July 4, 2008; Volume 04, Number 22

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Introduction
Japan’s Reaction to Washington’s North Korea De-Listing Decision
Ichita Yamamoto Proposes Changes in LDP Presidential Election Rules
Concluding Comments

Good Morning from beautiful Iron Station. In the Piedmont Region of our Neighbor to the North. Today is Friday, July 4th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 22, of the Japan Considered Podcast.

Introduction

Last week I thought there wouldn’t be time to produce a program today. Holiday, and all. But things never go as planned. And here we are! I hope those of you who celebrate our National Birthday are having a fine time. Just the sort of holiday you’d wished for. We certainly have here. At home in Columbia, we hear the sound of fireworks all day on July 4th. Some quite elaborate. Here, in more rustic Iron Station, it’s the sound of celebratory gunfire! Shotguns seem to be the weapon of choice! Let’s hope everyone remembers their safety instruction!  

Oh, I’m Robert Angel. Creator and producer of this podcast. Each week at this time – or, most weeks, anyway – we consider recent events in the news from Japan. And try to determine their significance for Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations. We’re not producing a regular news program here. Nothing that grand. We simply can’t cover everything. Instead, I select a few topics each week that seem to have the greatest potential. Especially those that haven’t received as much coverage in the regular news media as they deserve. And work with them.

Thanks to all of you for tuning in. Without listeners – and readers! – there isn’t a lot of sense in producing the program. But listenership has continued to grow each month. That’s gratifying. The increase during the past two months hasn’t been as great as it was at the beginning of this year. But that early 2008 period was unusual. As far as I can tell, the total audience more than during January and February alone! So, continue to send your comments and suggestions for the program to me at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. I read them all, and take them into consideration when preparing new programs. They’re very helpful.

Lots going on in Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations. As usual. I can’t help but marvel at the change the internet and worldwide web have brought to analysis of Japanese politics and international relations. Twenty years ago it didn’t take long to read everything available about Japan. To read it carefully. And take notes. And wish there was more!

The internet has changed all that. Changed it for the better! Now, a click of the mouse on the computer screen brings up dozens – hundreds – of articles and news stories. Many relevant. Many in English. Even more in Japanese. Right to the computer screen. From short news wire service articles to long, detailed, academic papers published by think tanks and universities around the world. And everything in between! It’s a researcher’s dream come true.

It took Japan overall a while to begin making full use of the Internet. But, like so many other things, once Japanese government offices, think tanks, universities, and individuals, integrated internet communications technology into their operations, the floodgates opened. Now, a good connection to the Internet, and a Japanese language-capable computer, are all that’s required to stay pretty well informed about what’s going on there. For anyone who’s been in this business for 40 or 50 years, it’s a remarkable change!

Since the mid-1980s I’ve saved copies of all of the electronic news about political and international Japan available to me on line. In “news” files on my computer’s hard disk. I have them indexed with the remarkable dtSearch program for instant searching. It’s amazing to see how the size of each year’s accumulated files has grown. Doubling each year, in many cases. Lots of useful reference material there. Though I have to keep buying larger and larger computer hard disks to store all of it!

This week we’ll glance briefly at the fall-out from Washington’s North Korea state terror sponsor de-listing decision in Japan. No real surprises there. But it’s good to keep track. Then we’ll turn our attention to domestic politics. With LDP Upper House Member Ichita Yamamoto’s proposal for revision of the rules by which an LDP president is selected. A potentially interesting development.

Japan’s Reaction to Washington’s North Korea De-Listing Decision

We considered this North Korea delisting issue during last week’s program. Thanks to all of you who e-mailed in comments and suggestions about this difficult subject. Several of you concluded that we simply don’t have enough information about what’s actually going on to draw conclusions. I agree completely.

That’s always true when trying to understand international negotiations. The release of information to the news media is part of the negotiation process. Especially when genuinely democratic countries are involved in the negotiations. We never have perfect information. Even the negotiators themselves don’t have perfect information! So, we simply have to try to do our best with what we have. And be prepared to adapt our analysis and conclusions as new, or more accurate, information arrives.

