Monday, October 26, 2009

Hatoyama restates his government's mission

The 2009 extraordinary Diet session, the first under the leadership of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio's cabinet, opened Monday with a speech by Hatoyama to a Diet populated by an overwhelming majority of parliamentarians from his Democratic Party of Japan. He declared Monday the first day of a "bloodless Heisei Restoration," a transformation without black ships and without war and occupation.

The substance of the speech was familiar enough. He opened by reiterating what I've previously described as the twin themes of the DPJ's campaign narrative: "regime change" (Hatoyama used the phrase "major cleanup" in this speech) and "livelihoods first." Discussing his government's plans for cleaning up the policymaking process and changing the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats, the prime minister showed once again that the DPJ's plans are clearest when it comes to reforming Japanese governance. From strengthening political leadership within ministries to dissolving the administrative vice ministers' council to creating new cabinet committees to stripping the DPJ of its policymaking bodies, the Hatoyama government is consciously erecting a new system of government. And in the name of conducting government with the public interest in mind, his government is changing how public money will be budgeted, shifting the focus of budgeting "from concrete to people" in Hatoyama's words.

But more than changing how public money is spent, Hatoyama stressed that in the name of "fraternity" his government would work to protect the most vulnerable members of Japanese society, a focus that has particular resonance after the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare's recent report on poverty in Japan found that the trend detected in a 2003 OECD report has continued (as of 2006), with 15.7% of the public's earning less than half the median income, placing Japan as fourth-worst in the OECD.

The speech was by and large a composite of Hatoyama's campaign speeches, his essay in VOICE, and his speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly in September. Drawing from the VOICE essay, he reiterated the importance of bolstering Japanese civil society and community, and, in words reminiscent of Ozawa Ichiro's speech at the DPJ convention in January, said that Japan needs an "economy for human beings." He repeated the DPJ's emphasis on the need for focus on values other than economic growth, that his government would, while promoting economic competition, would also work to support employment and foster skills, build a safety net, and pursue consumer-oriented goals like food safety. This kinder, gentler economy will be joined with greater activism by citizens in education and the provision of health and welfare in their communities.

On foreign policy, he once again stated his ambition for Japan to serve as a "bridge" internationally. He wants Japan to take the lead on climate change and energy issues, nuclear non-proliferation, and cooperation in Asia — and he wants to cooperate with the US on these global issues. He repeated the DPJ's desire for an "equal" relationship with the US, and stated that the equality of which he speaks refers to an equal partnership to combat the aforementioned global problems. In other words, an equal US-Japan relationship is one focused on issues other than the bilateral security issues that have crowded the bilateral agenda since the early 1990s, issues like the future of the US military presence in Okinawa. The Obama administration should appreciate that the Hatoyama government is no less eager to move on to other areas of cooperation, but that it wants the best deal possible for the people of Okinawa — and the prime minister, his cabinet, his party, and his coalition partners clearly do not believe that the current plan is the best possible deal.

If the content of Hatoyama's address adds little to what we already know about what Hatoyama and his government want to accomplish, I think the speech tells us much about the kind of prime minister Hatoyama is becoming. As I wrote in early September when Hatoyama was assembling his cabinet, it appears that Hatoyama is governing as first among equals in a cabinet of heavyweights, with the help of an inner cabinet of two or three close advisers. An Asahi article describes the Hatoyama cabinet as being characterized by cabinet ministers submitting policy proposals, often by floating trial balloons in the media, while the prime minister, with the help of Kan Naoto, the deputy prime minister and head of the national strategy office, Hirano Hirofumi, the chief cabinet secretary, and Sengoku Yoshito, head of the administrative reform council, decides which policies to approve. The government will face a test as it attempts to whittle down the gigantic first draft of the 2010 budget, but I think that it is unlikely that this basic pattern will change. Hatoyama has referred to himself as a "conductor-like" prime minister. His orchestra may at times be cacophonous — especially with Kamei Shizuka in the mix — but I see open debates among ministers regarding national policy better than the alternative of discussions among bureaucrats behind closed doors. That said, whether the Hatoyama system succeeds as a vehicle for implementing policies remains to be seen.

Meanwhile as the conductor Hatoyama will undoubtedly continue to give speeches that may be maddeningly vague as far as policy is concerned but will offer regular reminders of his government's mission to his subordinates in the cabinet, his party's backbenchers, and the public at large.

Slowly but surely a new system of government is taking shape in Japan.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Gates rules out renegotiation

The DPJ has pushed on Futenma — and the Obama administration, in the guise of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, has pushed back.

Gates, visiting Japan on a tour through Asia, delivered an unambiguous message to the Hatoyama government that the US government is not interested in renegotiating the bilateral agreement on the realignment of US forces in Japan. As he said in a joint press conference with Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi:
Our view is clear. The Futenma relocation facility is the lynchpin of the realignment road map. Without the Futenma realignment, the Futenma facility, there will be no relocation to Guam. And without relocation to Guam, there will be no consolidation of forces and the return of land in Okinawa.

