Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The campaign comes to Guam

This weekend, the US presidential campaign comes to Guam, the island territory closer to Japan than the continental US that will soon be home to a vastly expanded US military presence, if all goes according to plan.

Guam will be holding a Democratic caucus, and with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton struggling for every delegate, the two have given some attention to the island, thanks to its four delegates. (NPR provides a handy guide for the perplexed here.)

With Guam on the receiving end of the realignment of US forces in Japan, this might be the closest the US-Japan alliance gets to the presidential campaign all year. Both candidates have prepared statements on the relocation of US forces to Guam. Senator Obama promises to balance economic needs with social needs in the planning for the expanded military presence; Senator Clinton emphasizes a federal funding commitment and the appointment of a Guam liaison in the Pentagon. Both recognize that the relocation of US forces involves far more than building new facilities for military personnel.

Neither, however, mentions the bilateral dimension. Neither acknowledges that with Japan footing part of the bill, the process will be more complicated than it already is within the federal government.

In short, Guam's caucus will come and go, and the US-Japan alliance will remain invisible in the campaign.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A pyrrhic victory

Japan's "temporary" gasoline surcharge holiday is over, just as the Japanese people set off on their Golden Week holidays.

The government will use its HR supermajority to reinstate the temporary tax Wednesday, ensuring that the surcharge is in place for the start of the new month.

The opposition parties have, of course, strongly criticized the government's decision to proceed as contrary to the will of the people. The DPJ's "gasoline price reduction brigade," an organization of younger DPJ members that played an important role in the early stages of this debate in bringing this issue to the top of the agenda, was particularly apoplectic in its response to the government's widely expected decision to proceed as planned.

Based on the government's own statements about its plan to pass the tax bill again today, it appears that there is little doubt that the LDP and Komeito will be able to line up all of their members in favor of renewing the temporary tax.

The DPJ and the other opposition parties may have lost the battle, but if the Yamaguchi-2 by-election was any indication, another victory like this and Mr. Fukuda is done for.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The DPJ's way forward should not include Hiranuma

Convinced that a major electoral breakthrough is at hand following Hiraoka Hideo's impressive victory in Yamaguchi-2 Sunday, the DPJ leadership (a.ka., Ozawa Ichiro) has decided that it will continue to try to force the government to dissolve the HR and call a general election.

To that end, Mr. Ozawa indicated yesterday that the DPJ will push for an HC censure motion if and when the government passes the road construction plan in the HR a second time, expected after 12 May.

It has never been likely that a DPJ-backed HC censure motion would push the government to call an election — or else it would have passed one by now. With the government reeling from its defeat Sunday and Mr. Fukuda's future bleak, it is even less likely that an HC censure motion will trigger a general election. There may yet be a general election this year, but Sunday ensured that it won't be held under Mr. Fukuda's watch. A censure motion at this point will be a powerless stunt, one more blow to Mr. Fukuda's shambolic government, and a tiny one at that. I don't think it will hurt the DPJ, but it won't change the situation either. As Yamaguchi Jiro argues, the non-binding censure motion is a "wooden sword:" it won't topple the government, but it can damage Mr. Fukuda's reputation at home and abroad. So if the DPJ is determined to pass a censure motion, it should do it and then move on, without over-dramatizing the measure. It will mean exactly what it says it is; the DPJ is disappointed with the government's indifference to public opinion and is registering its disapproval officially. That's all.

That said, Mr. Ozawa is clearly feeling more confident and more powerful within the party following Sunday's victory. Sankei reports that he was all smiles at yesterday's press conference, for good reason, because the Yamaguchi-2 by-election probably stifled the gathering effort by DPJ reformists to find a serious candidate to run against Mr. Ozawa in the party's September leadership election. But it is at moments like this that the DPJ has to be especially cautious, given Mr. Ozawa's tendency to get carried away in his efforts to exploit what like to be prime opportunities.

It is worth noting that Mr. Ozawa dined with none other than Hiranuma Takeo on Monday evening, where they exchanged views about the political situation and prompted speculation that Mr. Hiranuma's still non-existent "Hiranuma New Party" and the DPJ could cooperate. Both agreed that the LDP is "useless." The DPJ will already cooperate with Mr. Hiranuma in one sense, in that the party will not be fielding a candidate in the Okayama-3 district he represents. I hope that Mr. Ozawa and the DPJ don't go any further in their cooperation with Mr. Hiranuma. I don't see how the DPJ can gain from closer association with the arch-conservative Hiranuma (although the DPJ would obviously benefit if Mr. Hiranuma were to form a party and pry away his LDP friends in Nakagawa Shoichi's study group).

As I argued yesterday, the DPJ needs to worry less about how to hasten a general election and more about how to hone its image as the reformist party that is more sensitive to the public's needs than the LDP. The LDP is tearing itself apart with the DPJ doing little more than using its control of the HC to stymie the government's agenda. It should keep doing that — and not look for apparent shortcuts to a general election that could tarnish the DPJ's image.

To DC readers

I will be in Washington, DC from Thursday to Friday this week, and would be interested in meeting with readers either individually or in a group over coffee.

Send an email to if interested.

Dissecting Hiraoka's victory

It is probably safe to call Hiraoka Hideo's victory in Yamaguchi-2 resounding.

He received 116,348 votes, approximately 13,000 more votes than he received in 2005 when he lost to Fukuda Yoshihiko and 7,000 more votes than his previous high (109,647), which he received running for reelection in 2003. He received 22,000 votes than the LDP's Yamamoto Shigetaro, and his 116,348 votes amounts to 54.7% of the 212,540 votes cast. Interestingly, the 13,000-vote improvement over 2005 is roughly equivalent to the amount of votes received by Yamanaka Ryoji, the JCP candidate in 2005. Given that Mr. Yamamoto received approximately 10,000 fewer votes than Mr. Fukuda did in 2005, Mr. Hiraoka's margin of victory cannot be attributed solely to the absence of a JCP candidate — but it certainly didn't hurt. (For data on Yamaguchi-2, please see Japanese Wikipedia's entry on the district.)

It is a mistake, however, to draw too many conclusions about the DPJ's prospects in a general election based on this campaign, given the number of conditions in the DPJ's favor that had little to do with the national political situation. Given the DPJ candidate's history of success in the district, the party was the prohibitive favorite — it would have been a problem if the party could not pick up the seat. It does suggest that Mr. Ozawa's effort to recruit quality candidates may yet bear fruit. Obviously there is no more "quality" candidate than an incumbent (PR) member of the lower house who had previously won the district in multiple elections. But the candidate matters, and the more candidates the DPJ can recruit who have won elections, regardless of the level, the better the party should fare. (Recall that this is an element of Ethan Scheiner's argument about opposition failure.)

Is it possible to divine the state of the Japanese electorate from this by-election? Machimura Nobutaka says no. In a literal sense, Mr. Machimura is right. The votes of citizens in Yamaguchi-2 reflect the views only of those citizens. It is also difficult to discern the extent to which the campaign was driven by local issues and by national issues. As MTC suggests, for example, the presence of MCAS Iwakuni in the district may have been a hidden factor in the election. But national issues, especially the government's poorly planned introduction of a new medical care system for seniors clearly played an important role — as expected — and the government is delusional if it thinks it's dealing with localized grievances.

While Mr. Hiraoka's victory may have been a foregone conclusion, the size of his victory was not. Arguably this by-election is but the latest manifestation of the deep and growing discontent among the Japanese people with the government, the disillusionment that prompted voters to reject LDP HC candidates throughout the country last summer. Mr. Hiraoka took this line in discussing his victory. The LDP-led government has done little since July to combat the malaise; indeed, the government has arguably worsened the malaise as a result not only of its inability to fix old problems — the pensions scandal — but its inability to present a coherent program to voters. Perhaps Mr. Hiraoka's margin of victory is a sign that voters have rejected the government's attempts to blame the DPJ for policy paralysis. Perhaps the voters recognize, even if the pundits don't, that the general election ought to and will be a referendum on LDP rule, not on the DPJ's ability (or lack thereof) to wield power.

How will the Fukuda government respond? As MTC notes (see link above), "...It will almost certainly increase the timidity of the Cabinet and the ruling coalition as regards policy innovation and implementation. When you are down, everything difficult looks like a threat. When you are struggling, every challenge looks too unpopular to undertake." I suspect that's the right conclusion to draw. The risk-averse school — the besieged elders — in the LDP will continue to call the shots, which means that the Fukuda government will continue its race to oblivion. For the LDP's leaders, the least risky thing to do is to proceed exactly as planned, re-passing the tax bill on Wednesday and the prevailing road construction bill — not Mr. Fukuda's "compromise" bill — after the sixty-day period expires on 12 May.

