Thursday, July 29, 2010

What can the Yakuza explain anyway?

Having read and enjoyed Jacob Adelstein's Tokyo Vice, it was with considerable interest that I read his article "The Last Yakuza" in the World Policy Journal (h/t to Corey Wallace).

Like Wallace, I have no particular expertise with which to assess the role played by the Yakuza in Japanese society. But also like him, I am skeptical about what political outcomes we can actually attribute to organized crime.

In brief, Adelstein argues that after decades of deep ties to the LDP — which organizations didn't have deep ties to the LDP when it was Japan's hegemonic ruling party? — leading Yakuza organizations have shifted their allegiances to the DPJ as it took control of the upper house in 2007 and then the lower house and with it the cabinet in 2009.

The main consequence of this shift, Adelstein suggests, is that the Hatoyama cabinet included Kamei Shizuka, head of the People's New Party, who is known to have links to organized crime. Without questioning those links, I think there is a far simpler explanation for Kamei's presence in the Hatoyama government, an explanation that does not require any reference to the Yakuza. Wanting to streamline decision making in the new coalition government, the DPJ included both Kamei and his SDPJ counterpart Fukushima Mizuho in the cabinet and created a special cabinet committee to coordinate policy among the ruling parties. Kamei, I think, was there so as to concentrate coalition negotiations within the government. The ease with which Kan Naoto cut Kamei loose once he challenged the new prime minister suggests that repaying the Yakuza was low on the DPJ's list of priorities when it came to Kamei.

But this case raises the larger question asked in the title of this post: what does the Yakuza explain anyway? What political outcome over the past half-century or so of Japanese politics is different because of the influence of the Yakuza in Japanese politics?

The most obvious answer is that the pervasive influence of the Yakuza explains the impunity with which gangsters have been able to act since the end of the war (which makes the 1992 anti-organized crime law mentioned by Adelstein a puzzle worth explaining).

But what about bigger questions? The durability of LDP rule? The rise and fall of prime ministers? Foreign policy and relations with the U.S.? What is different because of the Yakuza's power? What can the Yakuza explain that other theories cannot? I suspect not much. It's possible that gangsters may have influenced the outcome of LDP leadership elections during the former ruling party's heyday, given the shady pasts of some leading LDP politicians and the wholly opaque manner in which the LDP selected its leaders for much of its history. If it were possible to identify prime ministers who came to power only because of Yakuza support, it would perhaps be possible to identify indirect consequences of Yakuza influence, but as Adelstein's own career shows, becoming a Yakuza expert requires time, energy, and no small risk to one's person — all for exploring what may be nothing more than an auxiliary explanation.

That's not to say that the Yakuza are of no interest to political scientists who study Japan. One question worth addressing is why the Yakuza are so pervasive in the first place, at which point attention naturally turns to Italy, that other Axis power occupied by and then allied with the United States (which failed to purge and in fact developed links with far-right elements) and governed by a hegemonic conservative party for the duration of the cold war. Additionally, it may be fruitful to study the Yakuza in comparison with other interest groups that had long supported the LDP only to watch their fortunes wane during the lost decade(s). After all, Yakuza groups are interest groups, of a sort: interested in the regulation of organized crime. Like other interest groups, they had to adjust their political strategies in response to uncertain political and economic environments.

As such, while the Yakuza are an unlikely explanation for major political outcomes in Japan, they are a part of the landscape and observers should be cognizant of their role. For that we are lucky that Adelstein is working so hard to expose the inner workings of Japanese organized crime.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The 2006 roadmap's impasses

In the wake of its defeat the Kan government has made it patently clear that the Hatoyama government's "ratification" of the 2006 realignment plan was nothing of the sort — it is now saying that it will be impossible to complete negotiations before Okinawan gubernatorial election in November. The government once again is considering alternatives to the V-shaped runways to be built at Henoko bay, and is reluctant to impose a solution on the Okinawan people.

But, as the Wall Street Journal reports, American domestic politics is emerging as a new constraint on implementing the 2006 agreement. Both houses of Congress have voted to cut funding for the construction on Guam that is necessary to prepare the island to receive the 8,000 Marines and their dependents that according to the plan will move from Okinawa to Guam in 2014.
Congressional staff members said the problems in building new facilities for the Marines in Guam loomed even larger than the politics in Japan in their decision to cut funding.