Of course, the information that’s released may or may not be accurate. Or complete. But it influences the domestic politics of the countries involved. So, we have to stay on top of that as well.

I concluded last week that President George Bush’s announcement of the decision to de-list North Korea would have little effect on the Fukuda Administration’s public approval ratings. This week, Japan’s news media have released a number of public opinion surveys. Fukuda’s approval ratings appear to have remained steady, or even increased just a bit.

Now, it’s hard to tell just why that’s happening. Have preparations for the G-8 Summit raised those ratings? Only to have them depressed by public resentment of Fukuda’s decision to go along with the Bush Administration de-listing decision? Or, are other factors more influential here? Domestic economic factors, for example. The polls provide a mixed message. As always. But at least we can be fairly certain that public approval of the Fukuda Cabinet has remained reasonably steady, in the low 20th percentile, since President Bush’s announcement.

As a side note, I was surprised this week to see President Bush giving individual, exclusive, interviews to Japan’s major news media. I saw reports of at least four such interviews. That’s unusual. And suggests that somebody in the White House is aware of the sensitivity of the de-listing decision for Japan. Maybe the President himself!

I read transcripts of the interviews carefully. The President’s message seems to be that the negotiations with North Korea are far from over. That North Korea will have to continue to cooperate with the denuclearization effort if it expects to receive additional economic aid and other benefits. That the United States has not forgotten the abduction issue. Won’t abandon Japan. And so on. All quite predictable. But still helpful. As we mentioned last week.

We’ll just have to wait to see how all of this plays out. The degree to which the Bush Administration during its remaining few months in office is willing to maintain a firm posture in its negotiations with North Korea. Japan’s news media and political punditocracy, however, have been skeptical. To say the very least. In general, their sharpest criticism has gone over the heads of the Fukuda government. Aimed at Washington.

Accusations that President Bush and his Administration have exaggerated the significance of Pyongyang’s watered-down “concessions.” In order to make it appear as if they’ve made progress in the North Korean negotiations before leaving office. With harsh comparisons to the behavior of the Clinton Administration at the end of their term. I even read one article that speculated President Bush hopes to win a Nobel Peace Prize! What a hoot. It’s all inevitable, I guess. Folks in Washington are saying the same sort of things. And not only the Administration’s Democratic critics! We’ll just have to wait to see what happens.

One critical point will be Washington’s response to North Korean demands that Japan join the other nations involved in the negotiations with economic aid. In response to Pyongyang’s release of information about their nuclear programs. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon gave a talk in Tokyo on Tuesday. He took the opportunity to urge Japan immediately to offer North Korea food aid. As a “humanitarian gesture.” Let’s see how Washington’s negotiators respond. Will they endorse those aid demands on Japan? We’ll have to keep an eye on this delicate situation. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Ichita Yamamoto Proposes Changes in LDP Presidential Election Rules

Now, let’s turn to domestic politics in Japan. I mentioned LDP Upper House Member Ichita Yamamoto’s reform proposal briefly last week. But we didn’t have time then to pursue it. Since then, I’ve seen no follow-up coverage in the English language press. Or even in the Japanese political media. Yamamoto’s easy to dismiss as inconsequential, I guess. But, that would be a mistake when it comes to this issue. I suspect we’ll hear a lot more about it in the months to come.

Well, first, what happened? And why should we bother to pay any attention? Last month. It was the 18th, if memory serves. NHK TV News had a brief Japanese language report on a news conference held by LDP Upper House Member, Ichita Yamamoto. No video. At least, that I saw. Just one of their short text items. It reported Yamamoto has plans to create yet another reform group. One that would encourage changes in the rules by which the LDP elects its president.

