Saturday, December 29, 2007

Fukuda shuffle coming

It has become increasingly clear that Prime Minister Fukuda will play the cabinet reshuffle card in response to sagging poll numbers, as early as mid-January, right around the time the House of Representatives will likely be voting a second time on the anti-terror law.

He will have an extremely short window with which to launch a new cabinet, with the next Diet session opening on 18 January.

I have written skeptically before about whether a reshuffle will be the answer to the prime minister's public opinion problem; it might buy him some time with the public and enable him to put off a general election until after the G8 summit in July, but reshuffle or no reshuffle, the DPJ will still be ensconced in the Upper House, complicating his efforts to move an agenda.

But if a reshuffle will have a negligible difference on the fight for an edge in the divided Diet, it could have a significant impact on the battle for control of the LDP. Mr. Fukuda is giving few hints about his thinking for a new cabinet lineup, and beyond the obvious removals (Hatoyama Kunio, for one, and probably Nukaga), it is, as Mr. Fukuda himself said, a "blank paper."

How will he deal with the party's reinvigorated conservatives? Will the reshuffle be the end of the truce between the cautious and the ideological? Will Mr. Fukuda ostracize the HANA conservatives and impose his stamp on his government? How would the ideologues react? I suspect they would do nothing, aside from writing more articles about the need for a "genuine conservatism" and continue plotting for the end of the Fukuda government. But the risk remains of more open warfare within the LDP, like that which burst out in August and September (and which characterized Mr. Koizumi's tenure).

Fukuda's "catch ball" diplomacy

Fukuda Yasuo is in China, and the contrasts, both with his earlier trip to Washington and Ozawa Ichiro's trip to China, are stunning, if not surprising.

Recall how earlier this month I criticized Mr. Ozawa for his over-the-top visit to Beijing, when he traveled with an entourage of hundreds and spoke in effusive terms about the Sino-Japanese relationship.

I think Mr. Fukuda has made my point about understated diplomacy. Without paying fealty and genuflecting before his Chinese hosts, the prime minister has indicated that he desires a new Sino-Japanese relationship that is treated with as much or greater care as Japan's relationship with the US.

Unlike his thirty-six-hour swing into Washington, Mr. Fukuda has stayed around long enough to make an impression. He met with Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, on Friday afternoon, with the talks focused more on practical matters — economic cooperation, the environment, the "strategic reciprocal partnership" — than on praising the relationship. On Friday evening, Mr. Fukuda met with President Hu Jintao, in which he explicitly said that Japan does not support Taiwanese independence but rejects a unilateral solution to the problem.

On Saturday, Mr. Fukuda played catch with Mr. Wen. (I will not comment on what that might have looked like after seeing pictures of the two old men in throwing position here.) The symbolism of this should not be underestimated. Playing catch, after all, is one of the oft-cited bonds that united President Bush and former Prime Minister Koizumi. (They played catch at Mr. Bush's ranch when first meeting in June 2001.) What a pointed but understated way for Mr. Fukuda to signal to Washington that Japan's priorities are changing, an argument Mr. Fukuda made explicitly when he visited Washington in November.

For the moment, concrete progress on disputed issues is beside the point. This is mood-setting, with its significance depending on Mr. Fukuda's staying around long enough to convert preliminary overtures into a lasting shift in Japanese foreign policy that will bind his successors. But the mood-setting is necessary. Japan is not in a position to choose between Beijing and Washington. It needs frank but cordial relations with both, although the two relationships are obviously different thanks to Japan's security relationship with the US. I remain unconvinced that grandiose rhetoric, which hints at a desire to prioritize the Sino-Japanese relationship to the detriment of the US-Japan relationship, is the way to change the mood in the Sino-Japanese relationship; by going to Beijing more quietly but no less determined to revive the relationship, Mr. Fukuda has, I think, embarrassed Mr. Ozawa yet again.

Now if he could only get certain US presidential candidates to realize that just as Japan has no choice between its largest trading partner and its most significant security partner, so the US has no choice but to maintain healthy relationships with both its long-time ally and trading partner and the emerging power.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

2007: The Year That Was In Japanese Politics

A recent article in the Yomiuri Shimbun surveying the Japanese political situation as 2007 gives way to 2008 included a sidebar that compared the present day with the bakumatsu, the last days of the Tokugawa.

Looking back over the events in political Japan over 2007, that comparison does not seem inappropriate. The picture that emerges is one of naiyu gaikan, a phrase from the bakamatsu referring to troubles at home and abroad that ultimately consumed the bakufu and served as the crucible for creation of the modern Japanese state. Rather than standing on the brink of a new restoration — as many Japanese politicians seem to think — Japan may be at the very nadir of this latest bakumatsu, with institutions in all areas of Japanese life breaking down under the stress of adjusting to new conditions. (Oddly enough, my first post of 2007 addressed Alvin Toffler’s idea of future shock as applied to Japan.)

Consider the events of the past year. Every month brought reports of corruption, fraud, and mismanagement in some area of Japanese life. I will focus, of course, on politics, but it is important to remember that 2007 saw major scandals and cover-ups in the food industry, professional baseball, sumo wrestling, and finance, the eikaiwa “industry” (specifically NOVA), and others that I have probably forgotten. Perhaps there is no better symbol than the Defense Ministry, which was hailed in January as a sign of the newly assertive Japan; by December it was widely criticized for corruption and had become the subject of a high-level reform panel. There was an unmistakable whiff of decay in the air, suggesting that the foundation of Mr. Abe’s “beautiful Japan” was rotten.

2007 may be remembered as the year that demolished the “Japan is back” meme.

Recall the confidence with which former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo headed into the New Year and the first regular Diet session of what many observers (and presumably Mr. Abe himself) assumed would be many. In early January the Japan Defense Agency became a full ministry, the result of a bill passed in the autumn 2006 extraordinary session of the Diet. Throughout January, Mr. Abe confidently declared that the 2007 would be the year of advancing the cause of constitutional revision — by passing a law establishing a national referendum system for constitution revision — and “leaving behind the postwar regime.” In his maiden speech to the Diet on 26 January, Mr. Abe spoke of remaking Japan to deal with twenty-first-century challenges.

His eyes fixed firmly on the distant horizon and his focus firmly on his obsessive pursuit of some ill-defined “beautiful country, Japan,” Mr. Abe walked straight into quicksand, which consumed his government and exposed the fragility of Japan’s recovery from its “lost decade” and the flimsiness of Japan’s pretensions to wield greater power regionally and globally.

As 2008 approaches, Fukuda Yasuo, Mr. Abe’s successor as prime minister and LDP president, is left to cope with problems inherited from Mr. Abe: a broken pensions system; an LDP torn between the reformist legacy of former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and the older legacy of generous state assistance to farmers, small businessmen, and other traditional LDP supporters scattered throughout Japan’s regions; and a “twisted” political system, in which the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, under the leadership of the mercurial Ozawa Ichiro, holds sway in the House of Councillors thanks to electoral gains in July’s election at the expense of Mr. Abe and the LDP.

He has also inherited international difficulties, not least turbulence in Japan’s relationship with the United States. Indeed, 2007 might also be remembered as the year of the slow-motion crisis in US-Japan relations, despite the presence of Mr. Abe, a favorite of Washington Japan hands, in the Kantei. After Christopher Hill, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, secured an agreement with North Korea at a meeting in Berlin in February to restart the stalled six-party talks a mere four months after North Korea’s putative nuclear test, disagreement between the US and Japan became inevitable. Under Mr. Abe, Japan took the lead in pressuring North Korea following the nuclear test, and its bargaining position in the six-party talks became decidedly inflexible on account of Mr. Abe’s special interest in the resolution of the dispute over North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the repeated assurances of US officials — from George W. Bush down — that the US would not forget Japan and its abductees in negotiations with North Korea, as the US committed more time and energy to reaching an agreement, a rift appeared increasingly inevitable. North Korea, whether by design or accidentally, scored a major diplomatic coup by appearing amenable to an agreement on its nuclear program, effectively isolating Japan in the six-party talks as the US shifted from Japan’s side to join with China, South Korea, and Russia to move negotiations forward. It is unclear whether Mr. Fukuda will be able to deemphasize the abductees and bring Japan’s negotiating position into line with the US, considering that doing so will likely require a bruising fight with conservatives in his own party.

Between the gap in US and Japanese bargaining positions on North Korea and the still-unresolved battle between the LDP and the DPJ over Japan’s refueling mission in support of coalition activities in Afghanistan, 2007 may be the year in which the US-Japan alliance began to consider structural reforms necessary to ensure the alliance’s continuing relevance. In November, both Robert Gates, US secretary of defense, and Mr. Fukuda acknowledged the existence of structural deficiencies and argued for the need to answer fundamental questions about the alliance.

