November 21, 2008; Volume 04, Number 32

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

This Week’s Topics
Does “Seiji Kaikaku” Still Matter to Japan’s Major Media?
How to Spot a “Reformist” in the Wild
Relationship with their Constituents
Approach to Executive Responsibilities
Restraints on Government’s Redistributive and Regulatory Economic Role?
Prime Minister Taro Aso: Traditionalist or Reformist?
Concluding Comments

Good morning! From Beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday, November 21st, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 32, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Thanks for dropping in again, to you long-time listeners. And a hearty South Carolina welcome to those of you joining us for the first time. I hope the program meets your expectations.

Today’s a special day for the Japan Considered Podcast. That’s right! Our third anniversary.

[clip from first program]

Yup. A clip from our very first program. Recorded in my office on the third floor of Gambrell Hall at the University of South Carolina. The equipment at the beginning was pretty rudimentary. As you can hear. But it got the job done. And we were off and running. With far more technical help than I deserved from the kind folks at USC. Especially the computer services folks, who already were busier than they should have been. Thanks again to all of them for their patience and support.

We’ve been running for three years, so far. That’s a long time for a podcast to survive. Any podcast! Let alone one like this. With sound files and a transcript. All of which are still available in the archives of the Japan Considered Project website at

Hours and hours of audio files. Close to a thousand pages of transcripts. All on Japan’s domestic politics and international relations. In fact, so much material has accumulated that listeners demanded a search engine devoted exclusively to this site. You can find the search button and window on the home page, toward the bottom. And on the first page of the Podcast section. Provided free of charge by Google. Thanks, Google. It’s simple. And it works very well.

We’ve had our ups and downs during the past three years. And the ten-minute limit mentioned in that first program clip never did catch on. Programs got longer and longer over the years. A problem I’ve been doing my best to fix. I was trained as an academic writer, not as a journalist. And I’m afraid, it shows.

But you listeners have been patient as I climb the learning curve of this new medium. And very supportive. Taking the time to e-mail in your comments and suggestions. Resulting in a better program. It must be better! Since over the course of the three years we’ve had a remarkable increase in the number of listeners. And transcript readers. I never expected so many. Really a gratifying experience. A sincere thank you for your attention. I’ll do my best to continue to provide commentary and analysis after retirement from USC at the end of this semester. Come January, the old “day job got in the way” excuse will no longer work!

This Week’s Topics

This week again we have a lot to consider. In fact, the volume of political and international news coming from Japan has been overwhelming during the past week. Most of it, though, has provided more heat than light. Since the noise-to-signal ratio, as the old radio folks used to say, is far from ideal. Even worse than U.S. media reporting on the recent presidential election! And that’s saying a lot! Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to access much of the straight video coverage of news conferences, speeches, and the like this week.

Anyway, we have to go with what we have, as an experienced journalist recently advised me. This week I’ll try to finish up our long-running discussion of political reform, or “Seiji Kaikaku.” Then try to apply what we’ve learned from that analysis to incumbent prime minister, Taro Aso. Wow! That’s a lot. Well, we’ll see.

Does “Seiji Kaikaku” Still Matter to Japan’s Major Media?

Now let’s consider whether or not Japan’s major media still care about “Seiji Kaikaku.” That’s far from a rhetorical question! I mentioned during the first segment of our Seiji Kaikaku discussion that Japan’s major political media seems to have lost its enthusiasm for political reform. Well, not completely. But anyone who worked through the late eighties and early nineties era in Japan will recognize the difference in tone today. Few of Japan’s political journalists working for major media companies today would describe themselves as “Anti-Reform,” of course. But there’s certainly less news and editorial pressure in support of political reform than there was during its late eighties, early nineties, heyday. And media articles related to reform run heavily toward the negative effects of specific policy reforms. Very little interest in political reform itself! 

Just one example. Senior traditionalist LDP members began observing in public earlier this year that the current Lower House electoral system should be scrapped. Not anonymously, now. Mentioning it during their regular news interviews. Blaming the current single-member single-vote electoral district system for all sorts of ills. Especially “theater politics.” By which they mean, I guess, political candidates pandering to their constituents, rather than “doing the right thing.”

