December 24, 2008; Volume 04, Number 35

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Japan Struggles With Response to Piracy Incidents in Gulf of Aden
Anti-Piracy Attention Shifts from the Strait of Malacca to Somalia
What Will Japan Do About Collective Self-Defense?
Has the "Trials of Taro" Jury Been Instructed at Last?
A Reformist Stands Up
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From Beautiful, but Chilly, Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Wednesday, December 24th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 04, Number 35, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Yes, that's right. Wednesday. Tomorrow's Christmas. So who knows what the rest of the week will be like? I hope those of you celebrating the Holiday have just the sort of Christmas and New Years you've been wishing for. And stay busy throughout doing things you looked forward to doing. We certainly will here! So it may be a while before I can get this posted on the web.

It's early in the week. But while we have the time, let's take another look at the current turmoil within the LDP. And see if we can make any sense of the snippets of news we're now seeing on a daily basis. "Trials of Taro"; Factional Rivalries; Traditionalists struggling to maintain control of their Party; Reformists hoping to turn things around with a fundamentally different political model. And so on.

Japan Struggles With Response to Piracy Incidents in Gulf of Aden

First, though, just a quick look at one other international issue. Japan's response to the recent up-tick in pirate attacks on shipping. Especially in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia, and the northwestern Indian Ocean.

Japan's no stranger to the problem of modern-day maritime piracy. Relying, as it does, so heavily on imported foodstuffs and natural resources. Much of it shipped through the Strait of Malacca. Especially petroleum. In fact, over 90 percent of Japan's supply is shipped through that narrow waterway.

Until recently, global concern over modern-day maritime piracy focused mainly on that Strait of Malacca. There, political instability in surrounding countries, the region's geography, and economic downturn, combined to raise the number of incidents at the beginning of this decade to alarming levels. Attacks grew more brazen and violent as the years went by.

Early on, Indonesia and the other surrounding countries rejected direct involvement of Japanese military vessels in the effort. Citing their own sovereignty over the region. And therefore their own responsibility for coping with the pirates. So Tokyo was able to avoid addressing the question of whether or not its "We the People" Constitution allowed Japan to defend its people and property beyond Japanese national territory with military force.

Instead, Japan focused on encouraging nations in the region to join forces against the pirate attacks. And provided financial aid, technology - even hardware - in the hope the countries themselves would solve the problem. In late 2001 then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi proposed a "Regional Cooperation Agreement on Anti-Piracy" at a meeting of the ASEAN-Plus-Three summit. Japan's efforts were intensified in 2005 after pirates abducted Japanese crew members from a tugboat in the Strait of Malacca on March 14th. This incident encouraged Japan to provide training to counter piracy to the coast guards of Southeast Asian countries. As well as send Japanese anti-piracy advisers to Indonesia and Malaysia. Together with more effective patrol vessels as part of their foreign aid packages.

These efforts must have helped to improve conditions in the Strait of Malacca. There were 75 reported piracy incidents there in 2000. They dropped to 38 in 2004. And then to 2 in 2008. A considerable success in which Japanese aid and technology was thought to play no small part.

Anti-Piracy Attention Shifts from the Strait of Malacca to Somalia

This year, however, attention has shifted from Southeast Asia and the Strait of Malacca to a much larger body of water. The Gulf of Aden and Northeast Indian Ocean. Bringing more headaches to those responsible for Japan's conduct of foreign relations. Here too Japan has important shipping interests. A section of the sea route between Europe and Asia. Around ten percent of the 20,000 ships that travel the route are said to be owned or operated by Japanese interests. That's a lot of shipping! And in September alone, at least 26 of those 20,000-some vessels were attacked by pirates!

What's a law-abiding, peace-loving country to do? Well, Japan's Shipowners' Association knows what Japan's shipping interests want, anyway. In mid-October of this year they asked Japan's government to dispatch Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force ships to the region to protect their interests. Arguing that the Somali-based pirates pose more of a threat than their civilian crews can handle.

The Shipowners' Association plea for government help sounds reasonable. Other countries already have dispatched military vessels to capture, or at least discourage, pirates in the region. Indeed, even the United Nations has authorized the use of military force there. With the UN Security Council unanimously adopting Resolution 1838 in early October of this year. Urging " …States interested in the security of maritime activities to take part actively in the fight against piracy on the high seas off the coast of Somalia, in particular by deploying naval vessels and military aircraft, in accordance with international law, as reflected in the Convention."

