Monday, March 30, 2009

Japan's security kabuki

The Taepodong-2 rocket — because, as Jun Okumura rightly notes, it is not a missile unless it is used a weapon — North Korea claims will deliver a satellite into orbit is on the launch site, awaiting a launch that will reportedly occur between 6 and 8 April. Japan is in a state of alarm.

The Aso government and the LDP have used the prospective launch to show its decisiveness. In anticipation of the launch, a joint session of the LDP Policy Research Council's defense division, national security investigative committee, and base countermeasures ad hoc committee recommended on 24 March that Japan prepare to intercept debris from the rocket falling on Japan with either seaborne SM-3 interceptors or, failing that, land-based PAC-3 interceptors. That same day the LDP-Komeito North Korean missile problem countermeasures headquarters reviewed the government's options in responding to the launch, stressing cooperation at the UN Security Council and commitment to the Six-Party talks as well as the possibility of more sanctions on North Korea, while preparing Japan's missile defenses and opening lines of communication with localities in advance of the missile launch.

On 25 March, the chief cabinet secretary and the foreign and defense ministers discussed and agreed upon Japan's response and on 27 March, the cabinet discussed Japan's response and Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu issued an order deploying Japan's missile defenses in preparation for destroying any debris that might fall on Japan, at the same time that Prime Minister Aso sought to reassure the public that the government is doing everything in its power to minimize the danger from the launch.

Since issuing the order, the JSDF has sprung into action. On the morning of 28 March, the Kongo and the Chokai, Aegis-equipped destroyers armed with SM-3s, departed from Sasebo to take up positions in the Sea of Japan. A third Aegis-equipped destroyer, the Kirishima, deployed from Yokosuka to Japan's Pacific coast from where it will track the flight of the rocket. Meanwhile, PAC3 interceptors arrived in Akita and Iwate prefectures on Monday evening, although not without incident. (Akita and Iwate have been designated as risk zones for falling debris.) The government has also made plans for recovering debris should it fall offshore.

All of this may be for naught. As one senior government official had the courage to suggest in the midst of the government's ostentatious preparations, despite missile defense system trials, there is no guarantee that Japan's missile defenses will work under real conditions. The MSDF is one for two in SM-3 trials, while the US Navy is thirteen for sixteen, but not only were the tests conducted in controlled settings, but Japan's missile defense system is intended for North Korea's medium-range missiles, not errant pieces of a long-range rocket. Foreign Minister Nakasone Hirofumi acknowledged the difficulty on 24 March, but that was before the government decided to order preparations for a most unlikely interception and he has since backtracked on his skepticism, stating in Diet proceedings that "it is natural for Japan" to intercept the debris given the fears of damage to lives and property. And even if the JSDF manages to intercept the debris, the defense minister admitted that there is still the risk of damage should the remaining fragments fall on Japanese territory.

The Japanese government's very public preparations are akin to the post-9/11 rituals of airport security (derisively referred to as "security theater"), the repetitive, cosmetic measures implemented by the federal government that many have argued provide the illusion of aviation security rather than actual security. Even as senior officials, including a cabinet minister, questioned Japan's ability to shoot down ballistic missiles, let alone unguided missile debris, the Aso government has made a public show of acting as if it is only natural that Japan's relatively untested missile defenses will be up to the task, all the while assuring the public that they have nothing to fear. Arguably the government's response has only heightened the sense of alarm, especially among residents of the prefectures now hosting JSDF PAC3s. More importantly, the Aso government's security kabuki — to coin a phrase — may undermine Japan's security over the long term. What will the public response be should debris fall on Japan and the JSDF spectacularly fail to intercept it, especially if the falling debris is the source of casualties or property damage? Japanese might — unfairly given that the system isn't designed to shoot down debris — come to question the government's substantial outlays on missile defense.

The comparison with the US response is revealing. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated plainly in a television appearance that the US will not attempt to shoot down the missile, even as the US Navy has deployed its own Aegis-equipped warships to the Sea of Japan. The US has, of course, agreed with Japan and South Korea to refer the missile launch to the UN Security Council as a violation of UN Security Council resolution 1718, but the US has refrained from a premature overreaction to the pending launch, wisely I think. Gates's remarks are indicative of a certain degree of powerlessness on the part of the US, Japan, and the other participants in the Six-Party talks, with the partial exception of China. It appears that all are in a holding pattern, following North Korea's failure to deliver on last year's commitments, waiting for something — most likely a leadership change in Pyongyang — to break the stalemate. I just hope that the five parties are planning for that eventuality.

I recognize that the Japanese government is unable to treat the rocket launch as nonchalantly as the US, by virtue of geography (the US, after all, doesn't have to worry about debris falling on its territory), public opinion (overwhelmly supportive of the government's response, according to a Sankei poll — even JCP supporters tended to be more supportive than not), path dependency (having pursued a hard line up until now, the government could hardly do otherwise), a desire to somehow rectify Japan's unpreparedness when North Korea launched a Taepodong-1 over Japan in 1998, and Prime Minister Aso's ideological tendencies. But the government better hope that should North Korea go through with the launch, no debris falls on Japan, because the damage it could cause in the likely event that an attempted intercept fails would be enough to destroy the Aso government, which has enjoyed a slight recovery in its support of late.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The electoral consequences of Mr. Ozawa

Chiba's gubernatorial election, held Sunday, was viewed by some DPJ members going into the election as a critical test for Ozawa Ichiro's fragile leadership of the party.

Coming within a week of the indictment of Okubo Takanori and Ozawa's decision to hold on despite the indictment, Ozawa's critics insisted that the Chiba election, in which DPJ-backed independent Yoshida Taira faced off against LDP-backed independent (and former actor) Morita Kensaku and three others, would measure the impact of the scandal on the electoral prospects of DPJ candidates. They would treat a defeat as a sign that if Ozawa leads the DPJ into the general election, he will gravely undermine his party's candidates.

Ozawa's many enemies apparently have something to celebrate: Morita defeated Yoshida by a sizeable margin, receiving 1,015,978 votes to Yoshida's 636,991, with the other three candidates (including one JCP-backed independent) receiving a total of 577,781 votes.

A Mainichi/TBS exit poll found that independents broke for Morita over Yoshida by a 45% to 24% margin — and also found that non-aligned respondents have not yet decided which party they will back in the general election, with 60% undecided compared with 24% who back the DPJ and 9% who back the LDP. At the same time, however, the poll found that independents are favorably disposed to the "opposition parties" over the "government parties" by a margin of 59% to 32%. In other words, it is unclear whether the Chiba election tells us anything about the impact of Ozawa's political troubles on his party's ability to contest elections.

After all, the votes received by the three other candidates in the election more than made up the difference between Morita and Yoshida. In a one-on-one campaign, would Morita have won by such a decisive margin, if at all? Given that many of the races in the 300 single-member districts will be solely between LDP and DPJ candidates, it is premature to declare that the DPJ's prospects in a general election are now hopeless. Facing LDP incumbents — all 303 of them — desperate to distance themselves from not just Aso Taro, but also Abe Shinzo and Fukuda Yasuo, will DPJ candidates really be so harmed by the cloud surrounding Ozawa? The independents broke one way in this election, a gubernatorial election in which the LDP-backed candidate was able to keep the party at arm's length and run on the strength of personal popularity, but will LDP lower house candidates be so lucky later this year? Even LDP secretary-general Hosoda Hiroyuki was reluctant to attribute Morita's victory to the Okubo indictment, citing instead the Morita's "high degree of name recognition." (Of course, if the LDP wants Ozawa to stay at the helm of the DPJ, Hosoda would have good reason to play down the impact of Ozawa on the election.)

Despite reasons for questioning the significance of the Chiba election, Ozawa will undoubtedly continue to face criticism and pressure to resign from the DPJ anti-mainstream. A recent Asahi snap poll will provide more ammunition for Ozawa's critics: the poll recorded a marked shift in support for Aso and the LDP, doubt about Ozawa's explanation of the scandal, and a desire to see Ozawa resign (63% in favor, 24% opposed). And yet respondents still intend to support the DPJ in PR voting in the general election — and although there was slight shift, still overwhelmingly desire a DPJ-centered government.

I am not sure what to make of the polling about Ozawa, because while various polls have found majorities in favor of Ozawa's resigning, they don't seem to ask whether Ozawa's staying on will dramatically impact their willingness to vote for a DPJ candidate in their district. It is conceivable that the opposition to Ozawa's staying on is soft, driven more by the frenzied news coverage than by an enduring allergy to Ozawa's leadership that would lead a voter to not even consider voting for a DPJ candidate.