At this point the DPJ needs to do little more than continue to harass the government and undermine whatever claims it makes to be fighting for reform. Tend your own garden, Mr. Ozawa. Ensure that your candidates are ready for an election when it comes. Call attention to the inconsistencies in the government's plans. Flesh out just what "regime change" will mean for Japan.

In the meantime, the LDP will continue to crumble, as potential successors campaign more openly to replace the enfeebled prime minister and as the party's contending schools of thought fight bitterly over how the party should proceed and by extension what identity the party should adopt.

And the malaise will spread.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Hiraoka wins

As expected, Prime Minister Fukuda was welcomed back to Japan after his trip to Russia by a DPJ victory in the Yamaguchi-2 by-election.

Hiraoka Hideo defeated the LDP's Yamamoto Shigetaro by a still unknown margin of victory. Mainichi reports that the turnout rate was 69%, a fall from 2005's 72.45%.

It's hard to make any definite conclusions without seeing just how big a victory Mr. Hiroka won, but undoubtedly this will intensify pressure on the government from the LDP, but more importantly, it will likely intensify pressure from within the LDP on Mr. Fukuda. Expect more "post Fukuda" talk in the coming weeks. Additionally, after a rough couple of months, Mr. Ozawa may find himself bolstered within the party and hungrier to press on to a general election.

Koizumi Junichiro, whipping boy

"The nonsense of public opinion that hopes for Pitcher Koizumi, ringleader in making an unequal society, to take the mound again."

So reads the headline of an opinion piece at JanJan by Sato Shuichi, a journalist and activist.

Sato uses an extended — and I mean extended — baseball metaphor to discuss the transfer of power from Mr. Koizumi to Mr. Abe to Mr. Fukuda and consider the possibility of Mr. Koizumi's taking the ball again.

As the headline suggests, Sato believes that Mr. Koizumi is uniquely to blame for growing inequality in Japan, and responsible for the tough political conditions faced first by Mr. Abe and now by Mr. Koizumi.

I want to take issue with this all-too-common assertion among left-of-center Japanese commentators and bloggers that Mr. Koizumi bears special responsibility for inequality in Japan.

Mr. Koizumi's government was far from perfect, and he certainly didn't deliver on all of his policy objectives. He often placed more attention on image than substance, hence the common put-down of his politics as being "theatrical." But he does not bear special blame for inequality in Japan, which had been increasing for nearly two decades prior to his premiership thanks to demographic change and the microeconomic response to the economic downturn (hiring more part-time employees while paying them less). Perhaps he could have done more to bolster welfare provisions and transfer payments to prefectures; Sato criticizes Mr. Koizumi for cutting subsidies to localities, especially education subsidies. But Sato fails to mention the economic constraints within which Mr. Koizumi was working, not least the sizable national debt that will inhibit future governments' efforts to strengthen Japan's safety net until it is reduced to more sustainable levels. And Mr. Koizumi gets no credit for Sato for attacking — for decimating — the traditional LDP and with it practices that caused the debt to balloon in the first place.

Beyond that, for all the scorn heaped upon Mr. Koizumi by Japan's progressives (and some rightists) for his "neo-liberal" revolution, as Steve Vogel and Aurelia George Mulgan have argued, it's possible to overstate the significance of Mr. Koizumi's reforms. I would argue that his reforms have had far more profound political consequences than economic consequences. By suggesting that another kind of LDP rule was possible, Mr. Koizumi permanently transformed the terms of debate within the LDP, leaving the party's various schools of thought to argue over whether to embrace his vision for party fully and leaving his successors to fix Japan's institutions and modernize the party while trying to preserve the party's rural base.

As such Sato dismisses the Jiji poll mentioned here that showed Mr. Koizumi to be the overwhelming top choice when people were asked which politician would make the best prime minister. The results might change somewhat depending on which part of the country was polled, but it is wishful thinking on the part of Sato to think that the Japanese people have tired of Mr. Koizumi and his theatrical politics. Whatever the frustrations of his premiership, he remains better loved than his successors and wannabe successors, perhaps because he pointed to a way out of Japan's many problems — and because his political style showed that he was willing to take risks to move his agenda forward.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Counting down to X-Day

With less than a week until 30 April — "X-Day" — when the government intends to bring the tax bill to a vote in the HR again, the DPJ is apparently stepping away from threats to censure the government in response to the revote.

Kan Naoto indicated at a press conference Thursday that the party has yet to decide how it will respond to the expected reinstatement of the temporary gasoline tax, noting that there is a discussion underway about whether a censure motion will pressure the government into dissolving the HR and calling a general election.

This should come as no surprise. It became clear last fall that despite being able to pass non-binding censure motions, the HC is largely powerless when it comes to resisting a government armed with a two-thirds majority in the HR. For all the complaints from the LDP about how irresponsible the DPJ has been acting, the government has still been able to get what it wants through the Diet, even if it has to wait sixty days on occasion (which would be less of a problem if the government planned better).

The DPJ's only ally in its fight against the government is public opinion. The public's ambivalence about the MSDF refueling mission meant that the DPJ was impotent in the face of the government's determination to restart the mission. Will the same dynamic apply next week?

Both parties are keenly watching how public opinion breaks in the days between the by-election in Yamaguchi-2 on 27 April and the HR vote on 30 April. As Sato Hiroya suggests:
Whether the LDP wins or loses, if there's a narrow margin, the LDP will likely go ahead and forcibly pass this bill again. However, if the LDP candidate loses by an unexpectedly large margin, it is likely that it will not be easy for the LDP to take the strong step of passing it again on the 30th.
In short, the government will conclude that the political consequences of the temporary tax are negligible and proceed as planned. A close and/or victorious election will stand in for the numerous opinion polls showing opposition to the temporary tax.

Pushing forward with the tax bill does, however, entail some risk to the government, particularly if public opposition translates into a vocal backlash following the bill's second passage.

It's possible that the situation is not as dire for the Fukuda government as it appears. Yamamoto Ichita thinks that both the potential rebels within the LDP and the DPJ are full of bluster but will ultimately fail to deliver: the rebels will fall into line and vote with the party, the DPJ will not pass a censure motion in the HC, and the government will get its way on the two votes (the tax bill vote next week, and the road construction bill sometime in May). In short, the government will survive this crisis by acting resolutely and not wavering.

As suggested above, he may be right about the DPJ. I'm still not convinced, however, that the LDP has stifled the rebellion, especially if Sunday results in a DPJ landslide, an entirely plausible outcome.

That's the flaw in Mr. Yamamoto's "election avoidance syndrome" theory. Of course elected officials would prefer to put off an election for as long as possible. But they would also like to win the election when it comes. Given a choice between taking an action that might bolster their electoral prospects at the risk of hastening a general election, which instinct wins out? If a DPJ landslide provides a clear illustration for LDP HR members of their vulnerability in a general election, will they be as inclined to vote again for a measure opposed by an overwhelming majority of the public?

In short, an overwhelming DPJ victory in Yamaguchi-2 could have far greater impact on how the government proceeds than the threat of a censure motion ever could.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The race for defense ministry reform

Back in February, when Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru was threatened with censure for his ministry's dilatory response to the Atago incident, Prime Minister Fukuda gave Mr. Ishiba a firm vote of confidence, calling upon the defense minister to "review the organization from its very foundation."

It appears that Mr. Fukuda's support for comprehensive defense ministry reform has lapsed.

Mr. Ishiba is still eager, of course. Earlier this week he appeared on TV to argue for a thorough reform that mixes civilians and JSDF personnel in the ministry to strengthen communication among them.

But now Mr. Ishiba faces competition from two different directions. From one side is the defense ministry reform subcommittee of the LDP - PARC's national security investigatory committee. Chaired by former JDA chief Nakatani Gen and staffed largely by boei zoku, the subcommittee issued its recommendations on Thursday.

The subcommittee report is less far-reaching than that envisioned by Mr. Ishiba. The word of choice seems to be "strengthening," especially the prime minister's office. The subcommittee revives Abe Shinzo's project of creating a Japanese National Security Council, and calls for naming a defense ministry/JSDF member as prime ministerial secretaries and military aides. (It also calls for a new adviser to the defense minister, who would could be a civilian from outside the ministry.) Instead of merging uniformed and civilian personnel, the subcommittee draws clearer lines between the two. It calls for shutting down the ministry's operations planning bureau and moving its functions to the Joint Staff Office (JSO), while strengthening the ministry's responsibilities for strategy and policy. It also calls for changing rules to allow JSDF personnel to testify to the Diet on specific military questions and for measures to improve morale in both the ministry and the JSDF.

This may be an improvement on Mr. Ishiba's plans. It seems to me that blurring the lines between civilians and uniformed personnel undermines civilian control of the military.

However, Mr. Ishiba also faces competition from the Kantei, which has announced the creation of a reform council of its own that will be more focused on tackling the air of corruption at the ministry.