Such talk during the late eighties and early nineties would have earned them vicious treatment at the hands of Japan’s major media journalists and editorialists. This year it didn’t inspire even a single “outraged” editorial! Not even in Asahi, that specializes in that genre. At least, not that I read anywhere. Quite a change, when you think about it.

What accounts for the change in the attitude of Japan’s major media? Well, hard to tell. When asked, the Japanese political journalists I know have denied any loss of commitment to reform. But if they’re still Reformists, it’s well hidden! They must have become “Kakure Kaikaku Shugisha,” like Japan’s celebrated Kakure Christians of centuries past …. Hmmm.

Perhaps the change in the major media’s interest in “Seiji Kaikaku” can be explained by the nature of specific policy reforms that resulted. Such as the Koizumi policy reform efforts, for example. They were mostly marketization, or privatization, efforts designed to reduce the role of Japan’s government in the economy. Not the direction of policy change that journalists and editors at Japan’s major media usually support these days. Maybe that explains it. Disappointment with the policy outcome of Seiji Kaikaku. But, really, I’m puzzled by it.

Does this withering of journalistic reformist zeal matter? Yes, I think it does. If only because it deprives the Diet’s Reformists of an important source of positive publicity and influence. Notice that we’ve heard very little of the Reformists during the past few months. As if they’ve fallen off the face of the earth! When, if we think a moment, we’ll realize they continue to serve in the Diet. Continue to meet together. Continue to promote particular policy reforms and to oppose political reform backsliding. Continue to worry about their chances for re-election. Worry about the direction of their Party. And the effect their Party’s behavior is going to have on their chances for re-election. Hmmm. We’ll have to think more about all this. I’m sure Prime Minister Aso thinks about it. Hoping, as he does, to keep his Party together.

How to Spot a “Reformist” in the Wild

Now, let’s try to summarize. And see if all this consideration of “Seiji Kaikaku” helps us to identify Reformist politicians in their natural habitat? And helps us to distinguish them from their Traditionalist colleagues? There are, naturally, lots of similarities. They’re all politicians we’re talking about, after all! But I think we can tell the difference if we focus on two, maybe three, important characteristics. First, their relationship with their constituents. Second, how they define their executive responsibilities when appointed to cabinet and sub-cabinet positions. And, possibly third, their willingness even to limit the economic redistributive and regulatory roles of government to achieve political reform objectives. Let’s consider each of these characteristics in turn.

Relationship with their Constituents

First, the relationship of incumbents and candidates to the potential voters in their districts. I mention this first because it seems to me the most important difference between Reformist and Traditionalist politicians. Since it relates directly to the corrosive effects of political corruption we’ve been discussing. Again, this is a question of degree. Position on a continuum with one end defined as Traditionalist and the other end defined as Reformist. Not two completely distinct categories.

That said, Traditionalist politicians tend to rely more on personal, and pseudo-personal, connections with constituents expected to vote for them. “Friends-and-Neighbors” politics. Facilitated by the notorious “Koenkai” that cost so much to build. And then to maintain. The appeal of these Traditionalist candidates depends largely on expectations of concrete personalistic benefits. Getting children into college, professional schools, government services, and so on. Much of what we call ‘constituent service’ in the U.S. Congress. And the expectation they will facilitate the flow of central government largess in all its forms to their districts in general. And particularly, to those individuals and organizations who support their electoral efforts.

As we’ve been discussing, this sort of politicking costs an enormous amount of money. Money that has to come from somewhere. And come in a way that allows the candidate to appear to be spending only the amount allowed under Japan’s strict election finance laws and regulations. This demand for funding leads, then, to the corrupt practices that erode the legitimacy and credibility of Japan’s Traditionalist elected representatives. Making the recipient politicians vulnerable to demands for special treatment by the local businesses and local branches of national organizations that provide the funding. As well as vulnerable to threats of disclosure of illegal activities should their behavior in office offend anyone. Political opponent, special interest representative, or even supervised national bureaucrat!