Nevertheless, Ozawa is still in a vulnerable position, not helped by Hatoyama Yukio's discussion of the possibility of Ozawa's stepping down in advance of a general election if polling numbers don't improve. Ultimately the only polling numbers that matter are the number of votes received in an election — I don't think newspaper polls are so unambiguously clear that Ozawa and the DPJ should be making decisions on the basis of their findings. Perhaps the party has internal polling that better measures the Ozawa drag on DPJ candidates, but I doubt it. Meanwhile, I think Hatoyama's suggestion that Ozawa (and Hatoyama himself) might resign just before an election is folly. How would the party be helped by being leaderless immediately preceding an election? At some point the party's leaders have to accept that they have taken a calculated risk in leaving Ozawa in to pitch and live with it. I still think it is premature to conclude that the party made a mistake backing Ozawa's decision to stay on as party president.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The end of the beginning

Ozawa Ichiro indicated, in a tearful press conference Tuesday evening, that he will stay on as DPJ president despite the indictment of his chief public secretary — but Ozawa's statement may have only been the end of the beginning of the final act of Ozawa's long career.

The press conference itself was a masterpiece of defiance. Ozawa did not give an inch, insisting on the outrageousness of the actions of the public prosecutor's office and the lack of wrongdoing his part or the part of his secretary. He appealed to the public for support and understanding, and insisted that now as ever his purpose is to build Japanese democracy. (The press conference can be read in its entirety here, here, here, and here.)

But it is unlikely that the press conference will be the end of Ozawa's troubles.

First, by staying on Ozawa will remain a target for the media. As Jun Okumura notes in his reading of editorials on Ozawa, the press has for the most part called for Ozawa's resignation, and will likely to continue to press for it by reporting every snippet of news that might back Ozawa into a corner. To paraphrase another politician who had his troubles with the media, it looks that the Japanese press will have Ozawa to kick around for at least a little while longer — and it will not hesitate to get its kicks in.

The press will also report on every note of criticism of Ozawa from within the DPJ, of which there appears to be plenty. Apparently DPJ members were holding back their criticism in the hope that he would bow out freely, without their having to do anything to force him out. But as before Ozawa's press conference, the press is being disingenous in its reporting on criticism of Ozawa. The critics mentioned in press reports on "cracks in the DPJ" appear to be none other than the usual critics of Ozawa, the youngish, reformist members clustered around Maehara Seiji, Edano Yukio, and Noda Yoshihiko. Mainichi, for example, quotes Sengoku Yoshito as calling for Ozawa to "independently make the political decision [to resign]." Sengoku Yoshito is one of Ozawa's most outspoken critics within the DPJ and had made some noise about challenging Ozawa in last year's party leadership election before backing down like Ozawa's other critics. Maehara Seiji, Ozawa's predecessor and perhaps his most frequent sparring partner within the DPJ, has also questioned the wisdom of Ozawa's decision and wondered why Ozawa received so much from one company. Sankei's discussion of criticism of Ozawa comes entirely from the Maehara-Edano-Noda axis, featuring quotes from Sengoku, Komiyama Yoko, education minister in the DPJ's shadow cabinet, and Edano, who said that Ozawa's explanation was inadequate. Sankei actually mentioned Komiyama's remarks in a separate article, which notes that this was her first public criticism of Ozawa without mentioning her connection to what is effectively the most anti-Ozawa portion of the DPJ.

It is for that reason that the image of a DPJ falling to pieces must be taken with a lump of salt.

The DPJ has a mainstream-anti-mainstream dynamic not unlike that which has characterized the LDP for much of its history. By ignoring this background, press coverage of the DPJ's divisions conveys a misleading impression of Ozawa's having been completely abandoned when in reality criticism from these members is entirely in keeping with their role as the opposition within the opposition. There are critics outside of this section of the party, but for the moment it appears that most of the criticism comes from the party's anti-mainstream. And given their history, it is worth asking whether their criticism is any great concern. In its battles with Ozawa, the Maehara-Edano-Noda axis has repeatedly failed to follow up its criticism with action. After spending most of last summer painting a portrait of Ozawa as DPJ dictator, not a single member of the anti-mainstream decided to run against Ozawa in the September election. When Ozawa stepped down after facing criticism for his discussions with Fukuda Yasuo regarding a grand coalition, not a single member of the anti-mainstream stepped forward as a possible successor. For all of Maehara's participation in LDP-centered study groups, there are few signs that he is actually willing to defect along with other anti-mainstream DPJ members.

In short, the press coverage of the criticism may be worse than the criticism itself. These critics are simply doing what the anti-mainstream is supposed to do, and I read their remarks as being more about election positioning than a serious effort to drive Ozawa to resignation. As I wrote when the first polls after the scandal were published, the indictment merely reinforces the trend towards urban, reformist DPJ candidates running against Ozawa and the party in order to win their seats. But in order to do that, they have to act like anti-mainstream candidates. I don't take their fretting about whether they will win their districts all that seriously: they are still facing LDP candidates who are weighed down by Aso, Fukuda, Abe, 50 million missing pensions records, and a disintegrating economy. Reformist candidates for both parties will be running against their party's leadership — and for all the suspicion surrounding Ozawa, DPJ candidates should still have an easier time distancing themselves from him than their LDP rivals.

I am not ruling out the possibility that the DPJ leadership is making a grave mistake in backing Ozawa, but I do not think that the political situation as been wholly transformed or that an LDP victory is assured by Ozawa's staying on as party leader. The LDP does have more reason to hope; the LDP has officially questioned why Ozawa is staying on, but I think this Mainichi article is right that the LDP would actually prefer Ozawa as the face of the DPJ than any other leader. But Aso has critics of his own within the party, and his future as the head of the LDP is no more secure than Ozawa's future as DPJ leader. And the public is far more concerned with what Aso is doing as prime minister than what Ozawa did or did not do a few years ago in service of his political ambitions.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Will he stay or will he go?

Okubo Takanori, Ozawa Ichiro's chief secretary, has as expected been indicted by the Tokyo district public prosecutor's office for violating the political funds control law..

Ozawa is due to announce whether he will remain as DPJ president today.

In the days leading up to the indictment, the DPJ has rallied behind its embattled leader, which in practice means that the decision to resign is, as Hatoyama Yukio said Tuesday, in Ozawa's hands alone. An uneasy truce, limiting backbencher criticism of Ozawa, appears to be holding, but it is unclear how durable the truce is. In the meantime the party is struggling to limit the damage while waiting for Ozawa to decide. To that end, at a meeting of the DPJ executive Tuesday Okada Katsuya, who still looks to be the most likely successor should Ozawa go, stressed the need to address the public's concerns about money politics in the DPJ — but, as many reformist DPJ members worry, it is unclear whether the DPJ can fix its image with Ozawa as the face of the party, particularly if Ozawa's political organization continues to be investigated for collusion with the construction industry.

I'm due to board a plane shortly, but in the meantime read Aurelia George Mulgan's summary of the meaning of the Ozawa scandal.

Monday, March 23, 2009

For the western press, Japan is always rising

Forbes and AP have run nearly simultaneous articles reviving the "Japan rising" meme that I thought had died with Abe Shinzo's government.

Tim Kelly of Forbes uses the occasion of the commissioning of the Hyuga — previously mentioned in this postto argue that the launch of Japan's "first aircraft carrier since America dismantled the Imperial Navy a half century ago" is a landmark in Japan's "[creeping] away" from pacifism.

Eric Talmadge, meanwhile, uses the trick of reporting on a US-Japan joint military drill to argue that Japan's military is assuming a "more global role."

The funny thing about Talmadge's article is that it has all the pieces for a very different story, which might be headlined, "Japan remains reluctant to commit military to global role." The story mentions the Somalia dispatch occurring "after much haggling in parliament," "opposition from many Japanese who recall the disaster of the previous century's militarist misadventures" should the government send troops to Afghanistan, a quote from an expert (Eric Heginbotham of RAND) noting that "Japan is still extremely casualty sensitive," and a quote from another expert (Watanabe Tsuneo of the Tokyo Foundation) noting that "there is no consensus among ordinary citizens and politicians." One could take the same quotes and the same facts and write a completely different article talking about Japan's reluctance to play a greater role abroad, while alluding to the possibility of change.

