October 3, 2008; Volume 04, Number 27

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Growing Importance of Japan to the United States
Aso’s Assumption of the Premiership
The Traditional Taro Aso
Growing Importance of Public Approval
Aso’s Response to the New Political Environment
Aso’s LDP Presidential Campaign Victory
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, October 3rd, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 27, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Thanks for dropping in again today to you long-time listeners. And a hearty South Carolina welcome to those of you who are joining us for the first time. I’m Robert Angel, creator and maintainer of the Japan Considered Project. And creator and host of this Podcast. Each week at this time – well, not lately; but more on that in a moment – we consider recent events in the news from Japan. Events likely to help us better understand domestic politics in Japan. And Japan’s conduct of international relations.

This isn’t a comprehensive news program, now. Or even a news summary program. Nothing that grand. And there are plenty of those around, anyway. Thanks to the internet. Both in Japanese, and even in English. Rather, the effort here is to go a bit beyond the news. News that’s available to everyone who wants to take the time to read it. To look at the events reported from a different perspective. And, hopefully, thereby to shed more light on Japan’s domestic politics and conduct of international relations.

Growing Importance of Japan to the United States

Related to this, it appears that U.S. interest in, and attention devoted to, Japan has declined over the past decade or so. Of course, it’s hard for an outsider to tell what’s really going on. But general observation suggests this trend has affected the U.S. communications media, the U.S. academic community, the U.S. government, and even U.S. business to some extent. Now, I’m hardly the first to notice this. It’s pretty much reached “common wisdom” status. So it must be true …

One explanation we often hear for this decline of U.S. interest in Japan is “the rise of China.” Hmmm. The People’s Republic of China certainly has become a more important international actor these days than it was a couple of decades ago. Economically, diplomatically, and militarily. No doubt about that. But it seems to me that this growth in the importance of China makes Japan, and the U.S.-Japan relationship, even more important to the United States. Not less important!

U.S. attention to Asia shouldn’t be considered in zero-sum terms. Meaning, that greater attention devoted to China inevitably requires that less attention be devoted to Japan. It just doesn’t make sense! Well, that’s not quite true. It does make sense if institutional structures are organized geographically. As it is in many federal government departments and agencies. Budget, personnel, and even office space allocations for “Asia” may all be bunched together. Making it into more of a “zero-sum” game than it should be. That’s unfortunate. Understandable. But still unfortunate. And should have been corrected by now!

That’s because, in contrast to China, Japan is a nation, broadly speaking, that shares our national values. And shares our econo-political system. It’s a populous and economically powerful nation with which we have maintained a successful and important security alliance for over half a century. This isn’t to say that the U.S. relationship with Japan has been trouble-free. Of course it hasn’t! If it had been trouble-free, a lot of us would have been out of business long ago! But our problems with Japan have been relatively minor when compared to the benefits.

Also consider that Japan, for a variety of reasons, is better positioned to understand and interact with Mainland China than are we in the United States. Geographic proximity is an important part of it. Another is a much longer period of cultural, economic, political – even military – interaction. Japan overall, I would argue, has forgotten more about China than the U.S. will ever know! And, if we make the effort, we can take advantage of at least some of that Japanese knowledge and experience.

So, all considered, isn’t it just common sense that the more important China becomes in world affairs, the more important Japan and the U.S.-Japan relationship becomes to the United States? It’s something we should think more about, anyway.

Aso’s Assumption of the Premiership

So! Off the soapbox and back to earth. Japan’s domestic political world has been quite exciting since our program in the middle of last month. The one just after Prime Yasuo Fukuda’s announced that he intended to resign.

LDP Secretary General, Taro Aso, did win the LDP presidency. And did become Japan’s 92nd prime minister. Just as expected. His arrival at the Kantei has shaken things up a bit in Nagatacho. If not Kasumigaseki. Exciting the Japanese political media. Even Japan’s general public a little. So let’s take a closer look at national political events in Japan and see if we can find anything since Aso’s arrival at the Kantei of longer-term significance.

