October 31, 2008; Volume 04, Number 29

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

The “Oops Corner”
Recent International Developments
Prime Minister Aso Visits Beijing
North Korea Removed From the U.S. Department of State's Terrorism Sponsoring States List
The Meaning of “Reform”?
”Political” Reform, Not Just “Reform”
Implementing Seiji Kaikaku
“Trickle-Down Economics” Japan Style
Traditional Electoral Politics
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, October 31st, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 29, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Yes, that’s right. It’s Friday today. My schedule’s been chaotic these past few months. Not any busier. Just less predictable. Lots going on. Including preparation for retirement from USC at the end of this semester. Come to find out, retirement isn’t as simple as I'd expected it to be! So, the regularity of this podcast has suffered. Sorry about that. We’ll be back on a more regular schedule as soon as possible.

The “Oops Corner”

And, while we’re on the subject of apologies, I must add another. For tossing Japanese words into the program. Words that may not be widely recognized. Few things are more irritating for the non-Japanese speaker trying to learn something about Japan than hearing someone sprinkle their English language explanations with all sorts of Japanese words. Especially when they’re unnecessary. And even more irritating when they’re not words normally recognized, or used, by non-native speakers. Just to demonstrate their language ability. Well. I try to avoid that. But an alert listener wrote in to chide me for exactly that “gaffe” on the program before last. “How many people knows what ‘Nagatacho’ and ‘Kasumigaseki’ mean?” he asked.

Good comment! Especially since I included them to make a fairly significant point. I should have elaborated. Or left them out altogether. To explain. “Nagatacho” is the district in Tokyo around the Diet building. When used as I did on the last program it becomes shorthand for the elected sector of Japan’s national government. The politicians, in other words.

“Kasumigaseki” is the district of Tokyo where many of the government ministry and agency offices are located. And it, when used as I did, becomes shorthand for the appointed sector of Japan’s national government. Or the bureaucrats.

So there you have it. Nagatacho and Kasumigaseki. And, if memory serves, I suggested on the program before last that “Nagatacho,” or the elected sector, was all atwitter with Aso’s selection. Apprehensive, that is. But that “Kasumigaseki,” or the bureaucrats, weren’t especially upset. Implying that the latter expect Prime Minister Aso to be more cooperative with them. And less confrontational. A blessed relief from the bureaucrat-bashing days of Prime Ministers Koizumi and Abe. At least for the bureaucrats!

Is that the way things will work out? Hmmm. Hard to tell. Too early to tell, really. But it’s possible. The LDP Traditionalists and Zokuists who supported Aso’s candidacy certainly hope it’s so. Hope Aso will forego all of this grand-standing. Efforts to curry favor with Japan’s attentive public. By attacking the key component of the “iron triangle” that raised Japan from its World War Two disaster to proudly rank as one of the world’s most prosperous nations.  Theatrical politics at its worst, they say!

But then again, it’s just possible – it seems unlikely now, but it’s possible – that Taro Aso will surprise his Traditionalist supporters. That he will recognize the futility of political strategies appropriate for an earlier political environment within today’s fundamentally changed political environment. Or, whether he wants to or not, that he’ll be forced to become more genuinely “Reformist.” To discourage Reformist LDP members from bolting the Party. A disaster for everyone! Left in the LDP, that is. We’ll talk more about “reform” later in the program. As promised last time. And I’ll try to keep you posted on all of this. It will matter!

Recent International Developments

Now, before we try to better understand political reform, a few quick comments on Japan's political and military international environments. They’ve been relatively quiet since Taro Aso’s arrival in the Kantei. Lots going on in the international economy. But we’ll have to deal with that separately.

Well, there has been the flap over Washington’s removal of North Korea from the Department of State’s list of nations sponsoring international terrorism. I guess we’d better take a quick look at that, since it’s still rattling around Japan’s political media. To see if it tells us anything we didn’t already know about Japan’s relationship with the United States.

But before we look at the North Korea issue, we really should take a moment to notice what hasn’t happened in Japan’s international relations. That may, in the longer term, be more significant than the North Korean de-listing issue. We haven’t seen an eruption of anti-Japan, or even anti-Aso, sentiment in either China or South Korea. Of course, it’s early yet. And Beijing and Seoul may both be just waiting to see what happens. To see if Aso survives the next general election or not.

But so far, anyway, the reaction from other major Asian capitals has been balanced and appropriate. Neither Beijing nor Seoul has erupted with emotional complaints about Aso's militaristic and/or hawkish past. And this when the incumbent political leadership in both countries could easily generate all sorts of domestic political support from doing exactly that. To be fair, Aso himself seems to be taking care to avoid incendiary comments that might justify such eruption. Which must help.