The mistake that both Talmadge and Kelly make is to equate military capabilities with a change in intentions or policy. Kelly's article blithely dismisses the very idea that the Hyuga is anything but an aircraft carrier — and if Japan has an aircraft carrier, it must be interested in expanding its global reach. If Kelly acknowledged that the Hyuga might be something other than an aircraft carrier, as Japanese officials maintain, Kelly would not have a story, because what story is there in "Japan acquires another destroyer?" Talmadge, meanwhile, recognizes that far from enhancing its military capabilities, "Unlike China's double-digit defense spending growth, Japan's has remained flat for years." (In fact, Japan's defense budget has fallen for seven consecutive years, as discussed here.) But he then concludes that Japan has "one of the best-funded and highly regarded militaries in the world." But that is not a new development: Japan has had a high-tech and well-funded military for years. What has changed to merit having this discussion now? Not the Hyuga apparently — Talmadge actually doesn't mention it. (The only mention Kelly makes of Japan's defense spending is that Japan has "a defense budget on par with the more militarily active U.K." and that "if America ever lets Japan buy its latest state-of-the-art warplanes, Asia's pacifist nation has the cash to pay for them.")

Oddly enough, Talmadge's case seems to rest largely on the US-Japan joint missile defense program. But why does he equate a global role with the acquisition of military technology? Missile defense technology is, for Japan, explicitly local, intended "to protect the country — and the 50,000 U.S. troops stationed here — from a potential attack by its unpredictable and often belligerent neighbor, North Korea." Missile defense spending may show that Japan is taking its own defense more seriously, but I would not equate it with Japan's taking a more active global role.

I cannot help but think of everything these articles miss. No mention of the domestic political confusion that has shelved discussions of collective self-defense and constitution revision, which would be far more significant than the acquisition of a helicopter carrier. No mention of the lack of interest among many Japanese in seeing the JSDF used for missions not directly tied to Japan's security, as found in the cabinet's latest defense affairs survey (discussed here). No mention of the Asahi survey finding that many Japanese would like to see the government spend even less on defense than it is spending now. No mention of the smoldering debate between the LDP and the DPJ over Ozawa Ichiro's suggestion that perhaps Japan should consider taking greater responsibility for its own defense, while insisting that he literally meant own defense — a more robust JSDF would not be used abroad.

The puzzling thing about Japanese security policy is not that Japan has become so much more active but that it is still doing so little, despite the best efforts of some US and Japanese policymakers (and journalists like Talmadge and Kelly) to paint a picture of East Asia as unremittingly bleak and threatening for a "pacifist" country like Japan. It seems that the Japanese people will not be scared into becoming "normal." The public would still rather cheap ride on the US security guarantee, with greater role in self-defense a second-best option. But even in doing more to defend itself Japan might still not become the active global power of Talmadge's article. It is easy to imagine a Japan bristling with high-tech weapons for its maritime and air self-defense forces, intended to ensure that no intruders enter Japanese waters or airspace, perhaps while still sending unarmed contributions to UN missions abroad.

For once it would be nice to read an article about Japanese security policy from a mainstream media outlet that acknowledges that Japan is not on a linear trajectory to becoming a "normal" nation, that the lack of a public consensus on security policy is not simply something that will disappear with time; it is a fixture of the landscape that Japanese and US policymakers must acknowledge when considering the future of Japanese security policy.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Going west

To readers in San Francisco and the Bay area, I will be in town from Tuesday to Sunday. As always, I am interested in meeting with readers.

Feel free to email me at If I get enough replies, perhaps I'll organize a group meetup.

Friday, March 20, 2009

On Japan's leadership problem

My latest contribution to the Far Eastern Economic Review Online looks at Japan's leadership deficit.

It's available here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Butter over guns

In the Asahi survey of political attitudes discussed in this post, respondents were asked to pick which portions of the budget that would like to see enhanced and which portions they would like to see cut.

I already noted that the top three programs respondents want to see enhanced are health and welfare, economic stimulus, and agriculture.

The top programs to cut?

Public works (53%), defense (49%) and international cooperation (37%).

It is encouraging to see that the public has little appetite for more concrete, but the second figure gives me pause. Defense ranks highly despite seven consecutive years of defense budget cuts, about which Defense Minister Hamada Yasukazu complained when asked at a press conference in December. It ranks highly despite the ceaseless effort by Japanese elites to alert the public to the danger posed by North Korea and by China's military modernization program. I suppose this means that Ozawa Ichiro's remarks about a sharp reduction of US forces in Japan are not so much wrong as they are irrelevant — the Japanese people have no desire to undertake the commitment implied by Ozawa's ideas, they want even less of a defense commitment.

Combining the results of the cabinet survey on defense issues (discussed here) and the Asahi survey, it seems that the Japanese people want nothing more than to be protected from foreign threats by the United States and protected from economic insecurity by their own government. Far from wanting to throw off the Yoshida Doctrine, the Japanese people want to revive it for the twenty-first century.

Something tells me that the US will be not as obliging as it was in the early 1950s.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Japanese people lose hope

Jun Okumura notes that while the political world waits to find out whether Ozawa Ichiro will survive the scandal in his political organization, the DPJ has revived an approach pursued in the earlier half of this decade.

The DPJ, he writes, banned contributions from the Japan Federation of Construction Contractors based on a recommendation in 2003 from Okada Katsuya when he headed a party commission on political reform. A generalized form of the party ban made it into the Okada-led DPJ's manifesto in 2005 as a ban on political contributions from contributions that have received public works contracts.

This time Ozawa wants to go further, despite having previously reversed the party ban; this week Ozawa called for a plan to ban all contributions from businesses and related political organizations, and once again tasked Okada with drawing up the proposal.

Undoubtedly a bold stroke, but undoubtedly one that has the whiff of a deathbed (or sickbed) conversion. Can a DPJ led by Ozawa make political hay with this proposal? Will the public believe it?

As LDP faction leader Yamasaki Taku said in response to Ozawa's proposal, "It is no use for a person who is virtually a symbol of politician-bureaucrat-businessman adhesion to say such things." Aso Taro, hardly in a position to say otherwise, also criticized the proposal, arguing that corporate contributions are not in and of themselves wrong.

But the ban on corporate contributions is not the only item of political reform under consideration by the DPJ. Hatoyama Yukio indicated Wednesday that the party is considering introducing a provision into its manifesto calling for restrictions on hereditary politicians (pause to appreciate the irony of the messenger, notwithstanding Yukio's not having literally inherited his seat in Hokkaido's ninth district). The restriction will likely involve a cooling-off period during which a would-be candidate cannot run in a district once represented by a relative. I have previously argued against the idea of banning or restricting hereditary politicians, and I remain dubious of the idea. It is common enough for Japanese political commentators to blame hereditary politicians for the decline in the quality of Japanese leaders, often arguing that hereditary politicians are out of touch with the voters due to pampered upbringings in Tokyo. This argument rests on two questionable assumptions: (1) that politicians today are of lower quality than politicians in previous generations and (2) that hereditary politicians are even worse than their non-hereditary peers. But what makes today's politicians so much worse than earlier politicians, and what is the basis for judging hereditary politicians are out of touch?

Not for the first time the Japanese commentariat is looking for an easy fix for a political system that has forfeited the confidence of a majority of the Japanese people, but as with earlier reform proposals — most notably the 1994 election reform — it is a mistake to look to political reform as a panacea for Japan's ills.

Meanwhile, a new Asahi survey provides a detailed account of public discontent with the political system. The picture is of a people that has basically given up on its political leaders, but uncertain of whether and how the system can be changed.

The question that has gotten the most coverage is the question asking the extent to which respondents are satisfied with the political system. 91% said they were either a little or greatly dissatisfied, with 60% saying greatly dissatisfied. (The same proportion of respondents also said that "politics" had failed to indicate a way forward for Japanese society.) Similarly, in a particularly colorful question that asked respondents to think of the Japanese political system as a ship at sea, 50% said it is like a ship with a broken rudder, adrift in the ocean, while 31% said it is like a ship that has run aground and is sinking.

Respondents had little more confidence in the politicians themselves. The ideal politician, according to this survey, would be less a specialist than a man of the people (63% preferred the latter), would be characterized more by political ability than political ethics (61%, although it is unclear what the latter term means), would be devoted to parliamentary affairs instead of activities within his electoral district (54% to 37%), would not have to hail from the district he represents (this by a smaller margin, 52% compared with 43% who thought a politician should come from the district he represents), and would be free to disagree with his party's position (75% felt that it is acceptable for a politician to dissent from his party when a bill comes to a vote). But even with a legislature full of such politicians, would Japanese politics be more effective at delivering the results desired by the public?