Our view is this may not be the perfect alternative for anyone, but it is the best alternative for everyone, and it is time to move on.

We are — feel strongly that this is a complex agreement, negotiated over a period of many years. It is interlocking — (inaudible) – immensely complicated and counterproductive. We have investigated all of the alternatives in great detail and believe that they are both politically untenable and operationally unworkable.
I emphasized the paragraph above because I think it's probably the most honest statement of the US position at this point. The administration has enough problems on its hands that it has little interest in renegotiating what it sees as a done deal — signed by foreign ministers and everything — after years of hard work. I can understand the US position: Futenma has been a source of unpleasantness for a long enough time that the US government just wants the issue off the agenda.

But, on the other hand, the concerns of the new government and the people of Okinawa cannot be tossed aside simply because the US government is impatient. It is too convenient for the US government to say that it signed an agreement with the LDP and therefore the DPJ should just accept the agreement and move on — as if the transition from the LDP to the DPJ was a routine matter. I continue to find it perplexing that US officials expect that the DPJ would take power and attempt to change everything but the alliance, which was, after all, an integral piece of the 1955 system. The US may not view the alliance that way, but to pretend that the US was not a pillar propping up the LDP system for years, to pretend that the US-Japan alliance is an alliance like any other, is to be willfully insensitive to history. As much as Gates and the Obama administration would like to turn the page, their Japanese counterparts — the first government in a half-century based on a parliamentary majority for a party other than the LDP — cannot simply accept what it views as the product of the "abnormal" US-LDP alliance.

The Hatoyama government has already softened its stance on Futenma considerably by backing away from the position that the Futenma replacement facility should be outside of Okinawa. Is the Hatoyama government in a hopeless position? Gates may have been entirely sincere in the message he delivered in Tokyo, but it also is not a bad bargaining stance either. If ratcheting up pressure on the new government forces it to drop the issue — perhaps with a minor concession like this — the US will have gotten its way with little effort expended. But I doubt that the government will back down easily, certainly not without compensation. The domestic politics of the issue do not favor backing down: its coalition partners, the SDPJ in particular, want Futenma out of Okinawa, the DPJ is largely united against the current agreement, and the Okinawan people and their representatives are unhappy with the current agreement. Were it to back down now that it has put Futenma at the top of its agenda in advance of President Obama's visit next month, the Hatoyama government's public approval rating would probably suffer. And, beyond the government's interests, it should be stressed that the prime minister and his ministers actually object to the substance of the current agreement and want it changed and are willing to exhaust political capital to do so (and to show that a DPJ-led government is capable of standing up to the US).

If the Hatoyama government does not back down, what options are available to the Obama administration that won't make Futenma a bigger problem than it already is? If the administration simply refuses to talk about Futenma and then blames the agreement's failure on the Hatoyama government, how can it expect a constructive relationship with the new government on other issues? Would the Obama administration contemplate abandoning Futenma unilaterally and leaving the Japanese government to clean up after the Marines? I doubt that the situation will come to any of these scenarios. The US has little to gain by letting the issue fester — and, ironically, despite Gates's desire to "move on," rejecting the Hatoyama government's desire to renegotiate outright may be the surest way to guarantee that the allies will be unable to move beyond the question of what to do about Futenma and US forces in Okinawa.

The US ought to acknowledge that the Hatoyama government has actually shown itself to be relatively flexible on the question of Futenma when compared with earlier DPJ statements. The Obama administration must recognize that to simply say no to a Hatoyama government that is desperate to find a solution — that shares Gates's desire to move on — is to make it harder for the US and Japan to turn their attention to other, more important issues. For the sake of both countries I hope that Gates's position is not the Obama administration's final position.

And as for the Hatoyama government? Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya has a month until President Obama visits Japan. He should at the very least be ready to provide some idea of what concessions will be necessary to get the Japanese government to back away from more comprehensive revisions, however difficult it may be do so.

However tetchy the relationship looks at the moment, this is not a crisis for the alliance, but rather the DPJ simply doing what it said it was going to do: speak honestly to the US. When was the last time, after all, that a meeting of senior US and Japanese officials carried even a whiff of public controversy? As Ozawa Ichiro reportedly said in a meeting with US Ambassador John Roos, "I want the US to speak frankly about any problems, just as I think that Japan's DPJ government should speak directly to the US."

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Hatoyama government will delay on defense policy

Busy with the hard work of introducing a new policymaking process, rewriting the 2010 budget from scratch so to make room for the programs promised in the DPJ's election manifesto, and finding a way to extract concessions from the Obama administration on the realignment of US forces in Japan, it is understandable that the Hatoyama government has been relatively silent on the question of defense ministry reform. Recall that under Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo, in the shadow of the investigation of defense trading company Yamada Yoko, then-Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru launched a process of defense ministry reform, a process that took on greater urgency after the Atago, an MSDF Aegis destroyer, collided with a fishing vessel.

But Ishiba was out as defense minister not long after his commission produced its final report and not long before Fukuda himself was out. Thereafter the Aso government let defense ministry reform — and defense procurement reform — drop from the agenda.

