Thursday, January 31, 2008

Good intentions are not enough

Yomiuri reports that the prime minister's Advisory Group on Comprehensive Reform of the Public Service System, chaired by Okamura Tadashi of Toshiba, has issued its final report containing recommendations for reforming the Japanese bureaucracy.

The report, available for download here, contains a number of good suggestions, in pursuit of seven goals: (1) outlining the appropriate role for bureaucrats in a parliamentary system; (2) hiring and training bureaucrats with skill sets appropriate for the global age; (3) changing the ethos of the bureaucracy so that bureaucrats act as the servants of state and people; (4) retaining world-class personnel; (5) removing the barriers between people and bureaucracy; (6) creating better work-life balance for bureaucrats; and (7) the creation of a central agency to manage government personnel.

Yomiuri calls special attention to the advisory group's call for the creation of a new class of career specialists — a "national strategy staff" — that would be responsible for advising cabinet ministers and the Cabinet Secretariat on legislation. Good idea, maybe, but I'm not clear on how these specialists would be insulated from the ministries that they would serve. What guarantee is there that the guidance they would provide to ministers would be more "national" than that provided by bureaucrats today?

Much of the report focuses on the challenge of making new bureaucrats, and seems particularly keen on hiring more bureaucrats mid-career. (And finding personnel who have skill sets for the twenty-first century.)

Undoubtedly with the political situation in mind, the report calls for legislation creating the personnel agency in next year's regular Diet session and demands implementation of reform legislation within the next five years.

There is no question that the bureaucracy is in need of substantial reform. But simply hiring better people is not enough. To quote Federalist #51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." No matter how good the "new bureaucrats" can be, they will not be angels (or geniuses). They will still be vulnerable to corruption and incompetence. They will still stonewall politicians or pervert policy on behalf of their ministries.

Any administrative reform without reforms designed to foster a culture of accountability will ultimately be disappointing.

Dear Japanese MSM: Free your information!

I have to second W. David Marx's gripe at META no TAME about the lack of free access to the content of Japanese dailies. I would also add that the Japanese MSM should be embarrassed by the shallowness of their online archives and the skimpiness of their RSS feeds. (On this latter point Yomiuri should be especially embarrassed — although I suspect that Mr. Watanabe doesn't care.)

Actually, even worse than the dailies are the magazines. In recent days I've used the deep archives of both Time and Atlantic (all 150 years now free*) for research.

By contrast, the online content of Japanese monthlies seems to stop at the table of contents of current issues.

Does Japan's information want to be free?

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Discarding the old mantras

After winning the Florida Republican primary on Tuesday, Arizona Senator John McCain has more or less solidified his position as the likely Republican presidential candidate. Sankei's Komori Yoshihisa was quick to praise Senator McCain today for his unstinting support for the US-Japan alliance, pointing to lines from Senator McCain's essay in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs. (He seems especially pleased that Senator McCain quoted former prime minister Abe in a positive light.)

Undoubtedly Komori also likes who is on the list of Senator McCain's foreign policy observers.

The sheer terror with which Komori and other conservatives speak of a Clinton victory suggest to me that a Democratic victory would be a good thing, although personally I'm supporting Senator Obama.

The alliance needs to be shaken up. If the US and Japan learned anything from 2007, it should be that the old formulas about the strength of the alliance and its bedrock of shared interests and values are no longer valid; simply repeating the old mantras of the alliance won't make the alliance any stronger or relevant. There is a need for a bilateral discussion that addresses the alliance's structural problems. I am convinced that a Democratic administration, with an Asia team less wedded to the vision of the alliance peddled by Japan's friends in the Republican Party, will be better able to ask fundamental questions about the alliance. It will be less inclined to tell the Japanese government what it wants to hear. Does anyone think that the team that ran US Japan policy from 2001 will be able to accomplish that?

At the same time, I do think that Japanese fears about Senator Clinton are (somewhat) justified. Perhaps as a result of the influence of revisionist ideas about Japan early in the Clinton administration, both former president and Senator Clinton have at best a blind spot, at worst an abiding dislike for Japan. The challenge is the revitalize the alliance for the twenty-first century, not push Japan to the side. Senator Obama, with his laudable willingness to buck conventional wisdom on foreign policy, may be better prepared to have this discussion.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In the Japan Times

The Japan Times has published an op-ed of mine on DPJ strategy.

You can find it here.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The special tax war heats up

As noted by Jun Okumura, the Fukuda government has thrown down the gauntlet in the debate over the extension of the temporary gasoline tax. The LDP and Komeito agreed Monday to submit a bill to the HR Tuesday (and pass by Wednesday) that will extend the tax for two months, giving the government time to both pursue a compromise with the opposition while still leaving two months to use Article 59 over the HC's objections if necessary.

The DPJ and other opposition parties responded with outrage. The DPJ is now debating its options, trying to decide whether to use the HC censure motion against the government, or, alternatively, boycotting Diet proceedings. I hope that the party opts against the latter. What does staying away from the Diet accomplish, other than give the LDP and its friends in the media an opportunity to tar the DPJ with the "irresponsible" tag? The censure motion card is not that much more inviting, because as before its power will depend on public opinion. If it plays it at the wrong time, the DPJ will toss away its one potential weapon against the government.

For the moment, then, the DPJ has little choice but to stay in the Diet and hammer the government over its misguided policies. It must, however, move beyond its emphasis on the numbers involved and start talking about how it will change Japan. As Yamaguchi Jiro, a Hokkaido University political scientist and DPJ sympathizer, wrote at his blog, "...The DPJ must constantly convey to the people a concrete message of what they will do for Japanese society when they take power. This message — merely a cut in the price of gasoline — is deplorable."

The DPJ must tread carefully now, especially with Mr. Fukuda's changing the government's reasoning on the temporary tax to emphasize its role in environmental protection. In Diet deliberations on Monday, he pointed to Europe's high gasoline taxes to argue that Japan can do more for the environment, like paying equally high taxes. The DPJ should hammer the government on this shift, but it will have a hard time doing that if it vacates the Diet.

To a second-rate Japan

Continuing the theme of Japan's vanishing global presence discussed in this post (and this post by Gen Kanai last week), it's worth looking at what may be this year's hot foreign policy article-turned-book (cf. Paul Kennedy, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Robert Kagan), "Waving Goodbye to Hegemony" by Parag Khanna, a fellow at the New America Foundation.

In both this article and the forthcoming book, Mr. Khanna looks at the emerging contours of the new world order from the perspective of the second world: "Lying alongside and between the Big Three, second-world countries are the swing states that will determine which of the superpowers has the upper hand for the next generation of geopolitics. From Venezuela to Vietnam and Morocco to Malaysia, the new reality of global affairs is that there is not one way to win allies and influence countries but three: America’s coalition (as in 'coalition of the willing'), Europe’s consensus and China’s consultative styles. The geopolitical marketplace will decide which will lead the 21st century."

There is considerable value in this piece, not least in its warning to US policymakers that American hegemony is finished. Over the course of the Bush administration, it has become clear that the US, for all its military strength, is woefully deficient in other areas of power, making it difficult for Washington to solve critical problems. It's not entirely the fault of President Bush, but his administration's actions made it plain the limits of American power, hastening the emergence of a new order.

Mr. Khanna makes clear that competition between the US, China, and the EU will not be primarily in the military realm, but rather over energy, markets, and natural resources. The other point of interest is that the second-world countries might actually hold the upper hand in their dealings with the superpowers. These countries can pocket concessions and aid from all three, maximizing their security in the process. This dynamic is already at work in Southeast Asia, where countries like Vietnam are happy to trade with China even as they deepen their security ties with the US (an example not lost on Mr. Khanna). As a result, this piece is not simply a reincarnation of fears from the 1980s and 1990s about the creation of three exclusionary economic blocs.

Not surprisingly, however, Japan is absent from this piece (except in passing, with Japan's interest in regional monetary cooperation cited as an example of how "Asians are insulating themselves from America’s economic uncertainties").

Where does Japan fit in a tripolar world? Presumably as its population shrinks over the coming decades, Japan will increasingly come to resemble second-world countries busy playing the superpowers off each other. Granted, Japan will likely remain wealthier and more politically stable than the other countries in this group, but as a result of its security and economic needs, Japan will likely engage in the same behavior. In managing its relationships with the US and China, Japan is, in fact, already playing one power off the other, one moment strengthening security cooperation with the US, the next exploring new avenues of economic cooperation with China, ASEAN, and others that exclude the US. It will take some time before Japan fully embraces this "small Japan" path — I suspect there remains too much fear of China and too much dependence on the US — but it may be only a matter of time, with the process hastened by external changes like a mellower China or a prolonged economic downturn in the US that leads it to reconsider its defense spending and foreign deployments.