The survey also found that the DPJ, not surprisingly, is not seen as a vehicle for change. 59% think that a DPJ-led government would leave politics unchanged, 67% think there are no great differences between LDP and DPJ, and 68% hope for a political realignment.

There is some support for restrictions on political donations — 57% of respondents prefer a total banned compared with only 32% who support retaining the current system — but it is unclear what will take its place. 56% of respondents do not like public subsidies for political activities, but when asked whether they think it is good to contribute to politicians they support, 68% said they don't think it's good, meaning that any effort to emulate the Obama campaign's use of the Internet to gather smaller donations for more citizens would have to overcome the lack of desire on the part of Japanese to donate to political campaigns. (The reference to the Obama campaign is not of my making; it is all too common in Japanese political discourse.)

For most respondents, however, democracy remains a passive activity. Respondents said they have no problem with receiving fliers or attending speeches, but they were evenly divided at 47% over whether they would volunteer to help an election campaign, and, more significantly, when asked what they would do to deal with their dissatisfaction with the political system, the responses tended towards the passive. The overwhelming favorite response would be to vote for a candidate who would address the problem (62%), followed by talking with friends and family (57%). After those two, there is a precipitous decline: only 10% would complain in a letter to the editor or on the Internet, only 12% would participate in a demonstration or petition drive, 8% would do nothing, 4% would become involved in a citizens' group or political party, and 3% would run for office themselves. I suppose it is encouraging that respondents would at least vote for a candidate promising something different, but this data suggests that the Japanese people are still inclined to accept the political system as is rather than take politics into their own hands. That conclusion is only slightly softened by the favorable response to a question asking whether respondents support use of national referendums in matters unrelated to constitution revision (which still suggests that voting remains the preferred means of political participation).

This suggests that the emerging DPJ-LDP push for lifting regulations that prohibit the use of the Internet for campaign activities may not be as useful as its advocates would hope. It is possible that the tendency towards passive political activities among citizens is an effect of restrictive laws, but I am doubtful. I still support lifting the Internet usage restrictions and other campaigning regulations as being essential for invigorating Japanese democracy, but it will take more than legal changes to engender a civic renaissance in Japan.

Finally, the survey concludes with a series of questions pertaining to socioeconomic matters, which indicate that, not surprisingly, the Japanese people are overwhelmingly concerned with saving Japanese-style capitalism, while supporting the construction of a new welfare state. Asked about the areas in which they want to see more spending in the budget, the top three choices of respondents were health and welfare (85%), employment assistance and economic stimulus (67%), and agriculture and the food supply (61%). 62% feel that there is too much income inequality. 78% of respondents said that henceforth Japan should be more concerned with ensuring untroubled lives despite failing to compete than with ensuring opportunities to succeed and earn high incomes. 55% said that reforms to promote competition had gone far enough, while 62% said that labor regulations ought to be strengthened.

The Koizumi revolution is dead, if it ever even existed.

This survey does not bode well for Japan's future. The deep pessimism and desire for economic retrenchment may be symptoms of the economic crisis, but given that Japan's great adjustment will take years to unfold, these symptoms may be characteristic of Japanese politics for years to come. The argument made by John Haffner, Tomas Casas i Klett, and Jean-Pierre Lehmann — a spirited call for an open, globally minded Japan — is certainly admirable, but I fear that there is little desire for openness and optimism among the Japanese people. The public seems first and foremost concerned about ensuring that they will have some degree of comfort in the old age, along with employment, preferably secure employment, for those of working age. If that means greater protection at home and abroad, the public seems willing to accept the consequences. This is undoubtedly a recipe for declining regional and international influence, but such concerns appear to be far from the minds of Japanese citizens as they experience economic ruin.

To bring the discussion back to the DPJ's campaign finance proposal, it strikes me as just so much dithering around the margins. The political system is rotting, and I hardly think that campaign contributions from companies — even from construction companies — are anything more than a symptom of the rot. I continue to think that a DPJ victory will at least be a step in the right direction, and I don't fault the party for making this proposal (even if it is politically expedient), but it is delusional if it thinks that salvation will come from tinkering with the political system.

Much is riding on a DPJ victory. If the DPJ wins and manages to govern in accordance with public concerns, it might be a catalyst for more participatory Japanese democracy, leading the public to shed some of its doubts about the political system and participate themselves. However, if the DPJ fails, it will likely intensify public dissatisfaction with politics and ensure Japan's continuing decline.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The LDP finds something to agree on

While the Nishimatsu scandal continues to ripple through both the LDP and the DPJ and while all wonder whether next week will see Ozawa Ichiro's resignation as DPJ president, LDP members of all stripes continue to criticize Ozawa for remarks made prior to when the scandal broke regarding the future of the US military presence in Japan.

Prime Minister Aso Taro, speaking to the LDP's Hiroshima prefectural chapter last Saturday, singled out Ozawa for criticism, arguing that his perspective is unrealistic — without a sizeable increase in the defense budget Japan cannot meet threats from abroad alone — and therefore irresponsible.

Foreign Minister Nakasone Hirofumi, speaking in Kanazawa on Sunday, echoed the prime minister's remarks, describing Ozawa's remarks as "irresponsible" for questioning the US presence in Japan, which he described as essential for stability in the area surrounding Japan.

But criticism of Ozawa is not limited to members of the government. Koike Yuriko, stepping up her quixotic campaign against the prime minister, has decided that the key to elevating her profile is in attacking Ozawa and the DPJ, especially on security policy. In an appearance in Nara prefecture, she suggested that security policy ought to be the central issue of the general election, because the DPJ is all over the place on security policy and would prefer that discussing security policy were taboo. (Ozawa's remarks by their very nature belie the idea of the DPJ's making security policy a taboo — as far as I can tell, the LDP is the party trying to make a taboo of a foreign policy issue in asserting the sacrosanctity of the US military presence. But I digress.)

It is the rare issue that can get Aso and Koike to agree, but Koike is being a bit too clever if she thinks that the key to LDP victory lies in a debate with the DPJ over security policy.

Is the public concerned enough to be unsettled by Ozawa's questioning the long-term future of the US military presence in Japan? The cabinet's latest defense affairs survey — mentioned in this post — says relatively little about public attentiveness to defense issues. Yes, the first question found that 64.7% of respondents are interested in the JSDF and defense issues (50.6% interested to some extent, compared to 14.1% extremely interested), but this survey provides no sense of where defense issues rank in comparison with other issues of concern to the public. The most interesting data points concern the value of the alliance. 76.4% of respondents (31.3% see it as useful, 45% agree that if they had to say, they would say it's useful). 77.3% of respondents support the status quo in US-Japan defense arrangements, with USFJ working with the JSDF to defend Japan. Only 9.9% support the proposition that Japan should defend itself by abrogating the US-Japan security treaty and having the JSDF alone defend the country, while a mere 4.2% support the "pacifism in one country" idea of abrogating the security treaty and shrinking or elimanating the JSDF. But this question does not provide the Ozawa option of a minimized US presence (under the treaty, of course) and a bolstered role for the JSDF in defending Japan.

The survey does find that respondents are insecure: 69.2% feared that Japan could be dragged into a war, with the leading reason being "international tension and conflict" (cited by 75.4% of those who feared war). It also suggests that Japanese are minimally afraid of being entrapped by the alliance, with 16.7% of respondents fearing war believing that the security treaty would be the reason, compared with 45% of the respondents who felt that, thanks to the US-Japan security treaty, Japan will not be swept up in war. At the same time, however, the survey did find some evidence of fears of abandonment by the US, as "the relationship between China and the US" ranked fourth among matters of interest to Japan's peace and security following the Korean peninsula, international terrorism, and the Middle East, and slightly above China's military modernization and maritime activites. (Korea I understand, but international terrorism and the Middle East ranking above concerns about China? It seems hard to believe.)

But does all of this add up to condemnation for Ozawa and the DPJ and support for the LDP? This is a picture of a Japanese public increasingly alarmed by the world beyond Japan's shores. The public does not want to abandon the alliance, which at this juncture would mean that Japan would be friendless as far as security goes, but that does not mean that the public has any great love for the alliance either. This survey suggests that Japanese citizens see the alliance as necessary — what alternative is there? — but they do not see it as a vehicle for either assisting the US internationally or contributing to global peace and security. There is a substantial drop from respondents who view the defense of Japan as the JSDF's primary mission (70%, following the 78.4% who see disaster relief as its primary mission) to the 43.6% who see "peace cooperation activities" as the JSDF's raison d'etre. The breakdown is largely the same when respondents were asked about what role the JSDF should play in the future.