In politics, the biggest story of the year was, of course, the rapid decay of the Abe government, which prompted a near-civil war within the LDP before and after the House of Councillors election.

In January, there was the Yanagisawa indiscretion, in which Yanagisawa Hakuo, the minister of health, labor, and welfare, referred to women as “birth-giving machines”; this was but the most egregious in a series of inappropriate remarks by Mr. Abe’s cabinet ministers and advisers that seriously undermined public confidence in the government by making the government seem insensitive to the public (months before the pensions scandal demolished whatever illusions remained about the Abe cabinet’s concern for the Japanese people).

From February we witnessed the saga of Matsuoka Toshikatsu, Mr. Abe’s minister for agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, who stood accused of gross violations of laws regulating the use of political funds. Mr. Matsuoka spent most of the Diet session obfuscating, spinning a convoluted web of explanations that was laughable right up until the moment that Mr. Matsuoka hanged himself in late May. (Of course, the presence of Mr. Matsuoka in the cabinet was — or should have been — a scandal in its own right, given Mr. Matsuoka’s history of corruption, bribery, and use of his office to interfere with the policymaking process to the benefit of his supporters, his constituents, and, of course, himself. Mr. Matsuoka’s case was but the most prominent example of the corruption epidemic that hit Japanese politics in 2007. “Money and politics” was one of the year’s political leitmotifs, right up until the end of the year, with the LDP finally giving in to demands from opposition parties and its coalition partner Komeito to revise the political funds control law to require reporting for all expenses over one yen. Corruption brought down both of Mr. Matsuoka’s successors as agriculture minister, and became a major issue in the formation of Mr. Abe’s second cabinet during August, as the LDP struggled in vain to assemble a lineup that would be free of the accusations that dogged the first Abe cabinet. We should not forget, however, that allegations of corruption crossed party lines, with Mr. Ozawa as the most notable target for allegedly using his political support groups to purchase real estate, a forbidden practice.

The Matsuoka fiasco hit just as the Abe government took an ultimately fatal blow when a DPJ member of the House of Representatives questioned the government about missing pensions records, ultimately revealed to be on the order of more than 50 million missing records. Those affected were the most vulnerable members of Japanese society, those without a history of lifelong employment with a single company who therefore depended on the inadequate state pensions system. The revelations prompted widespread insecurity among the Japanese people, which was bad enough for the Abe government, but Mr. Abe made the situation worse in his tone-deaf and dilatory response to the situation: his first instinct was to defend the bureaucrats, who, it has since been revealed, were responsible for shoddy, careless work that exhibited a wanton disregard for the people they ostensibly served. The result was that Mr. Abe’s public support was fatally undermined; the election campaign, which Mr. Abe had wanted to focus on his issues of constitution revision, education reform, and national defense, instead focused on the pensions issue and associated “lifestyle” issues, those issues that Mr. Abe spent his time in office largely avoiding. The public did not necessarily reject his ideological program outright: the Japanese people simply decided to stop indulging the prime minister and punish him and his party for their misguided priorities.

All told, the pensions issue became what Columbia University’s Gerald Curtis has called Mr. Abe’s “Hurricane Katrina” moment. There was nothing Mr. Abe could do to escape from his predicament, which was largely of his own making. Extending the regular session of the Diet to pass a few more token laws, pushing the date of the July election back a week, apologizing profusely for the pensions scandal: none of it mattered. By 29 July, the only questions left were how big the LDP’s defeat would be and whether Mr. Abe would somehow be able to weather a landslide and cling to power. Thanks in part to Mr. Ozawa’s inspired campaigning, in which he sojourned in rural Japan in the hopes of taking advantage of rural discontent with both Mr. Abe’s rule and the negative consequences of Mr. Koizumi’s reforms, the DPJ won a victory of historic proportions, winning overwhelmingly in single-seat constituencies across Japan and making an exceptionally strong showing in Tokyo and the densely populated three-seat constituencies surrounding the capital.

The precipitous decline of Mr. Abe sparked a battle for the future of the LDP that remains unresolved and could very well intensify in 2008. Even before the election LDP members were publicly criticizing Mr. Abe for his disastrous leadership and speculating about the timing of his departure from office. The electoral defeat simply intensified the battle.

Mr. Abe managed to hold on for August, despite worsening health and appeals from party elders — including former Prime Minister Mori — to resign. By holding on, waiting a month before reshuffling his cabinet, and delaying the start of the extraordinary Diet session, Mr. Abe may have encouraged disarray within his party. The post-election vacuum likely prompted more jockeying for power among LDP leaders, not least by Aso Taro, his foreign minister and presumptive heir. (Mr. Aso’s maneuverings in the aftermath of the election led to questions in the media following Mr. Abe’s resignation about a possible Aso “coup” against the prime minister in the hopes of easing his path to power.) Even before Mr. Abe resigned, the party’s fault lines were apparent: the conservative ideologues grouped around Mr. Abe, who wanted the campaign to cast off the postwar regime to press on despite the election returns, were increasingly opposed to the party’s cautious elders, who, whatever their ideological leanings, feared that the election was a signal to the LDP to change its ways, to be more sensitive to the concerns of the people and more willing to work with the ascendant DPJ. Not surprisingly, it was in August that the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper of the conservative establishment, began calling for a grand coalition for the DPJ. The underlying issue was the party’s post-Koizumi identity. If there’s one thing that the two camps could agree upon, it was the need to distance the LDP from Mr. Koizumi. Mr. Abe spent most of his year in office trying to differentiate himself from his charismatic predecessor, and in the post-election struggles, Mr. Koizumi’s followers remained marginal.

Mr. Abe finally resigned on 12 September, although not before a surprisingly defiant maiden speech at the opening of the Diet two days earlier and an intensification of his rhetoric on the extension of the anti-terror law, which had emerged as the defining issue of the post-election political environment due mainly to the DPJ leadership’s announcement in the immediate aftermath of the election that it opposed extension of the law. While the precise timing of Mr. Abe’s announcement was surprising — at least to everyone but Mr. Aso — his departure was not. The already-in-progress battle within the LDP simply manifested itself openly in the LDP’s presidential election campaign, with the party elders quickly deciding to back Mr. Fukuda (eight of nine factions, or, perhaps more accurately, faction leaders endorsed his candidacy), and the conservative ideologues rallying behind Mr. Aso.

Mr. Fukuda’s victory at the end of September was widely reported as a landslide, but a look at the voting in the LDP’s prefectural chapters suggests that were it not for the LDP’s quirky election laws, the party election could have been considerably closer. The margin of victory in prefectures where Mr. Aso lost to Mr. Fukuda was in many cases considerably narrower than in prefectures won by Mr. Aso. (And as it turned out, Mr. Aso received higher support in voting among Diet members than he would have had members followed the endorsements of their faction heads.) The party united behind Mr. Fukuda after his victory, although Mr. Aso made a point of not joining the Fukuda cabinet, but the unity that followed the election should be regarded as a truce, not a peace treaty. The December formation of a “true conservative” study group under Nakagawa Shoichi, chairman of the LDP’s Policy Affairs Research Council under Mr. Abe, suggests that in 2008 the truce could come to an end should Mr. Fukuda’s difficulties continue.

The tasks facing Mr. Fukuda upon taking office were daunting. Beyond ending the LDP’s internal disorder, he had to assuage Komeito, which had also taken a blow in the July election and whose support had been taken for granted under Mr. Abe. More importantly, he had to begin the process of devising new rules of the game under a divided Diet. Mr. Fukuda gained a temporary political victory when it emerged that Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Ozawa had purportedly discussed an LDP-DPJ grand coalition in private meetings, as the DPJ rank-and-file reacted in horror, leading to the fiasco surrounding Mr. Ozawa’s aborted resignation — but that episode did not necessarily bring the two parties any closer to determining whether and how the two parties and (two chambers) would cooperate on legislation.

Beyond these challenges, there was the struggle over policy. Thanks to Mr. Abe’s escalation on the refueling mission — his “international promise” — Mr. Fukuda had little choice but to maintain Mr. Abe’s policy, going so far as to extend the Diet session into January and (presumably) use the government’s supermajority in the House of Representatives to pass the new enabling law over objections from the DPJ and the House of Councillors. Regardless of what the new year brings, the DPJ has effectively “won” on this issue. The MSDF ships returned home following the expiration of the previous law on 1 November, but more importantly, the Fukuda government was forced to focus on the anti-terror law, a low-priority issue for the Japanese people, instead of devoting its energy to the pensions issue and other social issues. The cost of falling into the DPJ’s trap became apparent in December when the pensions scandal re-erupted, prompting the first substantial drop in Mr. Fukuda’s public support.