The Hatoyama government should be interested in reviving procurement reform, given how wasteful Japan's defense spending is even as budgets have tightened over the past decade. The government should be eager to end expensive defense procurement practices like purchasing small numbers of defense platforms every year instead of making multi-year purchases in bulk. Intended to preserve an indigenous defense industry, the price of these practices has been steep: the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan concludes that these measures have "raised the cost of Japanese systems 300 percent to 1,000 percent higher than comparable equipment built
in other countries that have adopted enhanced procurement reforms."

The government has not completely forgotten about defense reform, but last week the defense ministry announced that it will scrap the plan drafted under the LDP, most notably its proposal to mix civilians at the defense ministry with JSDF personnel, which was to be introduced next fiscal year. Instead Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi said that government will delay reform for a year and draft its own plans.

It is not only defense ministry reform that will be delayed. Not surprisingly given that it is barely a month old, the Hatoyama government has decided that it will delay the National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) that was supposed to be released in December until next year. It will also delay the related Mid-Term Defense Program, which outlines the government's defense spending plans. In the meantime the Hatoyama government will do what previous governments did in advance of the 1995 and 2004 national defense reviews: it will convene a council of experts to help revise the NDPG.

Hopefully delaying a year will result in a better document, an NDPG that points the way forward for the JSDF in an era of constrained budgets, maximizing the efficiency of Japan's defense spending while seriously considering the roles that the JSDF can play that enable Japan to contribute abroad without violating the constitution. It is unlikely that the DPJ will reverse the decline in defense spending, not with its commitment to building a more comprehensive welfare state while cutting budgetary waste and trying to prevent the economy from falling back into recession. That, and if anything the public wants the government to spend less on defense (as found in the poll mentioned here and in other polls). But given that austerity in defense spending will continue for the foreseeable future, the DPJ insist that Japan get the most of its limited defense spending. That would be a far cry from "remilitarizing" Japan, but it would show that the Hatoyama government takes national defense seriously, inoculating it against the LDP's inevitable criticism come election time.

The next NDPG and mid-term defense program come at an important time. China's military spending has continued to grow unabated, the mounting fiscal crisis in the US inevitably will raise questions about the durability and scale of the US security presence in East Asia, and Japan's own fiscal difficulties mean that the Hatoyama government has to determine how its defense strategy fits with its plans for relations with the US, China, and Asia more broadly and with its plans for administrative and budgetary reform. Hopefully the government will staff its advisory commission with heavyweights and give them the freedom to tackle this set of problems in full.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Three years of Observing Japan

This week marks the third anniversary of the birth of this blog.

Needless to say, Observing Japan has grown in ways that I could hardly have foreseen three years ago when I returned to Japan to work for now-Lower House Member Asao Keiichiro — indeed, it has grown in ways that I could hardly have envisioned a year ago. After this past summer, I suppose that it's probably safe to say that I've made the transition from blogger to pundit (for lack of a better term). It was a busy summer, as the list of media appearances in the sidebar indicates. In August the blog had a record number of visitors and page views, a record that was easily broken when the blog reached more than 27,000 visitors and more than 36,000 page views. During the same period the number of subscribers rose from the mid-700s to more than 1,200 today.

I still cannot quite believe all that's happened to me since I began writing this blog. Perhaps I should not be so surprised, not in an age in which Nate Silver can use a blog as a platform to share his expertise and become a media superstar. (I'm comparing myself to Silver in a very broad sense: needless to say Time will never name me one of the world's 100 most influential people.) We all have to get accustomed to a new process by which society identifies "experts" — in place of a prolonged process of accreditation, there is the constant churning of the Internet, which has no shortage of nonsense but also provides a means for consumers of information to find quality sources of analysis and then quickly share them with others.

I hope that I have been such a source for all of you reading this blog. I'd like to think that my analysis has improved over the past three years, in large part because of writing this blog, by which I have developed my own conceptual framework for thinking about Japanese politics, a framework that will undoubtedly continue to serve me well in the future. Thank you for bearing with me as I've taught myself about the subject. I should also thank my teachers, those from whom I have learned directly and indirectly - and my fellow bloggers, most notably Michael Cucek and Jun Okumura, who from very early on have been excellent partners in an ongoing discussion about Japanese politics. (Incidentally a recent post by Tyler Cowen captures the power of blogging as a learning tool precisely.)

As I move into the fourth year of blogging, there will likely be some changes around here. Inevitably I will be writing less here, in part because I have more opportunities to write elsewhere, in (large) part because I need to devote more time to being a doctoral student, and in part because after this extraordinary summer, I am experiencing a mild case of blogger burnout. While I don't write nearly as much as he does (and have only been blogging for three years), the sentiments expressed by Andrew Sullivan in this post resonate with me. I was particularly pleased to return to MIT for the fall semester after my hectic summer precisely so I could start looking at the forest again.

In any case, thank you all again for reading, for commenting, for emailing, and for telling me when I'm completely off target.