There is little desire to rock the boat, which translates into support of the status quo in which US forces are based in Japan, play an important role in defending Japan alongside the JSDF, and to a lesser extent ensuring peace and stability in East Asia as per Article VI of the treaty. I wish this survey had included a few other questions pertaining to the appropriate level of US forces in Japan, the role they ought to play, the precise nature of "international tension and conflict," and amount of support for the current level of defense spending, but the picture that emerges is of a Japanese people with comparatively little interest in an expeditionary role for the JSDF and more interest in how Japan is to defend itself in an uncertain international environment. For the moment the public is content that the US is an important part of the defense of Japan, but does the public think and accept the alliance as an indefinite arrangement, and does it accept that it is best not to talk about the possibility of an alternative to the current arrangement?

All of which goes to say that LDP leaders are mistaken to conclude that they will be able to score political points by hammering Ozawa for his remarks. The public is worried, but I would wager that whatever worry is captured in this poll is outweighed by worries about matters closer to home. Should the LDP decide that defense policy ought to be the basis, it may discover for the second time in as many elections that there is a price to be paid for ignoring the priorities of the public.

Meanwhile it is worth mentioning that the Nakasone and Aso critiques of Ozawa, at least as reported in the media, do not disagree with Ozawa in principle, but criticize him on pragmatic grounds, for being irresponsible in proposing an alternative to the status quo that might anger the ally upon which Japan is dependent for its security. I think any conservative arguing in good faith has no choice but to take this line of attack; there is too much history of conservatives, including the august progenitors of the prime minister and the foreign minister, railing about independence and autonomy for them to attack the principle of more independent Japanese defense capabilities. Indeed, one does not need to go back in time to find conservatives making this argument: Sakurai Yoshiko, in an article in the March 12 issue of Shukan Shincho, takes the benign out of benign neglect from the Obama administration, and argues that the new administration is slighting Japan to treat with China — and that China would prefer a Japan restrained by its dependence on the US military. There is a gap between Sakurai and the conservatives in power in the LDP, but just how great a divide is unclear. What is clear is that for now it is politically expendient for LDP officials to defend the status quo on security policy, and, moreover, Ozawa's off-the-cuff remarks notwithstanding, the DPJ is hardly offering a radical departure from the status quo.

Despite Koike's desire for a national security election, the forthcoming general election will resemble the last general election, focusing on pensions, health, jobs, and overall confidence in the ruling party.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sailing to Somalia

Two Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) destroyers, the Sazanami, last mentioned on this blog when she paid a visit to China last year, and the Samidare, have departed from Kure naval base in Hiroshima prefecture for a four-month tour patrolling for pirates off the horn of Africa. The destroyers are expected to arrive in theater April 5.

The destroyers were dispatched on the basis of an emergency order by the cabinet, which, as I have mentioned previously, the government can do according to Article 82 of the SDF law. At the same time, however, the cabinet has approved an anti-piracy bill to the Diet to put the mission on surer footing. According to the cabinet resolution on the mission and the accompanying bill, the dispatch is to protect Japanese lives and property and ensure public security and order on the high seas.

In short, the Sazanami and the Samidare leave behind a delicate political situation.

The bill that will go before the Diet explicitly permits the MSDF to defend non-Japanese ships at sea and clarifies measures that can be taken by the MSDF to combat piracy. As of now, the MSDF will be permitted to use force in cases of legitimate self-defense, permitting the destroyers to fire warning shots and shots at the hull of pirate ships encountered.

How will the DPJ respond to the government's bill? Nakagawa Hidenao thinks that DPJ members like Nagashima Akihisa, who strongly approved the mission, will lose out to the DPJ left wing (and the SDPJ and PNP, possible DPJ coalition partners). I think there is reason to doubt Nakagawa's assessment.

First, public opinion is strongly in favor of the dispatch. A recently conducted Cabinet survey on the JSDF and defense affairs found that 63.2% of respondents thought that the JSDF should deal with the piracy problem. (The survey concerns more than just the Somalia mission, but I will comment on it at length in a separate post, once I've read it in its entirety.) Sankei suggests that the defense ministry has concluded that the public is favorable to the mission because they recognize the importance of maritime security for Japan. As Prime Minister Aso said in his statement on the cabinet resolution, "Japan is surrounded by ocean, and, moreover, the importance of foreign trade is high because it is dependent on imports for most major resources. The security of ships at sea is extremely important for the Japanese economic system and way-of-life."

Aso's statement mentions a number of other reasons why Japan is contributing ships to the multinational coalition — Japan's responsibilities as a member of the international community, the fact that the multinational coalition is acting under a UN Security Council resolution, and the participation of other major powers, including China, in the coalition — but the thread that runs through it all is the importance of this mission for Japan's national security.

It is for this reason that Ozawa Ichiro and the DPJ will not stand in the way of the cabinet bill. The DPJ will gain little from opposing a mission that the public recognizes is in the national interest, and may even suffer if it is seen as obstructing the government's plans for political reasons. Moreover, if the DPJ opposes the government's legislation, it will show itself to be indifferent to its own principles, which may cost the party public support. As I argued recently, there is a lowest-common-denominator position on foreign and security policy within the DPJ, the product of an agreement between Ozawa and former Socialist Yokomichi Takahiro. One plank of the agreement recognizes the legitimacy of JSDF dispatch provided there is a UN mandate. As Aso noted, Japan is acting in accordance with Resolution 1816. If Ozawa means what he says, he should support this mission.

I suspect the party will question the government, making a show of demanding accountability from the government, and then concede.

What does this dispatch tell us about the state of Japan's national security posture?

Far from being an example of rising Japan, the amount of time Japan took to undertake this mission shows the degree of deliberation with which the government treats every security issue that occurs. Instead of leaping at an opportunity for dispatching forces to participate in a highly visible mission abroad, the government proceeded gingerly.

Indeed, this mission was an easy test for Japan. Participation was overdetermined — participation enables Japan to secure its national interests, and demonstrate its willingness to be an upstanding global citizen and active participant in UN-mandated security missions. It is a high-profile mission in terms of the global media coverage of piracy, meaning that Japan would bear reputational costs for not participating. China was quick to participate, putting pressure on Japan to act lest it appear to be yielding a leadership position to its Asian rival. And the mission is wholly unrelated to the US-Japan alliance, which otherwise complicates Japan's security decisionmaking.

If anything, the fact that it took so long for Japan to commit despite these factors militating in favor of dispatch suggests that Japan is still a long way from being "normal." And I wonder whether it will ever get there. Despite considerable public support for the mission, the Japanese public is still, according to the defense ministry, more moved by the "national interest" dimension than any other component. Given that Japan's national interest in many cases justifies inaction, missions like this one may continue to be the exception rather than the norm for Japanese security policy.

The Japanese people is clearly more open to such missions than before, but the question is no longer about the distance from where Japan used to be, but the destination where Japanese security policy is heading. Regarding this question, this mission tells us little other than that the Japanese people are sensitive to Japan's national security, even as far afield as Africa, but we don't know exactly how sensitive they are, especially closer to Japanese shores, in thornier cases than fighting pirates.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Unpacking the DPJ's divisions

Curzon at Coming Anarchy looks at a couple recent statements by DPJ officials and concludes that the DPJ suffers from cognitive dissonance.

He also suggests that I believe that the Obama administration plans to create an alliance "focused solely on joint security declarations." If he read my post on the subject more carefully, he'd notice I believe in precisely the opposite, that the 1996 alliance has been characterized more by joint declarations and symbolic gestures than by substantive transformation of the alliance and that the Obama administration, insofar as it has a Japan policy, will try to move away from token security contributions and flighty rhetoric about shared values and shared interests to substantive cooperation, even if it doesn't involve Japan's self-defense forces.

But let me turn to the point of his post. Does the DPJ suffer from cognitive dissonance?

First, I think it is best not to anthropomorphize a political party. In other words, individuals suffer cognitive dissonance; parties, as collections of individual politicians, have contested interests or policies. This difference is essential. Curzon seems to imply that parties should have more or less coherent policy approaches, that the party's statement of principles or policy platform, once enunciated, binds its members and creates, in a sense, a corporate identity for the party. In theory there should be no problem with this: this party the hawks, that one the doves, this party the capitalists, that party the socialists, and so on.

