February 18, 2009; Volume 05, Number 06

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

[Listen to the audio file by clicking here]

Clink Links Below for Today's Topics

Current LDP Pathologies and the “Trials of Taro”
Why Has Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party Survived for So Long?
Change in Japan’s Domestic and International Environments
Current Frustrations
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, at Edisto Beach State Park. Right on Site Number 18. Today is Wednesday, February 18th, 2009. And you are listening to Volume 05, Number 06, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Yes. Wednesday already. It’s been busy here around here the past few days. Hmmm. And I thought “retirement” meant people sat around with all sorts of free time on their hands. Waiting for things to happen! Doesn’t seem to be the way it works! Oh well, each of us is given the same 24 hours in each day. We just have to learn to make the most of each of those hours. Same problem as before retirement!

On the last program, after looking into a couple of Japan’s on-going problems in the international arena, we considered the turbulent domestic political situation. Thanks to those of you who wrote in with your comments. Many of them were very thoughtful. Yes, I agree. There really are more differences than similarities when comparing Japan’s domestic political during the mid-19th century with its current early 21st century domestic political environment. And, yes, historical analogies often – if not usually – are misleading. Employed to support, or illustrate, a pre-determined conclusion, or point of view. Rather than to facilitate scholarly inquiry.

And that’s exactly why I mentioned it. Guilty as charged! Still, I think it’s a point worth making. Given the current turmoil in Japan’s national politics, it seems unlikely that anyone directly involved will manage to get things back on track. Whatever “back on track” means ….

Most of the most powerful central professional players simply have too much vested in the status quo to do what needs to be done. Even if they actually recognize what needs to be done. Which often they don’t. That’s what inspires me to look to the hinterland for alternatives. Of course, most important prefectural and local politicians too are heavily dependent on the traditional national system. Directly connected through the support organizations of influential Diet members. Sooo …. We’ll have to look hard even there for alternative players.

Now, it’s possible, of course, that an influential national political player will emerge with a plan for change. An individual who has the public communications skills necessary to “sell” their plan to Japan’s attentive public. And the political organizational skills necessary to attract the support of the Reformist-inclined members of the Diet. Either to overthrow the Traditionalist leadership of the LDP or of the DPJ. Or, to create a new Reformist party that will compete against both Traditionalist-led parties in the next few general elections.

The opportunity certainly exists. In public opinion poll after poll, those who respond “nobody in particular,” and “don’t know,” far outnumber those naming a particular individual they’d like to see become prime minister. Now, that, to me, represents an opportunity! Even within the Lower House of the Diet today there are dozens of incumbents who realize that the traditional political system is unlikely to work to their advantage during the next general election. Best known within this group are the “Koizumi Children.” LDP members elected in 2005 for the first time. There are over 80 of them. Think about that! And many of those so-called “Koizumi Children” are expected to lose their seats during the next general election. Pretty much abandoned by their own Party’s election managers. Hmmm. A fertile field from which to recruit supporters for a plan for change, it seems to me.

And those electorally vulnerable first-termers aren’t the only members of the Lower House who recognize that the traditional methods of election campaigning are in desperate need of revision. Some of the longer-serving Members have thrown their lot in with what I’ve described as the Reformists on this program. In opposition to the Traditionalist status quo.

However, we’ve yet to see an individual with the courage to stand up and lead the Reformist charge. Well, that’s not quite true. A number of individuals have indicated they’re ready to be selected. But none so far have exhibited the organizational skills necessary to emerge as “the one.” You may recall from earlier programs that one of the most active LDP Reformists, Yoshimi Watanabe, recently left the Party. And started a regionally-based organization he says will press for meaningful political reform. So far, though, Watanabe hasn’t attracted more than one or two other incumbent Diet members to his organization. Give him credit, though. He had the courage to stand up against the Aso Cabinet-supporting Traditionalists in the LDP, and the courage to resign his membership in the Party. And, he’s attracted the support of a few influential media commentators, as well as the head of Japan’s PHP organization. Both of the latter could be significant once things get moving.

Watanabe, it seems to me, is a far better strategist and facilitator than he is an out-front leader. And, I always assumed that he himself knew that. So, when he announced his decision to leave the LDP, I suspected he did so because he got sick and tired of the in-fighting within the Reformist Movement among those who considered themselves to be the natural leader of the group. So, he just left and went out on his own. That is based only on long-distance observation. I have no inside informant, and have never met Michio Watanabe’s son, Yoshimi. At any rate, there he is. Determined to fight off any challenges presented by LDP “assassin” candidates endorsed by the Party to unseat him. And I imagine his support group within the District, combined with any new organization he’s able to establish, will pull him through.

But this is not what I’d planned to consider today. Let’s spend our time together today considering the “Trials of Taro.” Or, more properly stated, the problems facing the Aso Cabinet and the LDP itself. Just what has happened to this long-ruling political party, which today holds nearly two-thirds of the Lower House seats in the Diet? With such an overwhelming parliamentary advantage, why in the world can’t the LDP provide Japan with more effective political leadership than we’ve seen exercised during the past couple of years?