All of this is encouraging. It suggests that everyone involved has come to realize that gratuitous waving of the Bloody Shirt in Asian diplomatic affairs has reached the end of its useful life. Especially when said bloody shirt-waving is done to gain domestic political advantage. Or done in the hope of gaining short-term tactical advantage in bilateral negotiations. Indeed, those involved seem to have realized that excessive Bloody Shirt waving can even have serious negative consequences for those waving the shirt. Can generate considerably more resentment within Japan’s general public than sympathy. As we saw toward the end of the Yasukuni Shrine Visit saga under Prime Minister Koizumi.

Let's hope this is what’s happened, anyway. It's way too early to tell whether Prime Minister Aso will be able to maintain the premiership for any length of time. And I'm not taking bets. But if he does, it's important that Japan's Asian diplomacy, and Asia’s overall diplomatic environment, not be hobbled by such operations again.

Prime Minister Aso Visits Beijing

We’ve seen some evidence of that during Prime Minister Aso’s visit to China last week. He was in Beijing to attend an Asia-Europe, or ASEM, meeting. And to represent Japan at a ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between Japan and China.

China’s treatment of Aso was cordial. Even friendly. Whereas it could have been simply “correct.” Following a working breakfast on the 24th for ASEM leaders hosted by Premier Wen Jiabao, Aso met individually with Wen. Who greeted him pointedly as an “old friend.” Presumably referring to their 2007 meeting in Tokyo while Aso was Japan’s foreign minister. Given Aso’s policy positions at the time, Wen would have been more than justified in choosing less generous phrases for his greeting. Had he been inclined to do so. Aso’s subsequent meeting with President Hu went equally well. With Hu confirming China’s desire to maintain a cooperative relationship with Japan.

Without the benefit of direct video coverage, it’s sometimes difficult to grasp the actual intentions of political actors at such critical meetings. Having to rely only on the interpretations of attending journalists. But in this case, Prime Minister Aso elaborated his current thinking about Japan’s relationship with China in an important speech on Friday, the 24th. In Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. At a ceremony to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-China peace treaty. The Kantei has posted an English language translation of the full speech on its website. I’ll try to remember to put a link to it in the transcript of this program. [http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/asospeech/2008/10/24message_about_e.html] It’s worth a careful reading, I think. Both for what it says, and for what it doesn’t say.

Aso went out of his way to emphasize the importance of the bilateral relationship between Japan and China. So important that it’s no longer enough just to exchange pleasant greetings, without solid accomplishments. Was this a subtle dig at some of his predecessors??? Rather, Japan and China must build a friendly but competitive relationship that’s genuinely beneficial to both countries. “Mutual benefits,” as the key phrase.

Here’s how he put it. Relying on the English language translation from the transcript cited a moment ago. “We should not constrain ourselves in the name of friendship between Japan and China. Rather, sound competition and active cooperation will constitute a true ‘mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.’”

We’ll undoubtedly talk more about this on future programs. I’ll try to keep you posted.

North Korea Removed From the U.S. Department of State's Terrorism Sponsoring States List

Now, let's turn briefly to Japan's recent relations with North Korea. Of course, the big news here is Washington's decision to remove North Korea from the Department of State's list of countries around the world that sponsor terrorism.

The decision was announced with a minimum of fanfare in Washington. Suggesting that the Bush Administration doesn't expect this action to be well received by most of the U.S. attentive public. Japan's political press immediately began to speculation on actions about to be taken. Some of it likely informed by discussions with officials involved in the bilateral relationship. Some of it even originating in Washington.

Tokyo, to say the least, was disappointed with Washington’s decision. Japan's diplomatic representatives continued up to the last minute to urge the Bush Administration to leave things as they were. And did so openly. That is, sharing information about their efforts with Japan’s political journalists. Resulting in multiple articles in Japan’s press on the subject.

Washington’s response to Tokyo’s efforts, however, was non-committal. Senior U.S. officials expressed sympathy and concern for the fate of Japan's abductees and their families. But they declined commit beyond that. So, most everyone who read the newspapers in Japan recognized that it was only a matter of time before the Bush Administration removed North Korea from the terror sponsoring nation list.