The events of 2007 have left a number of unanswered questions about Japan’s future. Will the LDP be able to heal the rift that has emerged since Mr. Koizumi left office? Will Mr. Fukuda be forced into calling a snap election, and will the LDP emerge victorious? Are the DPJ — and Mr. Ozawa — ready to govern? Will the divided Diet be able to produce legislation that strikes a balance between advancing structural reform and protecting those citizens hurt by structural reform? What role will Japan play in the region and the world, and how will the US-Japan alliance change to reflect Japan’s new role?

In addressing these questions, I hope that Japanese politicians draw the right lessons from the bakumatsu and the Meiji Restoration. Mr. Abe seemed to think that if he spoke in more grandiose terms about Japan’s role, visited the troops, and modified Japan’s national security institutions, Japan would magically wield more power and influence globally. But there is no shortcut to playing a greater role internationally. In the twenty-first century especially, national power depends as much on the strength and durability of domestic institutions (and a country’s openness to flows of goods, people, money, and ideas) as it does on more traditional metrics. Without reform in how Japan educates its children, provides for its elderly, interacts with the global economy, uses its workforce, and conducts its politics, Japan’s influence will shrink. Future governments need to be more concerned about these aspects of Japanese life — the lasting foundation for national power in the twenty-first century — than about the outward manifestations of national power. Architects of the modern Japanese state understood that national power depended on the quality of domestic institutions. Do their successors?

The answer to that question will determine where Japan will go from 2007. Was it a turning point on the road to a new system that will reinvigorate Japan? Or will the Japanese people and their elected representatives be unable to undertake structural reform that overcomes the sclerosis?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Last chance to vote

Voting at What Japan Thinks for the Japan blogs of the year closes in less than twelve hours.

My colleagues at Transpacific Radio and I have been running neck and neck in the category of Best serious blog on Japan.

If you like what you've read on this blog over the past year, you can vote here.

The problem with Fukuda

The DPJ's Nagashima Akihisa, writing at his blog, cites Max Weber's "Politics as a vocation" to criticize not just Mr. Fukuda but his predecessors and express his hope for a different style of politics under DPJ rule.

Mr. Nagashima quotes from the concluding paragraph of the essay:
Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth --that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.
Mr. Fukuda, he argues, feels no passion. Mr. Abe, meanwhile, felt plenty of passion — driven by the certainty that he, and no one else, had the right ideas for Japan's future — but was lacking in judgment, leading to poor personnel decisions, an inability to respond to events, and an aloofness to the interests of the Japanese. Mr. Nagashima is more charitable to Mr. Koizumi, whom, he argues, had both judgment and passion as prime minister. The problem was that Mr. Koizumi's politics were "fireworks" politics, flashy but with little enduring substance.

Mr. Nagashima concludes that for the DPJ to succeed, it must hew to these principles. It must dedicate itself to improving the livelihood of the people, continuing on "in spite of everything."

There is considerable merit in his description of the qualities and failings of the current and recent LDP governments. For my part, I thought Mr. Fukuda's "passionless" politics would be an improvement following the frenetic politics of Messrs. Koizumi and Abe. I thought by draining the theatricality from politics, he would adjust the government's priorities and begin making the case, patiently and without hyperbole, for structural change needed to reinvigorate Japan.

At this point, it looks like I was wrong. Mr. Fukuda has been so low key that he has disappeared. After stabilizing the LDP and the coalition with Komeito, he has failed to begin articulating a way forward for his government, his party, and the country.

Mr. Fukuda, I think, belongs to the cautious tendency within the LDP. One can divide the LDP a number of ways, but I think one of the most important divisions going forward is between risk-takers and risk-avoiders. Mr. Koizumi was a risk-taker par excellence, both domestically and internationally. His gambling led to his ultimate gamble, that of risking his government's majority in the hope of gaining a mandate for postal privatization. The landslide victory in September 2005 has somewhat obscured the reality that there were real concerns that Mr. Koizumi's government would not receive a simple majority of seats in the House of Representatives, let alone the two-thirds majority that it eventually received.

But the most revealing moment from the summer and autumn 2005 may not have been the drama-filled election campaign but the decision made by the LDP executive council in late June to force Mr. Koizumi — on the basis of an unprecedented majority vote in the council, instead of a unanimous decision — to accept revisions to the six bills for postal privatization. The party elders, fearful of the consequences to the LDP of Mr. Koizumi's uncompromising push for postal privatization, thought that the key to minimizing the risk to the party was corralling the passion of Mr. Koizumi.

Once Mr. Koizumi departed, if not before then, the party was back in the hands of the risk-averse elders, who thought the key to restoring balance was the superficially pleasing Abe Shinzo. The failure of the Abe cabinet can be chalked up to misdirected passion. Mr. Abe, for all his passion, never risked anything. The revision of the fundamental law on education? Elevating the JDA to ministry status? The political consequences of these measures were limited. Even the constitutional referendum law was not particularly harmful to the government. The problem was in heeding the advice of the risk avoiders and backing away from both structural reform and efforts to heal the pain of structural reform, by, say, acting swiftly to fix the welfare system. I remain convinced that Mr. Abe — or those who whispered in his ear — did just about nothing from the time he took office until the July Upper House election because he sought to avoid the risks associated with Koizumi-style reform politics.

Mr. Fukuda, it seems, is just as incapable of taking the risks to transform the economy and political systems as Mr. Abe was, but for different reasons. I do not think the divided Diet is the primary reason. A bolder leader might find a way to present a vision to the public and use public support to force a recalcitrant DPJ to either cooperate or watch the government pass legislation over Upper House opposition. Mr. Fukuda has almost made a point of not presenting a program for his government. (MTC gets at the problem here: Mr. Fukuda has been so wrapped up in finishing what Mr. Abe started on the anti-terror bill that not only has he been able to articulate an alternative approach to this issue, he has been unable to articulate policies on other issues, including the lingering pensions problem.)

There is nothing inherently wrong with a "low posture" that drains some of the energy from politics, but a low posture cannot mean the absence of policy. Mr. Fukuda may have one more chance to correct this, at the start of the regular session in January.

Meanwhile, I have my doubts about whether the DPJ can be the party that Mr. Nagashima wants it to be. At the moment, the DPJ seems to wholly lack an "in spite of it all" attitude, reacting more to the vicissitudes of public opinion than acting from deeply held passions. This may be a result of the nature of life in opposition, but I'm not clear how the DPJ can transition from shiftless opposition party to ruling party insensitive to the ups and downs of public opinion. (It's much easier to see it becoming a shiftless ruling party.) Mr. Nagashima suggests that the DPJ must ensure that all of its candidates have "guts." Perhaps a bit easier said than done.

UPDATE — Everyone is apparently reading Weber this weekend. Arthur Goldhammer, author of the indispensable blog French Politics, recommends Weber's essay to M. Sarkozy in this post.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The DPJ will submit its own bill after all

In the latest twist in the saga over Japan's involvement in operations in and around Afghanistan, the DPJ has decided that it will submit its own bill today.

Asahi notes that the DPJ move is in response to recent public opinion polls that show rising opposition to the MSDF's resuming its refueling mission.

Hatoyama Yukio explained that the party's decision was rooted in a desire to explain the party's thinking directly to the people.

It's not clear to me what changed to inspire this about-face. If anything, there's less need for the DPJ to take on a position of its own now that the LDP has destroyed the plurality of support it once enjoyed on this issue.

The DPJ's position remains unchanged from the start of this Diet session. The DPJ bill will call for humanitarian contributions in Afghanistan, without armed participation in ISAF. Of course, the more substantial the Japanese contribution on the ground, the greater the need for allied forces to ensure the safety of Japanese personnel. With concerns being raised from all corners about the inadequacies of current allied forces in Afghanistan — the latest being the Rudd government — I don't expect that the allied countries will be pleased to have to divert forces away from fighting the insurgency to defend an unarmed Japanese detachment.

Additionally, taking this approach, the DPJ may give the LDP an opportunity to regroup, enabling the government to remind the Japanese people that the refueling mission provides a low-risk way for Japan to meet its supposed international obligations and argue that although the DPJ plan is "non-military," it places a burden on other countries and puts Japanese personnel in harm's way.

I remain baffled by Mr. Ozawa's thinking. I agree that the DPJ owes it to the Japanese people to explain their thinking and provide alternatives to the government's plans, but having decided not to do so on this issue — and having paid no cost as far as I can see — I don't understand why the DPJ would change at the last minute and submit its own bill.

Back to Japan

At least for a bit...

I will be in Japan for two weeks from Tuesday. Blogging will probably be light. Although I am going to try to make this an actual vacation, I would consider doing a casual bar get-together with readers if there's enough interest.

Let me know.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Will a reshuffle matter?

Mainichi reports that pressure within the LDP for a cabinet reshuffle is building, as Prime Minister Fukuda and his lieutenants search for ways to reverse the drastic decline in support for the government (the latest sign being a poll that shows more support for a grand coalition or a DPJ-centered coalition than for the current LDP-Komeito coalition).