Current LDP Pathologies and the “Trials of Taro”

First off, the “problem” in Japanese national politics today is not the premiership of Taro Aso. Rather, the “Trials of Taro” are merely a manifestation of political Japan’s larger problem. That is, the failure of Japan’s large national political parties today to recognize the fundamental changes in the domestic and international environments within which they operate. And to adapt their strategies and tactics for soliciting and maintaining electoral support to those changed conditions. Or, as serious, their inability and/or unwillingness to change if they actually do recognize it.

To be successful, a political party within any genuinely democratic modern political system has to attract the confidence and support of its attentive public. It can’t afford for very long to rely on simply being tolerated. Tolerated as the least disappointing alternative on the ballot come election time.

Why? Because in any genuinely democratic, competitive, political system other parties are eventually bound to arise to overthrow the merely tolerated party. By providing the attentive public with a more appealing alternative. And, until that happens, the governments elected will be weak and distrusted. That’s what we see in Japan today.

Why Has Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party Survived for So Long?

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has maintained power for all but a very short time in the early 1990s since its formation in 1955. And the conservative Liberal and Democratic Parties that combined to form the LDP in 1955, before that. There are a number of explanations of why and how that happened. I’ve always believed the LDP was able to remain in power for so long simply because it lacked credible opposition. The Socialists, the Communists – even the Komeito – all appealed to a relatively small sector of Japan’s voting population. They did little to broaden their support within Japan’s attentive public to the extent they really could challenge the LDP’s majority status.

But, even if true, that explanation raises a more fundamental question. Why didn’t a political party emerge capable of offering the LDP a genuine challenge? That question’s more difficult to answer. First, the incumbent Diet Members, and the groups and individuals who got and kept them elected, were comfortable with their “opposition” status. Few of them, you’ll notice, ever starved.

Even more important, Japan’s attentive public during the latter half of the 20th century simply didn’t care. It took some time for them to take seriously the notion of popular sovereignty enshrined in their post-World War Two, “We the People,” constitution. And, they had more immediate concerns at the time. First, just finding enough to eat within the devastation of World War Two. Then, recovery of Japan’s pre-war level of prosperity. And after the mid-1950s, a single-minded focus on economic growth and prosperity.

With the LDP dominating the representative political sector, Japan’s public was assured an econo-political environment within which they could pursue those objectives. With the crack national bureaucracies left to implement that goal. Efficiently, and without “political interference.”

There was no need for any re-evaluation of basic national goals. Economic recovery and growth pursued in a way that allowed adequate trickle-down effect was the overwhelming national goal. And the LDP supported that. True, there was some opportunity to argue over the nature or degree of the trickling-down. But the LDP managed to finesse that with a combination of business-labor cooperative arrangements. And, pork-barrel deals through which national representatives were relied on to “bring home the bacon” to the district. Bacon that supported local employment as well as enriching economic elites who funded the representatives’ electoral machinery. So, why bother! The elected sector of Japan’s national government could pretty much remain “O-kami,” or those above us. As long as their behavior wasn’t too embarrassing.

That describes the domestic situation. Hopefully, explains it. But the elected, or representative, component of a modern democratic national government has responsibility for the management of foreign relations as well as domestic affairs. So, how has the long-ruling LDP managed that? Well, here again, Japan’s elected representatives really had minimal responsibilities. Since during – and even for decades following – the Allied Occupation, Japan’s major foreign policies were decreed by Washington. Under the terms of the bilateral security treaty, after 1952. Prime minister after prime minister, and cabinet after cabinet, simply had to translate Washington’s international objectives into Japanese. And sell them at home as their own. That they did through skillful manipulation of “gai-atsu,” or external pressure. Something we’ve considered before on this program. So, why does it matter who’s prime minister? A little exaggerated, perhaps. But not by much.

Change in Japan’s Domestic and International Environments

That idyllic arrangement couldn’t last forever, however. Well, idyllic, at least, for those who’ve established “Diet Member” as the family business. And have prospered mightily within it. But environments inevitably change. Organizations, and other organisms, either adapt to those changes or waste away. Late 20th century Japan was no exception. Japan experienced dramatic changes in its domestic and international environments during the last two or three decades of the last century. Changes Japan’s traditional political parties were forced to recognize and adapt to. Most important domestically was enduring economic prosperity. And most important internationally, the end of the Cold War. We’ve considered these points too before on this program.

Domestically, by the mid-to-late 1980s, Japan’s population had enjoyed at least two decades of solid prosperity. World-class prosperity! Comparable to any other country in the world. Meaning, Japan had “caught up.” So, now what? Put another way, the overwhelming national goal of economic recovery and assurance of prosperity had been achieved. Inspiring Japan’s attentive public to consider how the pie was to be cut. Rather than how to make the pie bigger and bigger. Issues of allocation rather than expansion, in other words. Requiring of changes in policy, as well as efficient implementation of existing policies. This, of course, requires more effective political leadership.

And that wasn’t the only domestic change. Long-term economic prosperity gave Japan’s attentive public the leisure to think more about just how they were being served by their elected representatives. And the education to understand what was going on. Add to this the effect of several decades of civic education under the “We the People” popular sovereignty constitution; urbanization; and improvements in peer-to-peer communications technology. To name just a few of the more important environmental changes. All combining to create a less passive, more critical, attentive public in Japan. An attentive public that didn’t like what they saw when they looked more closely. Explaining the remarkably high “no party in particular” response to political party polls!