But does it ever work this way in practice, especially since socialism lost its authority, muddling the distinctions between left and right? Looking solely at the Japanese party system, the ambiguities of the DPJ's policy positions — such as they exist (more on this momentarily) — are a product of Japan's messy party system, not a cause of it.

Why is this the case?

First, arguably in a political system in which one party has dominated as long as the LDP has, valence issues — defined by Donald Stokes as "[issues] that merely involve the linking of the parties with some condition that is positively or negatively valued by the electorate," in contrast with position issues, which concern policy alternatives — will most likely take precedence over position issues in the competition for power between the governing party and the opposition. Simply by having been in government for more than fifty years, the LDP's performance in government is the issue. Its ability to formulate and implement policy, its relationship with the public, its relationship with the bureaucracy: these issues are all connected to the LDP's fitness for government but have little to do with policy per se. Debate over administrative reform, for example, has less to do with the content of reform (although one can easily find LDP members who oppose it) than with the LDP's ability to deliver on its promises. Similarly, both parties claim to want to formulate policy on the basis of the concerns of the people. Who can be opposed to that? The question is which party is best able to follow through on the pledge. On the one hand the DPJ may be an unknown quantity, but on the other hand the LDP is known all too well.

But arguably valence issues also take precedence over position issues for reasons having to do with the LDP's own ambiguities. Curzon describes the DPJ as a "motley crew of socialists, right-wingers, and free market liberals," but that could just as easily describe the LDP. Of course the LDP doesn't literally have socialists in the sense of former Socialist Party members, but is the LDP's old guard all that different from the old left? The LDP is no less motley than the DPJ, and may even be more motley. We can ascertain the confusion within the LDP by the complaints its ideologues make about the party. Nakagawa Hidenao, a leading Koizumian reformist, ceaselessly calls for a new LDP that will break from the LDP's tradition of governing hand in hand with the hated bureaucracy. Meanwhile, further to the right there have been no shortage of complaints from conservative LDP members and intellectuals about the LDP's not being a truly conservative party. Hence the Hiranuma-Abe-Nakagawa (Shoichi)-Aso study group in pursuit of a "true" conservatism. Hence Hiranuma Takeo's ongoing talk about creating a new conservative party as a third force in Japanese politics. Some of this talk was linked to Fukuda Yasuo's premiership, of course, which only goes to show that the conservatives love the LDP only when one of their own is in charge, i.e. someone like Abe Shinzo or Aso Taro. LDP members who belong to these two ideological tendencies are woefully unhappy with the LDP as it exists today, but both groups appear to prefer staying in the party and battling for control to building new parties.

In addition to the LDP's internal divisions, there is also the matter of LDP governments' being adept at lifting policies from the opposition, making it more difficult for opposition parties to compete with the LDP on policy terms.

The same dynamic is at work today. There is arguably a national agenda, with little disagreement that the government, regardless of which party is in power, has to shrink the national debt, fix the health, pensions, and welfare system, revitalize stagnant regions, and now, above all else, get the economy growing again. While there are different proposals for addressing each of these problems, the disagreements are more in degree than in kind, and are as often within parties as between parties. The disagreements between the LDP and the DPJ are by and large not ideological, now that even the Koizumian reformists are doing their best to not look like Thatcherite neo-liberals. (It bears mentioning that behind the aforementioned issues lurk cultural issues like immigration, and women's and minorities' rights, about which there is little consensus in either party and surely neither the LDP nor the DPJ would like to make central issues in an election campaign.)

As such, the concerns about a lack of policy differentiation between the LDP and the DPJ are overblown. Parties do not need to fit the model of two large political parties sharply differentiated on ideological terms to have fruitful and intense competition.

Turning now to the question of the DPJ's divisions, analysts like Curzon often assert that the DPJ is divided, because its members come from different parties, but provide little evidence of how the DPJ is divided. I don't deny the party's divisions, but it seems to me that analysts often assert these divisions and move on to other matters instead of providing proper elaboration of what they mean.

In some ways the DPJ's divisions are similar to the LDP's: the party's young reformists fret about Ozawa Ichiro, who they see as emblematic of the old LDP way of politics that they believe must be destroyed. But oftentimes this has less to do with policy and more to do with political style. This was my argument in a post regarding Maehara Seiji's mini-rebellion against Ozawa in June 2008, which I described as more a matter of Maehara's idealism in opposition to Ozawa's realism. Ozawa is the consummate fixer, as we've all been reminded in recent weeks, which means questionable fundraising ties, shadowy ties across party lines, leadership veiled in secrecy, and some creative accounting in policy proposals. By contrast, Maehara and his compatriots are idealistic almost to a fault. But I do not doubt that they share the goal of bringing down the LDP and uprooting the LDP-bureaucratic system of governance.

Meanwhile, analysts — myself included — often have little to say about the role of the DPJ's left wing. It is obligatory to mention that the party includes former socialists, but few seem to have much to say about the left's role within the DPJ. That may be in part because the DPJ's left wingers are simply less visible than the party's neo-conservatives, who are regulars on Japanese TV and frequently quoted by the domestic and foreign press. It may also be because the DPJ's left has made its peace with Ozawa. On economic policy, there is surely little for the left to be disappointed about: the DPJ is now, for better or worse, mildly anti-capitalist (cf. Ozawa's speech at this year's DPJ convention). As far as I can tell even the neo-conservatives are following along. I can't imagine Maehara would have as much praise for the Koizumi-Takenaka reforms today as he did last year. The party is running on a hybrid platform of old-style protection at home for workers and small- and medium-sized businesses, the creation of a new-style welfare state for the twenty-first century, and a relentless campaign to remake the bureaucracy.

Obviously foreign policy is a different matter entirely, as Curzon argues. Curzon is concerned above all with the vagueness of statements by Hatoyama and Ozawa. He's right to a certain extent, in that it is hard to tell just how these statements about a more equal alliance will translate into policy under a DPJ government. As he says, we will only learn if and when there is a DPJ government. At the same time, however, Ozawa's remarks — clearly more important to discerning a DPJ government's plans as long as Ozawa is still head of the party — are finely tuned to balance between the DPJ's left and the DPJ's right.

It is worth looking back to when Ozawa's Liberal Party merged with the DPJ in 2003. Recognizing that foreign policy had the potential to splinter the party, Ozawa and Yokomichi Takahiro, a onetime Socialist, agreed in 2004 to a list of foreign policy principles that included support for a UN standing army, Japanese participation in multinational UN-mandated coalitions (with some fudging on the precise details of Japan's participation), opposition to the dispatch of the JSDF abroad without UN approval, and the maintenance of Article 9. Arguably this agreement has survived intact. Ozawa has clearly strained against the boundaries of this agreement with some of his remarks on foreign policy (his call for armed Japanese intervention in Afghanistan were there to be a "proper" UN mandate, for example), exploiting some of the ambiguities in his non-binding agreement with Yokomichi, but even his "controversial" remarks about reducing the US presence in Japan to the Seventh Fleet with the JSDF picking up the slack for the defense of Japan are consistent with the terms of the agreement. Naturally the neo-conservatives would prefer to do whatever possible, but even they seem to be able to live within the terms of this agreement, even as DPJ members like Nagashima Akihisa argue for vigorous Japanese involvement in the multinational anti-pirate campaign off the horn of Africa.

It is fair to ask whether this entente would survive in Ozawa's absence. I doubt it would — hence my concerns about the Ozawa scandal — but in the meantime Ozawa has managed to strike a balance between the left and the right in the DPJ. Standing up to the US is something that everyone seems to be able to agree on, and doing so conveniently enables them to distinguish the DPJ from the LDP, which has to wear a crimson "B" for having worked alongside the Bush administration for eight years, for "showing the flag" and "putting boots on the ground" when the Bush administration went to war. Is this an uneasy balance? Without question. Is it largely symbolic? Absolutely. Should the DPJ win the general election and form a government, it will be in no position to act on what was not even a proper policy proposal from Ozawa, in part because of budgetary constraints, in part because of the long list of domestic problems that will demand the new government's attention. And facing the Obama administration instead of the Bush administration, a DPJ government will have a harder time saying no for the sake of saying no, especially if the Obama administration is smart and limits its requests to non-military requests, as Obama did when discussing Afghanistan with Aso last month.