First, let’s consider just how Taro Aso won the LDP presidential race. And what that’s likely to mean for his premiership. Maybe, for the fate of the LDP itself. This, I think, will give us greater insight into important trends in Japan’s national politics today.

The Traditional Taro Aso

Everyone who’s spent the past three decades or so watching Japan’s electoral politics, and the politicians it has produced, must have been surprised by Aso’s victory in the LDP presidential selection process. And even more surprised by just how he won that selection contest. Won it with his public popularity! Hmmm.

As I mentioned on the last program, for most of his electoral career Taro Aso was quite an unpopular public figure in Japan. Outside his own family, one hopes, and his political support group back in his Fukuoka electoral district. Aso is the heir of a nationally established political family. One that traces its roots back to Meiji Era leader, Toshimichi Okubo. And includes post-World War Two Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. With even some connections to the imperial family thrown in the mix. Aso also is heir to a significant and long-established mining and cement fortune. One that has provided his family with enormous economic resources for a very long time.

This background gave Aso the nucleus of personal connections he needed to succeed in the Traditionalist 1955 System LDP. And the money needed to mobilize and support those connections for electoral success.

Well, he did that. And was elected to the Lower House for the first time in 1979. He’s served there since. Losing only one election. Most likely for lack of attention to electoral district affairs.

However. Electoral success under the traditional “1955 System” was no indicator of widespread public approval. For Aso, or for anyone else. Under Japan’s traditional medium-sized, multi-member electoral district system, aspiring politicians had only to develop relationships with enough voters in their district to assure their votes come a general election.

Well, “only” here doesn’t quite fit. That was, of course, a monumental undertaking. One assigned primarily to the aspiring representative’s personal support group in the electoral district. The “Koenkai.” A resource, hopefully, an aspiring politician was able to inherit from a deceased or retiring parent. Resulting in all of the second- and third-generation politicians we’re hearing so much about now. But more on that in a moment too. If not, a Koenkai had to be cobbled together from existing family and personal connections under the old system. At even greater expense.

We’ve considered these interesting, if enigmatic, organizations many times on this program since the beginning, in November 2005. Their enormous membership roles. In the many tens of thousands. Their various activities, and methods of maintaining a quasi-personal bond between the candidate and the koenkai’s member-voters.

Their enormous cost to maintain. Year in and year out. With especially heavy expenditures in election years. Costs well beyond what was legally allowed under Japan’s strict election campaign laws and regulations. A situation that inevitably led to widespread violation of those election campaign laws and regulations. Violations so widespread that they became almost acceptable. Though they made many, if not most, of Japan’s elected representatives fearful of the knock on the door at night, so to speak. That is, a visit by investigators from the Prosecutor’s Office. And, I suspect, in some cases, vulnerable to threats of exposure from their political antagonists. Or even bureaucratic subordinates!

Reliance on koenkai to get out the vote in general elections was a strategy that invited – indeed required! – widespread transfers of funds from special interests to politicians. Transfers of funds well above the level allowed under Japan’s election finance laws. Transfers that in other national contexts would have been labeled political corruption. Indeed, even in Japan there were political reform-minded individuals and groups who saw it that way. Individuals and groups who campaigned for “political reforms” that would eliminate, or at least reduce, such transfers of funds from special interests to politicians. We’ll consider “political reform” in more detail in a moment.

But back to Taro Aso. This traditional electoral system allowed someone like Taro Aso to be elected to Japan’s Lower House repeatedly. Someone who didn’t appeal to Japan’s attentive public. Even someone that most of Japan’s mainstream political press and punditocracy strongly disapproved of. In part because of his blatantly conservative political views. And in part because of his dismissive personal behavior. And his disinclination to court Japan’s political press through the usual means.

