December 05, 2008; Volume 04, Number 33

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Retirement from USC
International Affairs
Whirlwind Surrounds Prime Minister Taro Aso
Appointment of Yoshinobu Shimamura as Public Communications Assistant
The Dangers of Life in the Middle of the Road
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From the Mobile Studio. Parked right here on the shore of Beautiful Lake Wateree again. Enjoying the facilities of one of South Carolina’s most enchanting State Parks. Today is Friday, December 5th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 33, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Yup. On the road again. Producing this week’s podcast while looking out over a long, narrow fog-covered lake that has to be seen to be believed. Old-timers living here call this the “Wateree River,” not “Lake.” Since it was a river before the power company built dams that spread the banks of the river well out over their original boundaries. Glad they did, though. The change has made for a much more diverse and interesting waterway. Great for fishing, they say. Or just plain viewing. And this is only one of the many lakes and state parks throughout the state. That even fixed-income retired country school teachers can afford to enjoy on a regular basis. It has to be seen to be believed. So, come on over, and enjoy!

Retirement from USC

Speaking of retirement, yesterday was my last day of teaching at USC. All went normally. And now only final exams and final grades for two classes remain. I’ve spent the past twenty-two years here. Arriving from Washington in the fall of 1986. To join USC’s then-active area studies program. Lots of changes in priorities and programs since then at USC. So it’s time for me to move on. I’ll certainly miss the students, though.

Special thanks to those of you who’ve written in to ask about the future of the Japan Considered Project. And of these podcasts. Once I’ve retired from full-time teaching. I appreciate your interest and concern. But not to worry! I intend to continue the weekly, or near-weekly, programs as before. And, hopefully, to expand the overall Project. And its presentation on the Website.

Especially the “Interviews” section. I also hope to add some new features. Features that were just too time-consuming to consider while holding down a regular day job. Please continue too to send in your suggestions and advice. Both for the weekly podcasts, and for the overall Japan Considered Project. What would you like to see more of? Less of? New topics and themes. And so on. I can’t promise to implement them all, of course. But certainly will consider, and appreciate, each one.

International Affairs

Now let’s turn to this week’s topics. I haven’t seen any surprising or dramatic developments in Japan’s international relations during the past week or so. And that’s good!

Japan’s media has been full of speculation about the incoming Obama Administration in Washington. Focusing, naturally enough, on how the change in presidents and parties there will affect the U.S.-Japan relationship. A reasonable concern. But really. It’s being done to death!

I expect any day now to read a content analysis of the public statements President-Elect Obama has made since college. One that compares the number of times he’s spoken the word “Japan.” Compared with the number of times he’s used the word “China.” Maybe the names of other countries as well. Which, of course, would depend on the generosity of the grant that funded the research. Heaven only knows what would happen were Senator Obama to be photographed eating in a Japanese restaurant! Or, in a Chinese restaurant, for that matter!

Most of this material is pretty fluffy. Based on painfully transparent speculation, supported by quotes here and there, from people carefully selected to provide that speculation with at least some credibility. All of this concern just isn’t helpful. Since it makes Japan appear hesitant and insecure. Even whiney. Prime Minister Aso may be a lot of things. But one thing he isn’t is “whiney”! It’s hard for me to imagine that he would participate in – let alone initiate – such an approach.

One example. Just before Prime Minister Aso’s trip to Washington a few weeks ago, to attend the G20 economic meeting, there was talk that Japan would seek a meeting between Prime Minister Aso and President-Elect Obama. A get-acquainted sort of thing, I guess. Though they’d already talked by telephone. Of course, the meeting wasn’t held. Shouldn’t have been held, for that matter. First, it would have been inappropriate from the protocol perspective. And, had Senator Obama agreed, he’d have to spend most of his waking hours until inauguration meeting heads of government from around the world. With each guest keeping one eye on the clock. To make sure his or her visit lasted longer than the last guest’s visit. I mean! Not a good idea.

Well! This “failure to meet,” a number of Aso’s critics have concluded, demonstrates that Japan is unimportant to the incoming U.S. president. Or, that Prime Minister Aso has bungled Japan’s important relationship with the U.S. By failing to persuade President-Elect Obama to meet! It just doesn’t make sense. Yet that conclusion has been given ample coverage in Japan’s media. Maybe we wouldn’t see as much of it if there was a prime minister in the Kantei who was more popular with Japan’s political media. But in the meantime, Japan’s image as a responsible actor in global affairs suffers needlessly.