(Also, some asked whether I could provide an English translation of the article I wrote in Asahi last month. While not a translation, I've posted the first draft of the article here.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ozawa whips the DPJ and the Diet into shape

Speaking at a convention of the Osaka branch of the DPJ, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano Hirofumi spoke succinctly of the role of the DPJ's backbenchers in the new government. Hirano said that not only is it unnecessary for DPJ backbenchers to ask questions in Diet proceedings, but also the DPJ's many first-term Diet members should be focused on consolidating their support bases in their districts.

Welcome to life in Japan's emerging Westminster system, in which the job of backbenchers is — contrary to the argument made by Paul Scalise and Devin Stewart that a major problem with Japanese politics is backbenchers lacking policymaking resources (discussed here) — to show up and vote as the party, acting at the behest of the cabinet, requests.

Hirano's remarks dovetail with Ozawa Ichiro's unfolding plans to reform the mechanics of the Diet. Upon his return from Britain last month, Ozawa outlined plans to revise the Diet law to, among other things, prohibit testimony by bureaucrats so to strengthen debate among legislators. (This ban would also prevent officials of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau — a longtime Ozawa target — from appearing as witnesses in the Diet.) Ozawa also wants to trim the number of Diet committee members so that Diet members can focus on a specific policy area instead of dividing their time between multiple committees — and he wants cabinet and sub-cabinet officials to participate in committee deliberations so to clarify government policies for legislators.

Ozawa met with the secretaries general of the SDPJ and the PNP, the DPJ's coalition partners last week to discuss his plans for revising the Diet law, although the SDPJ is skeptical of the need to revise the law and it seems unlikely that revising the law will figure highly on the Diet agenda for the forthcoming extraordinary session after Hirano met with Yamaoka Kenji, the DPJ's Diet affairs chair, and suggested that the bill should be delayed until next year's ordinary session.

Ozawa is otherwise working to consolidate control of the DPJ caucus and to exclude the ruling parties from the policymaking process. Concerns about Ozawa's forging a dominant Ozawa faction out of the so-called "Ozawa children" seem to be giving way to complaints that Ozawa is consolidating his control of the DPJ and the Diet through more conventional means. Ozawa has announced the lineup of the new party executive, and is being criticized for streamlining the party leadership by folding up a number of deputy leadership posts and concentrating party in his hands and in the hands of Koshiishi Azuma, an upper house member who is not a longtime Ozawa loyalist but who has reportedly moved closer to Ozawa in recent years. (It is less than clear who is doing the criticizing: the conservative press or DPJ malcontents who would prefer to remain anonymous.) There is a greater number of upper house members among party members tapped for leadership posts, which may simply reflect the importance of the upper house for moving the government's agenda. According to Mainichi, six of ten members of the party executive are upper house members. Ozawa was also less concerned about preserving balance among the DPJ's different groups, and did not include party members from groups that have opposed him in the past, most notably Edano Yukio, a senior party member who was given neither a cabinet post nor a party leadership post.

Far from wanting to forge first-termers into a force capable of controlling the policy agenda, Ozawa does not want to see first-term DPJ members in Nagata-cho: Ozawa's group for first-term members has been suspended, and Ozawa has commanded first-termers to focus on political activities in their own districts, telling them "the work of a freshman member is to win the next election."

It is not only first-term DPJ members who have to fear Ozawa. At the meeting with his SDPJ and PNP counterparts last week, Ozawa flatly rejected an SDPJ request to convene a regular meeting among the governing parties to coordinate coalition parties, saying that it was for precisely that reason that the SDPJ's Fukushima Mizuho and the PNP's Kamei Shizuka were included the cabinet, rendering an extra-governmental meeting of secretaries general at best irrelevant and at worst harmful to cabinet government.

For all the concerns that surrounded Ozawa's appointment as DPJ secretary-general, one month into the Hatoyama government it appears that many of them were overblown. As was becoming clear even before the government took power, Ozawa sees his job as ensuring that the ruling party and the Diet are not obstacles to the cabinet's implementing its policy agenda. Ozawa has been largely silent — at least publicly — on policy questions and at every opportunity has stressed the importance of enhancing the cabinet's ability to govern. Far from dictating terms to the government, Ozawa has thus far been nothing but loyal to the Hatoyama government. There is plenty of time for that to change, but sooner or later Ozawa critics who argued that Ozawa's "army" of youngsters would be a DPJ version of the Tanaka faction will have to admit that they were mistaken about Ozawa's intentions.

Ozawa's role as the buckle linking cabinet to ruling party and Diet is critical, but ultimately he is working to strengthen the cabinet, not to undermine its power.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Hatoyama government tackles the alliance early

With US President Barack Obama scheduled to visit Japan at the start of an East Asian swing in November — he will stop in Tokyo before going to Singapore for APEC and then concluding his trip with meetings in China and South Korea — the Hatoyama government is working hard to hammer out positions on the two major sticking points between the DPJ and the US government, the future of the refueling mission in the Indian Ocean and the Futenma question.