The current political situation may result in the Kantei's winning the race to defense ministry reform with a more limited plan that does less to shake up the ministry (which will necessarily invite opposition from uniformed and civilian personnel).

But what outcome is the best for Japan? I do not share Michael Penn's bleak assessment of the consequences of various ministry reform proposals. (Unfortunately I have no link to Mr. Penn's latest newsletter in which he discusses the Nakatani proposal.) His argument is that the response of JSDF personnel to Judge Aoyama Kunio's statement on the ASDF Iraq mission, in addition to reported JSDF involvement in spying on antiwar groups, should raise red flags about the nature of the JSDF — and as a result the mooted reforms should be rejected. He wrote:
Come now! Criminalizing the act of handing out antiwar fliers to SDF families? Spying on peace groups? Growing links to international role models like the Pakistani military? Mocking civilian judges? A direct pipeline to the prime minister? Active units under the direct command of the Chief of Staff?

Is this really a good start for Japan's new Ministry of Defense? Where are the effective countervailing political forces here? What about the lessons of Japanese history in the 20th century? If unchecked now, where does this kind of thing lead in the future?
I think alarms about the JSDF are overwrought. Without denying the troubling involvement of the GSDF in domestic espionage against peace groups, which was revealed in June 2007 but has since vanished from the media, the Japanese defense establishment does need reform. It needs a clearer chain of command, swifter information collection and processing, and better decision-making in response to crises. (And beyond this, it needs a more transparent procurement process.)

That said, I share Mr. Penn's concern about the lack of "countervailing political forces." As far as I'm concerned, any defense ministry reform that does not include provisions for the creation of an inspector general's office and more robust Diet oversight is insufficient. The DPJ should be taking this position in the reform debate, agreeing that the ministry needs reform but insisting that reform must be matched by better oversight. The creation of a more effective defense establishment must be accompanied by the creation of stronger institutional checks to monitor its activities.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Koike fever?

Within days of Mori Yoshiro's calling the prospect of Korike Yuriko, former defense minister, a "joke," Sankei writes that "Koike fever" is taking hold — even though Ms. Koike claims to share Mr. Mori's assessment of a Koike candidacy.

The basis for this "fever" is unclear to me.

The examples cited by Sankei? A long speech to a meeting of the LDP young turks, Nakagawa Hidenao's calling her "a new leader who will be responsible for Japan's future" on a visit to China in March, her participation in Mr. Koizumi's new study group, and Koizumian political instincts.

All well and good, but this strikes me as a thin foundation for declaring that Ms. Koike is in a position to seize the LDP leadership. Does she in fact have any of the support that would make her a viable candidate in a post-Fukuda party race? Being an able politician is not necessarily a criterion for being elected as head of the LDP, and Ms. Koike's "flexibility," which led her to migrate from party to party over the course of the 1990s before ending up in the LDP and Mr. Koizumi's cabinet, surely is less of an asset when it comes to vying for the LDP leadership.

Does she have the support of the party's prefectural chapters, which gave not inconsiderable support to Aso Taro in September 2007 — and which Mr. Aso has courted assiduously since the last LDP leadership election?

Does she have the support of any LDP faction, not least the biggest one, and the LDP's kingpins more generally? The "endorsement" of Nakagawa Hidenao is undoubtedly helpful, but surely Mr. Mori's put-down outweighs his Machimura faction comrade's praise (stunning considering that Ms. Koike is a member of the Machimura faction). Meanwhile, the manner in which she was chased out of the Defense Ministry as the party's leaders closed ranks to defend Moriya Takemasa suggests that she is short on allies in the highest councils of the LDP, not least because she's a woman.

I would welcome her candidacy; she would certainly be an improvement (and a better choice than Mr. Aso). But I must (sadly) agree with Mr. Mori: her prospects are a joke. She will not be elected as head of the LDP as it exists today. She might find a way to the premiership if Mr. Koizumi leads his followers out of the LDP and pushes Ms. Koike forward as his new party's candidate, but for now I feel confident saying that she will not be Mr. Fukuda's successor as LDP president and prime minister.

Koizumi goes to work for the government?

The Fukuda government has announced that it will definitely proceed with plans to submit the tax bill to the HR for a second vote on 30 April, the day after the expiration of the sixty-day Article 59 window. No word from Asahi or Mainichi about whether the LDP and Komeito will face defections when the HR votes — recall that it will take all of eight defectors to defeat the measure and trigger a crisis. Presumably the government is confident that it has the votes if it is announcing that it will definite reimpose the tax. But it will still have to weather the blow to its popularity from reinstating the unpopular measure.

No better time for Koizumi Junichiro — who is, as discussed in this post, still more popular among LDP supporters and the public at large than Mr. Fukuda and his likely successors — to begin playing a role defending the government.

On Tuesday, Mr. Koizumi met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura, and stated that he thinks that a mooted HC censure motion will not have the support of the public. The government has already started to make the case that it has nothing to fear from a censure motion, and it will need all the help it can get in prelude and aftermath to the HR vote.

Whether Mr. Koizumi has the power to blunt public opinion running against the government may be tested this week. The LDP executive has stated its desire to harness Mr. Koizumi's popularity and use him to explain the government's new pensions plan to concerned elderly voters who may be leaning towards Hiraoka Hideo.

Unlike the Abe cabinet, which did everything it could to distance itself from the former prime minister, Mr. Fukuda and his leadership team have no concerns about letting Mr. Koizumi overshadow the prime minister if it means a victory for the party, whether in Yamaguchi-2 or in the showdown with the DPJ over the temporary tax.

Asahi reported that the LDP executive wants Mr. Koizumi's help. But no word on whether Mr. Koizumi wants to help — or whether his active support will be able to reverse Mr. Fukuda's declining popularity.

Monday, April 21, 2008

DPJ cruising to victory in Yamaguchi-2

As expected, the DPJ's Hiraoka Hideo is in a strong position with less than a week before the by-election in Yamaguchi's second district.

A poll conducted by Mainichi over the weekend reveals that voters' concerns favor the DPJ. Health and welfare policy are the top priority (22%), followed by the pensions problem (20%), administrative reform (14%), economic growth (12%), regional revitalization (12%), education (8%), combating inequality (6%), and agricultural policy (2%). A majority of respondents who said that health and welfare, and the pensions problem are most important stated that they support Mr. Hiraoka; a majority of those who gave highest priority to regional revitalization said they favored the LDP's Yamamoto Shigetaro. The poll also found that Mr. Hiraoka bested Mr. Yamamoto among respondents in their 60s and 70s, a distressing sign for an LDP that has relied on the elderly vote. Another encouraging sign for Mr. Hiraoka is that the absence of a JCP candidate will be to his advantage: approximately sixty percent of JCP supporters said they would vote for Mr. Hiraoka, compared to only twenty percent who said they would vote for Mr. Yamamoto.

The LDP is clearly panicked over the prospect of getting trounced in Yamaguchi, not least because it could both doom efforts to reimpose the temporary gasoline tax and inject a degree of urgency into the post-Fukuda discussion. The party is particularly concerned about the defection of elderly voters, and is scrambling to provide a simple explanation of the party's plans for a new pensions system. (Jun Okumura has more on the new pensions scheme here.) The LDP and Komeito continue to hope that visits from high-level officials will rally their supporters — Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Ota were in district over the weekend — but it is unlikely that these campaign visits will be enough shift the momentum in Mr. Yamamoto's favor.

The DPJ, not surprisingly, is feeling confident, although the DPJ and other opposition parties are sending party leaders to the district too. On Saturday, Kan Naoto (DPJ), Tanaka Yasuo (NPJ), Kamei Shizuka (PNP), and Fukushima Mizuho (SDPJ) attended an event for Mr. Hiraoka. The speakers attacked LDP rule as failing to protect the weak and revive stagnant regions — and Mr. Kan attacked bureaucrats for putting their interests before the people's interests.

The contrast between the LDP's and the DPJ's positions in advance of the by-election is revealing. The LDP is struggling to figure just what it's running on, while the DPJ is hammering away at the government for misuse of power. Whatever the national opinion polls say, the DPJ sounds increasingly ready to contest a general election and strike another major blow against the LDP.

The world's top public intellectual

Voting is open in Foreign Policy magazine and Prospect magazine's contest to choose the world's top public intellectual.

The magazines chose a list of the top 100, available here, on the basis of the following criteria: "Although the men and women on this list are some of the world’s most sophisticated thinkers, the criteria to make the list could not be more simple. Candidates must be living and still active in public life. They must have shown distinction in their particular field as well as an ability to influence wider debate, often far beyond the borders of their own country."