Prompting Aso at one point to describe himself as the most hated politician in all of Japan. Something he seemed to care little about. As long as he could continue to appeal to enough potential voters in his Fukuoka electoral district to assure his election, it really didn’t much matter. Maybe it even helped a little with his more conservative Fukuoka supporters! Career success within the traditional Liberal Democratic Party, after all, depended most heavily upon longevity. On the number of times one had been elected. Well, that, and political lineage to some extent. By the 1990s, Taro Aso had both of those attributes. Who cared if the press and public didn’t like him? He certainly didn’t seem to!

Growing Importance of Public Approval

However, that all changed some time during the 1990s. Public approval became more important for Japan’s elected representatives. Especially for the prime minister and the cabinet. And, consequently, more important in the competition to become president of the LDP. Even rank-and-file LDP members with no aspirations for national leadership positions came to dread the idea of having to face the voters under the banner of a Party with an unpopular leader. Especially if that party leader also served as prime minister!

We’ve considered this important change too a number of times on this program. But to summarize, what caused it? I believe several factors combined to make public approval more important for Japan’s political leadership during the 1990s. And the growing view that Japan’s elected leaders were responsible to their constituents for more than a koenkai party or two each year, a few lectures, a newsletter, and their district’s fair share of national pork barrel largess. That “government” was no longer just “O-Kami.” Or “That Above.” Beyond the influence and responsibility of those below.

And the resulting fear among Diet members that when “those below” voted, they would give more weight to the policy positions and overall appeal of the candidates running. And less weight to the traditional, personalistic, friends-and-neighbors connections that had determined their votes in the past. Or, almost as bad, not bother to vote at all! If they didn’t find any of the candidates running appealing.

This represented, in other words, a significant change in the political attitudes and expectations of Japan’s attentive public. A change in what they expected from their political representatives. And from Japan’s political leadership.

Including a growing reluctance to overlook the economic dependence of their elected representatives on special interests. To put it as politely as possible. And recognition of the inevitable effect that economic dependence had on the government’s behavior. Japan’s attentive public just became fed up with all of it. And, I believe, this represents a permanent change in Japan’s political environment. As much as anything in politics is “permanent,” anyway.

But why should public frustration with the political status quo during the late 1980s and early 1990s lead to meaningful changes in Japan’s political system. When previous eruptions of anti-political corruption sentiment hadn’t. Certainly there’ve been enough of them. From the early days of Japan’s parliamentary democracy onward. But they all evaporated within a few weeks, or a few months. Destroying the careers of a few politicians. And motivating a few inconsequential changes in the laws governing Japan’s political contributions. Usually further tightening of legal limitations on campaign financing. Making those laws and regulations even more unrealistic. Thereby assuring that they, in turn, would also be ignored.

What was different during the late 1980s and early 1990s? Public response to the Recruit Scandal certainly contributed some of that energy. But it alone was inadequate. “Recruit,” really, paled in consequence when compared to earlier political scandals. There had to be more

Most important, I think, was the accumulated effect of several generations of economic prosperity. Several generations of economic prosperity that left Japan’s attentive public with a sense of overall personal security. Allowing them to think beyond their own economic survival and economic well-being. Japan’s government, in other words, could no longer justify its existence solely on the basis of promoting national economic growth.

Add to this five decades of primary and secondary education under the new “We the People” Constitution. By the early 1990s nearly all of Japan’s voting population had been indoctrinated during their formative years with the political principles expressed in that Constitution. We’re short-sighted, I think, to ignore the effects of primary and secondary education on the behavior of Japan’s population. Especially civic education.

By the early 1990s, these changes in public attitudes toward government gave Japan’s “political reform” forces the energy they needed to implement important changes in Japan’s electoral system. We’ll consider this subject in more detail later on in the program. But briefly, Japan’s political reformers during the early 1990s made two significant changes in their electoral system. Elimination of Japan’s traditional medium-sized multi-member Lower House districts. And public financing of election campaigns at a level that actually mattered.