The question is the extent to which Japan can remain prosperous and dynamic and preserve some modicum of influence in the competition for energy and natural resources. That will depend, of course, on decisions made today to transform Japan's moribund political and economic systems.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The weakness of Fukuda's (and Japan's) carbon campaign

As the Fukuda government has insisted at every chance it has to remind Japanese citizens and foreign governments that the focus of this summer's G8 summit in Hokkaido will be climate change policy. Tokyo is eager to be at the forefront of the quest for a post-Kyoto climate change pact.

This weekend Mr. Fukuda took this message to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

(Incidentally, this week's meeting brought to mind "Ringing of Revolution," a song by radical folk singer Phil Ochs — nothing like a gala fest of the high and mighty on Swiss mountaintop while in the outside world the world economic system as we know it comes crashing down.)

In his speech at a closed meeting, Mr. Fukuda reiterated that climate change will be the main theme of the summit, warned darkly about the consequences of climate change, and explained his government's three-part approach on climate change policy — (1) a post-Kyoto framework, (2) international environmental cooperation, and (3) technological innovation.

All well-intentioned, all important, but ultimately mostly irrelevant, for a couple reasons.

First, as former UN official Shashi Tharoor, who attended the Fukuda address, wrote in his Davos Diary at Foreign Policy's Passport blog, "...The number of empty seats at the half-dozen tables around the PM testified to the declining salience of Japan, a country that two decades ago was seen as the world's economic powerhouse and, bluntly, no longer is." Mr. Fukuda and other Japanese officials speak before international audiences, everyone nods in agreement, and then moves on to more important matters and actors. Japan's good intentions and clever ideas are not enough to make the rest of the world pay attention.

Beyond Japan's undersized international presence, there is a much more concrete reason for Japan's environmental leadership being stillborn: forcing the world to rethink its carbon emissions means in practical terms forcing the US (its most significant ally) and China (its largest trading partner) to change their economic systems drastically. Does anyone seriously think that Japan or any other one country will be able to make this happen? Change will happen when both the US and China change domestically and become willing to make radical changes in how they use energy, in the process taking the lead internationally on climate change.

Japan might play a niche role in developing energy-efficient technologies and sharing them with the world, but I have a hard time envisioning Japan in the driver's seat, forcing its partners to make substantial compromises that will enable progress on reducing carbon emissions.

Recommended Book: The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam

As the six-party talks continue to dance around the question of the future of the Korean peninsula — and the major powers plan for the collapse of the DPRK — it is worthwhile to look back to the (unresolved) conflict that cemented the division of the peninsula and had untold consequences for US Asia policy.

In his final book, The Coldest Winter, the late David Halberstam, who died in April 2007, provided a magisterial account of the Korean War that weaves together biography, political analysis, and historical narrative to explain how the war unfolded at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. As the subtitle suggests, his focus is on the war's impact on the US and much of the narrative is told from the American perspective, but he takes time to look at the war from the perspectives of Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing (if not the perspective of Chinese and Korean foot soldiers).

The greatest virtue of this book is the care Halberstam took to embed the war in contemporary American debates about the future of US foreign policy and the growing struggle between anti-communists, most notably Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the foreign policy establishment, epitomized by Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his fellow "wise men." This book is in many ways a prequel to his earlier The Best and The Brightest. Halberstam showed an America that in 1950 was still unprepared for the global role envisioned by policymakers. For all the commitments that Washington had undertaken 1945-1950, in 1950 the American people were still mentally unprepared to meet those commitments. Part of that mental unpreparedness was a tendency to embrace the crudest anti-communism, the anti-communism of the "Asia-Firsters — the China Lobby and General Douglas MacArthur — that minimized the importance of Europe and called for a "crusade" that would reverse the "loss" of China by the Democrats and begin the process of rolling back communism worldwide. This facile anti-communism eliminated all nuance from US Asia policy, leading the US to ignore signs of tension in the Sino-Soviet relationship and to view all indigenous independence movements in Asia through the prism of the cold war. (It also led to the purge of the "China hands," those policymakers who might have been able to implement a more nuanced Asia policy.) The result was a quarter-century of unmitigated Sino-US hostility and all the wasted opportunities that entailed; the enduring protection of Chiang Kai-shek's government; the disastrous intervention in Indochina; and the overall failure of the US to appreciate the significance of decolonization.

The failure of the US foreign policy and military establishments was total. The "eastern" liberal elites, overwhelmingly focused on containing Soviet expansion in Europe, underappreciated the role the US had to play in Asia, leaving them open to the hysterical charges of isolationist-turned-Asia First members of Congress and the media. On the defensive, they found it difficult to elaborate a more sensible Asia policy. They were unable to explain to the American people that backing Chiang — a corrupt, incompetent, unpopular leader — was a dead end, and that China wasn't America's to lose in the first place. They were also unable to say no to MacArthur, darling of the Asia-Firsters, who was dangerously out of touch with reality on the ground during the war and inexcusably contemptuous of his military and, more importantly, his civilian superiors.

Of course, as far MacArthur is concerned, by the time the war began it was too late for Washington to be able to curb him. As members of the Truman administration came to realize during the war, five years as the unquestioned ruler of Japan made him effectively a foreign sovereign and thus as impossible to control in war as in peace. Halberstam's portrait of MacArthur is, not surprisingly, unflattering, not least because of the contempt with which he treated the lives of the soldiers under his command.

The foreign policy elite do not, however, deserve all the blame for the fiasco. In some way it was inevitable. The Truman administration had been painted into a corner. With Republicans hungry to reclaim the White House after losing five straight elections (after 1948), they needed an issue with which to hammer the Democrats. The Soviet menace combined with the Chinese Communist victory proved the perfect formula: the Democrats, whether as a result of incompetence or, in the McCarthyite version, communist sympathies, were dangerously unprepared to resist monolithic communism, which was supposedly on the march everywhere. The result was that Democrats came to feel the need to look tough on communism — and cower in the face of those seen as tough on communism (i.e., MacArthur). This psychological need for Democrats to appear strong on foreign policy lingers today, and could become an incredibly important factor in US foreign policy should a Democrat win the presidency this year. (It is not at all hard to see Republicans in opposition once again castigating a Democratic president for being soft on what they say is an existential threat to the US, in this case Islamic terrorism — and the Democrats overcompensating in response, with disastrous effects.)

In their campaign against the administration, the Republicans had the backing of much of the American public, who were simultaneously convinced of the communist menace (and in the case of China, the administration's failure to protect a democratic ally of the US from it) and unwilling to support properly the global commitments necessary to resist communism. (Hence the US military was dangerously unprepared for war in Korea when it came.) In Kennan's containment policy, the US had a prudent strategy for resisting Soviet expansionism — but as Halberstam made clear, the American people and their elected representatives were not up to the strategy. Indeed, the conversion of the US from isolationism to superpower was messy, especially in Asia, where wartime propaganda about "our ally" China contributed to a major overreaction to the communist takeover.

The result of all this was a bitter, inconclusive war on the Korean peninsula that destroyed for two decades the possibility of a modus vivendi between the US and Mao's China (and ensured a lingering element of mistrust in the relationship even after the opening). It was a war that took the lives of more than 36,000 American servicemen and hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Chinese, and, as a result of the brittle anticommunism it engendered, contributed to the deaths of thousands if not millions more as the US intensified its commitment to fight communism in Indochina. And it bequeathed to future generations flashpoints that might yet be the death of us all.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Machimura faction tries to untwist the Diet

The Machimura faction, which just gained a new member to solidify its position as the LDP's largest, has delivered a proposal to Prime Minister Fukuda that calls for the drafting of new rules for Diet management in light of the divided Diet. The proposal, according to Asahi, points to a "structural deficiency in the constitution," in that it mandates different methods for dealing with the budget and budget-related bills. As such, it demands that Mr. Fukuda push through rules that provide for the passage of the budget and budget-related bills at approximately the same time.