Sixty-six are from North America or Europe. Not one is from Japan. The last time FP/Prospect conducted this survey, Ohmae Kenichi and Ishihara Shintaro were included in the top 100, at 97 and 100 respectively. Is Japan really so far removed from global intellectual currents that not one Japanese merits inclusion on this list? I suppose that English ability might have something to do with it: how else does a public intellectual "influence wider debate...beyond the borders of their own country" today than by being a proficient or fluent English speaker?

Beyond that, another point that many on the list have in common is an interest in regional, transnational, and global problems. Japanese public discourse, however, tends to be inward focused, meaning that Japanese public intellectuals make their names discussing Japan's problems, often looking at international problems solely in terms of how they affect Japan.

Part of it too may be selection bias on the part of FP and Prospect. India and China combined for ten of the 100, reflecting the focus of global media on the two Asian giants. But does that translate into influence for its public intellectuals?

I urge you all to choose a Japanese public intellectual (Oe Kenzaburo, Murakami Haruki, Funabashi Yoichi, whoever) as your write-in vote.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mori discusses the post-Fukuda era

Mori Yoshiro, the man who probably has as good a claim as anyone to the title of LDP kingmaker, appeared on The Sunday Project yesterday.

He treated viewers to his assessments of potential successors for Mr. Fukuda, although he made clear that he still stands behind the prime minister (although who knows how much longer that guarantee will last). He dismissed Koike Yuriko's prime ministerial prospects as a "joke," noting that "only the mass media is talking about this." He gave general praise to both Aso Taro and Yosano Kaoru, who are shaping up as the leading contenders to replace Mr. Fukuda. He called particular attention to Mr. Aso's popularity. He also hinted that he's willing to consider a general election within the year. It is obvious that despite his protestations, Mr. Mori is thinking about the post-Fukuda era.

Interestingly, in a Jiji poll asking which politician would make an appropriate prime minister, Mr. Aso ranked second with 16% to Koizumi Junichiro's 21.2%, ahead of both Ozawa Ichiro (7.2%) and...Prime Minister Fukuda (7.1%). The gap between Mr. Koizumi and Mr. Aso was narrower among self-described LDP supporters, 31.3% to 28.3%, with Mr. Fukuda drawing only 12.5% from LDP supporters. Mr. Yosano and Ms. Koike barely registered on the poll, receiving .7% and 1.5% respectively.

In light of these figures, is Mr. Mori leaning to Mr. Aso? Is he willing to embrace the argument that the LDP can be saved only by charisma? He's giving few hints, but I wonder whether Mr. Aso's charm campaign is having some effect on the LDP boss — which leads me to wonder what promises Mr. Aso has made to him in their discussions over the past several months.

Meanwhile, it's entirely possible that Ms. Koike will have the last laugh if Mr. Koizumi's new study group is in fact a proto-party.

The LDP and DPJ talk past each other

A six-party conference of government and opposition parties met Friday to negotiate a compromise on the future of the special fund for road construction. Debate will begin in earnest on Wednesday, a week before the governing coalition is expected to use its HR supermajority to reimpose the temporary gasoline tax.

According to Mainichi, at the initial meeting Tanigaki Sadakazu, chairman of the LDP PARC, called for a review of the parties' positions on a broad spectrum of issues, including the absorption of the road construction fund into the general fund and the temporary tax, subsidies to local governments and the state of local government finances, road construction plans, and the reform of related public corporations. Yamaoka Kenji, the chair of the DPJ's Diet strategy commitee, objected, arguing that the conference should focus on the matter immediately at hand: the road construction fund and the temporary tax.

This dispute is revealing about the nature of the conference. The purpose of this conference is not to forge a compromise amenable to all parties. The purpose of this conference is to provide the LDP, and to a lesser extent the DPJ, political cover. The LDP needs to appear conciliatory before the HR votes again first on the temporary tax at the end of April and the road construction bill two weeks later, so as to undermine the inevitable argument that it is acting heavy-handed in overruling the HC. So why not call a compromise conference that has a broad remit, a remit so broad and a timeline so brief as to ensure that no agreement will be forthcoming? I find it hard to believe, as the LDP leadership argues, that it is the DPJ alone that is playing politics with important national issues.

For its part, the DPJ isn't interested in compromise at the moment. Why should it be? It has painted the Fukuda government into a corner by opposing the temporary tax, forcing the government to take the potentially unpopular step of reimposing the tax. It has used road construction plans as a wedge issue, forcing the LDP's reformists to fight with the zoku giin over the future of road construction, with Mr. Fukuda caught in the crossfire. Accordingly, the DPJ is divided less over whether to compromise than over the party's response to the increasingly inevitable HR re-vote on the tax and road construction bills. That decision may now rest solely in Mr. Ozawa's hands as the DPJ's HC caucus has announced that it will respect party policy.

Going into the conference, it is the LDP that has yet to figure out what it stands for in this debate. The official stance, of course, is Mr. Fukuda's plan to move road construction funds into the general fund from FY2009 while renewing the temporary gasoline tax and possibly re-envisioning the tax as a "green tax." But as Sankei points out, there is considerable (and open) discontent with Mr. Fukuda's approach on all sides of the LDP. Some fear the electoral consequences of restoring the temporary tax. The zoku giin oppose a compromise, and hope that the HR will re-pass the same road construction bill in May that it passed in March, instead of considering a new compromise bill. The reformists want a compromise bill and are supposedly ready to vote against the prevailing bill. And the party's cautious elders — perhaps we should call them the 慎重派 (the shincho-ha, the cautious faction) — are, as always, cautious.

The LDP's internal discontent shows no signs of abating. Ishihara Nobuteru, a potential reformist contender for the LDP's leadership in the future, gave a speech in Fukuoka Friday that described Mr. Fukuda's compromise plan to move road funds to the general from 2009 as "clearly inconsistent." On the other side of the debate, Mr. Tanigaki argued in Hokkaido that neither bill should be revised: the temporary tax should be reimposed and gasoline tax revenue should continue to go to road construction, otherwise the finances of local governments will suffer and public works projects will not be completed. (Mr. Tanigaki's hardline position is interesting considering that he is involved in the compromise conference discussed above.)

It remains unclear whether internal discontent will manifest itself when the HR votes on the temporary tax and the road construction bills. It is entirely possible that the LDP will be torn asunder by rebellion in the coming weeks.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Nearing a climax?

Japan's political air is once again full of election talk as the end of April approaches, bringing the first by-election of the Fukuda era and the end of the sixty-day period after which the HR can vote again on the tax bill containing the temporary gasoline tax.

Ibuki Bunmei, LDP secretary-general, hinted in remarks in Nara-ken Saturday that the election will likely be held before the expiration of the term in September 2009, perhaps as early as this autumn. Mr. Ibuki suggested that Mr. Fukuda might act if he gets a tailwind so as to minimize the blow to the LDP in the general election that everyone knows is coming.

Asahi builds upon Mr. Ibuki's remarks, noting that he added that the party is encouraged by its strong favorable ratings in public opinion polls, many of which have consistently shown the LDP receiving more support than the DPJ.

Koga Makoto, the LDP's chief election strategist, who has been one of the leading advocates in the LDP for delaying until September 2009, has also changed his tune to echo Mr. Ibuki's line.

Mr. Ibuki's emphasis on the party's popularity, however, suggests a certain distancing from the increasingly unpopular Mr. Fukuda. I suspect that the earlier the general election, the greater the chance that it will not be Mr. Fukuda who leads the party into it, especially once the G8 summit has passed. Now that Mr. Fukuda has admitted that he underwent surgery for stomach cancer nearly a decade ago, there's even a convenient excuse for his stepping down, something like "health concerns brought on from the intense stress of the premiership."

But regardless of whether Mr. Fukuda will be at the helm for the next election, it is worth asking whether the LDP is right to feel confident about its electoral prospects based on opinion polls showing greater support than for the DPJ. Do the party support numbers recorded in polls actually have any meaning for how people will vote? Are the LDP and Komeito really willing to bet their two-thirds majority — which Mr. Ibuki admitted will likely not be retained — on the basis of there being some significance to the polls? I have a hunch that the polls fail to capture the extent of the public's discontent. I'm not convinced that the public is any less discontent than it was last summer when the LDP was trounced in the HC election. Will the public really be inclined to punish the DPJ more than the LDP?

The DPJ may not be able to win a majority outright, but anything close will be more than enough to topple the sitting premier, whether Mr. Fukuda or a successor, and possibly break the LDP as its contending sects battle for control of the party.

It is with this in mind that we head into the final weeks of the battle of the temporary tax and road construction. Ozawa Ichiro is still threatening a censure motion should the HR pass the tax bill again, although he has hedged on his threat by suggesting that the final decision will be for the party's HC members to make. Whether a censure motion will have any meaning depends, of course, on the government's response.