On another front, Japan continues to participate in the effort to persuade the North Korean regime to abandon its nuclear development plan. According to Tokyo press reports yesterday, with some success. Asahi Shimbun reported that Six-Party-Talks representatives from the United States and South Korea met with their Japanese counterpart in Tokyo on Wednesday. During those talks both the United States and South Korea agreed that Pyongyang must affirm in writing that it will allow international observers to remove nuclear material samples from its nuclear plants. To confirm progress. Japan has insisted on this clarification since U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill’s recent negotiations in Pyongyang.

Good news, by the sound of it. But nothing’s ever as simple as it first seems when it comes to negotiations with the illusive North Korea regime. Also, given the state of domestic politics in many of the countries involved in the Six-Party Talks, it seems to me unlikely that North Korea’s representatives feel any urgency to reach a solution in the near future. A new administration is about to assume power in Washington. One that may take a different approach toward North Korea. In Japan, Prime Minister Aso’s situation looks more precarious each day. And rumors continue about the state of Kim Il Sung’s health. China too seems to have its own political problems recently. Given declining economic conditions. So it’s unlikely we’ll see anything approaching a “breakthrough” concerning North Korea’s nuclear adventures in the near future. Another full session of the Six-Party Talks are scheduled for next Monday, in Beijing. But it seems most unlikely anything but official announcements of “fruitful discussions” will result. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Whirlwind Surrounds Prime Minister Taro Aso

Domestic politics these days in Japan is nowhere near as peaceful as international relations. It seems as though incumbent Prime Minister, Taro Aso, can’t do anything right. Or, that’s the impression one gets from reading Japan’s political press. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly on this program, Japan’s political press has been blatantly hostile to Prime Minister Aso since his arrival in the Kantei. The “Aso Gaffe Watch,” and the seemingly endless reports based on their harvest we considered last week, is but one example.

But Aso himself has contributed mightily to that negative coverage. Both in style and in substance. Style first. Aso has long been known in Japan’s press circles as a difficult politician to cover. A few trusted journalists are said to be the exception. In general, though, Aso assumes a confrontational, even hostile, posture when interacting with the press corps. Something obvious even in the tightly focused videotapes of his press conferences.

Aso is sharp and quick. Always ready to crack a joke, to offer a smart, off-handed quip. And he’s often viciously sarcastic. Merciless in his treatment of the journalists who have been assigned to cover him. He’s well-known for responding to reporters’ difficult questions with a belligerent question of his own. Then demanding that the reporter respond. This confrontational style is not uncommon in Japanese politics. But Aso is more difficult in that regard than most other politicians. No wonder Japan’s journalists are eager to report as many of his “Gaffes” as possible. I would be too! If only in revenge. It’s hardly the ideal posture for an already unpopular political leader to assume. Especially these days, when political success or failure depends so heavily on public approval of his performance! Only a fine line separates jaunty self-confidence from arrogance. A politician crosses that line when dealing with the press at his peril!

Appointment of Yoshinobu Shimamura as Public Communications Assistant

With this in mind, a brief note published by the Kyodo News Service last Friday, November 28th, caught my eye. According to Kyodo, a Liberal Democratic Party spokesman announced that Yoshinobu Shimamura had been appointed a special assistant to Prime Minister Aso. To serve as a spokesman. One who will help Aso, and presumably the LDP, communicate more effectively with Japan’s public. The photo below is from the front page of Shimamura's personal website.

I was surprised by the announcement. Aso already has an official spokesman. Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura. A competent politician who’s made the best of an impossible assignment. But it appears that Shimamura is expected to assist Aso in his capacity as LDP president. Rather than in his capacity as prime minister. Probably working from LDP Headquarters. Rather than from the Kantei. I recall visiting a considerably younger Shimamura a number of times during trips to Tokyo in the late 1970s.  Not long after his first election to the Diet. Since he had a strong interest in U.S.-Japan relations at the time.

Shimamura proved a valuable source of insight into the Japanese side of the relationship. I recall making page after page of notes at my hotel after meeting with him. During one of those meetings I casually mentioned I’d never toured the Diet. In spite of studying Japan’s politics for a decade! Shimamura immediately took me all around the building himself. A long, comprehensive tour. Displaying in-depth knowledge of the architecture and its significance for Japan’s democracy. It was a memorable performance.