As usual for LDP and conservative complaints about the post-July political situation, the proposal bemoans how the divided Diet makes it difficult to address Japan's national interests, in this case fixing the country's abysmal fiscal situation. (No mention, of course, as to how that situation came about in the first place.)

May I make the modest proposal that perhaps more democracy is in Japan's national interest, no matter what the impact on public policy (and no matter how insufferable Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ can be at times)?

The rule changes demanded by the Machimura faction are nothing short of anti-democratic, in that they would limit the HC's ability to exercise its constitutional duty to act on a certain type of legislation. The Japanese people voted last year to give control of the House of Councillors to different parties than that controlling the House of Representatives. Just because it has made governing more difficult does not give the LDP the right to manipulate the political process to reverse the consequences of the election.

Fortunately Mr. Fukuda disagrees with the opinion of his faction. He replied by emphasizing that he intends to "take every opportunity to appeal to the opposition parties" for cooperation. And so it should be: as we learned this month, the government and opposition are perfectly capable of cooperating on legislation, despite the media-driven impression of gridlock. The constitution mandated roles for each house, and the LDP should not opportunistically undermine one house just because it's now become a hindrance to LDP rule.

(Incidentally, this is why Japan needs regular alternation of ruling parties: a ruling party aware that it could easily end up in the opposition would perhaps be less blithe about proposing rule changes to handicap the opposition.)

The enduring weakness of the parties

Over at Shisaku, MTC writes about l'affaire Ōe — Ōe being Ōe Yasuhiro, one of the three DPJ HC members who attended the gathering of prefectural assembly members mentioned in this post.

Kan Naoto has called for Mr. Ōe to resign his seat. That is unlikely to happen: MTC notes that since Mr. Ōe was elected last July — and since the DPJ has a plurality, not a majority, in the HC — the DPJ is likely to be stuck with him and his overt flirtations with the LDP until 2013. I'm also dubious of pronouncements issued by DPJ executives who aren't Ozawa Ichiro; Mr. Ozawa seems to have the last word in the party executive, if not necessarily the party.

Indeed, this episode is but the latest sign that the creation of top-down, centralized, programmatic parties that was supposed to accompany the emergence of a two-party system has not occurred as expected. Both the LDP and the DPJ (despite talk of Mr. Ozawa's "dictatorial" control of the party) remain deeply divided. The leaders of both parties have few tools with which to discipline unruly backbenchers. Take, for example, the LDP leadership's frustrations with the activities of Nakagawa Shoichi (discussed here). Apart from the blunt weapon of expelling party members, what can the leaders of both parties do to discipline "uncooperative" members?

Another round of population transfers between parties (i.e., another political realignment) might help centralize the parties, but I doubt it. Factions, whether based on personality, pork, or policy, will continue to exist, and individual members will continue to wield considerable power, both on the basis of their fundraising abilities and because the political system may be in for a period of weak coalition and minority governments whose need to preserve working majorities will give considerable leverage to rebellious backbenchers.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Abdicating responsibility

The government has submitted its bill extending the temporary gasoline tax for ten years as part of its bill related to the revision of the tax system. It is not clear, however, whether the government will give up on finding a compromise with the opposition and push for passage before the end of the month, giving it time to pass the bill again in HR over HC objections.

In the background of the bill's submission, some 500 prefectural assembly members — mostly LDP, with nineteen DPJ members (and three DPJ HC members) — met at the Kensei Kinenkan in Nagatacho to demand the retention of the special fund for road construction and to insist that the Diet pass the extension before the end of the fiscal year. The issue is the DPJ's proposal to shift funding for road construction to the general fund, meaning that the prefectures and the "road tribe" advocates in the LDP would have to compete with every other interest group to secure funding for their projects of choice.

And this is a bad thing? It seems obvious to me that in a period of tight budgets, when the nation has to make tough decisions about priorities and what deserves money, road construction should not be given special preferences, especially considering that Japan's road needs are not what they once were. Arguably, the steady flow of money into rural construction projects is an impediment to developing creative solutions to the rural problem. Are the residents of rural areas actually served by the construction of roads, or are the "interests of the people" used as window dressing for a system that enriches LDP members, bureaucrats, and construction companies? As this Asahi article makes clear, the LDP's rhetoric in this debate focuses on how the loss of the extra tax revenue will impact communities. I hope the DPJ will show, again and again, how this entitlement, like many entitlement programs, has had perverse consequences, hindering the development of rural areas rather than enhancing it.

According to a DPJ survey of the heads and deputy heads of its prefectural chapters, there is broad support for the DPJ's position on this issue, but as usual it needs to do a better job presenting its opposition to the public. As asked by the head of the Kochi prefectural chapter in response to the party survey, "Although this is an election in which a government will be chosen, is it good to focus the debate on a price reduction of 25 yen (per liter of gas)?" This issue alone will not sink the government. The task for the DPJ in advance of a possible general election is to make a coherent case condemning the failed governance of the LDP. The temporary tax should be but one plank in that case — it should not be the whole of the DPJ's case.

If the DPJ formulates its position carefully, it can change the debate from one that pits urban against rural into one that unites all Japanese against the government, pointing to how the government has substituted money for creative policy making, in the process abdicating its responsibility to lead and provide a secure future for all citizens. This debate shouldn't just be about the extra yen paid into government coffers. The DPJ should use this issue to indict the LDP for failing to adjust the nation's spending priorities in a period of both tight budgets and urgent policy needs.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Another consequential decision for the government

Having just finished the process of using Article 59 to pass the new anti-terror law, the Fukuda government is once again debating whether to go through the process of rushing a desired bill (the extension of the temporary gasoline tax) through the House of Representatives in order to leave the government time to "re-pass" the bill over DPJ and HC resistance in time for the new fiscal year.

The government has announced plans to submit the tax legislation that includes provisions for the gasoline tax on 23 January and will push for it to be debated in conjunction with the budget.

Introducing the bill on the 23rd gives the government a week to decide whether to end HR debate at month's end and pass the bill, ensuring that the bill will be bounced back from the HC in time to be passed again before 1 April.

As reported by Sankei, there is debate between the governing coalition's HR and HC caucuses over the timeline for passing the bill, with HC party leaders demanding that the bill be sent to the Upper House during January (an attitude reflective of the greater weight of rural votes in HC elections?). Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura, however, disagrees, arguing that the HR needs sufficient time to debate the measure: "To the last, it's the Diet's, not the government's decision." Given the unlikelihood of a compromise being forged on this issue, is Machimura's statement the first sign of the government's changing course on this measure?

Whatever it means, the clock is ticking for the Fukuda government to make yet another decision that will have considerable influence on its durability and the coalition's viability in a general election. The LDP will, however, raise the stakes of the debate by submitting a revised version of the tax measure that extends the temporary tax for ten years.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Is the LDP doomed?

MTC makes the bold prediction that the LDP "faces annihilation" in the next general election.

I'm inclined to agree, simply because it seems that the LDP has finally exhausted the patience of the Japanese people — and the members of the LDP seem more interested in dividing into warring ideological camps than in making good policy in advance of a general election. The party elders seem equally aware of the peril facing the LDP. Not surprisingly, over the weekend both Foreign Minister Komura and former prime minister Mori insisted that there is no hurry to hold a general election, with Mr. Komura suggesting that the government should wait until the end of the term (i.e., September 2009) before dissolving the House of Representatives and holding a election.

Will the ideologues, I wonder, permit the government to wait that long before going to the people? Will 2008 be the year of the Nakagawa no ran?

Meanwhile, the gasoline tax issue is shaping up to be a massive boon for the opposition, not least because it will make it harder for Mr. Fukuda and the LDP to campaign on behalf of consumers and urban Japan more generally. That's what I conclude from a meeting at the Kantei with the National Governors Association, in which the governors, led by NGA Chairman Aso Wataru of Fukuoka (no relation to Taro, who is also from Fukuoka), informed the government that they support the extension of the "temporary" gasoline tax. (It's unclear from this Sankei article about the meeting whether the governors are unanimous in support of the tax extension.) The issue is increasingly shaping up to be a battle of consumers and gas-dependent producers versus regions hungry for infrastructure projects funded by the tax. It seems obvious to me which side is the better bet both in the short term, in a general election, and over the long term as the LDP and the DPJ vie for dominance.