Diet-level caucuses of particular interests, called “Zoku” in Japanese, have played an important funding coordination role at the local constituency level. As well as provided direct contributions. Early English language academic attention to the “Zoku” phenomenon focused on Diet members developing expertise in particular policy areas. Expertise they could use to more effectively supervise the work of Japan’s national bureaucracies. In the hope, I guess, of demonstrating that politicians really were important in Japan.

Well, there was some of that, to be sure. And Zoku Giin interviewed by bright-eyed PhD candidates, notebook and tape recorder in hand, weren’t likely to admit they were involved in the caucus, or Zoku, mainly for the money! But the real significance of Japan’s political Zoku was economic. The opportunity for the member “Zoku Giin” to demonstrate their faithfulness to their major donors. With the understanding those donors would ease the Zoku Giin’s financial burdens. This too was no secret. At least for Japan’s attentive public. And contributed mightily to their growing cynicism. When they thought about their elected representatives as actually in charge of the government! It’s no coincidence that the most successful and active Zoku have been those concerned with issues of interest to private-sector interests able and willing to contribute political funds!

Japan’s Reformist politicians hoped to reduce or eliminate that public suspicion. To raise their credibility as responsible governmental actors with their constituents. Actors who could be trusted to protect the national interest. As well as the particularistic interests so diligently tended by the Traditionalists.

This doesn’t mean, now, that Japan’s Reformists are necessarily any more “moral,” or decent, than their Traditionalist counterparts. Rather, it means the Reformists have recognized the fundamental changes in Japan’s domestic political environment that we considered last week. Changes in the perceptions and expectations of Japan’s attentive public of their elected political representatives. The causes of growing public cynicism and dissatisfaction. Realized the opportunity for electoral success through quite different appeals to potential voters. And, the inevitable decline of political parties dominated by Traditionalists.

So …. How could that be done? By shifting their appeal to voters from the “friends-and-neighbors” “trickle-down” appeals relied upon by the Traditionalists. Relying instead upon commitments to pursue clearly stated positions on issues critical to the electorate at the time of the election. Back when political reform was of interest to Japan’s media, this was reported as “Issue-Based Campaigning” versus “Money-Based Campaigning.” Something of an exaggeration, of course. But with a grain of truth. Individual candidates, and political parties, were expected to issue “manifestos,” what we call “platforms” when issued by political parties. Clear statements of intention. To which they could be held accountable by their constituents after the election. That’s a fairly standard practice now. Even for Traditionalists!

And, to solve, or at least ameliorate, the corrupt funding problem, Reformist candidates relied more on presentation of their policy positions to potential voters through the communications media, than on the pseudo-personalistic connections of the enormously expensive Koenkai. Especially television news. Which, for the most part, is free of cost! Reformist campaigns cost much less to run, therefore.

Reformists, once elected, might or might not choose to join one of the LDP’s personalistic factions. But even if they did, they remained a different sort of politician. With different interests and concerns. Concerns especially now about the future of the Party to which they belong. Be that the LDP or the DPJ. Concerns that have been intensified by talk of a general election sooner rather than later.

Approach to Executive Responsibilities

Traditionalists and Reformists also differ in their approach to governmental executive responsibilities. Once appointed to cabinet or sub-cabinet positions. Or, when serving in critical political support roles, such as chief cabinet secretary, and other key Kantei positions. This too, of course, is a question of degree rather than an absolute. Some Traditionalists have been strong cabinet officers. Striking fear into the hearts of their bureaucratic subordinates. But, in general, Traditionalists have given greater discretion to Japan’s senior bureaucrats than Reformists. And Reformists tend to be more inclined to “interfere” in the work of their bureaucracies. Even in senior personnel decisions. If only to make good on the commitments they made in their pre-election manifestos! And often because of personal commitment to particular policy perspectives.