The argument, at least accordingly to former Prime Minister Mori, is that Mr. Fukuda's cabinet is a hand-me-down from Mr. Abe — it is not truly Mr. Fukuda's cabinet. Accordingly, Mr. Fukuda should reshuffle the cabinet to solidify his control of the control.

I somehow don't think that Mr. Fukuda's problem is the composition of his cabinet. But for the unfortunate Hatoyama Kunio, his cabinet has avoided the amateurish mistakes of the Abe cabinet. The problem is that having stabilized the party following the post-election chaos, Mr. Fukuda has done little else. Perhaps distracted by the fight over the refueling mission, not only has he failed to address the pensions problem effectively, he has also failed to make any progress on addressing the LDP's structural problems. How exactly does the LDP plan to contest the next election? Oh, that's right, by picking candidates "who can win".

It is no surprise that every week brings more news of the resurgent conservatives. The latest is that the membership of the HANA study group — the "True Conservative Policy Study Group" — is now up to seventy-seven members from both houses, with members from all LDP factions except for the Tanigaki faction. At the group's second meeting, on Wednesday, Fujiwara Masahiko, the author of the bestselling Kokka no Hinkaku, addressed the group.

What would these conservatives, whose ideological bedfellows in the media have not stopped questioning Mr. Fukuda's conservative credentials since he took office in September, do in the event of a cabinet reshuffle? Would they quietly respect the prime minister's choices, or would they try to use the reshuffle as an opportunity to reassert their position in the party and steer the government their direction?

It is still not Mr. Fukuda's party. A reshuffle will not change that: it just raises the risk of upsetting the uneasy truce the party has enjoyed since the presidential election. Responsibility for the future of his cabinet ultimately lies with Mr. Fukuda. It's time he acted like it.

Haass on allies and rivals

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, had an op-ed in the Financial Times this week (excerpted from a forthcoming article in The National Interest) in which he reconsiders the nature of US relationships with traditional allies and perceived enemies.

Calling it the emergence of a "Palmerstonian moment," Haass wrote, "We are entering an era of foreign policy and international relations where countries are neither automatically predictable adversaries nor allies. They may be active partners on one issue on one day and largely inactive observers on another issue the next. Or they may carry out alternative or opposing policies."

There is considerable value in his argument, especially from the perspective of the US-Japan relationship, in light of the ongoing debate over Japan's involvement in Afghanistan operations. (Ambassador Schieffer has reminded the Japanese once again — in case they forgot — that the US thinks that it would be a "real tragedy" if Japan were to opt out of the war on terror.) A coalition of the willing is a double-edged sword: if the US is going to wage war without seeking the formal approval of its allies, then those allies are free to opt out, without Washington's throwing a tantrum (i.e., "freedom fries").

As I've argued in earlier posts, strategic flexibility is becoming increasingly important in international relations, in Asia especially. The more potential partners, the greater the ability of a great power to achieve desired ends. Haass cited the example on the role played by China in the six-party talks: "Beijing, in this case – not Nato – was and is the most important partner for Washington in its efforts to denuclearise North Korea. This does not, however, mean China is on the verge of becoming a US ally on other issues."

Haass' op-ed also touches the idea that no matter how cordial relations between the US and its allies become thanks to leadership changes, the US and its allies will not see the world the same way anytime soon. I think that the perceptual gap between a global superpower and regional powers is simply too great, making it difficult for the US and its allies to agree not just on courses of actions, but even on the shared interests supposedly underlying alliances.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Not your father's (or grandfather's) LDP?

Asahi reports that the LDP has leaped into the twenty-first century and set up a YouTube channel of its own, with Kono Taro, third-generation LDP member of the House of Representatives (and third-generation potential party leader) as the party's face on YouTube.

The innovation is not in putting videos on the Internet — there has been no shortage of videos released by the LDP and the Kantei — but in doing it through YouTube, which necessarily means making the party videos open to public comment (and criticism). If the old party Internet strategy emphasized one-way communication, this step could signal the LDP's, or at least its young members', embrace of technology to enhance multi-directional communication between the party and Japanese voters.

The content currently available at the channel by no means suggests a revolution in Japanese political communication, but it's a start. At this point, any step taken to open the political system to the Japanese people is a good thing. This effort does suggest that at least some LDP members realize that the party needs to broaden its appeal. It cannot afford to write off urban and younger voters.

Could the next LDP presidential election — or the next general election — be Japan's first YouTube election?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Recommended Book: Securing Japan, Richard Samuels

In the aftermath of Japan's first successful test of its ballistic missile defense systems, the "Japan Rising" meme will undoubtedly be on the lips of foreign commentators. Expect more articles like the NYT article by Norimitsu Onishi discussed in this post in July.

Fortunately MIT's Richard Samuels, in his latest book Securing Japan, provides a more balanced look at Japan's changing security posture. Samuels studiously avoids the extremes of the debate, offering instead a level-headed scholarly discussion of the dynamics of Japanese security policy both at present and since the Meiji Restoration. Unlike Kenneth Pyle's Japan Rising, however, which is largely a history of Japanese foreign policy change, Samuels spends at least as much time discussing where Japan is going as where it has been.

His conclusion is that the security policy consensus — the successor of the Yoshida Doctrine — that will emerge from the contemporary debate will not be the result of the revisionists simply imposing their will on the Japanese people. Rather, it will be the result of a compromise (what Samuels calls a "Goldilocks consensus") that strikes a balance between the alliance with the US and economic integration in Asia and a constructive relationship with China, while lifting some of the limits on Japan's armed forces, a process that Samuels shows is well underway.

The new Japan, Samuels argues, will look more like Canada or Germany, a country reluctant to use force aggressively but willing to play an armed role in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction. As a result of living in a more dangerous neighborhood, the JSDF's mission profile will, of course, differ somewhat from other US allies, in that it will have to monitor activities in the air and seas around Japan and repel intruders when necessary, as Japan's Coast Guard is already doing (documented at length by Samuels). But the end result will be a looser US-Japan alliance — in which Japan might occasionally say no — and a greater focus on Asia by Japan, both as a source of security threats and economic opportunities.

This would be, I think, a positive outcome for Japan (and the US).

I would like to make note of a couple more things about this book. First, as in previous books and articles, Samuels shows his first-class skills as a political "taxonomist." For those confused about the differing schools of thought in the contemporary Japanese debate, Samuels deftly explains the differences and traces their roots back to the late nineteenth century.

Second, for my part I find his theoretical approach appealing. Samuels is a self-described "realist," but he is not a structural realist. As he demonstrated clearly in Machiavelli's Children (discussed in this post), leaders matter — and domestic politics matter. National interests and foreign policies are not simply determined by the international system. They are the result of a complex, messy interaction between the international system and domestic political systems, with politicians and bureaucrats playing a mediating role, trying to advance their personal interests and their visions of the nation's interests simultaneously. The result is that policy changes do not always have obvious international antecedents. There are often lags, as states struggle to interpret changes in the international environment.

The result is that we now have a comprehensive guide to how Japan has interpreted recent international changes and changed its domestic institutions so to be better able to interpret international signals, a guide that will also be useful in putting events like Japan's BMD test in perspective.

Desperate for a win

In the midst of new polls showing that support for his government is waning, Prime Minister Fukuda has announced his plans for traveling to Beijing.

The prime minister will leave for China on Thursday, 27 December, meet with President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on 28 December, and return to Japan on 30 December. As Asahi notes, Mr. Fukuda has a difficult task ahead of him, as Japan and China struggle to resolve the lingering East China Sea gas field dispute and find a way to deepen cooperation on green technology. (On the other hand, what a relief that Beijing and Tokyo are wrangling over these issues rather than not talking or, worse, trading barbs over history.)

Nevertheless, Mr. Fukuda's trip will not be the grand visit that was Mr. Ozawa's: there will be (or should be) fewer speeches and more talks on resolving differences and building a framework for cooperation over the longer term. While a successful summit will by no means solve all of his problems, it could give him some momentum going into the climactic showdown over the refueling mission and the start of the regular Diet session. Whether China will be obliging remains to be seen. As Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura made clear this morning, although negotiations are moving forward at different levels, agreement remains elusive.

These will be decisive weeks for the prime minister. He needs to rise above the fray, to look less harried and more in command of the situation (even if in reality he isn't). His premiership isn't doomed yet, but its shelf life could shorten considerably if he does not begin setting a course for his government. Beijing may be a good place to start.

Vote for me (if you'd like)

It turns out that I have been nominated in the category of "Best serious blog on Japan" in Japan Blogs of the Year voting at What Japan Thinks .

This is as good an opportunity as any to thank all of you again for your comments (even and especially those that disagree with me — keep them coming), emails, and readership.