The DPJ is set to get as much mileage out of the gasoline tax issue as possible (pun intended), and unlike in the debate over the refueling mission, the LDP may not be able to win the match by using the HR supermajority. A recent Mainichi poll found that even as 46% of respondents said they approved of the government's use of the supermajority on the refueling issue (to 41% who did not approve), 51% said they don't think it should be used for future issues (compared to only 38% who approve of its being used again). Mr. Mori thinks that there is no danger to the government from using the supermajority to resolve the debate over the gasoline tax, that the threat of an HC censure motion is nothing to fear. As I noted in the run-up to the re-passage of the anti-terror law earlier this month, on paper the DPJ's threat to censure the government isn't much of a threat. The government could theoretically ignore it. But a censure motion backed by massive public outcry against the government would be harder to ignore.

It is difficult to see how Mr. Fukuda, for all his good intentions, will be able to reassert his control of the LDP and regain the momentum in Diet deliberations.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Who won the battle over postal reform?

On Saturday, Koga Makoto, the LDP's chief election strategist, announced that the party's candidate in Gifu-1 will be Noda Seiko, a former postal minister ousted from the party as a postal rebel in the summer of 2005 and readmitted to the party in December 2006. The dispute was over whether the party would give the nomination to Ms. Noda or to Sato Yukari, one of Mr. Koizumi's assassins.

In accordance with stated policy, the reason for Ms. Noda's receiving the nomination was on the basis of her "objectively" being able to win — apparently because she has won five elections.

Ms. Sato (or should I say Dr., on the basis of her Ph.D. in Economics from NYU?), having been elected only once, simply could not compete on that criteria.

In case anyone still thought that the LDP is the party of Koizumi Junichiro, this is yet another example that the real winner in the summer 2005 showdown over postal privatization was neither Mr. Koizumi and his band of reformers nor the postal rebels (after all, privatization is going forward), but the party elders who forced Mr. Koizumi to accept amendments to the bills to make them more palatable to the party's risk-averse and cowardly members. Recall the 28 June 2005 LDP executive council meeting when Kyuma Fumio, then chair of the council, forced a vote on the amendments without first achieving a consensus. Mr. Koizumi ended up getting his (amended) legislation and winning a major election victory, expelling the die hards in the process, but upon his leaving office control of the party passed back into the hands of the risk-averse elders, who are now prepared to erase the remaining traces of the Koizumi legacy.

Mr. Koizumi may ultimately get the last laugh — indeed, I suspect that he's been laughing to himself for the past year — because the LDP may be on the brink of destroying itself. But for the moment, the party elders are in control, and will continue to run the LDP as they know best, for the time being anyway.

Tip of the iceberg

Following Prime Minister Fukuda's remarks Thursday at the LDP convention, Ibuki Bunmei, LDP secretary-general, has also warned darkly of the possibility of the breaking of the LDP.

Speaking in Utsunomiya, Mr. Ibuki said, "If the LDP wins, the DPJ will break. If the DPJ wins, in the LDP people who cannot persevere will spill out."

There are plenty of public signs of the gathering storm within the LDP, but if the president and secretary-general of the party feel compelled to take their fears for the party's future public, then the situation must be worse than even press reports suggest. Given the barely concealed vitriol of the conservatives, who seem to feel that Mr. Fukuda has taken their birthright — control of the party for which they and their ideological predecessors yearned for decades — I don't doubt it.

But Mr. Ibuki is right: I don't expect any movement until after the election. But he's wrong about the winner staying united, the loser dividing. What will count as a victory for the LDP? retaining the supermajority? Best take out the carving knives now. A simple majority for the LDP, without Komeito? A simple majority for the government, but only with Komeito's help? Undoubtedly different actors within the LDP will have their own ideas about what constitutes a win for the LDP in a general election. I expect that Nakagawa Shoichi and the other ideologues will do their best to spin just about any outcome as a defeat, giving them due cause to reassert control over the LDP, and push out their dovish rivals, with a mitigating factor being a strong election performance by the doves that bolsters their numbers within the party. Barring that, the LDP will be rocked by just about any outcome short of the miraculous retention of the supermajority.

As for the DPJ, if it loses — although, again, there is a question about the definition of what constitutes a win for the DPJ — the party will have to confront the question of who will replace Ozawa Ichiro. As revealed back in November, there isn't an obvious replacement, meaning that when Mr. Ozawa goes, there's bound to be chaos within the DPJ as the party's proto-factions search for a new compromise leader who can assuage all factions or purge the party's conservatives, sending them into the arms of the LDP.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Japan on the brink

The Diet returned to business yesterday after a two-day recess, with Prime Minister Fukuda and members of his cabinet delivering speeches outlining the government's basic policies for the 2008 regular session.

Prime Minister Fukuda — despite his decline in popularity, which he has said "can't be helped" — gave another excellent speech, his second in two days, in which he outlined the nature of the problems facing Japan and the work that remains to be done. Continuing the soft approach that he has followed since taking office in September, Mr. Fukuda opened his address by praising the work of the recently finished special session and calling attention to the ways in which the government and the opposition were able to cooperate to pass legislation, despite the conflict over the anti-terror law.

He then correctly identified the problems facing Japan today: "In the midst of the change in the global economy symbolized by the rapid growth of China, India, and others, how do we preserve our country's economic strength, how do we maintain our social security system in tough economic conditions, how do we deal with the problem of declining birth rates, how do we deal with the problems of expanding irregular employment and stagnant regional economies, and also, how do we deal with the fierce global competition in technology, and how do we deal with the problems of the global environment, natural resources, and energy?" He spoke of building a new Japan, not a beautiful Japan, and he said "our" — he emphatically did not lay down an ideological blueprint for this new Japan. Indeed, if Mr. Fukuda has an ideology, it is one that upends the traditional way of politics in Japan, elevating the people at the expense of the government and bureaucrats.

As expected, he emphasized the need of build a consumer-centered society. He stated five goals: (1) realizing a consumer-centered society; (2) securing the livelihood of the people by creating a new social security system; (3) constructing a vital economic system; (4) "realizing Japan as a peace cooperation state"; and (5) finding a way to a society that is both energy-efficient and prosperous. What follows is a long and detailed statement articulating how the government will pursue these goals. I doubt that he will have enough time and power to act on this agenda, but it's important to note that Mr. Fukuda gets it. As I have suspected since he took office, Mr. Fukuda, far from being an aged functionary and tool of the factions, has a keen appreciation for the problems facing Japan today. He may not be flashy like former prime minister Koizumi, but in many ways he has a more constructive vision for Japan than the mercurial former prime minister. (Like Mr. Koizumi, I think Mr. Fukuda realizes that a new system will not emerge without political change. The political system has long been dead weight holding back Japan.) He recognizes the interconnectedness of the problems facing Japan; for example, towards the end of his address he spoke of the importance of changing the education system to enhance Japan's international competitiveness. Unlike his predecessor, whose ideas about education harkened back to the Meiji-era rescript on education, Mr. Fukuda recognizes Japan's responsibility to its children. (He also undoubtedly angered the conservative ideologues by noting that if Japan is to revise its constitution, revision has to be the result of broad consensus among all parties. For an illustration of the contrast between Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Abe, check out the picture of Mr. Abe in this article.)

It is truly unfortunate that Mr. Fukuda was not elected LDP president and prime minister in September 2006, when he would have been in a position to move forward aggressively with this agenda. He would have control of both houses of the Diet, the goodwill of the public, and a sincere desire to tackle the problems facing Japan. Instead Japan got Mr. Abe, and the rest is, of course, history. Now Mr. Fukuda has to juggle a divided Diet, a divided party, and an insecure public that does not seem to be particularly willing to be patient while Mr. Fukuda tries to make progress on building a new Japan.

I do not think that Mr. Fukuda was exaggerating when he spoke of the scale of the problem facing Japan. As Ota Hiroko, his minister of economic policy, said yesterday, Japan is no longer a first-rate economic power. Takenaka Heizo, Mr. Koizumi's reform czar, made the same point in an article in the February issue of Voice. Mr. Takenaka called Japan a "policy third-world country," citing the government's inability to resolve any of the long-standing economic problems facing Japan.

But I also think that Mr. Fukuda will be hard-pressed to address these problems in this Diet session, especially with the prospect of a general election looming over the proceedings. He will not be helped by talk of a consumption tax hike, which Finance Minister Nukaga Fukushiro dared to do yesterday. I don't doubt that Mr. Fukuda's approach will put pressure on the DPJ in a general election campaign — and may make the difference in the LDP's keeping an HR majority — but the festering problems within the LDP may be enough to undermine his government fatally.