For the time being, divisions within the DPJ are less of a concern than it would seem, provided that Ozawa survives this scandal. Even if Ozawa falls but is replaced by someone like Okada Katsuya, the DPJ's policy bargain could survive relatively untouched. While Okada inspires no particular adoration from the party's ranks, he would also not be the object of loathing that Ozawa is in certain corners of the party. Indeed, Sankei reports that the LDP and Komeito are afraid that Ozawa might pass the torch to Okada, who is younger and would deprive the LDP of its efforts to paint Ozawa as the ghost of the bad, old LDP (no small amount of irony there). Much as the DPJ would prefer to contest an election against Aso than anyone the LDP might find to replace him, so the LDP might rather have Ozawa as the face of the other side than any of the DPJ's younger politicians waiting in the wings.

The point is that the DPJ not perfect, but it is by no means as shambolic as the conventional wisdom suggests — or as shambolic as the LDP, for that matter. There is a fragile unity in the party, most likely a product of Ozawa's authority, the decline of constitution revision as a central issue in Japanese politics, the emergence of a broad national consensus on the most important issues facing the government, and, most importantly, the prospect of unseating the LDP, which has undoubtedly worked wonders for party unity. If the DPJ takes power, there will be missteps, mistakes, and u-turns, all of which are to be expected from an opposition party taking power for the first time. But that is no reason to dread a change of ruling party. If the DPJ manages to maintain this uneasy balance within the party and govern effectively, great. And if it doesn't, and it is unable to govern, leading to an electoral defeat, that would be good for Japan too. The very worst thing, however, would be the replace one deeply divided, unmanageable perpetual ruling party with another.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The age of austerity?

At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the Aso government reported that the five trips abroad Aso Taro took in the first five months of his government have cost Japan approximately 660 million yen. From September 2008 to January 2009, Aso went to New York to attend the opening of the UN general assembly (three days), Beijing for ASEM (two days), Washington, D.C. for the G20 meeting on the economic crisis (three days), Peru for the APEC summit (three days), and South Korea for a summit with President Lee Myung-bak (two days). (I recognize that counting days is difficult due to time spent in transit; I'm simply going by the prime minister's calendar.)

That comes to approximately 50.7 million yen per day of travel by the prime minister, or stimulus payments to 4200 citizens.

This figure does not include the prime minister's jaunt to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos (two days), his trip to Sakhalin (one day), and his Washington visit (two days), which have yet to be tabulated.

I think that given the state of Japan's finances, the Japanese people have a right to know what exactly they're getting for their money, other than the intangible sense that Japan still matters in the world.

But I think this is less a matter for Japan — after all, Japan can hardly be expected to stay away from the aforementioned summits — than for all countries, the developed countries in particular. What purpose does all this summitry serve? Did the G8 hosted by Japan last year accomplish anything that merited the expense to Japanese taxpayers? Will the G8 summit to be hosted by Italy later this year top that? Did last year's G20 meeting in Washington accomplish anything, and will the forthcoming meeting in London be any more effective? It bears asking whether all of this talking is worth the greenhouse gas emissions and the money for increasingly cash-strapped governments. (How much has Aso alone emitted in his travels?) I recognize that there is value in leaders meeting face to face, but just how much value, and are there substitutes for leaders jetting around the world as frequently as Aso has in his six months in office?

As Sam Roggeveen suggests at The Interpreter, austerity is in, at least when it comes to Barack Obama's meetings with foreign leaders.

All of this may be wishful thinking: what incentive do leaders — and the journalists who cover them — have to give up their foreign trips?

Nevertheless, it bears asking whether the prime minister and his counterparts should be free to travel at will or whether their itineraries should be vetted by the publics who pay their travel expenses. At the very least, Aso's appearance at Davos this year ought to be the last by a Japanese prime minister, if it was not the last WEF meeting altogether.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Time to go to the bullpen?

Looking at the debate in the DPJ over whether Ozawa Ichiro should be forced to step down, a metaphor — appropriate for this time of year — comes to mind:

The Pedro incident.

Boston Red Sox fans will undoubtedly know what I'm talking about, but for everyone else, the Pedro Incident occurred in the deciding Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, with the Red Sox leading the New York Yankees 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning. Pedro Martinez — the Boston ace — was pitching for the Sox, quickly gave up a run and then continued to struggle to get Yankee batters out. Red Sox manager Grady Little went out to talk to the clearly faltering Pedro, but decided to keep him in the game.

The Yankees scored two more runs in the eighth and won the game in the eleventh on a home run by Aaron Boone.

Five outs away from a World Series appearance — again, apologies to non-baseball fans, but until 2004 the Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918 — the Red Sox folded after their manager stuck with his ace pitcher for too long.

I cannot help but wonder whether this will prove to be an apt analogy for the DPJ in 2009. Enjoying a sizeable lead in the polls for months leading up to the general election against the LDP, which enjoys a winning record that puts the Yankees to shame, the DPJ has had momentum on its side. The LDP has been buffeted by bad news of every kind and many, if not most of its members are desperate to change leaders one more time before an election. Ozawa has without question been the DPJ's ace, working hard to boost the party's presence in rural areas in which it has struggled in the past, getting his fractious party to unify behind a lowest-common-denominator manifesto, and bringing his critics into the party leadership to make the DPJ's quest for power a team effort.

But with the arrest of his lieutenant, Ozawa, like Pedro Martinez, may have taken the DPJ as far as he can — and should he stay on longer, he could wind up being responsible for an LDP comeback to rival the Yankees' comeback in 2003.

MTC sees the first hints of the LDP rally in a pair of television polls that showed sizeable and surely significant jumps in support for the Aso government that were absent in the newspaper polls published over the weekend. Nakagawa Hidenao, former LDP secretary-general and leading LDP reformist, is ebullient over findings that independent voters are turning from the DPJ in opinion polls in response to the arrest, and is convinced that if only the LDP can change to embrace his "new LDP" vision, the LDP will sweep up the independents and win the general election. DPJ members are starting to fret that perhaps Ozawa will be unable to hold the lead; Asahi reports that DPJ representatives, home for the weekend, heard complaints from voters about the discrepancy between Ozawa's explanation and official reports, and as the polls overwhelmingly showed, voters believe the official reports more than they believe Ozawa. And they wonder why Ozawa hasn't apologized yet.

The DPJ leadership — playing the part of Grady Little — continues to back Ozawa. Ozawa met with the party's executive Tuesday morning and insisted once again on his innocence, which the party leaders continue to accept, at least according to Asahi.

But how long will they stay with their ace, and how long is too long? What point in Game 7 is the DPJ at now? The start of the eighth inning, after the Yankees scored to narrow the Red Sox lead to two? Or has the DPJ already passed the point of no return, like Grady Little after his visit to the mound to talk with his pitcher? If the DPJ waits until Okubo confesses or is found guilty and sentenced, will that be too late to save the party before the general election? Is Okada Katsuya or another potential party leader ready to step in now? If the party acts now, while Ozawa continues to insist upon his innocence, will the party render a guilty verdict in the court of public opinion, with consequences for the DPJ itself? Meanwhile, if Ozawa is forced out before further developments in the Okubo case, will the DPJ be sitting down its ace while he is still of some use to the party? After all, if rural voters are as happy to receive the largesse of the government as MTC speculates, it is hard to see who the DPJ has who will be able to replace Ozawa in his ability to compete for those rural votes.

It is hard to see how this will end well for the DPJ. Like the Red Sox in 2003, the DPJ will surely fight hard until the general election. After all, the Red Sox held on into the eleventh. But the DPJ has let the LDP back into the game.

Regardless of which team wins, however, I fear that for the Japanese people there will surely be no joy in Mudville after the latest turn of events.

(After all this baseball talk, I would be remiss if I didn't direct you to The Tokyo Yakult Swallows blog run by Ken Worsley and Garrett DeOrio of Trans-Pacific Radio. They've been providing handy summaries of World Baseball Classic games, for which I'm grateful.)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The space between Ozawa and the DPJ

The first round of polls following last week's arrest of Okubo Toshinori, Ozawa Ichiro's secretary, has been released, and not surprisingly there are few bright spots for Ozawa and the DPJ.

Oddly enough, the most favorable poll for Ozawa was the Sankei/Fuji News Network poll, which despite Sankei's having pulled out all stops to push for Ozawa to resign following the arrest found that 47.4% of respondents thought Ozawa should resign, compared with 41.4% who thought there was no reason for him to resign. The same poll did record a slight drop in support for the DPJ and a larger drop in the number of respondents who thought that Ozawa would be most appropriate as prime minister (although he still maintains a slight lead over Aso Taro).