Decline in the credibility, or legitimacy, of Japan’s crack national bureaucracies is one important element of the change in Japan’s domestic political environment over the past few decades. This change has motivated the Reformists. Japan’s attentive public today is much less sympathetic to bureaucrats’ complaints of “political interference.” Rather, as we’ve seen in the long-running pension records scandal, Japan’s public expects their political representatives to do something about it! To “interfere.” And to interfere decisively, in other words! Reformists are positioned to do just that.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, may be willing. But are constrained by their “iron triangle” relationships with the bureaucracy in question. The bureaucracy’s private-sector clients. And, well – tradition! This doesn’t mean Traditionalist politicians are incompetent. They may be, of course. Since under the traditional system competence or expertise in the area of policy considered, was quite a ways down the list of requirements for cabinet position eligibility. But many of the Traditionalist politicians were former senior career bureaucrats! Who certainly knew the business of the bureaucracy they’re appointed to supervise. Yet, as former bureaucrats they face cultural constraints. Constraints that often proved more effective than the constraints of ignorance faced by politicians with non-bureaucratic career backgrounds.  

Restraints on Government’s Redistributive and Regulatory Economic Role?

This leaves us with the third difference I mentioned a moment ago. Willingness to restrain the government’s redistributive and regulatory economic role. I’m less confident about this point than the first two. Because “it depends.” Depends on a lot of things.

A moment ago I suggested that Japan’s political media may have lost their enthusiasm for political reform because the policy reforms resulting were mostly marketization, or privatization efforts. Changes designed to reduce the role of Japan’s government in the economy. Well, that’s true. As far as it goes.

Take, for example former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s celebrated campaign against the postal system. One apparently enthusiastically received by Japan’s public. Judging, at least, from the results of the 2005 general election! Certainly a program of privatization. But was Koizumi’s postal reforming zeal motivated by the desire to marketize Japan’s postal system? Or by his desire to crush the power of the Postal Zoku within the LDP? I suspect the latter. And the same thing, in reverse, might be said of those hoping to prevent or delay postal reform.

Postal reform is just one example. Attacks on “iron triangle” relationships, relationships that offer the appearance, of not the fact, of corruption, usually reduce the government’s regulatory or redistributive role in some sector of the economy. Reducing the motivation of private-sector donors to fund politicians.

But that all depends upon the attitudes of Japan’s attentive public. Reformist politicians will promote privatization and marketization only as long as Japan’s attentive public approves of the results of those policies. One result may be a decline in the motivation of private-sector providers of political funds to continue to provide those funds. But another may be a decline in government-provided services that Japan’s attentive public considers too valuable to sacrifice for the sake of reform.

Therefore, I have far less confidence in this third characteristic of Japan’s political Reformists than I have in the first two. Well …. Maybe two are enough.

Prime Minister Taro Aso: Traditionalist or Reformist?

Time is running short again. But just briefly, what about Prime Minister Taro Aso? Is he a Reformist or a Traditionalist? And why should that matter?

This topic requires more time to handle properly. But, in brief, after observing him carefully since his election, I conclude that Prime Minister Taro Aso is a typical Traditionalist. A Traditionalist who just happens to give an excellent stump speech.

Well, there’s one other possibility. Prime Minister Taro Aso really is a Reformist. But one who just doesn’t have the personal television media skills, or intra-party maneuvering skills, necessary to implement his Reformist agenda.

I don’t know which interpretation is correct. But would have to bet on the former, were I a betting person. Anyway, judging from results, it makes little difference. Since he’s certainly not leading the LDP in a Reformist direction. Or, at least, not decisively enough to impress Japan’s electorate when the general election eventually is held.

Here’s why I think that. Taro Aso since the 1970s has pursued a Diet career typical for the heir of a famous political family. He’s not just a typical second- or third-generation politician. He’s the grandson of one of Japan’s most famous prime ministers. And has enormous family wealth to boot. Prior to Junichiro Koizumi’s premiership, Aso had a fairly standard LDP Traditionalist career. Even lost one election, due to inattention to the home district, I’ve been told. But was able to recover nicely from that loss.

It was only after observing Koizumi’s pursuit of the LDP presidency and premiership that Aso appeared to reinvent himself. Becoming “A Man of the People.” A man who enjoyed reading manga. A man who, by all accounts, gave very effective and entertaining speeches to live audiences. Audiences large and small. A man who spent an enormous amount of time and resources traveling throughout Japan. Speaking to LDP prefectural and local chapters. And any group that would have him. Attracting the positive notice of the LDP’s party hierarchy. I have yet to see Taro Aso give a political speech in person. But have watched a few videos of his performances. He’s good on the stump! As we’d say OverHome. Live audiences love him.