It may be the case that true reform will have to wait for regime change.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Let there be strife

The LDP held its party convention in Tokyo on Thursday, and the mood was anything but cheery.

Prime Minister Fukuda spoke bluntly about the existential crisis facing the party today. "We are facing the greatest crisis since the foundation of the party," he said to a crowd of some 3400 party members and supporters.

Reiterating the party's mantra since losing last July's HC election, Prime Minister Fukuda emphasized the need to act on behalf of the Japanese people, joining the DPJ in putting lifestyle issues first. (Does anyone else find it odd that the prime minister of a long-standing ruling party needs to remind his own party of the need to govern on behalf of the people?)

Will the party's clans stop warring long enough to hear Mr. Fukuda's message?

In advance of the party convention, the discord within the party became ever more open. On Wednesday, former prime minister Mori Yoshiro bluntly addressed Nakagawa Shoichi's flirtations with former LDP member Hiranuma Takeo via their "true conservative" study group (discussed here), reminding Mr. Nakagawa that his faction, the Ibuki faction (whose head, Ibuki Bunmei, is the party secretary-general), should come before his dalliance with Mr. Hiranuma. Something tells me that Mr. Nakagawa is not about to halt his extracurricular activities in pursuit of "true conservatism" — and besides, when Mr. Mori speaks, does anyone actually listen? (Just to show to make clear exactly what his vision of the party is, he also lashed out at the Koizumi Kids, suggesting that Mr. Mori would love to go back to the old days when everyone in the party got along to distribute money to supporters and were returned to office over and over again.)

I think it's safe to say that Mr. Fukuda's remarks Thursday are aimed at his conservative rivals, whose allies in the media have castigated him relentlessly since not long after he took office. As I discussed here, the priorities of these conservatives are not those of Mr. Fukuda (or the Japanese people). Mr. Fukuda recognizes that the LDP cannot afford a repeat of July 2007; it cannot afford to ignore the concerns of the people and expect to escape unscathed, not with the DPJ — for all its troubles — doing its best to capitalize on the LDP's failure to address the many insecurities of the Japanese people.

The conservative ideologues will have to choose between their ideals and party unity (and power). I'm not entirely certain that they will choose the latter over the former, especially if they come to reason that an electoral disaster under Mr. Fukuda will enable them to discredit his leadership and reclaim the LDP for themselves.

Meanwhile, the new Kochikai lurched ever closer to its rebirth, with Messrs. Koga and Tanigaki formally agreeing to merge their factions on Wednesday. Announcing the merger, Mr. Tanigaki said, "Since we share DNA, we want to once more make a nucleus that will be a stream in support of the LDP's conservative politics." (Apparently conservatism is as contested in the LDP as it is in the US Republican Party.) But as I noted previously, although the new faction will have sixty-one members, making it the third-largest faction, it is possible that some of those members may be more interested in supporting Mr. Aso than Mr. Tanigaki or any other candidate that the new faction would back in a leadership race.

This might be premature of me to suggest, but I wonder whether we are witnessing the twilight of the LDP factions, at least the factions as we know them. The LDP will, of course, remain fractured, just as the DPJ is fractured, but part of a political realignment might mean the transformation of factions from being social clubs good for collecting cash and distributing patronage to being ideological clubs along the lines of Mr. Nakagawa's study group. Might not the September 2007 presidential election, in which faction members clearly ignored the instructions of faction leaders to vote for Mr. Aso be a sign of what's to come?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

High spirits in Yokohama

In the exceedingly brief pause between the just-finished special session of the Diet and the regular session of the Diet scheduled to begin tomorrow, both the LDP and the DPJ have held their party conventions.

The message at the DPJ convention in Yokohama was simple: "Now is the time for realizing regime change and making the people's life number one." All of its efforts will strain to this end at least all efforts but for Mr. Ozawa's being amiable, as he continued to insist that there is no need to apologize for leaving the Diet early last Friday, as his activities as party leader are his own concern. He also reminded voters that he will stake his political career on the outcome of a general election.

Finally, the DPJ has, as noted by MTC, made a big show of opposing talk by the Fukuda government that it will consider extending the temporary gasoline surcharge this session. Once again the LDP has given the DPJ a gift that makes it that much easier for the DPJ to oppose the government. What opposition party wouldn't love to be able to oppose an onerous tax in a year that will likely see a general election?

While the gasoline tax issue gives the DPJ an issue with which to speak for all Japanese, the DPJ has formalized its plans to reorient itself to urban Japan, noting the influence of major cities in general election results.

If the DPJ can limit its own infighting and avoid making serious mistakes that raise questions about its ability to govern, the party is well-placed to score a major victory in a general election — while a majority of its own may be hard to achieve, it could deprive the divided LDP of not just its supermajority, but also of a simple majority.

At FEER Forum

An article that began life as my review of the events of 2007 and has gone through several iterations since is now online at The FEER Forum, the Far Eastern Economic Review's group blog.

You can read it here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The fantasies of "true conservatism"

For a glimpse into the twisted thinking of the Japanese right — the revisionist right — in the aftermath of the downfall of Abe Shinzo, there is no better place to look than the conversation between Sakurai Yoshiko and Hiranuma Takeo published in the January 2008 issue of Voice.

The bizarre, distorted facts and outright fictions published in this article brought me to the point of laughter on more than one occasion, although I didn't laugh nearly as much as the discussants apparently did, judging by the little parenthetical laugh marks that followed all too many of their remarks.

The discussion did, however, give me another reason to be glad that Mr. Abe was forced to resign (for whatever reason — these two think that fault for Abe's resignation lies not with Mr. Abe himself, but with his secretary, Inoue Yoshiyuki, who Ms. Sakurai describes as being "like [Koizumi secretary] Iijima," apparently a bad thing). It's not that their ideas are especially dangerous, it's that they're so irrelevant. They continue to insist that what they know what the Japanese people want, and that is the abductees brought home and the constitution revised. Ms. Sakurai at one point castigates Prime Minister Fukuda for failing to act on constitution revision, which, she reminds us, has been one of the core principles of the LDP since its founding in 1955. True, but so what? Why should a government in 2008 by following an agenda formulated before 1955 when it has to deal with the problems of 2008 and beyond?

How many elections does the LDP have to lose before they recognize that the Japanese people don't share their priorities? Did the July 2007 defeat not register?

Of course, the discussion inevitably turned to Mr. Hiranuma's planned "true" conservative party, because both the LDP and the DPJ are rotten (even if, they say, there are capable individuals within both parties). When asked about the timing of its formation, Mr. Hiranuma was reluctant to say whether it would occur before or after a general election. Undoubtedly he will have to make that decision with the cooperation of his friends within the LDP, who I suspect would prefer to wait until a general election before acting. Instead of forming a new party, it seems to me that the ideological right is starting to hope openly for an LDP defeat in a general election that will take down Fukuda and give them an opportunity to retake control of the party, purging "fake" conservatives in the process.

Towards the discussion, Mr. Hiranuma very nearly veered into relevance when he broached the question of economics, but it turned out he only wanted to castigate the Finance Ministry before directing the conversation back to more familiar ground, puzzlement over the reaction to Nakagawa Shoichi's 2006 calls for a debate about the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

I don't want to linger too much longer over this, but there was one more nugget worth mentioning. The two of course talked at length about the US about-face on North Korea and had a good laugh about Christopher Hill. Mr. Hiranuma also spoke about his recent trip to Washington along with other Diet members and the abductee families, where they spoke with members of Congress about resolutions in the House and Senate calling for a linkage between the abductions issue and the removal of North Korea from the state sponsors of terror list. For some reason, these ideologues really take congressional resolutions seriously. Mr. Hiranuma spoke with pride about how Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL-18) and Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) promised to push for these resolutions, and was impressed that the House resolution already had a whopping twenty-eight co-sponsors.

That said, they acknowledged the shortcomings of Diet members' diplomacy, thanks in part — wait for it — the influence of the Chinese in Washington, whose embassy has ten times more political specialists in their embassy than Japan's and who have significant numbers of Chinese-Americans whose support Beijing can apparently mobilize at will, as in the case of the comfort women resolution.