Regarding the former, Nagashima Akihisa, parliamentary secretary for defense, made waves this week when, in a speech in his Tokyo constituency Monday, he argued that the refueling mission ought to continue with a new mandate from the Diet. [Full disclosure: I have met with Nagashima on a number of occasions.]

In response, Nagashima was warned by his superior, Defense Minister Kitazawa Toshimi, by Consumer Affairs Minister and Social Democratic Party head Fukushima Mizuho, and most significantly, by Hirano Hirofumi, the chief cabinet secretary, who stressed that it is for the government to decide policy in this area. In a meeting Wednesday morning Hirano advised caution from Nagashima.

Perhaps Nagashima should not have used a speech in his constituency to advance an argument for a position that appeared to be at odds with the government's. (I say appeared because officially the government's position on Afghanistan remains to be decided — all we know is that the refueling mission will not be "simply" extended.) But just as was the case with Kamei Shizuka's comments about the debt repayment moratorium for small- and medium-sized enterprises, every note of discord within the Hatoyama government should not be a cause for alarm and an occasion for critics to declare that the government is out of control. As I've argued before, no government is free of disagreement: the important thing is how dissent is handled.

As the Hatoyama government decides what to do about Afghanistan — it will need to be in a position to offer something to Obama when he visits Japan — Nagashima should be included in the discussion on the basis of his distinct position on the issue, and the fact that he is well-connected in Washington (not to mention that his substantial security policy expertise). And I suspect he will contribute to the debate within the government, although perhaps in a less visible manner henceforth. Simply silencing dissenters (if that's even the right word) will not be to the government's benefit.

The problem for the government on Futenma is different, being less a matter of dealing with internal disagreements than with the uncomfortable reality that the Hatoyama government is trapped between a US government uninterested in renegotiating and an Okinawan public that wants the matter resolved. Accordingly, Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio hinted that the DPJ would be willing to reconsider its position and accept the bilateral agreement on realignment. Bloomberg reports that US Ambassador to Japan John Roos said that the Obama administration will not renegotiate the agreement on relocating Futenma, although from the article it is unclear whether the administration is opposed to renegotiating entirely or whether it is simply opposed to the idea of relocating the air base to somewhere outside of Okinawa entirely; Roos apparently said that the administration will listen to the Hatoyama government's position.

For its part, the Hatoyama government, while still interested in finding a solution other than building an offshore replacement facility in Okinawa, may be softening its position. Not only did Hatoyama allude to the possibility of abandoning a manifesto position, but after an inspection visit to Okinawa Kitazawa said that the idea of relocating the Marine air station outside of Okinawa, the position espoused in the DPJ's Okinawa vision paper, is extremely difficult. The government is still considering whether to propose an alternative site within Okinawa, but it seems that the DPJ-led government will not push quite as hard for its optimal plan.

Dealing with these issues now is good politics. Not only will it give some meaning to Obama's visit next month — Okada stressed in an appearance on NHK last month that the government wants to assemble its policies on Okinawa, refueling, and Afghanistan by Obama's visit — but it will also push foreign policy out of the headlines after Obama leaves and the DPJ devotes its attention entirely to drafting next year's budget and finding ways to pay for its new spending programs. Its coalition partners will undoubtedly complain about the inevitable compromises the DPJ will make in relations with the US, but dealing with these matters now will make it that much harder for the LDP to gain traction against the DPJ by attacking the government on its handling of foreign policy in advance of next year's upper house election. By dealing with these tricky issues now the Hatoyama government can ensure that nothing will detract from encomiums to the alliance during next year's sixtieth anniversary celebrations.

It is unlikely that the DPJ will do anything to spoil next year's celebrations in the meantime. Far from the oft-heard criticism that the DPJ is reflexively anti-American, the Hatoyama government is showing that the flexibility it showed during the campaign was not a pose. The DPJ is willing to compromise with the US. It recognizes that there are limits to the political usefulness of criticizing Washington. The government's compromise position has yet to take shape, but there seems little question now that it will be a compromise position.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

On the DPJ's foreign policy

Newsweek International published an op-ed I wrote on the likely direction of DPJ foreign policy.

You can find it here.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The end of an era

Nakagawa Shoichi, the finance minister under Aso Taro who, becoming infamous worldwide for his behavior at a G7 meeting in Rome in February, was forced to resign and then lost his seat in the August general election, was found dead at his home in Tokyo's Setagaya ward Sunday morning. Yomiuri notes an absence of external wounds, suggesting that Nakagawa, like his father Ichiro, took his own life.

This last detail should give us pause. As became apparent when Nakagawa's alcoholism finally made its way into the media, it seems likely that he was struggling with demons that few of us can truly understand. As I remarked at the time, Nakagawa ought not to have been an object of ridicule; the only question raised by his behavior was why Aso put a man struggling with a serious disease in charge of the finance ministry in the midst of "a once-in-a-century financial crisis."