After the implosion of the Yasuo Fukuda premiership, the LDP hierarchy turned to Taro Aso as the solution to their problems. Aso was a “reasonable fellow.” Well brought up. Who wouldn’t be likely to rock the boat. And, he was “popular”! Give them credit. At least the LDP hierarchy recognized they could no longer afford to have their party led by colorless intra-party facilitators and balancers. No matter how well they played the internal game. They realized the Party needed someone who could maintain a reasonable level of public approval! But at the same time, they didn’t want to surrender the Party – and probably their own careers – to the wild-eyed, red-meat Reformists! Who, once in office, undoubtedly would try to out-Koizumi Koizumi. He’d done enough damage to the traditional structure already. So, Aso became their choice as LDP president and prime minister. With a minimum of inter-factional friction.

Once in office, however, it became painfully clear that Taro Aso lacked the skill to drive his message, and his personal appeal, through the curtain of media hostility he faced from his first day onward. Taro Aso was, and always has been, an unapologetically conservative political figure. More Marketonian than Governmentalist at home. And a firm believer in a strong independent defense of Japan’s national interests. He also tends to have little patience with Japan’s pampered political press corps. Or empathy with them. Not good!

But the media’s hostility shouldn’t have surprised him. Once he became prime minister, that is. Coping with it should have been considered part of the job when he took it! Koizumi did so effectively, as we’ve discussed many times on this program. By providing television news editors with irresistible footage. Often with his outrageous personal behavior. But, managing at the same time to get his message across to Japan’s attentive public. In spite of the hostile press. Yuriko Koike, a former television newscaster, is another grand master of the art. As is Yoshimi Watanabe, and several others. It’s a skill, apparently, that Taro Aso lacks. Or refuses to exercise, anyway. No matter how good he is with live audiences!

True, he’s facing quite a challenge. Judging from the articles they publish, Japan’s political news editors must have more reporters assigned to the “Aso Gaffe Watch” than they have to the national economy! Photographs of Aso appearing in Japan’s press usually show him in an unflattering light. Comparable to U.S. photo news coverage of Richard Nixon. Or Lyndon Johnson, toward the end of his term. The blatant hostility of Japanese news coverage of Aso’s participation in the G20 economic meeting in Washington a couple of weeks ago would have made a New York Times editor blush! And Aso seems powerless to break through this curtain of hostility.

Add to this, Aso’s difficulties within the sharply divided LDP. A majority of LDP Diet members long for a roll-back of political reforms. Hope for return to the traditional way things were done. Ways that maintained the LDP in power since its formation, with one brief, but disastrous, exception during the early 1990s. A way of doing business that allowed them to win one election after another. These Traditionalists believe the LDP can survive within Japan’s new domestic political environment with little or no change, if only they persevere.

However, a significant minority of the LDP’s Diet caucus disagrees. They see the changes in Japan’s domestic political environment as opportunities. Opportunities a political party genuinely committed to political reform could use to its own advantage. Changes that will bury any political party that misunderstands or ignores them. These are the Reformists. Certainly not a majority. But a number large enough that their defection would prove disastrous for the LDP.

Prime Minister and LDP President Taro Aso is well aware of this sharp cleavage in his Party. And has done his best to appease both sides. Sympathizing with the Traditionalists, it seems. But not going so far that he risks pushing the Reformists out of the LDP prior to, and even after, the next general election. It’s a delicate balance. And one Aso may or may not be able to maintain. In the meantime, his premiership shows signs of the strain. As does he.

Concluding Comments

Well, much more to say on this subject. But it will have to wait for another week. We’re running far too long. Next week I hope to discuss the current situation in Japan’s Diet. Especially the flap over timing of the next general election. And then consider Japan’s reaction to Senator Barak Obama’s victory in the U.S. presidential election. So, Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate the day, and

Goodbye all. Until next week.