Yet, Japan’s political press now describes the announcement as a great “shock.” Something totally unexpected. I’ve yet to see direct comparison to the still-celebrated 1970s “Nixon Shocks.” But the efforts of Japan’s journalists and punditocracy are obvious. They’re portraying this latest event as yet another example of Washington ignoring Japan, and Japan’s concerns, when implementing U.S. foreign policy objectives. Japan as victim, in other words. Hmmm. Further evidence that either the bilateral relationship has deteriorated, or is of less value to Japan than it was. Or as evidence that Japan’s government in general, and the Aso Administration in particular, is incapable of managing the alliance. All good news for those in Asia who hope for a weakening of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Well, whether the alliance is strengthening or weakening, there’s absolutely no reason for anyone in Japan with access to the daily news to have been surprised by the announcement. It simply wasn’t a surprise. Let alone a shock! And those describing it as a “shock,” have objectives quite separate from informing the public, I suspect.

However, there’s no good solution here. That I can see, anyway. Both Tokyo and Washington seem to have painted themselves into opposite corners on this issue of North Korea. Washington some time ago committed itself to removal of North Korea from the list of nations sponsoring terror. For what both Japanese and American critics saw as rather modest concessions from Pyongyang. In the hope those concessions would encourage Pyongyang to be more forthcoming in its nuclear policies and actions. So, at some point, the second slipper was bound to fall.

Tokyo, on the other hand, painted themselves into their own corner of the room. For some time now,  making retention of North Korea on the terror sponsor list a measure or indicator of Washington's regard for Japan's feelings in international affairs. Not a good position to be in. Inviting American supporters of a more conciliatory approach to North Korea, to charge Japan with trying to exercise undue influence over American conduct of foreign relations. While inviting American supporters of a tougher line against North Korea to charge that Tokyo was over-focused on the abduction issue. While ignoring potentially more important issues of North Korea’s military potential. Including nuclear military potential. Invitations that have been received and accepted!

On our last program we heard Mr. Gregg Rubinstein’s interpretation of current U.S.-Japan relations. He’s a long-time observer of the U.S.-Japan bilateral relationship. And sees these issues from quite a different perspective. Many of you have written in with comments about Gregg’s analysis. I hope his comments will help us to put the North Korea issue into better perspective.

In the meantime, it took Japan’s newspapers only a couple of days to begin criticizing the Aso Administration's failure to persuade Washington to keep North Korea on the Department of State terror sponsor list. While at the same time publishing OpEd pieces urging Tokyo to loosen recently renewed economic sanctions on Pyongyang. And participate in the Group-Of-Six energy relief package. To date, the Aso Administration has steadfastly refused to supply North Korea with further aid until there is significant progress on the abduction issue. In spite of Washington’s recent action.

It will be interesting to watch all of this play out. To see how the Aso Cabinet handles those cross-cutting domestic and international pressures. To see how they respond to the inevitable warnings that Japan will face “international isolation” should they continue to refuse to join the North Korean aid package. And, indeed, how Japan’s attentive public will respond. I’ll try to keep you posted.

The Meaning of “Reform”?

I promised on the program before last program to provide a more detailed explanation of what I mean by “Reform.” This is an important issue. Since we need a solid definition of “reform” to distinguish “Reformist” politicians from “Traditionalist” politicians. The political cleavage in Japan I think most important at the moment. And it certainly will help us to better understand Prime Minister Taro Aso. Is he a “Reformist” or a “Traditionalist”? A number of you have written in asking just that question. Hmmm. Not easy to reply.

Aso was elected to head the LDP on the basis of his personal popularity with Japan’s attentive public. Raising all sorts of expectations for his performance. Even early comparisons to Junichiro Koizumi. But …. As we discussed on the last program, he hasn’t behaved much like a real Reformist since assuming the premiership. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, given his parliamentary career. And his early policy statements.

So, let’s consider this issue of “reform” in some detail. We probably won’t be able to get through the whole thing today. But we’ll make a good start before the Old Clock on the Screen begins blinking red at us. We’ll see if we can better understand what we’ve been talking about here. I’ll start with an attempt at definition. Then consider three specific objectives of the reformers. Abolition of the medium-sized, multi-member, single-vote Lower House electoral system. Government subsidies for election campaign costs. And more effective prosecution of campaign election law violators. And finally, try to describe what it was that the reformers hoped to accomplish with the changes they promoted. And how far it’s gone.

”Political” Reform, Not Just “Reform”

First, and perhaps most important, we’re talking here about “Political Reform.” Reform more fundamental than efforts to improve government management in particular issue areas. Such as “pension reform,” “postal reform,” “tax reform,” or “agricultural reform.” That is, efforts to reform how Japan’s overall political system work s. That’s a far more ambitious undertaking. And potentially more important. We heard a lot about this during the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Seiji Kaikaku,” in Japanese.