Other polls contain worse news for Ozawa. Asahi's poll found that 57% of respondents thought Ozawa should resign, compared to only 26% who supported his staying on as DPJ leader. But despite that, Ozawa still enjoyed a ten-point margin in response to the question of who would make the most appropriate prime minister, despite losing twelve points. Similarly, for 56% of respondents the scandal has not worsened their image of the DPJ, compared with 40% of respondents for whom it has.

Kyodo's poll — discussed in this Sankei article — found that 61% of respondents think Ozawa should go, but Kyodo too found that Ozawa still remains preferable to Aso, and, more significantly, that a DPJ-centered government remains preferable to an LDP-centered government.

Mainichi's poll noted a similar pattern, although 73% of respondents prefer neither Ozawa nor Aso as prime minister.

Meanwhile in all the polls the Aso cabinet's support remained at abysmal levels, although some polls recorded a slight improvement.

There is actually good news for the DPJ in all of these polls, namely that the public appears to be able to separate the DPJ from its leader in a way that it can't (or won't) do for the the LDP and its leader. Perhaps, oddly enough, the DPJ is protected by the ubiquitous image of Ozawa as "old LDP." Perhaps voters are able to separate "old LDP" Ozawa in their minds, chiding the DPJ for employing his services without assuming that the DPJ equals Ozawa. The gap may be temporary, particularly if the press keeps up its relentless campaign to force Ozawa out, but it does suggest that the DPJ could still be victorious with Ozawa at the helm. It might not be pretty — the young reformists will surely do everything in their power to distance themselves from Ozawa — but DPJ members may be able to inoculate themselves from their party leader in a way that LDP members wish they could. For example, Asao Keiichiro, shadow defense minister (and my former boss), said on TV Saturday that if it turns out that Ozawa knew about the Nishimatsu donations, "he's out." This is the same message delivered by Hatoyama Yukio on NHK Sunday, when he suggested that if new information comes to light, Ozawa's resignation may be unavoidable.

This approach is sound: let reformist candidates distance themselves from Ozawa, dampen overt talk about who should replace him (potential successors like Okada Katsuya have been quiet through the scandal), and if Ozawa ultimately has no choice but to step down, minimize the collateral damage to DPJ candidates and hope for an orderly transition. In the meantime, let Ozawa do what he does best: visit with candidates in places where voters will be more indifferent to the cloud of scandal trailing Ozawa. It is far from the ideal of a two-party system with two centralized, top-down parties with strong leaders and clear policy agendas vying for majorities, but there is little in Japanese politics that resembles the ideal.

The DPJ is still in an enviable position for an opposition party within months of a general election. The LDP is utterly incapable of exploiting Ozawa's troubles, weighed down by the albatross that is Prime Minister Aso. Sankei reports that Koike Yuriko is ramping up efforts in a bid to replace Aso in advance of a general election, which I suspect may be more wishful thinking on the part of Sankei than evidence of a serious campaign on Koike's part. Does she really want to take the helm of the party now, in the face of certain defeat? It seems more likely to me that she is positioning herself to be the inevitable leader in the aftermath of the general election, when a broken LDP might be willing to countenance an unconventional leader like Koike. But now? I still have a hard time seeing Aso step down willingly before a general election, and despite the desperation of LDP leaders I think Koike will have a hard time convincing them that she is the answer to their problems.

There may yet be more bad news to come for Ozawa and the DPJ, but if nothing more is forthcoming — if the media is starved of innuendo with which to pressure Ozawa — than the DPJ may be able to contain the damage and press forward. This is far from the best of scenarios, but in campaigning or in governing the DPJ may be unable to do better than Ozawa.

Change you can believe in? Far from it. But a DPJ government — even under Ozawa — would still be a step in the right direction.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Murky outlook for the general election

There is no question now that the outlook for the next general election — which a growing number of LDP officials are reportedly arguing should be held after dissolving the Diet in May — is muddier than before. The scandal in Ozawa Ichiro's political organization has overshadowed all else, including the re-passage this week of the budget-related expenditures bill for the second 2008 supplementary budget (and Koizumi Junichiro's absence from the vote).

After his press conference Wednesday, Ozawa has been silent, but everyone else is talking. Everyone that is, except Prime Minister Aso Taro, who refused to comment Thursday when asked about the DPJ response that the arrest was politically motivated. As expected, Aso has decided to stay above the fray, leaving the political point-scoring to his party. Aso reportedly told his chief cabinet secretary not to be gleeful about the arrest.

The battle lines are clear: the DPJ will do all it can to make this a story about the abuse of power and anti-democratic behavior by an organ of the state, while the LDP will do all it can to keep the focus on the charges, whether or not Okubo is found guilty. The chiefs of the LDP's factions spent Thursday defending the honor of the Tokyo district public prosecutor's office. Machimura Nobutaka, for example, stated that the past arrest of LDP power brokers bears witness to the office's "strict neutrality." (Although Jiji notes that Ibuki Bunmei dissented from his colleagues and stated that it is "shameful" to revel in the non-policy mistakes of a rival. How decent of him.)

Kawamura Takeo, the chief cabinet secretary, was equally scandalized by the DPJ's argument that the prosecutor's office was underhanded, proclaiming, "Japan is a mature constitutional state — it's impossible that the government would even think of such things as a politically motivated investigation." There is, of course, a logical fallacy in that statement. Most would see the United States as a "mature constitutional state" and yet this week it came out that the CIA destroyed 92 videotapes of interrogations that might have involved torture.

Meanwhile, the LDP cannot be too smug about Ozawa's troubles, as some LDP politicians, including cabinet members Ishiba Shigeru and Noda Seiko, have realized. The public hasn't forgotten about the LDP's own ties with the construction industry, and it's learning about ties between LDP politicians and Nishimatsu Construction in the wake of the Okubo arrest. Mori Yoshiro has indicated that his political support group will return 3 million Japanese yen in donations from a group connected to Nishimatsu. More significantly, Nikai Toshihiro, METI minister in the Aso cabinet, has announced that his faction will return 8.38 million yen, the amount that two Nishimatsu-connected political groups purchased in tickets to faction parties from 2004-2006 (although the groups through which the money was funneled no longer exist, raising the question of who will receive the money, if anyone). Mori and Nikai are presumably not alone among senior politicians who have received money from Nishimatsu. Has anyone taken a look at the accounts of Aso's koenkai?

Things may yet take a turn for the worse for Ozawa, as Jun Okumura argues here. But for the moment the situation appears to have stabilized. The government remains unpopular and mired in the need to respond to the economic crisis. The LDP would like to go on the offensive, but is constrained by its own shady ties and is thus left merely defending the prosecutor's office from DPJ accusations. The DPJ has suffered a public relations blow, but Ozawa still has enough of the party's leaders behind him to soldier on barring a conviction or new evidence coming to light that directly implicates Ozawa in the scandal. The DPJ probably still holds the upper hand in a general election, but this may cut into its margin of victory. And the press, led by Sankei, is doing the best it can to keep this story in the news. (For those interested, Sankei has published two more parts in its ongoing exposé on Ozawa's DPJ.) Shokun!, the conservative monthly that announced this week that it will be shutting down after its June issue, chipped in with a short piece discussing how Ozawa treats Japanese democracy with contempt by refusing to appear in the Diet.

What does seem clear is that this general election will be a peculiar election, in that it won't be a single election. Unlike in the past, the most heated competition between the LDP and the DPJ as parties will be in rural districts where Ozawa and the party leadership has devoted the bulk of their attention. Meanwhile, in urban districts LDP and DPJ candidates will both be running against their parties, distancing themselves from Aso and Ozawa respectively and emphasizing their reformist credentials. Yomiuri quotes Nagashima Akihisa as telling his koenkai that he wants to believe that Ozawa is innocent, but he is prepared to reverse his judgment if new facts come to light. I am guessing that Nagashima is not alone among the DPJ's urban candidates.

Thanks to Ozawa, the DPJ may not be able to take the support of urban voters for granted in the forthcoming election, which means that, interestingly, the biggest winners in the Ozawa scandal may be the LDP's reformist candidates who not too long ago were despondent about their electoral prospects. They still have to distance themselves from their party, but now their DPJ rivals will have to work equally hard to distance themselves from Ozawa.

The election may come down to which party's reformists can most distance themselves from their party's leader.