Now, Ichita Yamamoto’s a real character! And an unrelenting supporter of reform within the LDP. Yamamoto’s 50 years old now. But his looks and behavior make him appear much younger. Actually, he’s been around for a while. First elected to the Upper House upon the death of his Upper House Member Father, Tomio, in 1995. And two times since then.

If you’re not familiar with Ichita Yamamoto from his frequent television appearances, have a look at his official website. I’ll put a link in the program transcript. It’s all in Japanese. Though he speaks English well. Maybe because he actually speaks English well! And doesn’t have anything to prove! He took an MA at Georgetown’s graduate school, and later worked in the UNDP’s New York Office.

Yamamoto’s musical efforts have attracted considerable attention as well. In 2006, Yamamoto himself wrote and performed a bouncy campaign anthem for Shinzo Abe’s LDP presidential campaign. And Yamamoto’s official website includes a page devoted to his musical efforts. With sound clips, no less! I’ll put a link in the transcript to that page too.

Ichita Yamamoto is one of the LDP’s most tech-savvy Diet Members. In addition to his frequent television appearances, he maintains an active web presence. Including a regular blog. In Japanese, of course. And it was Yamamoto who back in late 1999 launched the LDP’s “cyber space balloting” project. Together with Hiroshige Seko. Another young LDP PR professional. This was a mock LDP presidential election conducted exclusively through the internet. Yamamoto described his objectives at the time as encouraging younger members to contest the LDP presidency. And demonstrating that the LDP isn’t an outdated behind-the-times political party. Hmmm.

I bring up all of this background for two reasons. First, to get a better handle on Yamamoto’s objectives with this current project. And second, to explain why his most recent effort has been virtually ignored by Japan’s political media. It’s likely that Japan’s experienced political journalists have dismissed it as just another one of his publicity stunts. One they’re not going to facilitate.

This time, that would be a mistake. Yamamoto, for all of his antics, is an exceptionally serious conservative politician. One of the very few LDP Diet members who combines technical savvy and public relations skills with conservative political ideology. He’s been a consistent supporter of conservative foreign and domestic policies. As well as a promoter of conservative LDP political leaders. I suspect that this current project is no different.

The NHK article was brief. And I’ve yet to uncover additional information about the proposal. But it seems that Yamamoto’s objective is to broaden the LDP presidential candidacy rules. To make it easier for younger LDP members to declare their candidacy.

The article mentioned two specific rule change proposals. A reduction in the number of LDP Diet Member endorsements required for someone to declare their candidacy for the LDP presidency. From 20 to 10. And, far more important, introduction of a “primary election” into the LDP presidential election system. Comparable to the primary elections held by U.S. political parties. A change, Yamamoto believes, that would make it easier for the LDP to elect leaders who have genuine star quality.

None of this is surprising, coming from Ichita Yamamoto. But Yamamoto and his group alone wouldn’t have the intra-Party clout required to influence such an important issue. Party reform proposals are made all the time. And “taken under consideration” by the Party leadership. Never to be seen again! So, what makes this proposal worth discussing?

Well, a couple of things. Or so it seems to me. First, just how much support does Yamamoto’s proposal actually have? Just the group, or League, he’s talking about forming? Or has he been tasked with raising this important issue by a larger, more influential, group of LDP members? Formal or informal. Just speculation at this point. But it certainly is possible that other reform-minded individuals within the LDP would share Yamamoto’s views. And encourage Yamamoto to be the one to give the issue initial publicity. He wouldn’t need much encouragement! Maybe one of the Reformist groups we’ve been talking about on this program … Hmmm. It’s a thought.

To understand the importance of this issue, we need only recall the processes that selected the last few LDP presidents. Especially Junichiro Koizumi’s first LDP presidential election. Against all smart money. Few knowledgeable observers of Japan’s domestic politics in early 2001 expected Junichiro Koizumi to become Japan’s next prime minister. He was a lightweight. A gadfly. Needed a haircut. Didn’t have the support of faction leaders within the LDP. Which would determine the race. It wasn’t hard to figure out.