This is a complex topic. One that’s generated any number of journalistic, and even academic, articles. And hours of discussion at academic conferences. But in essence, genuine political reform for those advocating the idea fifteen or twenty years ago, was intended to create stronger elected government officials, or politicians. And make appointed government officials, or bureaucrats, subordinate and responsive to their constitutionally defined politician superiors. Political reformers of that era, in other words, demanded their elected representatives assume genuine responsibility for government. Responsibility assigned them under Japan’s post-WWII, “We the People” Constitution. 

Many observers at the time, and since, have interpreted this as an effort to give more power to politicians at the expense of Japan’s bureaucracies. And the career bureaucrats who run them. The phrase “Seikou; Kantei” put it nicely. Make the politicians stronger and the bureaucrats weaker. Though this was hardly the reformers’ intention. They weren’t consistently anti-government, in other words. Or even necessarily supporters of “small government.” Nor, was that weakening of the bureaucracies inevitable. Rather than weakening them, the reformers hoped to to make them more responsive to their political leaders.

This is another important point. I should mention that supporters of political reform during that era included a wide variety of ideological orientations. All across the Left-Right political spectrum. Indeed, Left-leaning political journalists and the media for which they worked were among seiji kaikaku’s strongest champions at the time. Though their reforming zeal seems to have waned in recent years…. Hmmm. We’ll have to consider why, one of these days.

Indeed, bureaucracies run by stronger, responsible ministers could be more, rather than less, powerful. They could become more successful participants in the national budget competition. More successful implementers of their policy agendas. And so on. True, their senior career bureaucrats would enjoy less autonomy. But that wouldn’t necessarily weaken the bureaucracy they worked for! For the sake of time, we’ll have to go into this aspect of the issue too on another program.

Implementing Seiji Kaikaku

Such fundamental governmental reform, however, was easier to discuss than to implement. Seiji Kaikaku supporters during the nineteen eighties and nineties pushed against decades – even centuries – of Japanese political history. And against Japan’s vested bureaucratic interests. And, of course, against the interests of their private-sector clients. Who all pushed back. With vigor! Fortified by Japan’s long tradition of Confucian-based governmental principles.

Every government must face the fundamental question: “Who should rule?” “Who should control the government?” For Japan, the traditional answer was: “Why, that’s easy! Who’s the smartest? Who knows the most? Who knows how to rule? Obviously, that’s who should rule.”

And, “How do you identify those people?” “Why, make ‘em pass hard exams!” Exams difficult enough to weed out all but the “Best and the Brightest.” Those left standing would become Japan’s renowned “career” higher civil servants. Whose status virtually guaranteed them senior managerial careers in Japan’s government ministries and agencies. As well as social status. And, in many cases, even economic advantages after retirement.

Those principles were accepted during Japan’s imperial-centric pre-1945 era. When the emperor was sovereign. And, at least in theory, had the right to appoint all government officials. They were even accepted in practice during the first few decades of the post-WWII era. Under the “We the People” Constitution. In spite of that constitution’s shift of sovereignty from the emperor to “The People.”   

How could that be? Well, institutional inertia played an important role. But also, following the devastation of World War Two, Japan’s government was relieved of the often-wrenching, and always time-consuming, exercise of national goal formulation. Enjoying the luxury of a near-universally accepted all-important domestic political goal: economic recovery and economic catch-up. In the international arena, Japan’s national goals were defined in “deus ex machina” fashion by the United States. And that was true to a large extent even after the Occupation, during the Cold War.

This relieved Japan’s elected politicians of the need to formulate domestic and international policy objectives. And the need to “sell” the objectives they formulated to Japan’s attentive public. Which greatly improved governmental efficiency at the national level. At a time when Japan could ill-afford inefficiency. But it had a down-side as well. Since it significantly reduced the stature of Japan’s elected governmental leaders. Especially at the very top.

True, Japan’s top-level politicians maintained their constitutional authority to supervise the implementation of those policies by the ministries and agencies they headed. But, in practice, this function too became more symbolic than practical. Ambitious politician ministers and agency directors-general learned to “get along to go along.” To borrow Speaker Rayburn’s pithy phrase. That usually meant confining themselves to effectively representing the interests and policies of the bureaucracies they were supposed to lead. Making Japan’s post-WWII governmental system at the national level in some ways resemble the “Bakufu” system of years past. With real political power a ways down the pyramid from its formal location. And anyone who was interested, and paying attention, knew it.