If the LDP's leaders are convinced that its popularity will win the day in a general election, perhaps they will call Mr. Ozawa's bluff.

And then?

Friday, April 18, 2008


Following the example of Arthur Goldhammer of the blog French Politics, I have decided to set up a Google Reader shared page, which you can access here.

Thanks to Google Reader I read far more articles daily than I have time to write about; I will use this page to share articles (often on topics other than Japanese politics) that I find of interest.


I am back in Chicago for a bit, and have managed to make it out to Wrigley Field twice to see Fukudome Kosuke, the first Japanese addition to the Chicago Cubs roster. Readers will recall that I was quite pleased about this, and so far I haven't been disappointed. With a .317 batting average and .431 on-base percentage (and one of the highest pitches-per-at-bat averages in the National Leage), how could I?

What I am disappointed, nay, ashamed about is the behavior of some Chicago Cubs fans in regard to Mr. Fukudome.

Cubs fans have a reputation for being drunken layabouts (cf. Lee Elia), more interested in the Wrigley Field atmospherics than the game on the field. Marty Brennaman, Cincinnati Reds broadcaster, made this point earlier this week after an incident in a game between the Cubs and Reds, and at times I have a hard time disagreeing (despite being a Cubs fan myself).

But in addition to being obnoxious on occasion, are Cubs fans also racist?

The arrival of Mr. Fukudome in Chicago has been largely but not entirely incident-free, but the Chicago Sun-Times reports that some horribly offensive Cubs-related merchandise is selling heavily around Wrigley Field. I saw the t-shirt in this picture on a fan sitting a few seats away from me on Friday afternoon.

(Photo: Richard A. Chapman/Chicago Sun Times)

Mr. Fukudome was restrained in his comments on this merchandise.
"I don't know what the creator of the shirt meant this to be, but they should make it right," Fukudome said through his interpreter after being shown one of the shirts Thursday. "Maybe the creator created it because he thought it was funny, or maybe he made it to condescend the race. I don't know."
I will be less restrained.

This kind of thing is embarrassing in the twenty-first century: I am embarrassed as a Cubs fan, a Chicagoan, an American, and as someone whose life is spent, well, observing Japan.

I don't want to generalize about Cubs fans or Chicagoans — Mr. Fukudome's reception in Chicago has been quite friendly, and fans besieged the Cubs organizations with complaints about these items, prompting the team to stop their sale — but the fact that people find this sort of thing funny or cute is a blot on the US. I don't think it's a product of outright racism, just ignorance. But that ignorance is wide and deep, and is not without consequences for US foreign policy. The stunning ignorance about other countries — allies and "enemies" alike — means that ugly stereotypes like this have survived for far too long. (And then there's the question of the older generation of Americans, some of whom revert to embarrassing stereotypes of Japan perhaps in large part because their images of Japan were shaped by a horrendous race war.) Knowledge about Japan among Americans of all education levels is shockingly poor, allowing offensive (or dated) stereotypes to persist.

Perhaps I shouldn't take this so seriously, but it's that kind of attitude that allows this behavior to persist. A person wearing a shirt like this should be stigmatized.

It's small incidents like this that speak volumes about America's place in the world in the twenty-first century.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The LDP looks to its past

By the late 1960s, just over a decade into LDP rule, the LDP was governing an increasingly wealthy but increasingly polluted Japan. This was bad enough for Japanese citizens forced to breathe polluted air, but it quickly became a political problem for the LDP.

Dismayed by the lack of progress in the central government in addressing the pollution crisis, citizens in Japan's major cities elected independent candidates backed by left-wing parties to prefectural assemblies and governorships, who acted independent of the national government to implement stringent environmental regulations. The most prominent example of this was Tokyo governor Minobe Ryokichi, who governed from 1967 to 1979 and acted in 1969 to impose tougher air pollution regulations than the prevailing national standards.

Facing a grassroots political threat on environment policy, the LDP changed with the times. The 1970 special session of the Diet became known as the "Pollution Diet," as the Sato government passed fourteen major anti-pollution measures. The following year the government created the environment agency.

Given that LDP governments proceeded to pave over much of the country in the name of building a new Japan — emphasis on building — one can question the sincerity of the LDP's commitment to protecting the environment, but as far as politics was concerned, the Sato government's response effectively neutralized the environment as a basis for political competition. As Miranda Schreurs wrote, "In taking up the environmental cause and other social welfare issues, the LDP was able to stem its electoral slide at the local level. By responding to the environmental agenda of the citizens' movements, the LDP prevented the opposition from capitalizing on this issue more than it already had and helped limit future use of the courts as an arena for environmental law making."

It is with this in mind that I find news of the LDP's latest attempt to reinvent itself of interest.

According to Mainichi, Prime Minister Fukuda met with Takabe Tsutomu, director of the LDP's headquarters on implementing party reform at the Kantei on Thursday. Mr. Fukuda reportedly said, "I want you to promote a popular movement that you might say is a 'green [literally environment] party.' This is my own image as party president."

Presumably Mr. Fukuda would like to repeat the party's 1970s metamorphosis (here's looking at you, Devin) on a grander scale, not merely including stringent environmental regulation as part of the party's toolbox but transforming the party into some kind of grassroots-centered Green party writ large. This would in effect reverse what the LDP did in the 1970s. If in the 1970s the LDP took the environment out of the politics, this vision would reinsert the environment into the political arena in the hope that the LDP will be able to position itself to exploit it in order to extend its political dominance.

I suspect that the LDP will not be able to execute another green shift. Based on the cabinet's own survey of popular attitudes on environmental problems (conducted in 2005), Japanese citizens for the most part believe that environmental policy begins at home. Asked about future environmental initiatives, 64.8% replied that they wanted to take initiatives in their daily lives to protect the environment. Only 15% said that they wanted to participate in citizen movements on environmental problems. 21.5% said they wanted to do nothing in particular.

More importantly, it would be hard to find ways to use environmental policy to outmaneuver the DPJ because for the most part the public is in agreement about the importance of environmental conservation, and the DPJ is as committed as the LDP to environmental protection. No global warming skeptics movement, comparatively few advocates of economic growth at all costs: Japan seems to have learned from the 1960s. Asked about the connection between environmental protection and the environment, 31.8% said that the promotion of environmental protection is (positively?) connected with economic development, 22% said that environmental protection does not necessarily hinder economic development, and 23.2% said that environmental protection should be promoted even if it has some negative impact on development, while only 3.2% said that development should be prioritized even if it means forgoing environmental protection. 13% said they didn't know, and 6.8% said that they saw no relation between the two.

So if the LDP paints itself green, will anyone notice?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The domestic constraints on Japanese foreign policy

Prime Minister Fukuda, originally scheduled to visit Germany, Britain, and France as well as Russia during the Japanese political world's Golden Week holiday in early May, has changed his plans, announcing that he will be restricting his travels to a trip to Russia 25-27 April to meet with Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. The reason given for the change of plans is domestic politics, namely the revenue bill containing the temporary tax that the HR will be able to vote for again from 29 April.

Machimura Nobutaka, the chief cabinet secretary, once again took the shocked and disappointed pose he's taken in recent remarks on the political situation.

"It is a major principle throughout the world that partisan confrontation should not cross borders, but I'm sorry to say that this hasn't happened."

Does politics, in Senator Arthur Vandenberg's words, actually stop at the water's edge? I think in any democracy Senator Vandenberg's remark is more aspirational than descriptive, and thus Mr. Machimura's disappointment is a bit rich.

And really, I don't know why he's disappointed. The DPJ isn't questioning Mr. Fukuda's aims in traveling to Europe and Russia. The only reason he won't be able to go is because the Fukuda government wants to be in a position to reinstate the temporary gasoline tax. If Mr. Fukuda is so concerned about summitry, then he could just as easily forgo reinstating the tax and stick to his original itinerary. The DPJ is doing what it thinks is best by opposing the temporary tax and going slow on deliberation on the bill in the HC, just as the LDP is doing what it thinks best by pushing for the temporary tax to be restored.

In short, no one is to blame for Mr. Fukuda's changing his plans. The reality is that for the foreseeable future Mr. Fukuda and his successors will be restricted in their freedom of action in foreign policy. As long as the domestic agenda is crowded and the people insecure about the soundness of public institutions, prime ministers will be penalized for paying too much attention to matters beyond Japan's borders — and the public discussion will likely not stray into matters related to the constitution and collective self-defense. As long as Japan's finances are in disrepair, defense budgets will remain constrained.

The contrast with the Koizumi era is telling. Arguably Mr. Koizumi had a freer hand in foreign and defense policy because of the public support he enjoyed as a result of domestic initiatives. His zeal for reform bought him space with which to pursue a more energetic foreign policy.