The UN Security Council went even further on December 16th, with a unanimous resolution authorizing all necessary measures to suppress piracy on land, in Somalia, as well as at sea. Nothing vague about that! And from the UN Security Council. Where it's hard to round up unanimous agreement on anything these days! By November, Japanese central government spokesmen were telling the press that Prime Minister Aso was considering just that. Making arrangements for the dispatch of Maritime Self-Defense Force assets to join the international effort to cope with the problem.

But nothing's simple when it comes to the exercise of military force outside Japan's sovereign territory. Even in pursuit of unquestionably valid Japanese interests and foreign policy objectives. Japan's post-WWII "We the People" Constitution, written, ironically, for Japan by the Allied Occupation, categorically renounces war. And, critics of military force argue, even forbids Japan's participation in collective self-defense efforts. This is the problem Japan faces today as pressure intensifies, internationally and domestically, for Japan to make a substantial contribution to the anti-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden.

Prime Minister Aso, as mentioned a moment ago, has expressed his support for dispatch of military assets to cope with the piracy threat. Even suggesting last month that the government might draft legislation to cover an MSDF mission. These suggestions, though, have inspired other government officials - even Ministry of Defense officials! - to warn that the issue is more complex than it seems. That such legislation would have to include authorization for MSDF personnel to use their weapons in response to threats from the pirates. Something they consider unlikely, under current parliamentary conditions. And then there's the question of whether or not Japanese military vessels could protect non-Japanese shipping! Given Japan's prohibition on the exercise of collective self-defense. The official position is that Japan has the right of collective self defense under international law as a sovereign state. However, Article 9 of Japan's "We the People" Constitution prohibits Japan from exercising that right. Hmmm.

This may bring to mind earlier scholastic arguments over the number of angels that can dance, or sit, on the head of a pin. But it's a genuine concern in Tokyo at the moment. And has been for some time. Recall former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's collective defense efforts in late June 2007. With arguments over whether Japan's military would even be allowed to shoot down ballistic missiles passing over Japan known to be headed to the United States. We considered this amazing debate last year while it was going on. I'll try to remember to put a link in the program transcript to the 2007 program Now, that got the attention of a few folks in Washington!

Well, discussion of this important issue has continued in Tokyo throughout December. With no indication yet of a consensus. Early in the month an LDP task force proposed passage of a law that would allow Japanese forces to respond against all terrorist threats. While another panel proposed passage of Somali-specific anti-piracy legislation. For a time there was talk of Japan's Coast Guard sending one of their vessels to the Gulf of Aden. But that appears to have fizzled out.

Tokyo's angst was boosted another notch, so to speak, last Thursday, the 18th. With Beijing's announcement that China was planning to send naval vessels to support the anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia. In response to the U.N. Security Council's calls for international support. China, it seems, doesn't share Japan's concerns over the acceptability of "collective defense." Or any other kind of military defense, for that matter. Judging from the dramatic increases in China's military budgets and capabilities during the past couple of decades.

So, within days of China's announcement, Japan's media reported growing concern over international reaction to Japan's limited contribution to the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy effort. At least ten other countries had committed military resources to the anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden. And now China! What would people say? Would this anti-piracy operation give China an opportunity to cooperate more closely with the United States? Would the incoming Obama Administration be disappointed in Japan's response to U.N. calls for military support against the pirates? Would Japan be criticized publicly by foreigners? Would other countries just ignore Japan? And to make matters worse, yesterday speculation was that it wouldn't be long before even South Korea added military resources to the international anti-piracy effort. Oh my!

What Will Japan Do About Collective Self-Defense?

And that's pretty much where things stand today. Once again, international developments have forced Japan's government to face the politically sensitive issue of collective self-defense. Thus far, Japan has been able to "muddle through." To slowly raise public concern over military threats to Japan's interests. To provide political cover. And then to announce "reinterpretation" of Constitutional prohibitions. All conducted in the shadow of a firm security alliance with the United States.

That seems to be what Prime Minister Aso is trying to do now. It takes time, though. Announcements of plans to convene meetings in a month or so, meetings to consider arrangements that, if successful, might allow Japan to dispatch observers, at some time later on in the year, just aren't all that persuasive. Not under these conditions, anyway.