I’m sure other factors as well have contributed to this trend. But these four alone would be enough to explain it. Accumulated public resentment of recurring political financing scandals. Four decades of increasing economic prosperity and the sense of personal security it brought. Five decades of primary and secondary education under the principles of Japan’s new “We the People” Constitution. And institutional changes in Japan’s national electoral system.

Aso’s Response to the New Political Environment

I’ve never interviewed Taro Aso. Never have had an opportunity to ask him about all of this. Don’t even remember ever meeting him. And seriously doubt, if I did, that he’d be willing to respond candidly, if at all, to questions about his transmogrification. So these observations on the New Taro Aso, like those on the Traditional Taro Aso a moment ago, are based only upon observation of his behavior.

The pattern seems to be clear, though. Some time during the early part of this decade Aso recognized the changes in Japan’s national political environment. And the significance of those changes for competition to lead the LDP and become Japan’s prime minister. A job he’d decided he would like to have.

It may have been while he watched Junichiro Koizumi and Makiko Tanaka exploit those changes during the 2001 contest to replace Yoshiro Mori as LDP president. With their national whirlwind whistle-stop tour. Speaking to any prefectural or local LDP branch that would host them. Their emphasis on more direct communication with Japan’s potential voters through television. Live, whenever possible. Providing visuals and sound bites that television news producers could not resist. But visuals and sound bites that presented the political messages they hoped to convey. Avoiding the interpretative filter of the print media’s political writers. Which they knew eventually would work against them.

I don’t recall hearing very much about Junichiro Koizumi’s admiration of Elvis Presley’s music during that 2001 LDP presidential campaign. The attention-grabber, or “hook,” during that campaign was Koizumi’s commitment to “Destroy the LDP.” But he certainly made a point of his admiration of Elvis while serving as prime minister. Used it to expand his personal appeal among Japan’s attentive public. Used it to pierce the unflattering filter maintained by the media’s political journalists. Especially after they’d become more critical of his domestic and international policies.

Taro Aso during the early part of this decade faced a national political press even more hostile than that faced by Koizumi. And, it seems to me, he still does. If you doubt it, try comparing photographs of Aso used in Japan’s political press with those used by the foreign political press. I’ve been amazed by the comparison. The Japanese press photos of Aso remind me of those published of Richard Nixon by U.S. newspapers during an earlier era! And, as demonstrated by the international press photos, it’s not as if more flattering photos do not exist. Aso is described by Japan’s political press as an unreliable hawk, rough in speech, prone to making “gaffes.” A nationalist right-winger. Descriptions hardly intended to provide most of Japan’s attentive public with an appealing image.

Whether this image in Japan’s political press was accurate or a distortion mattered little for Taro Aso. Who by the early part of this decade seriously aspired to Japan’s premiership. That it existed was enough. He had to find ways to work around it. To communicate more directly with Japan’s attentive public. To pierce the media filter, in other words.

One obvious approach was to follow Koizumi’s 2001 strategy of visiting as many prefectural and local LDP chapters as would have him. To give speeches to those assembled. Speeches that were witty and designed to appeal. Come to find out, Taro Aso could by entertaining on the stump! Not at all the image of the sneering, Odious Aso presented by the political writers of Japan’s print media.

And by mid-decade we learned that Taro Aso was a near-fanatical fan of Japan’s ubiquitous “manga.” Those thick cartoon comic books beloved of so many Japanese teen-agers. And even adults. Reading as many as ten a week in his spare time. I mean! Well, Elvis worked for Koizumi. I can’t help but make the comparison. What’s next, for heaven’s sake?

It was slow work. Consuming time and financial resources. Aso devoted both. And by late 2006 Aso was considered a “popular” senior member of the LDP. An incredible transformation, I think. Accomplished in a very short period of time.

Aso expanded the reach of his prefectural branch speaking tour to the national scene by competing seriously in the LDP presidential election contests to replace both Koizumi in 2006 and Abe in 2007. Most interesting to me was Aso’s performance on September 9th, 2006, in one of the street corner LDP candidates’ speeches. This one in front of the Akihabara train station.