If you feel that I'm deserving, you can vote here.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The pensions issue strikes again

The big news of the day is the sharp decline in the Fukuda cabinet's popularity, as found in a Kyodo poll (see articles in the Sankei Shimbun and the Tokyo Shimbun).

The poll found an 11.7% drop in the cabinet's favorable rating, to 35.3%. The unfavorable rating experienced a corresponding 11% rise to 47.6%. The overwhelming reason for the reversal appears to be anger over the latest reports on the ongoing pensions scandal — but the consequences are widespread. The poll recorded a drop in support for the new anti-terror bill, with those opposed now outnumbering those in favor 46.7% to 38.8%. The poll also found a sizable plurality (44.7%) favor a DPJ-centered coalition government, compared to only 28.5% for an LDP-centered government.

This is unquestionably bad news for the government, because the public — noncommittal for the past several months — may finally be making up its mind about Mr. Fukuda. The problems at the Social Insurance Agency are by no means Mr. Fukuda's fault, having existed long before the formation of his government. And Mr. Fukuda, unlike the hapless Mr. Abe, has not been tone deaf in his response to the latest revelations. He is not oblivious to the significance of this issue for the LDP (is there a member of the party who isn't grimly aware of the pension scandal's significance?), but he is, it seems, powerless.

On cue, the DPJ has stepped up its pressure on the government. Speaking in Yamanashi prefecture on Sunday, Ozawa Ichiro castigated the LDP for failing to live up to its promises on pensions. Hatoyama Yukio, meanwhile, revisited the question of whether the DPJ will push for an Upper House censure motion on NHK, suggesting that it will depend on public opinion. This is nothing new, but it takes on new significance in light of the latest public opinion poll.

With another month left in the Diet session, there is plenty of time for the situation to change. The latest poll results could be a temporary blip. An eleven-point drop is substantial, but it is not a free fall, not yet anyway. And the DPJ must be careful not to overreach, because it is no less sensitive to the vicissitudes of public opinion (and by the admission of its own leaders, not ready to contest an early election).

The task for the DPJ is to use the next month to begin building momentum going into the regular Diet session. A censure motion, and the question of how to respond should the government ignore it, could, as acknowledged by Mr. Hatoyama, undermine the DPJ's public support.

I still think the DPJ needs to rise above merely exposing the government's numerous and varied failings, elevating its critique into a full-fledged vision for post-LDP government rooted in transparency and accountability, but I am remain skeptical that the DPJ will follow this course over the next month.

Should the government ignore a censure motion, I do hope that the DPJ refrains from walking out of Diet deliberations, an option mentioned by Mr. Hatoyama. One of the DPJ's aims should be to make Diet deliberations more meaningful — and I fail to see how non-participation serves this end.

Unease in Japan, yawns in America?

The Yomiuri Shimbun has published the results of a poll (conducted with Gallup in the US) that surveyed American and Japanese attitudes towards their respective national institutions and the US-Japanese relationship.

As the article summarizing the poll reports, Yomiuri recorded a 14% (to 39%) and 15% (to 46%) drops respectively in the number of Japanese and American respondents answering affirmatively to the question, "Do you think the current US-Japan relationship is good."

But when one looks that the detailed list of questions asked and the responses, it seems that American responses tend towards the noncommittal. In response to the aforementioned question, for example, 43.6% of American respondents either could not say or did not answer the question. A mere 10.4% said that relations were bad or very bad. Some 60% of American respondents, in answering the question whether they trust Japan, answered that they have great or some trust in Japan, compared to 30% who said that they have little or no trust in Japan. A quarter of American respondents did not answer the question about what impact Prime Minister Fukuda will have on US-Japan relations. (A better question might have been, can you name the prime minister of Japan.)

The survey also asked a number of questions about foreign policy, among which a few bits caught my eye. In a question about threat perception, there was a vast difference in the percentage of American and Japanese respondents who view the "Middle East" as a threat. (Let's leave aside the question of what this painfully imprecise response actually tells us.) 76% of American respondents said that they view the Middle East as a threat, while only 34.3% of Japanese respondents said the same. I think this illustrates one of the US-Japan alliance's underlying structural problems, namely that there is little public support in Japan for the transformation of the US-Japan alliance into a global actor active in the Middle East. Japanese threat perceptions are largely focused on (not surprisingly) two countries in its neighborhood, dropping off sharply the further one gets from Japanese shores. American threat perceptions are higher than Japanese perceptions in every instance except for North Korea and China. The US is a global security power, Japan is not. There is no way around this fact.

Also interesting was the question about US bases in Japan, which asked whether the US should reinforce its presence, hold it steady, reduce it, or completely withdraw. A sizable majority (58.2%) of Americans said the US should hold it steady, while in Japan, 52% said the US should cut or withdraw its troops (42.2% favored a cut, 9.8% full withdrawal), while 40% said the US should hold its troop presence steady. Only 1.3% said the US should increase its forces. It is unclear whether this question takes into account the cuts to which both governments agreed in 2006, but these responses do suggest that conflict over this issue remains considerable in Japan. (Another problem with this question is that responses would no doubt vary depending upon whether it was asked in a prefecture hosting US forces.)

In short, I don't think this survey tells us all that much about the US-Japan relationship, other than that the Japanese people pay a great detail more attention to the relationship than the American people do. Japanese responses tend to be more varied, suggesting the existence of real, studied opinions on the questions asked, whereas the American responses tend towards the status quo and benign responses, which appear to me to be the default responses when lacking information. ("I haven't heard anything about problems with Japan, so things must be ok.")

This is an unavoidable fact of life in the alliance. No Japanese politician could become prime minister without a considered opinion of the US-Japan relationship, at the very least. Given the frequency with which cabinet ministers are lauded for their "pipelines" to the US, much more is expected. Thanks in part to the enduring US presence, the relationship with the US is at the forefront of political discussions.

And in the US? Japan barely merits mention in debates among presidential candidates, and has even less visibility among the American people.

None of this is surprising, of course. There's nothing new about Japan's being less visible in the US than the US in Japan. But it's worth recalling when looking at numbers like this. I find it hard to believe that there's an American public opinion on the US-Japan relationship that exists independent of polls taken to measure supposed opinions.

Mr. Fukuda may desire greater intellectual exchanges between the US and Japan, but the impact of any expansion of bilateral intellectual and cultural contacts will be marginal at best — and while Mr. Aso touts the glories of Japan's cultural exports, it is unclear to me whether Tokyo can use this soft power to its advantage and raise its political profile in the US and the world at large. If anything, the cultural exports have contributed to the further trivialization of Japan in the eyes of the world. (Japan: manga and Hello Kitty superpower, political midget.)

Post-summit election?

In recent days, the message from the LDP's leaders has been that the government is considering calling a general election later in 2008, following the G8 summit to be held in Hokkaido in July.

Nikai Toshihiro, chairman of the LDP's executive council, argued in a speech in Osaka on Saturday for a post-summit election, suggesting that a successful summit will put the government in a strong position from which to ask the people for a new mandate.

Prime Minister Fukuda, meanwhile, in a press conference on Friday dismissed the notion of an early election, insisting that his first priorities are getting the budget passed and successfully hosting the G8 (as well as the passage of a permanent law on JSDF dispatch). He also suggested that a cabinet reshuffle remains an option as a way to break the political deadlock, although it is unclear to me how a new cabinet lineup would make much difference. Is there a lineup that the prime minister could assemble that would (a) be free to corruption and a tendency for inappropriate remarks (such as Hatoyama Kunio's friend-of-a-friend Al Qaeda member remark, which the prime minister recently called "interesting") and (b) lead the public to rally to the government's side in its showdown with the DPJ?

There is no magic bullet for resolving the divided Diet. A general election certainly won't do it, seeing as how it would most likely deprive the government of its supermajority without giving the DPJ a majority, meaning that I still don't buy talk of a general election in 2008. Note that in his remarks, Mr. Fukuda was careful to note that it would depend on the political situation following the G8 summit. And then it will depend on the political situation following the 2008 extraordinary session of the Diet. And then, before you know it, it will be September 2009.

Mr. Fukuda and the LDP have little choice but to continue to do what they've been doing: pressuring the DPJ to cooperate but preparing to overrule the Upper House as necessary. Granted, the LDP might not want to use Mr. Mori as its hatchet man for attacking the DPJ, but the principle remains. Barring any major swings in public opinion, the current situation will likely hold for some time. The government may not make much progress on dealing with national issues, but we may be about to discover how long the Japanese people are willing to tolerate gridlock in the Diet.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Can the DPJ become a social democratic party?

Hokkaido University's Yamaguchi Jiro — an acknowledged supporter of the DPJ — wrote a post at his blog earlier this week in which he discussed the emergence of new axes of confrontation in the political system.