“Trickle-Down Economics” Japan Style

This is not to say that Japan’s elected government officials, or politicians, were completely powerless under the traditional system. Not at all! They enjoyed constitutionally defined authority under the “We the People” Constitution. So there always was the chance that a minister, or some other elected Diet member, would “interfere” in the operation of the bureaucracies. “Interfere” by demanding changes or actions the ministry’s bureaucrats considered ill-advised. Usually, career bureaucrats suspected, to benefit the interfering politician’s electoral constituents. Or to benefit those private interests upon whom the politician relied for funding.

To avoid such “political interference,” skilled upper-level appointed bureaucrats were always careful to show the politicians with whom they interacted every personal courtesy. To the point of embarrassing obsequiousness, at times. At least for visiting foreigners. Though the comments of those same bureaucrats often were quite different once the object of their obsequious behavior was out of earshot!

More critical, though, for our purposes here, was the practice of bureaucrats rewarding cooperative elected politicians. By making budgetary concessions in response to their demands. Concessions that benefited the politicians’ constituents and/or financial donors. Indeed, this activity was so widespread, it became a recognized stage of the annual national budget process. With national bureaucracies including a cushion in critical categories to cover those inevitable concessions in their annual budget requests. A cost of doing business, I guess. Or, more accurately, a means of maintaining their own independence!

This resulted in a flow of resources to favored electoral constituencies. Those that returned incumbents election after election. Allowing their representative to gain clout in Nagatacho through seniority. The resulting downward flow of funds and projects was one essential aspect of maintaining “friends-and-neighbors” politics at the electoral district level. Japan’s version of trickle-down economics, we might call it. With politicians serving as the pipes through which the national budget largess trickled from Tokyo. This practice also, of course, further eroded the credibility of elected officials as trustworthy guardians of the general interest. Since it smacked, justifiably, of special-interest corruption. Leaving Japan’s celebrated career bureaucrats recognized as the true guardians of Japan’s more general national interests.

Traditional Electoral Politics

Description of Japan’s unusual Lower House electoral system also helps us to understand the traditional-era weakness of elected government officials in Japan. The system was designed in the mid-1920s. In the wake of Japan’s adoption of universal male suffrage. With, I suspect, the unspoken intention of maintaining political and economic elite control over Japanese national elections. And became a key target of Japan’s political reformers in the nineteen eighties and nineties.

This unusual – though not unique – system divided Japan into medium-sized, multi-member, single vote electoral districts. With the number of representatives returned depending roughly on the population density of the district. With each eligible voter casting only one Lower House vote, election campaign planning became a nightmare. Especially for political parties. Party endorsement of too many candidates meant likely defeat for all or most of them. While endorsement of too few candidates essentially gave wins to candidates of other parties! This calculation was especially difficult for parties with majorities, or near-majorities, in the Lower House. Since they had to elect more than one candidate in many of the districts. Candidates who ended up competing against each other for votes!

The situation was managed by representatives creating the “Koenkai,” or individual support groups, we’ve discussed so often on this program. Candidates had to enroll enough “members” in these clubs, or associations, to assure them the number of votes needed in the next election. Meaning, Koenkai membership numbers regularly rose into the tens of thousands. Administrative nightmares, especially before computers. And enormously expensive organizations to operate. Year in and year out. Well beyond the modest political expenditures allowed under Japan’s strict campaign finance laws.

So, many, if not most, of Japan’s Lower House members under the traditional system were forced to choose between obeying the letter of the law, or electoral defeat. Most, of course, were re-elected. Giving Japan’s attentive public and communications media additional justification for skepticism when it came to their elected government representatives. Further weakening the credibility of those officials constitutionally responsible for policy formulation and oversight of bureaucratic implementation of those policies.

The dramatic revision of Japan’s Lower House election law in 1994 eliminated the multi-member, single-vote systems. And replaced them with a combination of 300 small single-member districts and and eleven nationwide larger proportional representation districts that collectively select 180 more members. So in general elections, each voter casts two votes. One for the single-member district, and one for the proportional representation district. The original goal was a simpler system with only small single-member districts. But Japan’s smaller political parties won compromises that added the proportional representation districts. Giving them a chance to compete and survive. This change, the reformers hoped, would eliminate, or at least reduce, the importance of Koenkai, “friends-and-neighbors” pseudo-personalistic politics. And force candidates to compete on the basis of their policy positions.

Concluding Comments

Well, we’re way over time again today. I’ll have to stop here, or never get this posted on the Website! We’ll have to conclude this discussion of Seiji Kaikaku and its significance for Japan’s national politics today on the next program. Together with a look at the timing of Japan’s next general election. And some interesting developments in international relations. Lots to consider. But for now,

Goodbye all. Until next time.