About 10,000 people had gathered to see and hear the candidates. Akihabara, as we all know, is the Mecca of Japan’s technological culture. Perhaps of the world’s technological culture. Otaku Heaven! Three candidates for the LDP presidency spoke that day. Shinzo Abe, Sadakazu Tanigaki, and Taro Aso. With Aso speaking last. Aso was in his element. He described the crowd as “Akihabara Geeks,” and went on to reference manga characters and popular culture figures in his talk. It inspired wild applause and obvious audience enthusiasm.

This speech, I think, represented a turning point in Taro Aso’s career. Or, more accurately, represented a turning point in the LDP’s assessment of Taro Aso as a “popular” political leader. One in tune with Japan’s new political environment. And possibly, just possibly, a turning point in the political press’s assessment of Aso.

Now, long-time listeners to this program will know I’m suspicious of “turning points.” Few political science doctoral dissertations have been written that haven’t identified yet another “turning point.” Soon forgotten following publication and tenure. But this September 9th, 2006 Akihabara speech, I think, was a genuine turning point in the career of Taro Aso. Obviously, it was some time coming. But following the 2006 LDP presidential campaign Aso was transformed into a realistic challenger. One who understood Japan’s new political environment. And whose popularity might work to the advantage of the LDP. Or, so much of the LDP leadership thought, anyway.

Aso’s LDP Presidential Campaign Victory

Well, it worked. When all the votes were counted on September 22nd, Taro Aso had won a landslide victory. He received exactly two-thirds of the total 527 ballots cast. Or 351 votes. Which included all but seven of the 141 votes cast by the LDP prefectural chapter representatives from around the country. His closest rival, Kaoru Yosano, got only 66 votes altogether in the five-person race. Demonstrating just how decisively the LDP had supported Aso.

So,  the LDP has a new president. A new “popular” president. Or, at least, so the LDP membership hopes. However, early public opinion polls give Aso and his cabinet less than 50 percent approval. Hardly an overwhelming public reaction. Hardly a level of public approval necessary to quiet the fears of vulnerable incumbent LDP Lower House members. But maybe just enough to discourage disgruntled Reformists within the LDP from bolting to form a genuine Reformist party of their own. Aso’s most immediate challenge, I believe.

It’s really too early to tell whether Aso has the political skills – and political courage! -- necessary to raise his public approval ratings beyond their current tepid levels. He’ll certainly have to struggle. Judging from reporting so far, he’s no more popular today with the majority of Japan’s political journalists than he ever was. The search is on to discover verbal “gaffes.” We’ll see a lot of that sort of reporting by Japan’s political press during the foreseeable future. We’ve also seen renewed journalist interest in the “second generation politician” phenomenon in Japan. Obviously inspired by Aso’s own pedigree. And by those of many members of his cabinet. Though this theme may wither before long since it’s already so well recognized and reported upon. At least in Japan.

My guess is – and, this is nothing more than an informed guess – that Prime Minister Taro Aso will find it difficult, if not impossible, to raise his public approval ratings much beyond the fifty percent level. Unless! And this is a big, and I believe unlikely, “unless.” Unless he’s willing to abandon his Traditionalist roots. And willing to embrace the Reformists’ agenda without reservation. Risking – indeed, guaranteeing – the enmity of the Traditionalist leaders of the LDP who supported his election effort. Japan’s attentive public, I believe, won’t be inspired by anything less. Love of manga and witty speech delivery will take Aso only so far. About as far as it has now, in fact.

Concluding Comments

Well, once again we’re way over time on this program. The Old Clock on the Screen has given up its red blinking as a bad job. So, I’ll close here. And save elaboration of “Reformist” for the next program. Many of you have written in with suggestions, and requesting clarification, on this important point. What characterizes the Reformist agenda? What do they promise to accomplish? And why does their program of reform appeal to Japan’s attentive public? That’s what we’ll consider on the next program. “Seiji Kaikaku.”

So, goodbye all. Until next time.