Perhaps Aso Taro imagines that his popularity will buy him similar space with which to pursue an assertive foreign policy such as he envisioned during his time as foreign minister. I suspect, however, that if Mr. Aso gets his chance, he too will find that foreign policy will take a back seat to concerns closer to home.

Komori on US China policy

Komori Yoshihisa, veteran correspondent and Washington-based editor of the Sankei Shimbun, was invited to speak to Nakagawa Shoichi's "True Conservative Policy Study Group" last Friday, where he explained the reality of US China policy and contemporary attitudes in Washington towards the US-Japan alliance.

He provides a summary of his remarks at his blog.

For the most part, they're innocuous. He notes that Congress and Washington in general are alarmed about China on a number of fronts: China's military modernization, trade practices, intellectual property violations, and human rights violations are causes for concern among US elites. (Indeed, according to Pew's November 2005 survey of public and elite foreign policy attitudes, US elites are far more concerned about China than the public at large. This may have changed after several years of media reports about shoddy Chinese imports, but I still expect that the US public as a whole remains more sanguine about China than Washington.) He reports that while the US-Japan alliance is rarely discussed in the media, it enjoys a solid bedrock of support from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Broadly speaking, Mr. Komori's picture is accurate.

But there are a few problems. First, whatever the fears of US elites about a multi-dimensional Chinese "threat," I think US policymakers, especially in the executive branch, are willing to silence their fears and work with China when necessary. This is consistent with the enduring pattern of Sino-US relations since 1972. Congress has been obsessed with threats from China and aggressive in its criticism of human rights violations, threats against Taiwan, etc.; the White House, whatever its unease with China and regardless of the party affiliation of the president, has sought closer coordination with China. There is an enduring realism in US China policy that is entirely absent from Mr. Komori's remarks.

This realistic tendency will likely become even more pronounced in coming years, because — and this is my second qualm with Mr. Komori's remarks — the US obsession with Iraq and the Middle East more broadly will not abate anytime soon. Mr. Komori seemingly provides no context for US thinking about China, which for most of Washington remains of secondary importance to more urgent Middle Eastern questions, meaning the US will be ever more inclined to work with China on a range of regional and global problems.

While naturally there are China hawks in Washington who share the views of Mr. Komori's audience, it would be a mistake to suggest that their viewpoint is dominant and commonly accepted. Their viewpoint certainly hasn't been dominant under the Bush administration, despite early indications to the contrary, and the next administration will be forced to embrace a sort of "resigned realism." Even if a McCain administration were to talk about the importance of cooperation among democracies in Asia, such rhetoric would most likely not be backed by a decisive shift in how the US-Japan and US-Australia alliances interact with China.

I would add that Mr. Komori and other Japanese China hawks, much like their American compatriots, have nothing constructive to say about how the US and Japan should deal with China. Mr. Komori says that it is "appropriate to identify and criticize, frequently and clearly" China's military activities and human rights violations. Maybe so, but that cannot be the sum of a China policy, especially for Japan. As Fareed Zakaria argues, criticism and outrage can backfire if they promote a popular backlash among the Chinese people. A China policy that amounts to little more than jabbing China repeatedly with a pointy stick is no China policy at all.

Meanwhile, Mr. Komori has not been paying enough attention in Washington. He notes that he concluded his remarks saying that in other countries principles like "building a country in which the people have pride in their country" and "steadily defending the national interest" are not conservative at all: they are accepted by all as a matter of course. I wonder what country Mr. Komori has in mind. China maybe? Both examples cited by Mr. Komori are fiercely contested in US public discourse. Both the definition of the "national interest" and how to defend it are in constant flux. As for a country of which people can be proud, once again, "pride" means different things to different Americans. To some, including Senator Obama, being proud of the US means being proud of its ability to correct its own flaws; as Senator Obama said in Montana earlier this month, "I love this country not because it’s perfect, but because we’ve always been able to move it closer to perfection."

If anything, Japan needs more of this: more discussion about what its national interests and more discussion about how to secure those interests, but above all, more discussion about what it really means to be proud of one's country — and what it means for a Japanese to be proud of Japan.

Caption contest! (2008 edition)

The following picture from the Sankei Shimbun begs for funny captions.

Post your suggestions in the comments.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Can't go forward, can't go back

Mainichi reports that prime ministerial initiatives in two areas — consumer affairs and regional decentralization — are stalled thanks largely to opposition from the ministries.

The government's headquarters for the promotion of decentralization issued a mid-term report earlier this month on decentralization, which got no response (i.e., a cold response) from the various ministries and agencies who would see their power diminished and their resources redirected to prefectural and municipal governments. The HQ is aiming to make its initial recommendations in May and its final report in June, and in the meantime the reform package will be addressed on a ministry-by-ministry basis — which of course gives ministry bureaucrats ample opportunity to lean on their ministers to water down the package. Frustrated, the prime minister said, "I want ministers to decide as politicians and to strive steadily to promote regional decentralization."

Meanwhile, at a hearing related to the prime minister's plan to unify consumer affairs into a single agency, various ministries currently responsible for some aspect of consumer affairs (Agriculture, Health and Welfare, etc.) argued that it would be inefficient to transfer their specialists to a new agency, putting the future of the plan — a priority for the prime minister — in doubt.

Mr. Fukuda, in short, is stuck. He knows he has to implement reforms — not just to save his skin, but because he knows that Japan needs to change. But between the bureaucracy and the zoku, however, substantial and wide-reaching policy change is more or less out of the question, and Mr. Fukuda is too risk-averse (and not nearly "theatrical" enough) to choose a policy and then appeal over the heads of party and government directly to the people. The result is an endless cycle of worrying about Japan's problems by politicians, media, and other elites, earnest talking about doing something to solve them, and watching as reform plans vested interests in the ministries and the LDP undermine and destroy them. At the same time, however, those vested interests will never enjoy the influence they once had. They can do little more than fight to preserve their shares in the system and prevent constructive reform that threatens their domains.

As such, it is silly to talk of the "twisted" Diet and suggest that DPJ is the biggest obstacle to progress on a number of fronts when they are much more obvious and entrenched culprits.

If anything, "regime change" might be the one way to achieve real reform. I say that not because the DPJ will be a better ruling party or because it has a clear agenda for Japan; I'm not so certain that either is true. But the inauguration of a DPJ-led government might be the closest thing to a revolution available to Japan today, as it would disrupt traditional ties between bureaucrats and LDP backbenchers. The DPJ would have to fight its own vested interests — especially the labor unions — but it would have more freedom to maneuver than Mr. Fukuda, trapped between the Scylla of the zoku and the Charybdis of the bureaucracy.

More trouble headed Fukuda's way?

According to the Washington Post, in exchange for North Korea's "acknowledging" US concerns about its nuclear activities, disabling Yongbyon, and provide a full accounting of its plutonium stockpile, the US will be prepared to "remove North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and to exempt it from the Trading With the Enemy Act."

The domestic obstacles standing the way of the US government holding up its end of the bargain are considerable, but this "agreement" could still cause trouble for Prime Minister Fukuda in the meantime.

The LDP's conservatives, now for the most part embodied in the Nakagawa Shoichi's "true" conservative study group, have spent the fourteen months since the US-DPRK Berlin agreement trying to ensure that the US does not remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list until the abductions issue is resolved. As I noted back in February, Mr. Nakagawa and comrades were quite pleased with the lack of progress in the six-party talks and open warfare in the Bush administration over North Korea policy.

Now a deal is once again on the table that envisions North Korea removed from the list despite Japan's conditions not being met — in short, US abandonment of Japan on a fundamental issue for the conservatives. While they need not panic yet (their Washington allies will naturally do all they can to derail this latest attempt by Chris Hill to resolve the crisis), they will be watching Mr. Fukuda carefully in the coming weeks and months, ready to pounce on him if he deviates from the hard line on North Korea, which the prime minister embraced early in his term after suggesting that he might chart a new, more flexible course. At the same time, Washington — or the State Department, anyway — will likely be leaning on Tokyo to play a constructive role should the latest agreement go forward

Mr. Fukuda may be able to duck this pressure for the time being by claiming that his hands are tied thanks to the recently passed six-month extension of the economic sanctions originally implemented following North Korea's October 2006 nuclear test. But if this latest agreement somehow proves a success, that may not be a satisfactory answer for the US government, at which point the prime minister would be forced to choose between alienating the US or alienating the LDP's conservatives, one of whom is already measuring curtains for the Kantei. Provided Mr. Fukuda survives long enough to face that choice, will he buck the conservatives and follow the US? Or will he continue to hew to the Abe line of doing nothing until "progress" is made on the abductions issue, ensuring that Japan remains isolated within the six-party talks?