The process brings to mind the decline of corrupt machine politics in large American cities. During an earlier part of the last century. As immigrant populations were gradually educated and integrated into American society. There eventually to offer support for the anti-machine reform clubs. Before they moved off to New Jersey, or some other suburb. Before long, scuttles of coal or turkeys at Christmas just didn’t guarantee votes the way they once had. Might make an interesting academic comparison. Traditionalist koenkai politics in Japan is experiencing a similar fate, I think.

Now, what about changes in the international environment. The end of the Cold War isn’t the only change there. But I think it’s been the most significant. With the collapse of the Eastern pole of the Cold War-era bipolar system, Japan’s international environment became more fluid, less predictable. The value of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty changed for both Japan and the United States. Expectations increased around the globe for Japan’s involvement as a more independent international actor. A change that requires more effective and independent foreign relations decision-making on the part of Japan’s central political executive. And, once made, the ability of that central political executive to “sell” those decisions to Japan’s attentive public.

Current Frustrations

We certainly don’t see much evidence of that now! The overwhelmingly dominant Liberal Democratic Party has selected one failure after another as its party president. And that’s the individual who becomes Japan’s prime minister! Three in a row, by most observers’ calculations. Simply put, the central political executive recruitment system is failing Japan! I say failing, because it produces one incompetent prime minister after another. With little hope of any improvement next time around in its current configuration.

This isn’t a fundamental structural failure. That is, a problem that requires revision of the constitutional structure. Or that part defining the selection process for the central political executive. It’s a failure of the political party system. The system upon which the recruitment structure relies to manage the competitive process that selects the prime minister.

Japan’s political party system simply can’t play that role effectively any longer. Not within the current Japanese domestic political environment. Decades ago, it was possible for each major national party in Japan to assure electoral victory by maintaining personalistic, friends-and-neighbors, “bring-home-the-bacon” style relationships with their constituents. But that enormously expensive style of voter appeal doesn’t work under current conditions. As machine politician ward-heelers in urban America learned decades ago. It’s just too expensive to run. Leading to blatant corruption and financial scandals of the sort we’ve seen in Japan. And even when the prosecutors leave it alone, voters no longer are much impressed with an annual trip to the hot springs, a “policy” lecture or two, and school entrance recommendation letter that nobody’s likely to take seriously. Japan’s attentive public expects something more.

But what sort of “more”? Well, we’ve often considered that too on this program. But in summary, they expect their elected representatives to – well … -- represent them! To represent their views on critical policy issues. And to assume the policy formulation and policy implementation oversight responsibilities with which they’re charged under Japan’s We-the-People constitution. Not just to serve as over-paid tour guides hosting lunches for bus-loads of constituents visiting Tokyo.

Also, Japan’s attentive public is no longer willing to overlook blatant political corruption. The thinly disguised financial dealings with special interests required to run the Traditional system. Japan’s attentive public today expects their representatives to avoid the attention of the prosecutor’s investigators. And expects the prosecutors to more diligently pursue instances of blatant political corruption. All of which makes life miserable for many, if not most, Traditionalist politicians these days.

Which brings us to Japan’s political party system at the national level. The strenuous efforts of long-serving Diet members to preserve the traditional system that’s so richly rewarded them has delayed total collapse. A system that’s rewarded themselves, and often their fathers and grand-fathers. Even in some cases, great-grand-fathers! Delayed total collapse, but at considerable cost for Japan. Leaving Japan with ineffective central political leadership since at least 2005. By destroying the confidence of Japan’s attentive public in most anything they do. Leading to “no party in particular” as the party enjoying the highest level of public support in Japan today.

This, I think, is about to change. For reasons we’ve often considered on this program, it appears that Japan’s current political party system is about to collapse. And be reconfigured into something new. This won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t happen before, during, or immediately after the next general election. But the next general election, whenever it’s held, will push Japan’s party system in that direction. Into emergence of two major parties that represent the two sides of a critical cleavage in Japanese public opinion. With, of course, a few smaller parties remaining to serve more specialized constituencies.

What is that “critical cleavage” in Japanese public opinion? Well, for the time being, I think will be the debate over “political reform” we’ve considered so often here. Not over particular policy issues. That will come later. In other words, how electoral politics will work in Japan. The Traditionalists vs the Reformists. Now, that’s only one possibility, and I’m not smart enough to make predictions. But it seems like a good bet to me. We may well see the Traditionalists’ last gasp during the next general election. It will be interesting to watch.

Concluding Comments

Well, that’s all we have time for today. Thanks to all for tuning in. I hope the Mobile Studio equipment produces passable sound. And continue to send your comments and suggestions to me at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. Agree or disagree, they’re a great help. As are the suggestions for future topics. I’ve been working on an interesting new interview for the Japan Considered Project website that I’m sure you’ll all enjoy. Hopefully up before the end of the month, if events don’t intervene. So,

Goodbye all. Until next time.