Looking at political systems in other developed countries, in which "on the right, conservative parties that respect the liberty of the strong and economic efficiency, and on the left, social democratic or liberal parties that respect equality that includes the weak and fair distribution struggle for power," Professor Yamaguchi identified how the LDP has historically prevented the emergence of a Western left-right divide — as a "Jekyll and Hyde" party, the LDP was both in favor of a harsh capitalism and supportive of redistribution. The difference today, however, is that once Mr. Koizumi was done with the LDP, the party "could not decide on a clear line."

In steps Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ: "Since the DPJ took the social democratic line, victory in the House of Councillors election was brought about."

Accordingly, Professor Yamaguchi argues that in the political system into being, the LDP, forced to choose between its rural voters and its corporate backers, will choose the latter, giving the DPJ an opportunity to take the latter by prioritizing lifestyle issues. Except by his reckoning, lifestyle issues should not mean a shift of emphasis to the priorities of consumers, but instead an emphasis on "fair trade," which acknowledges that high prices and taxes ensure agriculture, community, and employment. He objects to "special interests," but still feels the need for strong social services along "cradle-to-grave" lines.

I think this is a dead end for the DPJ, because the left-right model to which Professor Yamaguchi appeals is already dated. In Europe especially — a better source of comparisons with Japan than the US — political competition is more about valence issues (questions of management and competence) than position issues, at least as far as economic policy is concerned. The distance between parties of the left and right in Germany, France, and Britain is narrower than the party names and electoral rhetoric would suggest. The pattern of party change also points to the significance of valence issues. In Britain, nearly two decades of conservative rule gave way to New Labour; tired, enfeebled conservatives handed power to Tony Blair who swept to power thanks to a new approach to politics, not a set of policies designed to undo Tory policies. Britain could be in store for a similar non-transition transition the next time a general election rolls around, thanks to the Conservative leader David Cameron. Meanwhile, both the Schroeder government and its grand coalition successor under Chancellor Angela Merkel have struggled to reform the German welfare system and labor market. One can find other examples from across Europe of how the line dividing left from right has blurred.

I don't think Japan is all that great an outlier on this score. Japan needs a new economic model that includes greater labor market flexibility, encourages more individual initiative, and integrates Japan's economy with the global economy more comprehensively, even as Japan builds a welfare state for the twenty-first century to manage the country's aging population and a safety net that can somehow encourage more risk taking. Despite Professor Yamaguchi's image of the LDP as a party trending in the direction of an unambiguous embrace of "neo-liberalism," considerable doubts remain, and the LDP could just easily pursue the course Professor Yamaguchi recommends for the DPJ. Consider that both Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Aso gave no more than "two cheers for neo-liberalism" in September, and that Mr. Aso — who distanced himself considerably from structural reform — came closer to winning than most want to acknowledge (once one looks at the vote totals in the prefectural races and the quirky system of distributing votes). As Professor Yamaguchi himself acknowledges, the LDP has social-democratic roots in the form of the Tanaka-Takeshita 1970 system. Mr. Ozawa may be able to claim that he and the DPJ are the rightful heirs to that social democracy, but that does not exclude the possibility that the LDP might rediscover these roots.

A better approach for the DPJ, I think, is to emphasize valence-issues. The LDP has provided the DPJ with case after case illustrating the LDP's managerial incompetence and its complicity in bureaucratic malfeasance and maladministration. Mr. Masuzoe obviously understands how significant a problem this is for the LDP, not to mention the Japanese people. The discussion should not just be about the new Japanese economic model — the new relationship between public and private, as discussed in this article in Genron NPO — but about which party is best capable of administering the new system. The LDP is perfectly capable of engaging in "me-tooism" in a discussion about the economic model; its record on administrative competence is indefensible.

As I've cautioned before, the DPJ shouldn't just focus on exposing all the corruption that has occurred under LDP governments, but it should instead propose a system characterized by transparency and accountability that will ensure not that future governments are free of corruption — an impossible goal — but that wrongdoing is uncovered, the perpetrators punished, and rules changed as necessary.

One more month

As anticipated, the Fukuda cabinet has decided to extend the extraordinary (and extraordinarily long) Diet session thirty-one days, to 15 January, ensuring that the sixty-day rule will take effect and allow the House of Representatives to pass the new anti-terror special measures law.

As noted by MTC, the extension means that the Diet will recess for two days — when the LDP and the DPJ will hold their national conventions — before reconvening for the regular session of the Diet on 18 January.

Has the government, as suggested by Komeito, "crossed the Rubicon?"

It may look that way, especially since the decision to extend the Diet session — in effect a demonstration of the government's resolve to do whatever it takes to pass its bill — has coincided with the reemergence of the pensions scandal at the forefront of the national discussion. Mr. Fukuda has acted quickly in an attempt to soften the blow — in this week's mail magazine, he wrote, "As the representative of the Government, I offer my apologies to the people for the misconduct that has gone on for many years" — but his public support will probably drop some more, and, as suggested by Jun Okumura, Masuzoe Yoichi may be forced to offer up his head, an unfortunate consequence for the government.

Is this the beginning of a death spiral that will result in a dissolution, a general election, and possibly a change of ruling party? As reported by Mainichi, Komeito is evidently not convinced that the government will be able to avoid a snap election. And, of course, the LDP has given the DPJ yet another gift that will allow it to remain on the offensive against the government.

But I still think that should the Upper House pass a censure motion against the government in response to the re-passage of the anti-terror law in the House of Representatives, Mr. Fukuda will be able to ignore it and carry on with governing, at least for the time being.

It is interesting to see the approach that the prime minister has taken in response to the new pensions scandal. Aside from wasting no time in apologizing to the Japanese people, he has also wasted no time in making clear that the issue is the bureaucracy and its failings:
It turns out that in numerous cases these unidentified records involve rudimentary mistakes, including typos and record transfer errors, on the part of the Social Insurance Agency. The further we advance in our investigations, the more it has become apparent just how slipshod work had been at the Social Insurance Agency. Each and every one of the pension records is directly connected to the livelihood of a person. Nevertheless, the Social Insurance Agency failed to act in a manner consistent with this basic fact, which I find to be truly regrettable.
Is Mr. Fukuda able to take this approach — which Mr. Abe conspicuously did not take when first faced with this issue — because of the supposed respect he receives from the bureaucracy? (Remember back to September when this was mentioned frequently as one of the strong points of his candidacy for the LDP presidency.) Is it a matter of principle, a burst of Koizumism? Or is it simply an expression of LDP survival politics, an acknowledgment that the LDP is more than willing to jettison the bureaucracy's privileges to save itself?

Whatever the case may be, it would truly be a shame if Mr. Masuzoe — who, as I've discussed before, sincerely believes in the need to transform the bureaucracy to limit the kind of behavior noted above by the prime minister — were to be forced out of the cabinet as a result of the bureaucratic misdeeds against which he has railed.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A dangerous word

AEI's Michael Auslin, weighing in on the feud over China's denying US Navy ships access to Hong Kong at Contentions, argues that US credibility has suffered from a failure to respond to China's behavior other than by sending the USS Kitty Hawk back to Japan via the Taiwan Straits.

He says, "A number of my Asia-wonk acquaintances in Washington have expressed their concern that Washington is sending a signal of weakness by making no response to the Chinese provocations (sailing the fleet back through the Taiwan Straits doesn’t quite cut it)—even canceling some meetings would have been seen as something."

I would be more concerned if he was citing comments made by "our Asian allies" than by his "Asia-wonk acquaintances."

"Credibility" is a dangerous word, a word that led the US to overextend itself during the cold war, with disastrous consequences. Are US allies in Asia really worried about the US not standing up to China's unpredictable behavior over the past year? Do they really doubt that if China actually posed a threat to their security, the US would be unwilling to act? Do security treaties with Japan, Australia, and other countries in the region obligate the US to "stand up" to China, even if doing so might actually undermine the security of China's neighbors by deepening the PLA's paranoia and strengthening the hand of PLA elements in favor of more confrontational policies (not to mention potentially provoking China to retaliate in other fora)?

The emergence of China is one long, unpredictable, iterative game, and the US, as the prevailing maintainer of stability in East Asia, will not benefit from "defecting" and initiating a game of tit-for-tat that could go on for years. Indeed, as the leading power in the region, the US has an obligation to demonstrate forbearance, to refrain from retaliating against China's bewildering violations of diplomatic and maritime custom and continuing to find ways of coaxing China to play a more constructive regional and global role. To do otherwise could hasten the decline of the US as a regional power and make the neighborhood more dangerous for US allies, a perverse consequence of actions purportedly taken in the interests of US alliances in Asia.

Fukudome to the Chicago Cubs

I don't have any analysis to add here. I'm just happy that my Cubs have finally nabbed a top-flight Japanese free agent.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Waning support for the anti-terror law

A survey conducted by Yomiuri over the weekend asked whether it is "appropriate" for the government to use its two-thirds majority to pass the new anti-terror special measures bill over an Upper House rejection of the bill.