Well, "So what" a skeptical observer might ask. Does it really matter? The combined force of ten other nations should be adequate to cope with the threat posed by Somalia-based pirates. And, given the losses they're suffering, those nations already participating are likely to stay on the job. Japan too will benefit from their efforts. And might later offer financial compensation. While maintaining their fundamental constitutional principles at home!

True enough. But this Gulf of Aden anti-piracy effort symbolizes a larger problem for Japan. Both domestically and internationally. Especially Japan's relationship with the United States. To endure, any international alliance requires that all parties believe the alliance is in their own interest. That is, that benefits gained, outweigh the costs of maintaining the alliance. Short, medium, and long-term! Should one party conclude that the costs of maintaining the alliance exceed the benefits, the alliance moves onto mighty shaky ground.

The U.S.-Japan security alliance has been one of the most stable in the world. For more than fifty years. More than twice as long as the Anglo-Japanese Alliance lasted! Both Japan and the United States have recognized important benefits from their participation. This was especially true during the Cold War era, when Japan hoped to avoid diversion of painfully scarce national resources into national defense. And the United States hoped the military position Japan provided would help contain Soviet and Chinese expansion.

Conditions, however, have changed dramatically since the early 1950s, and the first iteration of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Both for Japan and for the United States. The Soviet Union no longer exists. And its Russian successor so far is thought to pose little military threat. Japan no longer single-mindedly pursues economic recovery and global catch-up. They've arrived! Have enjoyed world-class prosperity for nearly three generations! So, both the United States and Japan must recognize those changes. And take them into account as they work to maintain the mutually beneficial nature of their bilateral relationship.

I'm not suggesting, now, that the U.S.-Japan security alliance is in immediate danger of collapse. But I am suggesting that both Tokyo and Washington continue to evaluate the utility of the alliance. A utility determined by current international conditions. International conditions quite different today than those both countries faced in the early 1950s. And that incidents such as Japan's participation in the anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden are certain to affect that evaluation. On both sides.

Added to this, Washington is about to welcome a new presidential team. A team from a different political party, in fact. One likely to take a fresh look at the utility of U.S. military alliances around the world. Including that with Japan. So it seems to me unfortunate that this Gulf of Aden anti-piracy issue should pop up right now. Hard to imagine worse timing. We have to keep an eye on this issue. Since it's not going away any time soon!

Has the "Trials of Taro" Jury Been Instructed at Last?

Last week we continued to consider the "Trials of Taro." That is, Prime Minister Taro Aso's difficulties during his short tenure in office. Several of you since have written in to suggest that I've been too hard on Prime Minister Aso. Too critical of his efforts. Since there's little else he could do, given Japan's current political situation. Not his fault! And so on. A few others have written in to complain that I've been too sympathetic in my description of Aso's management of the Kantei. That his premiership has been far worse for Japan than I have described it.

Well, thanks to all who've taken the time to write in. Especially those of you who provided detailed explanations of your reasoning. All those posts included useful information. And, truth be told, I found much to agree with in both positions. Prime Minister Aso certainly is in a difficult position. Maybe an impossible position! His public approval ratings have continued to fall, while his public disapproval skyrockets. His accomplishments have been slighted by the press. Out of fear that praise would raise his public approval, I suppose. And, his missteps have been exaggerated. Which must be frustrating for him.

But, as we discussed last week, Prime Minister Taro Aso too carries much of the blame for his lackluster performance as Japan's central political executive. He was eager to get the job, after all. But once in office, he seems insensitive to public mood. The famous "KY" syndrome described in the political columns of Japan's notorious weekly magazines. Which stands for "Kuki Yomenai." Among other things.

If Aso can't communicate effectively with Japan's attentive public, then he'd better be able to communicate effectively with the leaders of his own party. If he'd like to keep his job. But Aso doesn't seem to be very good at that either! A few of his die-hard supporters continue to defend him in public. And many of the senior LDP members criticize those who publicly criticize Aso. Calling for unity, or solidarity, in the face of adversity. But that's not really support for Aso himself. It's more Party crisis management!

After years of "crumbling and rumbling," the LDP leadership - or, more properly, senior members of the LDP - finally seem to recognize the severity of their situation. And that their problems can't be solved by striking deals among faction leaders. Deals that will allow the Party's factions to cooperate effectively enough to define a clear "mainstream" group and a clear "anti-mainstream" group. That's no longer enough.