The timing of his death also has important symbolism, coming as it does in the wake of the election of Tanigaki Sadakazu, one of Nakagawa's predecessors as finance minister, as LDP president. By choosing the dovish Tanigaki by a substantial margin — Tanigaki received 300 of 498, more than double the 144 votes received by Kono Taro, who finished second — LDP Diet members and party supporters gave their support for a new policy direction, an impression reinforced by Tanigaki's naming Ishiba Shigeru as chairman of the LDP's policy research council. The balance of power within the LDP, which, as discussed in this post has favored revisionist hawks for much of the post-cold war period, has shifted decisively in the direction of the LDP's past, the past of "income doubling" and egalitarianism. Appropriately Tanigaki belongs to the revived Kochikai, the faction that was home to Ikeda Hayato, Miyazawa Kiichi, and other LDP leaders who kept the party focused on economic welfare and social stability.

Appealing to this tradition alone is not enough, of course: Tanigaki faces an uphill battle to change the LDP into a party that can commit to any one policy line, let alone an agenda that prioritizes the wellbeing of Japan's citizens and addresses the dilemma facing Japan's government today. Indeed, I think Tanigaki is more likely than not to fail in remaking the LDP into a party that will be positioned to return to power in the immediate future. He may be wholly sincere in his desire to reform the party, but as the candidate of the LDP's establishment, Tanigaki won precisely because he poses less of a risk to the LDP's traditional institutions than Kono.

But Nakagawa's death calls attention to just how precipitously the influence of the LDP's ideological conservatives has declined since the 2007 upper house election. Having lost their best opportunity to move their agenda when the LDP lost and then Abe Shinzo resigned and promptly checked himself into Keio hospital, the conservatives rallied to irritate Fukuda Yasuo, managed to get their man Aso into the premiership, but then were utterly lost as the global financial crisis ravaged the Japanese economy. They are still there: Abe still thinks he can return to glory and Aso has already stated that "sooner or later the Hatoyama government will fail," which may be factually true but Aso seems to think it will happen sooner rather than later due to Hatoyama's personal failings. But they are irrelevant to the LDP's future, able to irritate a party leader, much as they did to Fukuda, but unable to shape the party's agenda in a way that will enable the LDP to return to power.

The Japanese public has made clear in the past two elections what it wants from the government: government action to mitigate economic insecurity, especially regarding pensions and retirement. The LDP's conservatives have made clear that they have very little to say about these issues, and on the issues that they do have a lot to say — foreign policy, national defense, "moral" education, the constitution — the voting public has little to no interest.

So Nakagawa's passing may be the final exclamation point on the revisionist era of the LDP.

But politics aside, Nakagawa's death should not be an occasion for having one last laugh at his expense. The British politician Enoch Powell famously wrote, "All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs." But Nakagawa's end — both his political end in August and his mortal end — was particularly tragic, if only because it was in large part the product of his all-too-human failings. Whatever one thinks of his politics — I certainly have had little positive to say over the years — one ought to spare a thought for the late Nakagawa Shoichi. RIP.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The DPJ's quiet revolution

In a contribution to Foreign Policy's "Think Again" feature, Paul Scalise and Devin Stewart maintain that the DPJ victory will result in "the same old stagnation in Tokyo." While there are points worth considering in their piece — especially on foreign policy and the notion that the DPJ is "anti-capitalist" — on the whole Scalise and Stewart, far from offering new thinking about the DPJ, offer the same old cliches about the DPJ's policy priorities and its internal dynamics. [For the record, I know them both — indeed, Scalise and I have argued many of these points in person.]

First, they argue DPJ politicians are not revolutionary: "Like those of the long-reigning Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), they are political opportunists without any long-standing ideological position or dominant constituency. Their only common desire is to be elected." They repeat the standard claim that "many members of the DPJ leadership were at one point members of the LDP," implying that the presence of former LDP members in the DPJ means that the party couldn't possibly stand for change. (Because apparently the most important fact about Ozawa Ichiro and Hatoyama Yukio, among others, is that they began their careers in the LDP, not that they spent nearly the past two decades trying to destroy LDP rule and usher in a new style of politics.)

This argument also ignores the fact that the party's candidates were remarkably unified behind the DPJ's manifesto during the general election. Far from being "political opportunists," the bulk of the DPJ's newly elected members are true believers in the party's agenda, which can be simplified as "Seikatsu dai-ichi" (Livelihoods first, i.e. pensions reform, building a new safety net, etc.) and "Seiken kotai" (regime change, mainly changing the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats in Tokyo, decentralizing the government, etc.). The point is that the DPJ has a remarkably clear agenda, which enjoys the support of the party's Diet members. Indeed, as Michael Cucek, the no longer anonymous author of Shisaku, worried before the election, the problem may be that the party members are too loyal to the agenda and not opportunistic enough. The opinions of DPJ backbenchers, however, may not matter much one way or another (more on this momentarily). The politicians in the cabinet — the DPJ politicians who do matter — are not mere opportunists, but they are not naive idealists either. The standard caricature of the DPJ and its leaders is simply wrong.

And in any case, the DPJ does not need to be "revolutionary" to deliver meaningful change to how Japan is governed.