You would think from reading this interview that Japanese society was healthy and that there was not a long list of problems facing the government for years to come. And you would be wrong, just as the ideological right is wrong. The decisions made by the Japanese government in the coming years will determine whether Japan remains influential regionally and globally, whether it remains an economic power with a voice in shaping East Asia. Its power will not rest on a new constitution that enables Japan to send its robust military to fight abroad. It will not rest on its children being proud of being Japanese. It will depend on Japan's becoming a country that is more open to the world, more willing to take risks, better able to provide security for its aging citizens, and better able to educate Japanese children for the world in which they will live.

The vision of Mr. Hiranuma, Ms. Sakurai, and their compatriots in the mass media and the Diet is a vision from 1950. (I guess that's what they mean by "true conservatism). Too bad it's 2008.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Goodbye to all that

After 128 days, the resignation of one prime minister, the selection of another, the aborted resignation of the leader of the largest opposition party, and the "re-passage" of a major bill in the House of Representatives over the rejection of the House of Councillors, the 2007 special session of the Diet — Japan's latest experiment with divided government — has come to a close.

Despite the impression of gridlock, Mainichi reports that the Diet passed twenty-six bills this session (fourteen government bills, twelve individual member bills), one more than was passed in the 2006 special session. Of the thirteen bills submitted to the HC by the DPJ, only one — on support for disaster victims — passed.

The battles of this session, however, were nothing more than a prelude to the showdown to come. The LDP is now divided over whether the anti-terror law should be the government's last use of its HR supermajority (not to mention the underlying divisions in the party that were only temporarily settled when Mr. Fukuda took office). Thanks to the precedent, various government and LDP officials have begun making the case for the use of the supermajority to pass budget-related bills and an extension of the temporary gas tax, most recently Finance Minister Nukaga. The DPJ's divisions are equally apparent after the struggle over the anti-terror law.

Will all of this result in a general election, whether in the middle of this Diet session or in the late summer (or another time of the government's choosing)? That question will loom large over this session's deliberations.

Hold on tight.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The imperious Mr. Ozawa

I'm with MTC: the "can the DPJ govern" meme has been beaten to death.

The DPJ is here and it will in all likelihood be the largest party in the HC for at least the next six years. No amount of griping about the DPJ's unsuitability will change that. Even if the "realignment" happens, the change may be more in the way of "population transfers" than name changes.

For all of my own griping, I want to see the DPJ succeed. The LDP needs to lose and spend a substantial amount of time in opposition, if only to resolve its internal battles and allow the political system to move beyond the 1955 system permanently.

It is for that reason that I'm annoyed by Ozawa Ichiro's latest gaffe, his leaving HR deliberations on the anti-terror bill before it came to a vote.

As before, Hatoyama Yukio, DPJ secretary-general, has apologized for the DPJ president's behavior.

Why, I wonder, is Mr. Ozawa not apologizing himself? Would it hurt his party if he acted more modestly?

Between this incident, his disappearance on election night, his meetings with Prime Minister Fukuda, and his aborted resignation (embarrassing for the DPJ due to his being begged to return by party leaders), I find his arrogance hard to stomach. One could also add his policy shifts on the refueling mission, which have forced DPJ rank-and-file to shift positions to follow their leader just like Stalinists were forced to shape their arguments around pronouncements issued from the Kremlin, no matter how much they contradicted previous positions.

By acting imperiously and appearing to be accountable to no one, Mr. Ozawa gives the DPJ's enemies — those writers who provide a constant stream of articles for the conservative monthlies, for example — ammunition with which to undermine the DPJ. The more impetuous and uncontrollable Mr. Ozawa seems, the more the DPJ appears to be weak and subject to its leader's "dictatorial" control.

Mr. Ozawa's imperiousness may yet help the DPJ take power. He may yet impose discipline on a party that has been unruly since it first formed in the mid-1990s. The Japanese voters may have finally lost patience with the LDP, meaning that they're willing to forgive the DPJ no matter what Mr. Ozawa does.

But why does Mr. Ozawa have to make it easier for his party's rivals to question its ability to govern?

"Not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be"

With the imminent rebirth of the former Kochikai, the LDP faction that until the 2001 Kato uprising was the home of the mainstream tradition in the LDP embodied in Prime Ministers Ikeda, Ohira, and Miyazawa, Tanigaki Sadakazu, LDP PARC chairman and former finance minister, has been making talking about the role the resurrected faction will play in a political realignment.

To that end, Mr. Tanigaki recently met with Ijima Isao, former confidante of former prime minister Koizumi, who declared that unless Mr. Koizumi puts his hat back into the ring, Mr. Mr. Tanigaki is the only leader for the "conservative mainstream" at present. (I'm not sure whether it's still plausible to call the Kochikai mainstream within the LDP, in light of the inexorable rise of the revisionists over the past fifteen years.)

That doesn't strike me as the most ringing endorsement of Mr. Tanigaki, and I suspect that if the much-discussed realignment ever comes about, Mr. Tanigaki will be muscled out of the way by either Mr. Koizumi or somehow else who combines both popular appeal and an agenda that balances reform and attentiveness to public concerns about the consequences of reform. Masuzoe Yoichi, for example, could very easily step into this role given both his crusading reformism (often directed at the bureaucracy) and his ability to empathize with the frustrations of the Japanese people when it comes to the failings of the health and welfare systems.

One thing seems clear, however. The new Kochikai will not slump back into the role of being the voice of the bureaucracy in the LDP. (Indeed, looking at the background of LDP Diet members, the pipeline from bureaucracy to backbencher appears to have been severed. The career politicians won.) If Mr. Tanigaki is serious about echoing the DPJ and putting lifestyle concerns first, his new faction will necessarily find itself battling the Japanese bureaucracy, which bears much of the blame for the state's indifference to the concerns of Japanese citizens.

Meanwhile, the true size of the resurrected faction is in doubt, thanks to the subterranean, cross-factional support for the candidacy of Aso Taro for the party presidency. The Aso movement, which presumably incorporates Nakagawa Shoichi's "true conservatives," is far larger than Mr. Aso's faction, and will likely dwarf the new Kochikai. I remain convinced that the LDP remains for the taking of the ideologues, regardless of whether Mr. Aso or one of his comrades is the standard bearer.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Use of force

"Japan PM forces navy bill through" — BBC.

"Japan's ruling party steamrolled a new anti-terrorism law through parliament." — Morning Brief, Foreign Policy Passport.

"Japan's ruling coalition forced a bill through parliament today..." — LA Times (AP)

"Fukuda forces through law on Japanese naval deployment" — International Herald Tribune (NYT)

"Japan forces through terror law" — Financial Times

Anyone else detect a theme here? The Western press coverage (with the exception of the AFP, it seems) of the passage of the new anti-terror special measures law emphasized the supposed aggressiveness of the government's action — echoing the DPJ, whose secretary general, Hatoyama Yukio, described it as "outrageous" — and highlighted the rarity of the use of a supermajority in the HR to override the HC.

Of course it's rare: when was the last time the government had an HR supermajority at the same time that the largest opposition party was in control of the HC?

So the emphasis on the "forcefulness" of the measure is, I think, mistaken. The word "force" implies that this step was undemocratic. But Mr. Fukuda is entirely within his rights. The constitution gives the HR the right to overrule the HC if it has a sufficient number of votes. Just because this right has rarely been exercised does not make it any more forceful. It simply reflects the singularity of the present moment in Japanese politics, in which the LDP has had to take an extraordinary step to pass a high-priority measure.

If the constitutional legitimacy is beyond dispute, the political legitimacy of the act is uncertain, more open to dispute and more likely to change over time, depending on what the Fukuda government does in the coming months. I suspect that the consequences of using the supermajority will be limited. I am sure that Mr. Fukuda would have preferred not to have to pass the law this way, but the fate of his government will not rest upon this decision. If the LDP's majority is to shrink or be lost entirely in a general election, it will be due to the accretion of policy failures and cases of misgovernance, in which case the use of the supermajority to override the HR will be cited as but one case among many illustrating the LDP's failures. Meanwhile, in the event that the Fukuda government is able to sort out the pensions problem and recapture the mantle of reform in advance of the next general election, I expect that the Japanese people will forgive the government for its supposed transgression on this issue.