UPDATE: Gerald Curtis, Japanese politics specialist at Columbia University, visited North Korea last week and upon his return met with a nonpartisan Diet members study group to report that there is a "high probability" of Washington's removing North Korea from the terror sponsors list within the year.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Off to the races in Yamaguchi-2

Today marks the official start of campaigning in the by-election for Yamaguchi's second electoral district; the election will be held on 27 April.

The election, to fill the seat vacated by newly elected Iwakuni mayor Fukuda Yoshihiko, pits the LDP's Yamamoto Shigetaro (59) against the DPJ's Hiraoka Hideo (54). Mr. Hiraoka is a three-term Diet member who first won election in 2000, winning 104,372 to 97,355 votes over the LDP incumbent, Sato Shinji. He was reelected over Mr. Sato in 2003, widening his margin of victory to 109,647 to 91,087 votes. In 2005, however, he was narrowly defeated by Mr. Fukuda, 104,322 to 103,374, although he was returned to the Diet via the Chugoku PR block.

Mr. Yamamoto, competing in his first election, is a recently retired bureaucrat who began his career in the construction ministry in 1972 and as of 2007 was coordinating regional revitalization policy at the office of the chief cabinet secretary.

As Sankei notes on the by-election, the campaign is the primary battleground now as the road construction/gasoline tax fight reaches a climax (the HR will be able to vote again on the tax bill from 29 April), with major figures from both parties trekking to Yamaguchi to campaign on behalf of the candidates. The election is, of course, also a test for Prime Minister Fukuda. If Mr. Yamamoto can win, Mr. Fukuda may be able to shore up his position within the LDP on the basis of his ability to get LDP candidates elected.

I feel confident predicting that Mr. Hiraoka will regain the seat he lost in 2005. Given his history of success in the district (winning his seat by defeating an LDP incumbent first elected in 1979), his narrow defeat in 2005 (a terrible year for DPJ candidates, making his close margin of defeat a point in his favor), and the general loss of confidence in the Fukuda governmen, Mr. Hiraoka will win an impressive victory over the newcomer Mr. Yamamoto. Mr. Hiraoka's previous election results attest to his skills as a campaigner and his support in the district, something that Mr. Yamamoto — even with the backing of LDP heavyweights like Aso Taro and Koike Yuriko — will be unable to top. In fact, I expect that Mr. Hiraoka may equal or better his 2003 total of 109,647 votes and will likely be aided by the absence of a JCP candidate in the race. (Yamanaka Ryoji, the JCP candidate in 2005, received 13,499 votes, more than enough to make a difference in the narrow race.)

The Japanese media's take on this by-election is that it's rooted in national dynamics. Maybe, but I would argue that the national dynamics hurt Mr. Yamamoto far more than they help (or hurt) Mr. Hiraoka. It would take a fair wind in the LDP's favor to neutralize Mr. Hiraoka's advantages. That's what happened in 2005, after all, and even the LDP won by only the slightest of margins. The fundamentals of the race favor the DPJ.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Aso, campaigning

Aso Taro's eponymous faction held a party on Friday night, with more than 2000 guests in attendance. Undoubtedly he was in good spirits, as his faction acquired two new members the previous day, Muto Yoji (HR, Gifu-3) and Hasegawa Tamon (HC, Ibaraki). The faction now has twenty members including Mr. Aso, meaning that with two more faction members Mr. Aso will be able to secure the necessary nominations to contest the LDP presidency from entirely within his own faction.

A number of faction chiefs and party officials were in attendance, and many made introductions. Mori Yoshiro, the putative head of the Machimura faction and thus the man with perhaps the greatest say of Mr. Aso's fate, was also in attendance, although he made no introductions.

The various guests tried to dissuade Mr. Aso from overtly challenging Mr. Fukuda. Ibuki Bunmei, LDP secretary-general, said: "Mr. Aso is a powerful candidate for prime minister and LDP president, but with the DPJ as it is now, whoever becomes prime minister will not be able to resolve the situation easily."

In case anyone still doubts his intentions, Aso Taro is campaigning to replace Fukuda Yasuo as head of the LDP and prime minister of Japan. Nominally still loyal to the prime minister, he clearly expects that his chance is coming sooner rather than later.

It is still an open question as to whether he has successfully wooed Mr. Mori and with him the Machimura faction.

He can probably rely on more solid support from the LDP's prefectural chapters. Mr. Aso was in Kochi prefecture this weekend making his pitch for regional decentralization. I wonder whether LDP-controlled prefectural and local governments would prefer to remain dependent upon Tokyo instead of being responsible for their own finances and policies as envisioned by Mr. Aso's radical plan. The fight over road construction has revealed that for the most part the LDP isn't interested in innovative solutions to the rural question. Why else would LDP leaders continue to assert the importance of road construction to the development of lightly populated prefectures despite evidence to the contrary?

In short, while Mr. Aso may be in a better position to contend for the LDP leadership in both Tokyo and the prefectures than last September, there are still questions concerning his support in the parliamentary party — and his ability to secure such overwhelming support in the prefectural chapters to make it difficult for the parliamentary party to reject his candidacy once more.

And despite his preparations, I don't envision Mr. Aso doing anything to force Mr. Fukuda out — he will nominally support the prime minister up until the moment that the party's powers-that-be abandon him.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Fukuda under pressure

A council of LDP, Komeito, and cabinet officials have conferred and agreed to a plan to phase out the road construction fund, based largely on the plan mooted by Prime Minister Fukuda in the waning days of March.

As anticipated, the plan calls for shifting gasoline tax revenue from the road construction fund to the general fund from fiscal 2009. As Mainichi notes, however, while the government says it will be shifting "the full amount" in the general fund, there is a giant loophole in the government-ruling parties agreement in the form of the phrase "roads judged essential will be steadily maintained," which will enable the doro zoku to preserve their empire and limit the amount of revenue shifted to the general fund. Asahi raises similar questions, wondering whether the "grand reform" Mr. Fukuda claims to be delivering is actually realizable: "If it is implemented this time, it is a huge reform that will transform LDP politics — but there is strong opposition from the doro zoku and the transport ministry."

Despite these concerns — and despite the plan's neither having been approved by the LDP's executive council nor having been approved via an official cabinet decision — the governing coalition will present its plan to the opposition next week in the hope of reaching an agreement across the aisle. Whether such an agreement is possible remains to be seen.

According to Sankei, Ozawa Ichiro has made an LDP general council and cabinet decisions prerequisites for entering into negotiations over the new plan. Mainichi suggests that the DPJ is divided on this issue, although it is vague about who exactly is calling for a "prudent" stance on the road construction issue. I would argue, however, that Mr. Ozawa is on firm ground on this issue — and beyond that, he cannot afford to appear soft lest he further undermine whatever remains of his standing with the party's reformists (who are looking for excuses to throw their weight behind a candidate to run against Mr. Ozawa in September).

By Mainichi's own reckoning, the LDP remains horrendously divided, with Mr. Fukuda pressured by the party's young reformists — who, in addition to suggesting that they'll vote against the reimplementation of the temporary tax, have like the DPJ called for a cabinet decision and LDP executive council decision on the prime minister's plan — and the doro zoku, who are not particularly pleased with Mr. Fukuda's plan. Naturally the prime minister is reluctant to go to both the cabinet and the LDP general council with his plan, where he will face strident and implacable opposition. As such, Nikai Toshihiro, chairman of the executive council has dismissed both demands, stating "Why is a decision in the executive council necessary?" (And Mr. Machimura thinks the DPJ lacks democracy?) On top of the divisions within the Tokyo party is the division between Mr. Fukuda and the party's many members in prefectural assemblies, whose political fortunes rest on their ability to secure funding from Tokyo for projects in their constituencies.

I think the DPJ is in a good position here. For the sake of party unity, Mr. Ozawa can continue to stonewall without risking too much electorally. The more protracted, public, and messy the fight over Mr. Fukuda's plan gets, the better it is for the DPJ. The more aggressively the zoku giin fight to preserve their privileges — and the more Mr. Fukuda bends to them to save his plan — the easier it will be for the DPJ to paint the LDP as retrograde and anti-reformist. And the more Mr. Fukuda pushes for his plan, the deeper he drives the wedge between reformists and zoku giin, Tokyo leadership and prefectural party, bringing the party closer to fracturing.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dialogue delayed

Defense Minister Ishiba, scheduled to visit Washington as part of the annual Golden Week pilgrimage of Japanese politicians and meet with Secretary of Defense Gates to discuss the alliance in broad terms, will not be visiting after all. The most likely reason for the cancellation is the fluid situation in the Diet, not to mention Mr. Ishiba's own vulnerable position (although it is less vulnerable now than it was about a month ago).