Consistent with other recent polls, the results were decidedly tepid. 43% favored playing the supermajority card, 44% opposed. Meanwhile, support for the refueling mission narrowed, with 45% of respondents saying they support it, 43% saying they oppose it. In other words, support for the refueling mission has gone the wrong direction for the LDP during this marathon Diet session, which could run even longer now that the LDP and Komeito have agreed on a one-month extension to ensure the final dispatch of this albatross bill. And support is far short of Yamasaki Taku's two-thirds public support threshold beyond which the government could comfortably use its supermajority.

At the same time, the poll also recorded a slight rise in support for the LDP and a five-point drop in DPJ support, which probably doesn't mean that much coming from Yomiuri.

There's something farcical about this whole thing. Prime Minister Fukuda is now determined to see this issue through to the finish, even if the public is indifferent or opposed (and despite Mr. Fukuda's noticeable lack of enthusiasm about the bill). The DPJ has put off submitting its own proposal for the duration of the Diet session.

If by the end of the session the new bill passes, I'm certain that Washington alone will be pleased with the outcome. Enjoy it while it lasts, because I don't think there's a chance that the Fukuda government — provided there still is a Fukuda government in a year's time — would bother renewing the law when it expires after a year.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Discontent in the air

There is no shortage of discontent in Japanese politics today.

The HANA right (that's Hiranuma-Abe-Nakagawa-Aso), including their sympathizers in the media, are finding their voice again, and as always, it's a belligerent, combative voice — as described by MTC in this post about the contents of Voice's latest issue. The November issue too was full of discontent, with the cover prominently calling for a "conservative reconstruction," and an article inside by Nakanishi Teramasa calling for a new conservative party. (Looking at the contents of the latest Voice compared to the November issue, I wonder if they just keep the same articles month to month and change the bylines.) Anyway, Sasayama Tatsuo, former LDP member of the House of Representatives, concurs with Nakanishi at his blog, calling for a shift from "skillful politics" to "righteous [or just or correct] politics," while criticizing Mr. Fukuda for his "self-destructive" actions as prime minister.

Readers of Tetsuo Najita's The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics will find this dichotomy familiar: dissatisfied idealists interested in a "truer" politics squaring off against "bureaucrats" and politicians with a bureaucratic mindset. The LDP was in a similar place some forty years ago, after another crisis that resulted in the resignation of a prime minister. I was recently at the US National Archives — not the antechamber downtown, but the actual archives in College Park — looking through documents from the US Embassy in Tokyo in the early 1960s and it found it fascinating to read the embassy's reports about the ferment in the LDP under Prime Minister Ikeda Hayato. The embassy noted mounting dissatisfaction with Mr. Ikeda's "low posture," yielding politics from conservatives in the LDP, including a younger Nakasone Yasuhiro. Like today, the right had one of its own champions forced out of office "prematurely," and after licking its wounds, was ready to fight. The vitriol directed by the HANA right (thanks guys, for this term) towards not just Mr. Fukuda (the usurper) but to Mr. Ozawa (he who is responsible for a series of crimes against the cause, the latest being his hounding of Mr. Abe) drips off the page. It is still unclear whether their rage will translate into action. Rage is cheap. Does anyone really think that these conservatives are going to abandon the LDP — the party of their fathers and grandfathers — to form their own party when all they have to do is wait for Mr. Fukuda to falter, giving them an opportunity to reclaim leadership of the party? In the meantime, expect more angry articles by the usual suspects in the usual places.

The LDP's right does not, however, have a monopoly on discontent. The latest issue of Chuo Koron has an interview with Maehara Seiji, onetime DPJ leader and top on the list of potential DPJ splitists (to use that delightful Maoist term). In it, Mr. Maehara expresses his dissatisfaction with DPJ politicking in the aftermath of Mr. Ozawa's aborted resignation as party chief. Looking at the national agenda and seeking a solution to gridlock, Mr. Maehara argues, "I think the LDP and the DPJ should establish a conference group that avoids sneaky discusions. I think that to the last, debates should happen in committees and the like in the Diet." He lays into Mr. Ozawa's choices on foreign policy — Mr. Ozawa "has made bills to which the governing coalition cannot possibly agree" — and domestic politics — he lambastes Mr. Ozawa's plans to transfer savings from administrative reform to farmers, which "by no means will rejuvenate agriculture." He also stakes out a clear position on Mr. Fukuda's recent statement on the refueling bill: "...Since I think the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean is necessary, I think it's good if Prime Minister Fukuda plays the two-thirds card without apology." And on top of that, he states his discomfort with Mr. Ozawa's admissions about the DPJ's weakness, seeing as how "that should be his responsibility to consider."

In short, many of Mr. Maehara's complaints are just slightly removed from those of his fellow conservatives in the LDP dissatisfied with tactical maneuvers of the party leader. The question applies to Mr. Maehara, however. It's easy to complain about just about everything Mr. Ozawa has done since taking office — I certainly know how easy it is — but it seems considerably harder for anyone in the DPJ to do anything about it. Mr. Maehara, one of the party's deputy heads, is an unlikely splitist. What would he do, form his own splinter party? Unless his split was matched by the secession of the ANA conservatives from the LDP, thereby triggering the much-discussed political realignment, a Maehara splinter group would meet the same fate as the Conservative Party that splintered from Mr. Ozawa's Liberal Party. Namely, it would be absorbed into the LDP. (The Maehara interview is available in two parts.)

Moving from partisan discontents, we come to a fascinating blog post from Ikeda Nobuo translated by W. David Marx and published at Néojaponisme. Ikeda writes about the use of blogs as an outlet for the discontent that resulted in street demonstrations in the early postwar period: "Young people’s means of lodging a formal objection have therefore shifted from violence in the streets to debate on the internet; and the target of their protest has moved from the government to the media. In most cases, this kind of rebellion is simply young people venting their excess energy, but there is a possibility that youth can create something new if they can skillfully channel that energy."

I think that Ikeda might be on to something, in that even as politicians debate the merits of grand coalitions, the perils of the divided Diet, and solutions to "National Problems" (given the way publications like Yomiuri talk about it, the capitals are merited), there is real discontent manifesting itself in different, seemingly trivial ways among the Japanese people, especially among members of the younger generation who have watched their parents completely squander their inheritance. It may take some time before their discontent translates into action, but I suspect that the trends in the political use of the Internet maturing in the US will find their way to Japan before too long — and the blogging malcontents may yet make Nagata-cho tremble.

I have long suspected that what Japan needs is not another Meiji Restoration — the much-anticipated third opening, following the restoration and the occupation will not be the product of an electoral manifesto or even the activities of the Diet. The next opening, if it is to truly merit the name, will be at the individual level, as citizens learn to be citizens.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The post-Koizumi LDP and the search for a new Japanese model

Yamaguchi Jiro, a specialist in Japanese and British politics at Hokkaido University, had an article in the November Ronza that has been published in translation at Japan Focus.

Yamaguchi competently explains the reasons for Mr. Abe's demise, and in the final portions of the essay, places Mr. Abe's decline and fall squarely in the larger narrative of the LDP's struggle to find its way in the aftermath of the Koizumi mini-revolution.
Koizumi’s structural reforms smashed the ‘vested rights’ of politicians and bureaucrats and promoted policy efficiency; but they also had a serious impact on people and regions that had enjoyed protection under the policies in place until then. Resistance to this continues to threaten the LDP. The opposition is gathering popular support by persistently questioning the harmful effects of the structural reforms. Faced with the contradictory vectors of inheriting the Koizumi government’s success or correcting its evils, the LDP is irresolute. There is no clear-cut course for post-Koizumi politics.
While Mr. Fukuda has stabilized the LDP's situation, he has made no progress whatsoever on tackling the fundamental dilemma at the heart of the LDP's troubles.

The LDP is still no closer to committing firmly to a future as an urban party. It has still not figured out how to split the difference between defending the interests of its traditional rural supporters and advancing a vision of globalized, liberalized Japan. Professor Yamaguchi suggests that the solution is policy shift: "If any sanity remains in the LDP, the natural thing to do is to change policy. In that event, the competition between the two major parties will be not just a clash of slogans but will have to evolve into concrete policy competition...It is no matter if policy differences are to some extent reducible to differences of degree. Concrete debate over differences in degree should be able to clarify alternatives."

The field of debate will be over the terms of Japan's new economic model (and will probably feature considerably less striking than the debates over the creation of new economic models in France and Germany). As the Economist's recent survey on business in Japan suggested, Japan is moving in the direction of a new Japanese model that borrows features from "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism. But the Japanese model will end up including more social provisions (once the government figures out how to pay for them, of course) and probably a great deal more government investment in encouraging development in blighted regions, even as Japan opens to more FDI and liberalizes its labor market.