Second, they express dismay that the DPJ is not the party of economic reform. Perhaps this is the case, although they make the same mistake that they criticize the media for making: they treat "economic reform" as an "empty buzzword," as nowhere in this section do they bother to define what they mean by economic reform. Surely there is no single way for Japan to reform, beyond the broad idea that Japan ought to transition to a more balanced model of economic growth, as I recently discussed here. There is not a single path to a new Japanese model, and as with any major institutional change, it will entail bargaining and compromises among various social actors.

Scalise and Stewart expect a new economic system to emerge in the manner similar to Koizumi Junichiro's style of reform: "Were the DPJ to change this system, it would need to bolster party unity, appeal to progressive constituencies with a transformative economic plan, and then gin up grass-roots support." One, as I have already noted, the DPJ is as unified as it is going to get, and is certainly more unified than the LDP probably ever was when it was in government. And in the event that DPJ backbenchers disagree with government plans, administrative changes already implemented will make it difficult for them to register their disagreement (see the subsequent section for more on this). Second, I'm not quite clear what they mean by "progressive constituencies." Consumer groups? Activist groups? Foreign investors? Who exactly do they mean?

Finally, they anticipate a lack of reform due to the structure of the DPJ — and its "bickering," "fragmented," "hodgepodge" coalition government indebted "to many masters" — and not, as I argued the other day, the fact that transforming an economic system is challenging in the best of times, and even more challenging in light of the LDP's having left the new government with a gross debt/GDP ratio now in excess of 200% and the global economy's recovering from a historic crisis. The obstacles facing the new government are without question considerable, but far from being hindered by a divided, bickering party and government, Hatoyama and his senior ministers have taken a number of steps that should give the DPJ-led government a fighting chance of succeeding in changing the Japanese economy for the better. The government may well fail, but it won't fail because of irreconcilable divisions within the cabinet. Indeed, what Scalise and Stewart see as "heated internal bickering" (a code word for Kamei Shizuka) I see as a massive step forward: note that the bickering is internal not to the ruling party or between ruling party and cabinet as under the LDP, the debate is occurring within the cabinet, among cabinet ministers. Cabinet ministers are actually debating what the government's policy should be! They're not just signing off on some document handed to them by administrative vice ministers or the party general council! What they see as bickering I see as a feature, not a bug. No government in the world — no democratic government anyway — is characterized by perfect unanimity among its leaders. The question is how the system manages disagreements and whether it is capable of making decisions and following through on them. The LDP system failed in large part because disagreements crossed institutional lines, undermining the cabinet's ability to establish policy priorities and lead.

Which brings me to the biggest flaw in their argument: they completely misunderstand the nature of the changes proposed by the DPJ when it comes to the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats. In describing the system of LDP rule, they see bureaucratic dominance as the result of the failings of Diet members, not the result of the institutional weakness of the cabinet relative to the LDP's internal organs (most notably the policy research council) and the bureaucracy itself: "...Politicians lack the time, energy, staff, and expertise necessary to write bills."

Undoubtedly individual backbenchers have had few resources of their own — but again, they ignore the power LDP backbenchers were able to wield as members of the PRC, working in cooperation with bureaucrats against the cabinet. But the answer to making Japan's government more effective is not strengthening the power and expertise of individual backbenchers. Indeed, the answer lies is ensuring that backbenchers have fewer avenues to exercise influence while concentrating all policymaking power in the cabinet.

Which is precisely what the DPJ plans to do. Scalise and Stewart don't seem to appreciate the significance of what the Hatoyama government has done in just the first few weeks of power: "The ruling party has called for the creation of a few smaller cabinet-focused committees to replace a few older party-centric and ministry-centric committees. It has also restricted the media's access to the bureaucracy -- hardly signaling its commitment to a more democratic and transparent legislative process."

What they miss here is just how powerful an actor the "party-centric" committees — the LDP's PRC — was in the policymaking process and how having powerful policymaking institutions outside the cabinet prevented it from controlling the policymaking process. And the idea that replacing bureaucratic press conferences with press conferences by political appointees is somehow undemocratic is laughable, and is indeed intended to ensure that the government's policy message is conveyed to the public clearly by the officials responsible for drafting it.

Scalise and Stewart simply miss the idea that the DPJ is trying to implement a Westminster system in Japan — and they simply miss just how radical an idea this is when one considers it in contrast to the LDP's "un-Westminster" system of government, in which the ruling party and its organs, together with the bureaucracy, had extensive veto power over the cabinet. The DPJ is trying to create a cabinet-led system of government that will be able to attempt some of the reforms desired by Scalise and Stewart, reforms that LDP-led cabinets struggled to maneuver through a cumbersome policymaking progress laden with veto points. At the very least the DPJ is creating a system of government that will be capable of experimentation and government by trial and error, which, after two lost decades, may be the only way for Japan to get a new economic system.

So what do we know about the DPJ's system of government so far?

Quite a lot, actually, because in its first days in office the Hatoyama government stated precisely how it plans to govern.