It is unfortunate that Messrs. Ishiba and Gates will be unable to talk about the future of the alliance and the realignment of US forces, as both men are serious thinkers who would likely be willing to address the alliance's problems head on instead of resorting to the old mantras. Look back at Mr. Gates's speech at Sophia University in November, in which he asked several important questions about the future of the US-Japan relationship: given the opportunity, Mr. Gates might even be able to make an important contribution to changing the alliance.

He is unlikely to get such an opportunity.

Thanks to domestic politics on both sides of the Pacific, the discussion that the allies need to have about the relationship will continue to be postponed, at least until the inception of a new presidential administration, and even then, Iraq will continue to ensure that presidential attention is directed elsewhere.

Yosano speaks

According to Sankei, Yosano Kaoru, the former chief cabinet secretary shaping up to be a major contender to succeed Fukuda Yasuo, will be releasing his first book next week, entitled Dōdōtaru Seiji (perhaps best translated as Bold Politics).

Mr. Yosano's message is that Japan's leaders must be willing to exert all efforts to do what's right, without regard for the popularity of a measure. Not surprisingly, Mr. Yosano is a tireless advocate for an increase in the consumption tax rate. Sankei also notes that Mr. Yosano calls for the promotion of "mild reforms" to unify society, correcting, according to Nikkei, the "strains" of the Koizumi-Abe years. No indication what that means in practical terms; hopefully the book contains a few more details.

As I noted earlier this week, Mr. Yosano has tried to be coy about his plans in the post-Fukuda era. After publishing a book outlining his vision of governance, it will be hard for him to deny that he has higher ambitions. We can expect more brief articles outlining one aspect or another of his thinking as reporters pepper him with questions.

While I'll reserve full judgment until I read the book — if I read the book — it's not entirely clear to me how this Yosano line would differ from the Fukuda line, other than a willingness to tackle the consumption tax issue head on (and presumably commit political suicide on it if necessary). The LDP's problems are structural. It is a party without an identity in an era in which it actually has to stand for something other than holding power. While genuinely bold and risky decisions by an LDP leader might provide the LDP with a new identity, especially said leader was willing to oust dissenters and purify the party, "mild reform" just sounds like more evasion, an attempt to soften axes of conflict to ensure that the LDP's various schools of thought can cooperate in order to save the party form itself.

The breaking point is coming sooner or later. It's just a question of what issue proves decisive in forcing a splintering — and which group acts first.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

First TV appearance

For those interested in seeing my first ever TV appearance, the video is available at CNBC's website, here.

Speaking of democracy

Addressing the DPJ's rejection of the nomination of Watanabe Hiroshi to be deputy governor of the Bank of Japan at a press conference Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Machimura Nobutaka commented upon the internal dynamics of the DPJ. He said, "Although a majority of the DPJ's investigatory subcommittee on joint personnel decisions approved the nomination, I want to say that there is no democracy within the party. This is truly a complicated and mysterious party."

Yes, Mr. Machimura, chief cabinet secretary of the LDP-led coalition government and titular head of the LDP's largest faction, is questioning the democratic bona fides of the DPJ.

How does one even begin describing how inappropriate it is for Mr. Machimura to comment upon the lack of democracy in the DPJ? One could start with last September's LDP presidential election and go from there, but I'm not going to do that, because since when did political parties have to make internal decisions democratically?

No, Mr. Machimura's comments are particularly galling because of the current government's attitudes about democracy in the political system at large. In the same press conference, Mr. Machimura noted that the LDP and Komeito are considering revising the law governing the Bank of Japan, enabling HR decisions on the Bank's leaders take precedence.

On Wednesday, the LDP-Komeito "investigatory committee concerning the way joint personnel decisions ought to be" held its first meeting to look into changing the BOJ law so that the bank's succession is never again challenged by the HC.

This is typical of how the LDP has viewed DPJ control of the HC. If the DPJ can't be made to shut up and do what the government tells it to do, then it and the HC should be circumvented and ignored. If the DPJ uses the powers accorded to the HC, then remove those powers bit by bit, all while claiming to be acting in the name of the national interest, to be putting country before party, to be desirous of compromise.

I hope the DPJ loudly opposes this move, not because of its immediate significance but because of its symbolic importance. The DPJ's control of the HC is an important moment for Japanese democracy, certainly more important than the question of whether Mr. Shirakawa or Mr. Muto was named governor of the BOJ.

Democracy is a process by which those out of power can keep those in power honest and accountable. It may not always result in good policymaking, but when it works properly it enables the outs to challenge the sagacity, the morality, and the competence of the government over the course of making and executing policy.

With the DPJ in control of the HC, an opposition party is finally in a position to question the government and hold up policy when it feels that the government is lacking on one or all of the above-mentioned counts.

Ozawa Ichiro replied in this manner to Fukuda Yasuo, who criticized the DPJ for "misusing its power" (as if the LDP is the arbiter for the proper use of power). He said, "The government has a majority in only one of two houses. The government has not reflected sufficiently on the kind of situation that arose from last summer's election."

As Mr. Machimura's and Mr. Fukuda's comments and the governing parties' actions show, the LDP and the Komeito haven't made their peace with the conditions of Japan's evolving democracy.

All's well that ends well; or, much ado about nothing?

As expected, the DPJ-led House of Councillors approved the nomination of Shirakawa Masaaki, the acting governor of the Bank of Japan, to serve as the full-fledged governor, thus ending Japan's three-week nightmare with only an acting governor at the helm of the BOJ. Mr. Shirakawa will make his debut on the international stage later this week at the meeting of G7 finance ministers and central bankers in Washington Friday.

Also as expected, the HC rejected the nomination of Watanabe Hiroshi, former administrative vice minister of finance and professor at Hitotsubashi University, to serve as a deputy governor.

Not surprisingly, the government responded to the DPJ's rejection of Mr. Watanabe by complaining about the DPJ's prioritizing politics over the public interest. As Ibuki Bunmei, the LDP secretary-general, said, "One can think only that this decision prioritizes party interests at the expense of national interests."

In stating the DPJ's reasons for opposing Mr. Watanabe, Hatoyama Yukio, DPJ secretary-general, said (somewhat pathetically, as noted by Jun Okumura), "It is President Ozawa's strong desire to not accept amakudari."

As Okumura writes, Mr. Ozawa actually outmaneuvered his DPJ rivals on this vote. Many of the hardline anti-Muto DPJ members were willing to support Mr. Watanabe's nomination, but Mr. Ozawa nixed that idea on the same grounds that his rivals opposed Mr. Muto (thereby forcing Mr. Ozawa to take a harder line on the BOJ succession than he was prepared to take initially). In the end, only three DPJ HC members voted in favor of Mr. Watanabe. It is unclear how the DPJ can punish the three, given its slim hold on the HC.

It is worth noting that the BOJ's monetary policy committee decided to leave interest rates unchanged in light of worsening economic conditions at home and abroad. For all the alarm that greeted the non-vacancy vacancy at the BOJ, the international economic "narrative" has been considerably less important than the domestic politics narrative.

This fight was about each party's trying to position itself in advance of the next general election and to a lesser extent about the future of Japanese governance. Hence the LDP has to this day used this fight to emphasize the DPJ's lack of concern for the national interest. Hence to this day the DPJ has emphasized that it is standing against amakudari government and the pervasive influence of the Ministry of Finance.

I think that the DPJ comes out looking better over the long term — and that is a good thing for Japanese democracy. The DPJ was able to say no to the government (and the MOF) and make it stick. The DPJ got exactly what it demanded. The new BOJ governor is a thirty-year veteran of the BOJ and he is the third consecutive BOJ OB to be named governor. The DPJ's rejection of all MOF OBs may now have been taken to an irrational extreme by Mr. Ozawa's response to intra-DPJ opposition — as even his opponents recognize — but it's preferable to rolling over and accepting whoever the government sends over to the Diet.

It's unlikely that the LDP will change its ways and become more accommodating of the DPJ after this battle, but the DPJ should take every opportunity to remind the government that there are two houses in the Diet, one of them is controlled by the opposition, and the government can't govern solely by Articles 59-61. The DPJ should continue doing what an opposition party, especially an opposition party with some power, should do: question, cajole, expose, and undermine the government at every turn. That's democracy. It should, of course, connect its actions to a broader message, but it should not feel compelled to govern. The upside of controlling the upper house is that it is unreasonable to expect the DPJ to act like a governing party. The DPJ's access to the bureaucracy is still less than the LDP's, so it is at a disadvantage in terms of policy formulation. The government's budget took precedence due to Article 60. The HC has no way around HR approval for its approved bills. Control of the weaker chamber by an opposition party is good for little more than harrying the government and forcing it to change its ways to accommodate the opposition.

I suspect that media's refrain that the public will vote against the DPJ if it is too obstructionism is vastly overblown. The LDP's failures — like the still-vanished pensions, for example — will be more than enough to dampen whatever concerns voters have about the DPJ's doing what an opposition party should be doing.