The LDP's traditional factions remain important actors, to be sure. But they no longer have the power to determine the future of the Party on their own. Many of Japan's better, more experienced, political journalists continue to produce faction-based analysis of the LDP's problems. Or to base their political predictions and projections on such faction-based analysis. As always, their writing is interesting. Especially the details of intra-LDP maneuvering they provide. But somehow, they remind me of Ptolemy and his followers. And their desperate efforts to square their astronomical observations with their geo-centric astronomical theory. Things just get too complicated after while!

All of Japan's factions pretty much agree on what needs to be done. They disagree, of course, on who should do it! But they all want to see a return to the LDP's Traditionalist way of doing things. With Japan's national elected representatives serving as mediators, or facilitators, between their financial supporters and constituents, on the one hand, and the national "government" on the other. With "government" here meaning the national bureaucracy.

Well, that's not quite true. Senior LDP Traditionalists, Koichi Kato and Taku Yamasaki, earlier this month met with the DPJ acting president, Naoto Kan, and People's New Party acting leader, Shizuka Kamei to promote "political realignment." During the press conference following their meeting, Kato and Yamasaki were a bit vague about their plans. Insisting on the inevitability of "political realignment." But less clear on when they themselves would leave the LDP. A pretty cynical, politically opportunistic, performance that hasn't attracted much attention since. Journalists covering the event seemed to recognize it as a "way out," should things get worse for the LDP. Mentioning it thereafter only in the context of "anti-Aso forces within the LDP" stories.

A Reformist Stands Up

Other cleavages within the LDP are not so easy to dismiss. And, like the crash of icebergs calving in the Arctic Sea, they're giving Excedrin-level headaches to the LDP's leaders. As I've argued since the beginning of this program in late 2005, the most important of these cleavages is that between the Traditionalists and Reformists. Their disagreement isn't primarily about policy. It's more fundamental than that. It's about how the LDP, or any political party, should relate to Japan's public. How they should run their election campaigns. How they should behave once elected. And how they should run their re-election campaigns once elected. This is old material for long-time listeners to this program. So I won't go on and on. Especially since we're running short on time.

But I've just got to mention one incident that occurred today, Tokyo time, during the Lower House plenary session. Those of you interested really should click on over to the House of Representatives Internet TV site. I'll put a link in the transcript. Or, you can simply go to the Japan Considered project home page, click the "Legislature" link, then the "House of Representatives Internet TV" link on that page. Then go to the December 2008 calendar in the left-hand tool bar, and click on the 24th date. The "Plenary sitting" video is right at the top.

Even if you have some difficulty following the Japanese language, it's worth watching. I wish I'd had such a resource back in the 1960s when I began studying Japanese politics! Once the video begins to play, skip over to 55 minutes, 30 seconds, to see the vote.

Anyway, the Lower House today voted on the DPJ's package of job-related bills. Bills that had been passed - not "rammed through," you understand; passed - in the Upper House by the Opposition Parties. The vote there was 123 to nothing. Since the LDP had vacated the Chamber! Protesting the limited time allowed for debate before the vote. A bad move, I think. But they did it.

So, as expected, the bills then went to the Lower House where they were handily defeated by the LDP and New Komeito with a two-thirds over-ride. All as expected. Lots of shouting and taking on. But a fairly routine vote.

That, however, wasn't the end of the Lower House drama. Following that vote, the Opposition Parties presented a resolution calling for dissolution of the Lower House. This wasn't a vote of no-confidence, now. It was just a non-binding resolution that everyone involved knew would not pass. A symbolic gesture of protest by the Opposition against Prime Minister Aso's refusal to dissolve the Lower House and call a general election. An effective way for the Opposition to end the current Diet session.

Once statements for and against the resolution were made, the camera focused in on Lower House Speaker, Yohei Kono. Kono paused to allow the last speaker take his seat, and then called for the vote. Asking those who supported the resolution to stand.

The camera immediately swept back to cover the LDP side of the Chamber. For an instant it unmistakably caught Yoshimi Watanabe rising to stand in support of the resolution from his back-row seat. He stood alone, of course. Then the camera swept over to the Opposition side of the Chamber where everyone was standing. I can't include the video. But I'll try to put a photograph of Watanabe standing in support of the resolution in the transcript. It's a photograph that I suspect we'll see fairly often in the weeks and months to come.

