different name. But with only single-digit representation in both. Former Socialist Party members maintain some influence within the main DPJ opposition party today. But their very presence in that Party testifies to their ideological flexibility. Sooo …. No, Japan’s LDP can no longer claim the allegiance of Japan’s voters based on public fear of the policies a Socialist alternative would impose on them.    

As important, Japan’s elected representatives – and aspiring elected representatives – face constituencies today quite different from those faced by their fathers and grandfathers. This is a complex topic. One we can’t give the time today that it deserves. But briefly, factors such as urbanization, the decline of “hamlet society’s” influence on national politics, the growing importance of television in political communications, even the rise of internet-based communications, and the dramatic increase in prosperity and standards of living throughout Japan, all have contributed to this change. Especially, perhaps, the prolonged prosperity factor. Rates of voter participation are down. Way down. Even in rural areas. Skepticism about politicians’ motives, and national politics in general, has increased. Nearly every national public opinion poll I’ve seen on party preference finds a greater percentage of Japanese favoring “no party in particular.”

So, this change of domestic political environment requires incumbent politicians and aspiring candidates to adapt their appeals to fit. Those able to adapt will survive. Those incapable of adaptation will wither away.

Japan today is not Japan of many years ago. Sure, it’s still “Japan.” But what that means has changed. And those environmental changes have profound implications for the conduct of Japan’s domestic politics we consider on this program. Including how the Upper House Censure Resolution Saga will be interpreted by Japan’s attentive public.

The Upper House Censure Resolution Saga

Let’s focus on that next. The Upper House Censure Resolution Saga. Well, they’ve finally gone ‘n done it, so to speak. On Wednesday, the 11th, the DPJ finally made good on their threat. The DPJ was joined by the Social Democratic Party and the People’s New Party as sponsors of the Resolution. Interestingly, the Communists declined to join as a sponsor. Though they did vote in favor of the resolution when the time came. The Communists, like a good many members of the DPJ itself, never did consider this idea of an Upper House censure resolution a good idea. And have said so in public repeatedly.

According to the text of the resolution, the immediate cause of the censure decision was the LDP’s refusal to act on a revised health insurance system bill in the Lower House. Though I doubt that many observers will remember that. The notion of such a resolution has been in the works for a long time. The particular issue of the health insurance system was obviously just incidental.

Subsequent events too were entirely predictable. DPJ leaders demanded that Prime Minister Fukuda resign and call a general election. Ruling Coalition spokesmen, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura, immediately after the vote told the Kantei Press Corps that the resolution was nothing more than a political stunt by the Opposition. And that Prime Minister Fukuda had no intention of either resigning or calling a general election.

Indeed, as we anticipated last week, immediately following the Upper House vote, the ruling coalition submitted a vote of confidence in the Lower House. A vote that, of course, passed with no difficulty at all the following day. Yesterday. The vote there was 336 in favor and 10 against. That because the sponsors of the censure resolution boycotted the Lower House plenary session during which the vote was taken. Only the Communists were there to vote against. Hmmm.

That’s not all. Or, perhaps even most significant. The DPJ also announced that it would boycott Diet deliberations after passage of the Upper House censure resolution. At least until the end of the current session. Maybe even during the next extraordinary session. That’s not yet clear. Judging from the tone of DPJ leadership commentary, they’re less certain about that.

This too is an issue we’ve considered for some time on this program. The attentive public’s reaction to boycotts of parliamentary debate. It worked well for the Socialists several decades ago. They could walk out, and Japan’s political media would describe the situation as an “Empty Diet.” But this venerable parliamentary tactic hasn’t been so well received in recent years. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. The Opposition has nothing to lose, really, from boycotting Diet debate now. Right at the end of this current session. Since they’ve already cooperated in the passage of essential legislation. Thirteen bills were passed on Wednesday alone. Prior to that censure resolution vote.

Also, as anticipated last week, the DPJ on Wednesday asked the Joint National Basic Policy Committee to cancel the long-anticipated party leaders’ debate. The one scheduled for that very afternoon. Between Prime Minister Fukuda and DPJ Leader Ozawa. The LDP had no choice but to agree. The DPJ said it would be inappropriate to hold the debate after the censure resolution. Because the DPJ had decided to boycott Diet proceedings. Hmmm.

Maybe the cynics are right. Maybe cancellation of the party leaders’ debate will be the only thing the DPJ will have accomplished with this controversial move. Avoiding another embarrassing performance by Party Leader Ozawa. Ozawa himself, at least, must be genuinely pleased with it. But I suspect this decision will come back to bite the DPJ as a whole. Even commentators sympathetic to the DPJ already have openly criticized cancellation of that party leaders’ debate.

One more thing we need to consider. Wednesday’s action by the Upper House opposition parties has, at last, put the effectiveness of the long anticipated censure resolution tactic to the test. We’ll know within a week or so just how effective it actually is. As we discussed on the last program, it’s been taken quite seriously by Japan’s political media since the DPJ first mentioned it last year. Suggesting Japan’s political journalists had high expectations for it.

Will the censure resolution force Prime Minister Fukuda to resign or call a general election? Or will he simply ignore it. Emphasizing instead yesterday’s Lower House vote of confidence the Upper House action triggered. Prime Minister Fukuda continues to insist he will do neither. But we’ll have to wait to see.