The Senate appropriations committee said they remained concerned about Guam’s inadequate water, electrical, road and sewer infrastructure — and said inadequate planning had gone in to preparing for the nonmilitary aspects of the move.

The House Appropriation Committee report echoed the Senate findings about Guam, and said it had made the cuts because of the Defense Department’s “inability to address numerous concerns about the sustainability of the buildup as currently planned.”
These budget cuts come more than two years after the US government's Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the Defense Department the the US military for dragging its feet on the Guam end of the realignment plan and suggested that it was unlikely that the 2014 target would be met — and not because of Japanese politics. In late 2008 Admiral Timothy Keating, then the commander of US Pacific Command, acknowledged that the plan would most likely not be executed on schedule, citing budgetary concerns.

Corey Wallace is right to point to Washington's hypocrisy — for all of Washington's hand-wringing about political instability in Japan, the reality of the 2006 agreement was that the domestic political conditions concerning the agreement in both countries were at best complicated, and at worse impassable. For the realignment to go forward on schedule, the US government would have to secure the support of the people of Guam and Congress would have to budget a tremendous amount of money to improve the island's infrastructure, while Tokyo secured the support of communities in Okinawa and budget for the Futenma replacement facility and the construction underway on Guam.

In the rush to get something committed to paper, the Bush administration and the LDP have left the alliance with a festering sore, an agreement that looks all but unimplementable, has eroded trust between Washington and Tokyo, and mortally wounded the DPJ in its ten months in office. Considering these costs, it is remarkable that the Obama administration has clung so tenaciously to this Bush administration legacy. Is there anything in American foreign policy making to rival the much-vaunted bipartisan consensus on Japan?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

What next for the LDP?

With the exit polls suggesting that the LDP will edge out the DPJ in this election and recover some of its strength in the upper house, it is worth asking what will be the consequences of victory for the LDP.

Most obviously, LDP leader Tanigaki Sadakazu will have a new lease on his position, delaying generational change within the LDP for a bit longer. 

Generally speaking, the LDP's old guardsmen will be able to use this vote as vindication for their resistance for anything more than superficial reform to the party. If the Diet does indeed remain twisted — if the DPJ is not able to cobble together a coalition that would swing control back to the government — the LDP will be sorely tempted to use the upper house's powers to harass the government instead of focusing on internal reform and revitalizing the party's policies.

Of course, an electoral victory against a hobbled DPJ is by no means a vindication of the LDP's approach. The party's reformers may have been better off had the LDP lost.

Twisted again

The various newspapers are reporting that according to exit polls, the DPJ won somewhere between forty-three and fifty-one seats, falling short of the total needed to preserve control of the upper house.

Once again the Diet is "twisted," barring the formation of a new coalition that enables the DPJ to retake control of the upper house.

Adamu is living blogging the returns at Mutantfrog here. I won't necessarily be live blogging, but I will be updating intermittently.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Is Ozawa back?

If there is one lesson that this upper house campaign has taught us, it is a lesson that we all should have already learned: there is no stopping Ozawa Ichirō. Despite what looked like a marvelous coup by Hatoyama Yukio in getting Ozawa to step down as DPJ secretary-general, Ozawa has been a public critic of the Kan government throughout the campaign.

However, is Ozawa's criticism of the government — he's been particularly harsh about the Kan government's comments about raising the consumption tax to 10%, which he argues with plenty of justification that the government has made life more difficult for DPJ candidates — the prelude to Ozawa's being a thorn in Kan's side after the election (as Yuka Hayashi suggests in this post at the Wall Street Journal's Japan Realtime)?

It is tempting to see Ozawa's remarks as the beginning of an Ozawa-led anti-mainstream within the DPJ that will force the Kan government to make further concessions to party backbenchers when it comes to policymaking, particular if the DPJ falls short of a majority on Sunday.
Working in Kan's favor, however, is that he has government and party leadership united behind him. United in their opposition to Ozawa's influence, Kan's leadership team already looks more effective than the Hatoyama-Ozawa team, missteps regarding the consumption tax notwithstanding. More importantly, Kan has already made concessions to the party's backbenchers, giving them a vehicle for having their voices heard by the cabinet. Ozawa's concerns about the government's abandoning last year's manifesto would carry more weight if the Kan government had not already begun working on a mechanism for incorporating the concerns of backbenchers into government decision making. Furthermore, there are few signs that Ozawa is any less unpopular now than he was before resigning as secretary-general — or that MPs are keen on preserving every piece of the 2009 manifesto. While there are still concerns that Ozawa stands at the head of a proto-faction that could number more than 100 members, I wonder how many members Ozawa can actually count on to back him. How many backbenchers would be willing to buck the new party regime to stand with Ozawa? It is worth noting that few senior party members have echoed Ozawa's critique of the Kan government.