The camera returned to Speaker Kono, who dispassionately announced that the resolution had been voted down. He then raised his eyes to the Members in the Chamber, and without saying a word, looked over toward Yoshimi Watanabe's seat, and made a very slight nod of his head.

It was a gesture that almost certainly would have gone unnoticed by most everyone else. But it recalled to me a much younger Yohei Kono. Son of the legendary LDP faction leader, Ichiro Kono. The man who taught the LDP's Traditionalists how it's really done. Walking out of the LDP in 1976 with five of his colleagues to form the New Liberal Club. Speaker Kono then was the personification of the political Young Turk. He rebelled against the LDP's traditional way of doing things. A way that led to scandals like the Lockheed Scandal, for example. Kono was determined to find a new way.

I haven't met Yohei Kono since the early 1980s. But enjoyed the opportunity to talk with him about Japan's need for "Seiji Kaikaku." And his vision of how it should be done. He was a memorable character. One of the most interesting LDP politicians I've ever met. Undoubtedly sincere in his concerns for Japanese electoral politics. Though, as we all know, within ten years Kono and his New Liberal Club colleagues were back in the LDP. Where he remained until his election to the Lower House Speakership in late 2003. He's an older, more dignified, Yohei Kono now. The ideal of a Lower House Speaker.

For just a moment, watching the Lower House Internet TV video focus in on the Speaker's elegant seat above the Lower House chamber, I thought I saw in that faint nod toward the LDP side of the Chamber, a flash of the Young Turk I remember so well. Pounding the table of a Washington D.C. K Street restaurant until the glassware rattled. As he emphasized the points he was making about "political reform" in Japan. I hope Yoshimi Watanabe was able to catch it. From his seat way in the back. It would have meant a great deal to him then.

Immediately after the close of the Lower House plenary session, Watanabe rushed to a special press conference he'd called to explain his action. He was ambushed by newsmen on the way, of course. Who asked him about his vote. And how he expected the LDP to respond. Watanabe told them it appeared as if the LDP already is supporting an "assassin" candidate in his electoral district, and laughed.

At the well-attended press conference, Watanabe explained that he voted in favor of the resolution because it's been his long-held view that a general election should be held sooner rather than later. He also said that he has no immediate plans for leaving the LDP suddenly.

[clip of Watanabe]

Then he said, "Diet Members serve the people of the nation. Japan is one. That's all!" And he abruptly ended the press conference. Clumsily stepping over the low table in front of him to walk out of the room. A dramatic performance indeed. Carefully choreographed and played. Maybe just a bit too carefully ….

Sooo, what does it all mean? Well, the vote itself has no significance. As LDP spokesmen went to great lengths to explain soon thereafter. There was no possibility of it passing. The resolution was rejected. And, when asked on camera, how he intended to respond, LDP Secretary General Hosoda said that he would personally rebuke Watanabe later on at LDP Headquarters. Other LDP members interviewed, of course, were outraged. And called for Watanabe's head on a platter. One commented that Watanabe's action was tantamount to voting against his Party leader during a vote of no confidence. Others said he should be expelled.

As we discussed last week, the LDP is in no position to expel Yoshimi Watanabe. Or any of the Reformist LDP members who are sympathetic to him. A loss of only 17 members would mean the ruling coalition could no longer count on a two-thirds vote over-ride in the Lower House. Or even threaten such a vote. And, there's the question of just how many members of the LDP would leave with Watanabe should he be expelled. It's hard to tell.

We talked about this too last week. And I suggested that the Reformists are having difficulty agreeing on a single leader for their movement. And that this lack of agreement is delaying their plans. This still seems to be the case. Could it be that Watanabe hoped to strengthen his own chances of being selected to lead the Reformists by his performance in the Lower House today? And the subsequent press conference. Or, was he just trying to encourage his Reformist colleagues through his dramatic actions? Hard to say.

Concluding Comments

Well, here we are again. Way over time. And after doing so well on the last program! Sorry about that. I'll keep an eye on developments in Nagatacho between the Traditionalists and Reformists within the LDP over the Holidays. And try to let you know if something dramatic happens before the end of the calendar year. It's certainly possible. Likely? Well, that's going a bit far, I think. So, Happy Holidays. And

Good bye all. Until next time.