Indeed, yesterday was a happy day for Prime Minister Fukuda. Not only was his government able to pass this bill after months of uncertainty, finally removing it from the center of the parliamentary agenda, but the process of passing the bill exposed the rifts within the parliamentary opposition. As I noted previously, the DPJ was forced to change its approach to the bill in the HC due to pressure from other opposition parties, which wanted the HC (and thus the DPJ) to take a clear stance in opposition to the government. In HR deliberations on the bill Friday, DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro left the chamber abruptly and abstained from voting on the bill. Mr. Hatoyama claimed that Mr. Ozawa had duties to attend to in relation to the forthcoming Osaka gubernatorial election, but Mr. Ozawa's hasty departure prompted charges of "irresponsibility" from both the LDP and other opposition parties.

Whatever the reason for Mr. Ozawa's departure, there is no question that the manner in which this bill passed was a personal defeat for Mr. Ozawa, who preferred that the HC let the sixty-day waiting period pass without the DPJ having to register its opposition in an HC vote. As MTC argued in this post, the endgame of the anti-terror bill exposed the DPJ's dependence on Socialists and Communists in its opposition to the government, due to the DPJ's holding a plurality — not an outright majority — in the Upper House.

Essential reading on China's ASAT plans

Continuing with its thread of providing a more realistic assessment of China's military capabilities, Wired's Danger Room blog has published a three-part article by MIT researcher Geoffrey Forden that attempts to provide a realistic picture of the role that China's ASAT capabilities could play in a Sino-US war.

Forden outlines the difficulties China would face in trying to cripple the US Military's satellite capabilities in the event of a war over Taiwan and suggests that while China might be able to cause some damage to US capabilities, it will not be able to launch a "Pearl Harbor" that blinds and cripples the US Military.

Read the whole article here, here, and here.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The year of the consumer

Perhaps in response to the DPJ's "consumer ombudsman" proposal — and the realization that urban support will be essential in a general election — the Fukuda government has indicated that the prime minister will announce the creation of a ministerial portfolio for consumer affairs in his policy speech opening the regular session of the Diet on 18 January.

The government's plan will centralize offices for consumer complaints that are currently housed in the ministries of health and welfare, agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, and economy, trade, and industry. Superficially, this proposal preempts the DPJ, with the difference that unlike the DPJ, the government's plan, well, keeps responsibility for consumer affairs within the government.

Nevertheless, it's better that the parties are competing over plans for improving the government's receptivity to consumer complaints than over plans to fling money at farmers and other interest groups.

Meanwhile, the government's expert advisory group on civil service reform, first convened under Prime Minister Abe, will by the end of the month issue recommendations for restrictions on contacts between politicians and bureaucrats. This is one area where ambitious and rigorous restrictions could have far-reaching effects on Japanese governance. These restrictions would strengthen the cabinet at the expense of the LDP rank-and-file and make it more difficult for LDP backbenchers to pervert policy to their own ends.

It's no wonder that the backbenchers are outraged over the proposal, prompting Mr. Fukuda to tread gingerly on this issue. While Mr. Fukuda can ill afford a rebellion, forcing the LDP to accept new rules on politician-bureaucrat relations would allow him to begin recasting the party as an urban, reform party in advance of an election (a difficult, if not impossible task).

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Out with a whimper

Whether as a result of pressure from its fellow opposition partners or because of an epiphany that the struggle over the anti-terror law is over, the DPJ has changed its mind once again and decided that it will reject the government's bill outright instead of waiting for the sixty days to pass.

The HC Foreign Affairs Committee will act on the bill today, the whole house will act on the bill tomorrow morning, and by tomorrow afternoon the HR will pass the bill a second time (only the third time that the HR has overruled the HC).

And so a struggle that began in the early hours following the DPJ's victory in July HC election, contributed to Prime Minister Abe's demise, and sparked a war of words between US Ambassador J. Thomas Schieffer and DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro (and contributed to tension between the US and Japan more generally) will come to an end tomorrow afternoon. The MSDF will resume its refueling activities in the Indian Ocean for at least another year and the Diet will move on to more important things.

What have we learned from this episode?

Politically speaking, it seems that aside from a handful of defense specialists in both the LDP and the DPJ, there is remarkably little desire in either party to have a serious discussion about the future of Japanese foreign policy and the relationship with the US. Not unlike the 1990 debate over Japan's participation in the Gulf War, the debate never moved beyond mundane details to consider broader principles.

We also learned that the Japanese people also have little interest or desire for a broad and substantive debate about Japan's role in the world — and do not want their government fiddling with foreign policy while their pensions vanish.

Finally, and most significantly, we learned just how fragile the US-Japan relationship is today. (We learned this because this feud occurred at the same time that a fissure formed over North Korea.) Each ally's expectations of the other remain misaligned, and we may look back on this debate as Japan's first furtive step to say no overtly to the US. Saying no need not be a bad thing, but the future of the alliance will depend on what the US and Japan do next.

Deflating the China threat

The Danger Room's Noah Shactman points to a report by the Federation of American Scientists that notes that China's submarine fleet — a favorite bugbear of China hawks (see this report, for example) — was little more active in 2007 than it was in previous years.

Without dismissing China's military modernization, reports like this are important reminders that the China threat argument is based mostly on speculation about what China might be able to do in the indefinite future and the idea that the US has a right to unchallenged military primacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Even in the Taiwan Straits, US deterrence of China still works. Regardless of Beijing's bluster and saber-rattling, China still believes that the threat of US intervention is credible enough and threatening enough and has still not acted to overturn the status quo, despite importance that the "recovery" of Taiwan has for many mainland Chinese. No matter how distracted the US is by Iraq, the US Navy is still the region's most powerful navy, a position that the US will not relinquish anytime soon.

So what does the US have to lose in persisting in efforts to keep lines of communication open between the PLA and the US Military? As the great Asian arms race continues, the US will have to become accustomed to sharing the maritime environment with other navies. The US should therefore persist in developing its ties with the PLA as much as China will permit and regardless of setbacks.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The shape of the realignment to come?

Nakagawa Shoichi, former LDP Policy Affairs Research Council chairman, was recently interviewed in the Kyodo Weekly on the subject of his new study group.

Not surprisingly, the "True Conservative Policy Research Group" is, according to Mr. Nakagawa, dedicated to keeping the flame of the Abe revolution alive.

In explaining what true conservatism is, he said, "Japan stands at a crossroads — will it continue down the road to ruin, or will it go down the road of revival? The LDP has defended Japan's good tradition and culture, and improved and reformed that which should be reformed. If this type of conservatism does not press forward, the support for the true conservative class will become unreliable."

He continued: "Restoring vitality to the regions, and at the national level, reconstructing national security, public order, education and the social security systems. We must continue to struggle with constitution revision, reform of the public service system, and collective self-defense, the problems with which the former Abe administration grappled."

None of this is that surprising or revealing. What is revealing, however, is what Mr. Nakagawa says about the group's political aims. For the moment, Mr. Nakagawa supports Prime Minister Fukuda. He even claims that he voted for him in September. But he also hinted that he and his coterie are more concerned about policy than personality. And when asked whether he would join independent conservative Hiranuma Takeo's new party, he declined to answer — and quoted Hiranuma as talking about how the DPJ "is not monolithic, it is essential to build bridges, and this is our self-imposed mission."

I remain skeptical of the idea that Mr. Nakagawa and his comrades will leave the LDP, now that the revisionists are finally in the party's mainstream. It is their party now. What might happen in the aftermath of the next general election — except in the unlikely event that the government retains its supermajority — is a bid by the ideologues to expel those who aren't in sync with their principles. Their biggest rival is now the Kochikai, which is set to reemerge this year from a merger between the Koga and Tanigaki factions, in the process unseating the Tsushima faction as the party's second largest. The next LDP presidential election, which will presumably follow a general election disappointment or defeat, will be a brutal fight for dominance over the party. If the LDP still holds a majority (judged by Koga Makoto, LDP election strategist, to be "difficult") the conservatives will presumably focus on enticing the DPJ's conservatives into the party to bolster both the conservative position within the party and the LDP's position in the Diet.

And if the LDP goes into opposition for the second time in its history? Harder to say, because victory would presumably serve as an excellent adhesive for the DPJ, keeping the conservatives from joining with their counterparts in the LDP. Would the LDP survive opposition in one piece?

No wonder former Prime Minister Mori and other party elders want to postpone a general election for as long as possible.

Censure motion on hold for now

As the close of the Diet session approaches — and with it, the presumed re-passage of the new anti-terror bill in the HR — the DPJ has announced that it is reconsidering submitting an HC censure motion this session in response to the government's use of its supermajority. It will instead save this motion for the regular Diet session, when the DPJ can use it in the midst of budget deliberations in the hope of bringing about an early election.