Sooo, what happened? After months of supporting Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. In his capacity as acting head of Mori’s LDP faction. Koizumi finally announced his candidacy for the job. He’d run before, and nobody much took him seriously. He was too much of an outsider within the LDP. Then, under Makiko Tanaka’s skilled tutelage, Koizumi made a whirlwind tour of the LDP’s prefectural and local branches. Giving inspiring speeches at every venue that would have him. Talking about how he would “destroy the LDP” if elected its president. How, in other words, he would reform the system. The audiences loved it!

After some weeks of this barnstorming, Koizumi’s – and Tanaka’s! – efforts spread from the social news pages of Japan’s media to the political pages. And then, to the front pages! Koizumi became a national “phenomenon.” A fresh breeze in Japan’s hidebound political world. A phenomenon that for me recalled the high hopes of Japan’s attentive public during the early 1990s. During the halcyon days of Morihiro Hosokawa’s Nihon Shinto. Maybe it was possible to resuscitate the LDP after all. And make it more responsive to the interests of the attentive public.

Koizumi’s and Makiko Tanaka’s whirlwind national tour inevitably elicited comparisons in Japan’s political media to U.S. presidential politics. Especially with the intense public primary battles over party nominations.

Japan’s parliamentary political system, of course, was quite different. Didn’t have primary elections. But LDP presidential election rules at that time gave prefectural Party chapters each the right to cast three votes in the final presidential election. That’s not many. Altogether totaling only 141 ballots. Out of the total 487. With LDP Lower and Upper House Diet members each casting one vote. Giving them the controlling majority. Still, it was something to work with.

Having virtually no factional Party support, it was those votes upon which Koizumi and Makiko Tanaka focused their efforts. And they did so with remarkable success! When it was all over, Koizumi won 123 of the 141 prefectural chapter votes. Koizumi clearly was the “popular” candidate.

Now, timing was the critical element in Koizumi’s success during this election. The LDP’s presidential election rules at that time allowed the results of the prefectural elections to be announced prior to the final vote. The vote that included those of the LDP’s Lower and Upper House Diet delegations. So, Koizumi’s remarkable success in the prefectural elections was known to all before that final vote was taken.

Senior members of the LDP realized the Party would suffer miserably at the hands of Japan’s political media should it select the intra-Diet delegation favorite, Ryutaro Hashimoto, over the “popular” favorite, Junichiro Koizumi. And in the end, they didn’t dare take the chance. The final vote went to Koizumi. Who won 298 of the total 487 votes. Making him LDP president and Japan’s next prime minister.

It never would have happened had not the LDP presidential election rules allowed announcement of the prefectural votes prior to the final election in Tokyo! Making the prefectural branch elections into something like a “primary election.”

Following Koizumi, changes were made in the rules to prevent future LDP presidential candidates from making such reckless “Popularist” runs for the Party presidency. As we discussed on this program during the selection of both Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda.

Yamamoto’s proposal likely would change that. Allow the results of the prefectural chapter votes again to be known prior to the final vote in Tokyo. A change that would limit the ability of the Party’s Traditionalist faction leadership to control selection of the Party president. If that’s what he has in mind, it would constitute a very important change. An important step toward reform of the Party, doncha know.

It’s pure speculation on my part. But I’d bet a plate of South Carolina barbeque against a plate of North Carolina barbeque that Yamamoto’s proposal has the support of other reform-minded LDP members. Maybe a lot of reform-minded LDP members. Who will come out and say so, when the time comes. Against the intense opposition of the LDP’s Traditionalist faction leaders. We’ll have to keep an eye on this one.

Concluding Comments

Well, the Old Clock on the Screen is blinking its warning again this week. We’d better save further commentary for next week if we’re to keep within our agreed-upon time limits. Continue to send your comments and suggestions for the program to me at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. And click on over to the Japan Considered website for additional background information. Including transcripts of these podcasts. So, 

Goodbye all. Until next week.