Much will depend on the effect passage of the censure resolution has on public attitudes toward the Fukuda Cabinet. Maybe passage of the censure resolution will drive the Fukuda Cabinet’s public approval rating down even further. Into single digits! Now, such a development might force Prime Minister Fukuda to change his hold-tight plans! Maybe that’s what DPJ proponents of the resolution submission are counting on. Again, we’ll know next week. Japan’s news organizations are certain to commission polls to determine just that. And publish their results next week. However, if the Cabinet’s public approval rating doesn’t fall significantly, the censure resolution tactic will have been exposed as less effective than expected. Not really worth all the attention Japan’s political media has given it for nearly a year. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Another Challenge to Japan’s Party System Status Quo: Takeo Hiranuma’s “Conservative” Challenge

Now, let’s turn our attention to Takeo Hiranuma. Specifically, to his plans to create what he describes as a genuinely conservative political force in Japan’s national politics. Possibly, even a new political party. He’s been cautious on this last point for some time now. Whenever he’s asked directly by an interviewer whether or not he intends to create a new political party he always responds “That’s one option.” Recently, though, the possibility he’ll actually form a new party seems more likely.

So what? Lots of Japanese politicians threaten to form new parties. And Hiranuma’s been talking about it for at least three years, without anything happening. Is it worth considering now on this program?

Well, I think it just may be. For a couple of reasons. First, Takeo Hiranuma isn’t just anybody. He’s a formidable figure in Japan’s national politics today. It would be foolish to ignore him. Or, even to under-estimate him. He’s not much in the foreign press from Japan. But he appears regularly in Japan’s political media. More about Hiranuma himself in a moment.

Second, I don’t recall a period since the early 1990s in Japan’s domestic politics when the political party system appeared more brittle. As we’ve discussed for a while now on this program, conditions are ripe for some sort of major realignment of the political parties. Splits in existing parties. Mergers among the splinter groups thus created. Formation of new parties. Collapse or deterioration of old parties. And so on. It would be naïve of us to assume now that things are likely to continue in the foreseeable future pretty much as they’ve been going in the past. Japan’s domestic and international environments have changed significantly. As we discussed a moment ago. Adaptations of some sort are inevitable. It’s no longer a question of “if.” It’s a question of “when.”

Both of Japan’s major political parties – the LDP and the DPJ – display signs of their struggles to cope. And, judging from publicly available public opinion polls, neither party is doing a very good job. “No Party in Particular” attracts more support than either of the two major parties. Without spending a single yen on outreach! Not good! Not good for the status quo and its adherents, anyway.

For Japan’s ambitious political representatives, and candidates for political office, it’s another matter. They can’t help but see this huge pool of dissatisfied potential voters as a potential source of electoral support. IF they’re able to attract the attention of those frustrated potential voters. And then their votes.

That’s easier said than done, of course. First, there’s the “credibility” hurdle to overcome. Most of the aspiring leaders of new parties, or even political movements, stumble over that one right away. That is, they’re unable to persuade the voting public that they’d be capable of governing, even if they were elected. That they’re not simply pursuing their own personal interests. And have chosen electoral politics as the vehicle with which to pursue those interests. In democratic electoral politics in any country, it’s one thing to be a self-absorbed, ambitious, energetic hustler. It’s quite another to appear to be a self-absorbed, ambitious, energetic hustler. And Nagata-cho today has its share of obvious hustlers. They don’t inspire confidence. For good reason!    

Second, as we discussed earlier in the program, Japan’s domestic political environment has changed considerably during the past few decades. The effects of prolonged economic prosperity. Urbanization. The decline – throughout the country – in local notable-dominated “hamlet politics.” New modes of politically relevant communication. Especially the growth and diversification of television political coverage. And, recently, the growth of internet-based communications. Add to this the fundamental changes in the Lower House electoral system passed in 1994.

All of these changes in the domestic political environment have made it more difficult for Japan’s political elites –the major party leaders – to control parliamentary politics. Without, that is, at least some level of public approval. We’ve talked about this in some detail on past programs. The growing importance of public approval ratings for Japan’s prime minister and cabinet. One obvious example. Changes in how Lower and Upper House campaigns are conducted. The growing importance of television news coverage. And the ability of incumbents and candidates to present their views, and appeal for votes, through that medium. Traditionalist versus Reformist electoral strategies. And so on.

Sooo, this time around, the inevitable party system reorganization won’t be determined exclusively by elderly long-serving professional politicians deliberating in closed rooms. Smoke-filled or otherwise! They’ll influence the process, to be sure. And they’ll do their best to maintain the old system. Or most of them will, anyway. But they’re fighting a losing battle.

Losing, even if they win. Especially if they win! And regain firm control of the LDP. Their victory would guarantee that the LDP will continue to lose electoral competitiveness! Yes, the LDP’s weathered storms as bad as this one. Usually because their main opposition presented an even worse alternative! But that may change this time around. Should a new party, or parties, better able to operate in Japan’s new domestic political environment, emerge.

Concluding Comments

Here we are at the end of our time, and we still haven’t gotten to Takeo Hiranuma. And his effort to become the poster boy for true Japanese conservatism. We’ll have to begin with that next week. As well as follow up on the longer-term effects of the DPJ’s censure resolution. But now we’re over time! In compensation, here’s a brief clip of mesmerizing bluegrass music I hope you’ll enjoy. Again, from the Infamous Stringdusters’ new album. That’s available on iTunes for only $7.95! Have a listen, and enjoy.

[bluegrass clip]

Goodbye all. Until next week.