The LDP does not seem to be particularly worried. Nikai Toshihiro, head of the executive council, said in a TV appearance on Monday, "This has no foundation in the constitution or in the Diet law. If this card is played, it is not significant at all."

The DPJ is right to reconsider passing a censure motion in response to the anti-terror bill. What exactly is the government doing that it deserves to be censured? Using the constitutionally mandated power of overruling the HC with a supermajority in the HR? Poorly managing the Defense Ministry (clearly an issue that transcends this government)? Defying public opinion? The reasoning behind censuring the Fukuda government has always struck me as shaky, especially since it became increasingly apparent that the government would probably ignore the resolution entirely, making the DPJ and the HR look impotent and irresponsible.

The DPJ's introduction of its own bill on Afghanistan — now under deliberation in the HC Foreign Affairs Committee — is little better, especially at this point in the battle over the anti-terror mission, but at least it makes it look like the DPJ is playing a constructive role, even if its plan is far-fetched. It still remains unclear whether the HC will actively reject the government's bill or whether the HC will remain inactive and let the sixty-day threshold pass. The other opposition parties disagree with the DPJ's plan to do nothing except pass its own bill; they want the HC to reject the government's bill outright.

It's not clear to me what the DPJ is trying to accomplish by making the government wait until the very end of the session. The DPJ has probably worked this issue as much as it could. It forced the government to focus on seeing it through to the end, thereby distracting it from addressing the lifestyle issues that should have been Mr. Fukuda's top priority from the day he took office as prime minister. The DPJ may not be as lucky in the new year. The Fukuda government needs to give the impression that it is obsessed with the pensions issue and other domestic problems, and so at this point, the less it talks about foreign policy, the better its political prospects.

(And yet, if the government is serious about pushing for a permanent JSDF dispatch law in the new year, the LDP and the DPJ might be debating about foreign policy again. But I don't think doing so will be to the government's advantage, especially since the DPJ will be reluctant to approve a law that will permit the government to extend the refueling mission without having to get permission from the Diet again next year.)

Sarko and Abe

Glamorous romantic life aside, I find the parallels between former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and French President Nicolas Sarkozy intriguing. (I previously explored this theme in this post from last July.)

The parallel came to mind once again when I read this post by Arthur Goldhammer.

Commenting on a recent Sarkozy press conference, Goldhammer wrote:
...The "politics of civilization" was not an idle phrase to be forgotten after the New Year's greetings. Now the borrowing from Edgar Morin is openly affirmed. The intention is to infuse politics with poetry, to eschew the pallid practice of "governance," that wan neologism, in favor of what de Gaulle would have called grandeur. Sarko's grandeur partakes not of glory, however, but of the affective. The words "love" and "value" loom large.
I was immediately reminded of Mr. Abe's efforts to sugarcoat his ideology with "affective" terminology, the most prominent term being, of course, that ubiquitous Abe adjective "beautiful." It seems that like M. Sarkozy, Mr. Abe sought to transcend the "governance" of his predecessors by appealing to the deeper values that he and his comrades believe all Japanese share.

However, one difference is that Mr. Abe, as prime minister, was responsible for "governance" and all the messiness it entails. The grandeur of the French presidency seems to give M. Sarkozy some room with which to muse about these subjects; indeed, it might well be a requirement of the job.

(UPDATE: As noted by MTC in the comments, the more obvious comparison for the frenetic M. Sarkozy is, of course, Mr. Koizumi. Agreed. And M. Sarkozy is obviously a much more adept politician than the hapless Mr. Abe. My point is simply that Messrs. Abe and Sarkozy think about their nations' pasts, presents, and futures in similar terms.)

Meanwhile, in the same press conference M. Sarkozy proposed that the G8 be expanded to the G13, with the new members being Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, India, and China. This might very well make the summit meaningful again, if not more effective (the G8's ineffectualness is, I think, as much a function of overambitious agendas as of the roster of attendees).

I expect that this proposal will not be popular in Tokyo. As anyone who has seen Japanese media coverage of preparations for the July G8 summit in Hokkaido knows, Japanese elites take the G8 seriously. They are proud of Japan's membership and would undoubtedly be extremely reluctant to make this exclusive club that much less exclusive. And given that China would be included in an expanded summit, I can easily imagine that the Japanese government is in no hurry to see group expanded, especially considering China's role in keeping Japan out of that most exclusive of international clubs, the permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

Monday, January 7, 2008

The DPJ reorients itself

The DPJ, in a move that suggests that the shift I sensed in this post may be becoming a clear trend, has announced that it will submit a bill in the regular Diet session that proposes the creation of a "consumer ombudsman." The DPJ's plan envisions an independent official, appointed not by the government but by consensus of the Diet, who will take over from the Cabinet Office's Kokumin Seikatsu kyoku and the Fair Trade Commission to unify the handling of consumer complaints to the government.

This is the kind of proposal I've been waiting for from the DPJ. It goes beyond griping about the LDP's malfeasance and actually proposes a practical, constructive solution to a problem. It emphasizes the importance of independent, (hopefully) apolitical oversight of the government, and places the concerns of the people first.

I wonder the extent to which the DPJ's new approach — has anyone heard the DPJ talk about farm subsidies lately? — is a function of the growing appreciation that it has to reclaim the mantle of the party of urban Japan in order to succeed in a general election. Note that if an election is held this year, the discrepancy of the value of a vote in the least populous district (Tokushima-1) will be only 2.226 times more valuable than the value of a vote in the most populous district (Tokyo-6). That is a slight increase over last year (2.202), but it is still a considerable difference from the vast discrepancy in Upper House voting, in which a vote in rural Tottori prefecture is worth 4.883 times the value of a vote in Kanagawa prefecture.

The emphasis on responsible governance for the Japanese people is, I think, a wise approach to take for whatever reason, and I hope we'll see more of it.

The Iowa winners

I am back to New York after my sojourn in Tokyo.

In honor of my return to the US, here are links to a couple posts at The Reality-Based Community on Barack Obama and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, written by Steven Teles, a former professor of mine. I particularly like his dissection of the sheer insanity of Huckabee's policy ideas.

Is the Mainichi poll right?

Considerable discussion has surrounded a new Mainichi Shimbun poll showing that 46% of respondents desire a DPJ victory in a general election, compared with only 33% for the LDP.

The same poll also showed that respondents would overwhelmingly (51%) vote on the basis of "policy," which may very well mean "pensions." Only 3% say they would vote on the basis of "image."

In light of this finding, I wonder what to make of the thinking of Tahara Soichiro, eminence grise of television political analysis.

In the January issue of Voice, Tahara has an article whose title pretty much says it all: "The DPJ will not take the government." The reason? Ozawa Ichiro. (Like must monthly magazine articles, this article is not online.)

Tahara believes that Mr. Ozawa's qualities as a leader make him entirely unfit to lead the DPJ to an election victory. Uncharitable to his enemies (unlike his mentors), maladroit at communicating a message to the public, and unwilling to consult others, Tahara is convinced that Mr. Ozawa will lead the DPJ to disaster — or at the very least, not to victory in a general election. He is especially critical of Mr. Ozawa's scheming on a grand coalition with the LDP, given the LDP's record of devouring parties that have joined it in coalitions. He pointed to the uproar over the mooted grand coalition as typical of Mr. Ozawa's operating style: decided in secret, on the basis of reasons entirely his own. As Jun Okumura notes in this post, citing a Yomiuri article that broke down the DPJ's factions, "The house, it seems, can still be divided, and Mr. Ozawa’s personality and old-school ways have little other to offer to party unity besides elective success."

And what if success in a general election is not forthcoming?

Tahara thinks — and I am inclined to agree with him — that in the absence of a DPJ (or perhaps more accurately, opposition) victory, the much-vaunted political realignment will come to pass to resolve the nejire kokkai. He does not foresee the DPJ surviving in its current form if Mr. Ozawa cannot deliver his party into government by way of electoral victory (not a corrupt bargain with the LDP).

But if the Mainichi poll is right, and the voters are actually inclined to vote on the basis of policy over personality, then the DPJ might once again be in a position to profit from the LDP's ongoing failures, only this time of course, the prize is the government. Given Mr. Ozawa's negative image among Japanese voters — as illustrated in a Keio University study discussed in a different Yomiuri article from last week — the DPJ better hope that this is the case.