But Shimamura is perhaps best known as a classmate and friend of the emperor during their days together at Gakushuin. Well, that, and his interest in Yasukuni Shrine. In fact Shimamura heads a parliamentary group that encourages Japanese politicians to make official visits to the Shrine. More important for this latest appointment, perhaps, is Shimamura’s long-standing close relationship with former prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. A relationship that goes back at least to the early 1970s, when Nakasone was director general of the Defense Agency. According to press reports, that relationship remains strong today. Even after Nakasone’s retirement. And Shimamura is thought to serve as the communications link between Prime Minister Aso and Nakasone.

This may approach inside-baseball status. But I mention it to demonstrate that Yoshinobu Shimamura is a personable, people-oriented politician. A politician who naturally and effortlessly maintains as good relations with the journalists who cover him. As he does with most everyone else. That said, he’s also quite a conservative Traditionalist senior LDP politician. One who has the confidence of the Traditionalist LDP leadership.

Shimamura, after all, as Minister of Agriculture in August 2005, refused to agree with Prime Minister Koizumi’s decision to dissolve the Lower House. Over the Upper House’s rejection of Koizumi’s postal privatization bill. Koizumi dismissed Shimamura, called the election, and the rest is history, as they say. Few LDP Traditionalists have made stronger stands! Talk about making your bones! No wonder he’s trusted by the LDP’s Traditionalists.

But that said, Shimamura remains a personable, effective communicator with Japan’s press corps. Showing that even very conservative Traditionalist politicians can have good relations with Japan’s media. And be treated fairly. If they try. Perhaps Shimamura can coach his long-time friend, Taro Aso, in the art. Though it seems pretty late in the game to bring in a new coach. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Dangers of Life in the Middle of the Road

The “substance” part of Prime Minister Aso’s difficulties these days is not totally of his own making. He’s been put in a difficult, if not impossible, position by the LDP Traditionalists. Who selected him to provide the Party with a “popular” face as it approached a general election. We’ve considered this repeatedly since Aso’s arrival in the Kantei. Last week I characterized Aso as a Traditionalist who just happens to give an excellent stump speech. Interacts effective with live audiences, in other words. But finds it impossible to project that “popular face” through the print and electronic media. That still seems to hold.

Further, since his selection, Aso has been forced to balance the interests of the Traditionalists against those of the Reformists. Two groups who have fundamentally different views of how national-level electoral politics in Japan should operate. Quite possibly, irreconcilably different views. So far, he’s managed to keep the Party together. To avoid driving the Reformists out. A move that could well end the ruling coalition’s two-thirds Lower House majority. And their ability to over-ride Upper House rejections of legislation they consider critical. Or, even to threaten such over-ride votes.

This balancing act has made the Aso Cabinet appear even more indecisive, even directionless. Neither reliable Traditionalist, nor crusading Reformist. As on two-lane country roads, the middle of the highway is a dangerous place to be!

The Traditionalist Zoku we discussed last week have taken advantage of the fear of economic recession to argue for suspension, or roll-back, of the structural reforms associated with former Prime Minister Koizumi. Prime Minister Aso continues to insist he’s dedicated to “reform.” But then he’s agreed to budget-busting governmental spending programs. Including plans for small individual cash payments that even the potential recipients disapprove of! Delays in implementation of postal privatization. Roll-backs of commitments to redirect road construction project funding. Backsliding on bureaucratic reform. And all sorts of other arrangements dear to the hearts of LDP zoku members dependent upon generous private-sector reward.

It must be clear to everyone by now that the LDP’s decision to replace Yasuo Fukuda with Taro Aso has created more problems than it has solved. Perhaps there’s a way out. The LDP has survived – and prospered – for decades by adapting to difficult conditions. Who’s to say it won’t weather this storm as well. But we may well witness dramatic events during the next few weeks. Prior to the January 1st deadline that determines allocations of public subsidies to political parties for the coming year. I’ll try to keep you posted.

Concluding comments

Well, let’s end for now. Within our target time frame, for once! As always, thanks for sending in your comments and suggestions. And keep ‘em coming. I read every one and take it into consideration when planning future programs. It’s been impossible to respond directly to each message. Even with the efficiency of e-mail. But be assured your efforts are appreciated and not wasted. So,

Goodbye all. Until next week.