First, the DPJ as a ruling party is weak and — unlike the LDP — has no formal role in the policymaking process. The DPJ's policy research council has closed up shop; policy coordination will be managed by a national strategy bureau attached by the cabinet and headed by Kan Naoto, deputy prime minister and one of the DPJ's most senior politicians. Ozawa, the new DPJ secretary-general, has been given tremendous power over the ruling party and its Diet majority, making him the essential figure for getting the cabinet's policies passed into law.

Indeed, Ozawa will perform a function essential to a Westminster system: his job will be to ensure that the cabinet has the confidence of the ruling party, through which it controls parliament. Ozawa is hard at work on ensuring that backbenchers follow his lead, and by extension the lead of the cabinet. Far from strengthening the power of backbenchers, which Scalise and Stewart for some reason see as essential to changing how the government works, the DPJ intends to reform the system so that the job of a DPJ backbencher is to receive instructions on how to vote from Ozawa, show up to vote at the right time, and take the necessary steps to get reelected and so preserve the government's majority. Unlike under LDP rule, when backbenchers were busy with endless party committee and subcommittee meetings, participation in which being essential for getting ahead in the party, the cabinet and the party leadership expect that DPJ backbenchers will be seen and not heard.

To make this point absolutely clear, the DPJ has informed its Diet members that legislation introduced by Diet members (as opposed to legislation introduced by the cabinet) will be banned "in principle," with exceptions made for legislation related to elections and "political activities." (Presumably the latter exceptions will enable Ozawa to move legislation related to liberalizing campaign activities, long one of his pet issues and the subject of his recent study trip to Britain.) Also while in Britain Ozawa studied the daily activities of parliamentarians — in other words, what backbenchers do with their time since they have little to do when it comes to policymaking.

Beyond these changes, perhaps the biggest oversight on the part of Scalise and Stewart is their failure to appreciate the radicalism of the DPJ's changes to the budgeting process. As I argued before the general election, the DPJ's idea of "regime change" cannot be understood without looking at its plans for the budgeting process. In their plans to transfer budgetary authority to the cabinet — which, after all, is given budgetary authority by the constitution — the DPJ is positioning itself to deliver a democratic revolution in Japan by enabling political leaders to determine how the public's money is spent, and to redirect funds in the direction of policy priorities desired by voters.

The Hatoyama government has already taken the first steps towards a new budgeting process. Just as it said it would, on Tuesday the cabinet approved a cabinet decision that canceled the Aso government's budgetary guidelines, instructed cabinet ministers to establish budget priorities from a "zero base" and to make substantial cuts to the extent possible, and stressed once again (as the DPJ did in its manifesto) that the government will be redoing the budget from scratch. It will not simply make incremental adjustments to last year's budget. At the same time, under the leadership of Furukawa Motohisa, deputy minister for the new national strategy office and the administrative renovation council, the Hatoyama government will devise a framework for next year's outlook for tax revenues and bond issues, a job in recent years done by the Council on Fiscal and Economic Policy (replaced by the NSO), but, as Asahi notes, "The finance ministry decided the specific size of the budget." The NSO will be taking the lead in all facets of the budgeting process. We will know more about the new budgeting process after 15 October, the new deadline for ministries to submit requests to the cabinet.

There are plenty of questions about how the NSO, the new budgetary process, and the new policymaking process more generally will work, but Scalise and Stewart miss several key points that suggest not only does the new government have radical ideas for the policymaking process, but also will likely succeed in making the government more top-down, more cabinet-centered, and more streamlined than any of its predecessors: (1) the Hatoyama government has clear ideas for how it wants to change the system of government (indeed clearer ideas here than in any other policy area), (2) relatedly, its members have spent years studying the LDP's failures, the failures of the Hosokawa government (in which several Hatoyama cabinet members participated, including Hatoyama himself), and of course the British system, (3) there is more public support on this issue than any other, as public opinion polls have shown overwhelming support for the DPJ's plans to redraw the relationship between politicians and bureaucrats, especially concerning budgeting, and (4) the bureaucracy is not nearly as opposed to the DPJ's plans as one might expect. Kan, for example, has been reaching out to reformist bureaucrats. The finance ministry, far from standing in the new government's way, accommodated the DPJ's request to hold off on budgeting for 2010 despite the ministry's desire to stick to the customary schedule. Spending ministries, the targets of the DPJ's desire to cut waste, have softened their once vocal opposition to the new government. They may yet attempt to derail the government through sabotage or foot-dragging, but there are enough reports out there of bureaucrats eager for political leadership to suggest that it is far too early to write off the DPJ's administrative reforms as doomed.

In short, the changes set in motion by the Hatoyama government will likely result in a stronger cabinet actually capable of leading Japan, and by leading I mean making difficult decisions instead of punting on every decision as the LDP did when in power. A new policymaking process is no guarantee of success, but the Hatoyama government is taking the right steps to give it a chance to change Japan for the better. It may not look like much of a revolution, but a quiet revolution is still a revolution.