The question is which party will devise the superior formula and the best way to sell it, together with the best messenger. On this point, Professor Yamaguchi also calls for a new way of Japanese politics that rejects the "telecharisma" of the Koizumi years. He calls for new thinking about selecting leaders — "What is called for is to evaluate leadership in terms of the ability to reflect seriously on issues and the existence of an ability to explain issues to the public" — and a new way of considering issues — "What is called for is concrete debate over problems faced by the people such as inequality, poverty, worries over social security and job insecurity, their recognition as policy issues, and the search for ways to resolve them." In this, he echoes Masuzoe Yoichi's argument in Naikaku soridaijin about the "wideshowization" of Japanese politics. But for all the laments of the policy intellectuals, it's unclear to me how Japan will escape the trivialization of its politics. The electorate still seems to move more according to whims and half-baked impressions than reasoned ideas about how Japan is and should be governed.

And as for a debate rooted in concrete discussions of policy, this seems unlikely for the time being. At present, the leaders of both the LDP and the DPJ are more tacticians than strategists. Neither has moved beyond reacting to the moment to formulate an agenda upon which to contest a general election, let alone an agenda upon which to legislate (and both parties remain mired in the war of attrition on the refueling mission, which has forestalled any effort to refocus on domestic policy).

Saturday, December 8, 2007

On Ozawa's statecraft

Over at 空, Ken Tanaka wonders about my criticism of Mr. Ozawa's remarks in China in this post, echoing the questions of several commentators to the same post.

Let me be clear: Japan has no choice but to have cordial and constructive relations with China, the same as for the United States, Australia, India, and other countries in Asia. I have little quarrel with the substance of Mr. Ozawa's visit, insofar as there was substance. (A summary at the DPJ website contains lots of talk of intellectual and cultural exchanges and declarations of intention to cooperate on issues of shared concern.) And there is certainly nothing wrong with opposition leaders meeting with heads of state.

My issue remains Mr. Ozawa's style. Apparently it was not enough for Mr. Ozawa to take a low-key visit to Beijing, praise Mr. Fukuda for his own overtures to China and congratulate the prime minister for seeing the wisdom in the DPJ's China policy, say a few speeches, and go home. Instead, he had to travel with some 400 people (originally intended to be an expedition of 1000, according to Mainichi) and speak in unrealistically effusive terms about the Sino-Japanese relationship.

I prefer statesmanship that prioritizes substance over rhetoric. As President Bush has illustrated time and time again during his presidential term, rhetoric often raises expectations to unreasonable heights. The difficulties still present in the Sino-Japanese relationship — which will be on full display over the next couple of weeks in the lead up to Mr. Fukuda's visit — do not merit the flights of fantasy in Mr. Ozawa's Beijing remarks. Speak softly, with an eye firmly to national interests.

I'm also dismayed because Mr. Ozawa has failed to provide a more comprehensive vision for Japanese foreign policy. We're left to guess on the basis of his speeches and actions: strict constitutionalism (the basis for his opposition to the MSDF refueling mission), strict UN-centrism (the basis for his suggestion that the GSDF can participate, armed, in ISAF), and now, apparently, deference to China. For all the rhetoric from Mr. Ozawa since July, there's been remarkably little effort on his part (and the part of his DPJ colleagues) to outline a strategic vision for Japan, one that includes a realistic vision for the US-Japan alliance — the Koizumi-Abe LDP has left them plenty of room to do this — that squares with the Sino-Japanese relationship.

I think the DPJ has been poorly served by Mr. Ozawa, whose gaze is fixed squarely on the tactical, on short cuts to power, when what it needs is a strategic visionary who can elaborate a vision for Japan's domestic and foreign policies that is more than just a rejection of whatever the LDP has argued. It's not a matter of having detailed plans for every aspect of Japanese governance.

As Mr. Koizumi showed, a vision presented in a compelling and easy-to-understand way can make up for deficiencies in the details.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Ozawa glorifies the Sino-Japanese relationship

I was way off target in my hopes that Mr. Ozawa would be reasonable on his trip to China.

"The intensely cold period in Sino-Japanese relations has been surmounted, and the warm period has advanced," he said. "Both of our countries must bear a great responsibility politically, economically, and even for the global environment, and there are infinite ways we can cooperate."

I am certainly no China hawk, and think that the more cooperation with Beijing the better, but to go to Beijing and to talk of boundless cooperation and of the "world-historical role" of the Sino-Japanese relationship is irresponsible (and delusional). There are real clashes of interests between Japan and China — materially, over energy resources, and politically, over the political future of Asia. Japan must work to resolve these issues, of course, but it does no good to pretend that Chinese and Japanese interests neatly coincide. Cooperation with China may be necessary, but this is not a time to make a virtue of necessity.

How, I wonder, will this play back home, where the Japanese people have mixed feelings about their giant neighbor? According to the Cabinet Office's latest foreign policy survey, 63.5% of respondents said that they felt little or no affinity with China, up slightly from the 61.6% who responded that way in 2006. For that matter, how will it play within the DPJ, which has its fair share of China skeptics and hawks?

Does Mr. Ozawa suspect that hugging China close will endear Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ to the electorate? Or will it have the opposite effect of making Mr. Fukuda look just right when he visits China later this month, falling somewhere between Mr. Koizumi's deliberate and repeat provocations of Beijing, Mr. Abe's lukewarm embrace, and Mr. Ozawa's unabashed cozying up to Beijing?

I guess there's another explanation for Mr. Ozawa's behavior. Perhaps he's not so much cozying up to Beijing as attempting to pay tribute to the legacy of Tanaka Kakuei, his political father, who restored Sino-Japanese relations thirty-five years ago (the ostensible occasion for this visit). Not that it makes it any more excusable.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Fukuda answers some questions

After weeks of uncertainty, Prime Minister Fukuda has moved to answer definitively the six unanswered questions of the current Diet session, answering at least two of them by announcing that he will use the government's supermajority in the House of Representatives to pass the new anti-terror law, and he will extend the Diet session into January in order that the bill will be sent back to the Lower House should the Upper House not act on it within sixty days.

At the same time, Maehara Seiji, a deputy chief of the DPJ and potential thorn in the side for Mr. Ozawa, is making noise again for the first time since August, when there were rumblings of discontent over the DPJ leadership's opposition to the MSDF refueling mission. He is once again criticizing the DPJ for its failure to think of Japan's national interests and warned, "In the event that we quit without the session being extended, the Indian Ocean activities will be suspended for a long time. If there is a dissolution from this, our party will be in trouble."

MTC suggests that the DPJ's immediate response to the above course of action by the LDP will be a censure motion in the Upper House.

The consequences of this chain of events, however, are still unclear and will remain so right up until the moment they transpire. The potency of the weapons possessed by each side still depends largely on public and media support. If the government can somehow get the public to break its way, at least enough so that Mr. Fukuda can spin it as a trend in his favor, then he may be in a position to ignore the non-binding censure resolution and carry on as if nothing happened. A trend the other way, harder to ignore. Will the public continue to remain non-committal through all of this?

As for Mr. Maehara, to date, Mr. Maehara has been long on sound and fury, short on action. I think that he will continue to toe the Ozawa line when forced to choose, but then again, it is in moments like this that the whims and caprices of a disgruntled actor like Mr. Maehara could become very important, if not in terms of numbers — if Mr. Ozawa would have found it difficult to destroy the DPJ's position in the Upper House by leaving the party, would Mr. Maehara find it any easier? — then in terms of perceptions regarding the fitness of the DPJ as a credible contender.

In any case, his remarks mean that we haven't heard the last of the 政治再編 (political realignment) in the Japanese press, that panacea for all of political Japan's problems on the lips of commentators, even though few seem able to sketch out exactly what it would look like.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The right is alive, if not kicking (yet)

As planned, onetime Abe wingman Nakagawa Shoichi has formed a conservative study group within the LDP that will keep the flame of the Abe revolution burning.

At the opening meeting, Mr. Nakagawa said, "The things which everyone said 'we must do' until a few months ago must not be forgotten." By which he means those things that were completely at odds with the desires of the Japanese people, leading them to categorically reject "leaving behind the postwar regime" at the first opportunity.

Sakurai Yoshiko, leading lady of the right, spoke to the gathering on the subject of "What is genuinely conservative?" — and the attendees can be found in this Mainichi article.

It's by no means surprising that Mr. Abe's followers would regroup after their champion left office prematurely, and his natural successor defeated in the LDP presidential contest. The question that remains is whether Mr. Nakagawa's group will sit quiet until the next LDP presidential election or whether it will be a thorn in the side of Mr. Fukuda.

Does anyone really expect the former?

I suspect that it's just a matter of time before Mr. Nakagawa's (Mr. Aso's) army finds some issue on which Mr. Fukuda has let them down.