That's not to say that party members are happy with how the government has handled the consumption tax issue over the past month. The understandable desire to give the voters a chance to render judgment on the Kan government's new approach to the consumption tax likely forced the government to roll out the proposal before properly vetting it with party members, which in turn led the government to back away from its initial position, ironically damaging the position of the government and the DPJ even further.

But backbencher dissatisfaction does not automatically translate into support for Ozawa. Far from signaling the beginning of an Ozawa-led anti-mainstream, Ozawa's behavior during the campaign could signal a new role for Ozawa as an internal critic, concerned less with vying for control of the party than with keeping the party on what he sees as the right path. It seems to me that the Kan government could live with Ozawa's moving into this role.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Facing constraints in the alliance

Prime Minister Kan Naoto had his debut on the world stage at the G20 meeting in Toronto this week. While in Toronto he had his first meeting with US President Barack Obama.

As Reuters notes, Kan met with Obama for a half-hour, considerably more time than Hatoyama got when he visited Washington in April (when Hatoyama was infamously described as "loopy"). The two leaders apparently discussed their shared love of matcha ice cream, and the Japanese media looked for signs that the two were becoming pals, looking for evidence that the relationship between the US and Japan was back on track after the Hatoyama government "strained" the bilateral relationship.

Meanwhile at gatherings in Washington to commemorate the "fiftieth anniversary" of the alliance (depending on when one chooses the date the birth of the alliance), the mood, according to Peter Ennis, was relatively upbeat following Hatoyama's decision to embrace a version of the status quo regarding Futenma and his subsequent resignation. Ennis says that the theme was "emphasize the positive."

All well and good, but as far as I can tell the alliance is right back to where it was 2007-2009, with the only difference being that the Japanese government is openly confronting the problems surrounding the implementation of the 2006 roadmap.

As I've argued before, the collapse of the Abe government in 2007 was more than just a spectacular reversal for the LDP — it marked the end of the bilateral "project" that grew out of the Nye Initiative in the mid-1990s to build a stronger, closer US-Japan alliance. After rewriting the guidelines on defense cooperation, securing (token) Japanese contributions to the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, and develop a new "shared values" rationale for the alliance, the project ran squarely into the wall of political realities in Japan and in the region.

Regarding the former, when faced with a government that was dead set on constitution revision, it turned out that the Japanese public was not all that interested in it, no matter what years of Yomiuri Shimbun polls said (although revisionist politicians apparently missed the polls that showed that very few felt that constitution revision was an issue deserving of the attention of national leaders). More than that, there are few signs that the Japanese public is interested in anything but the status quo as far as security policy is concerned. In other words, the status quo in which Japan spends less and less each year on defense while playing host to forward-deployed US forces. While public opinion polls are at best ambiguous regarding Japan's former refueling mission in the Indian Ocean or its ongoing anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa, the public isn't exactly clamoring for a more expansive role abroad for the SDF. Nor does there seem to be much support for collective self-defense, another remaining piece of the project.
Now, of course, it's the job of the government to lead — indeed, dating back at least to the early 1990s the idea behind the administrative reforms at the heart of the DPJ's program was that it would produce more decisive leadership, especially in foreign and security affairs. But realistically speaking, it is unlikely that a government committed to a controversial fiscal retrenchment agenda will simultaneously pursue a foreign policy agenda that would if anything be more controversial, especially in light of the domestic agenda.

The result is an unusual parallel to the Yoshida Doctrine, which, incidentally, Ambassador Katō Ryozō, who before serving as ambassador to the US for the whole of the Bush administration was deeply involved in the project to strengthen the alliance, recently declared had "completed its mission." Today Japan finds itself in a position where it needs an alliance with the US based on the forward deployment of troops not to free up resources for re-industrialization but so that it can weather its demographic plight and economic decline. The resulting arrangement looks the same, but the underlying logic is strikingly different — and remarkably fragile, resting as it does on the strength of the US commitment to Asia, the willingness of the Japanese taxpayer to provide host-nation support (and Okinawan and other communities to host US forces), and the restraint of the People's Republic of China.

In fairness, policymakers in both countries seem to recognize that this arrangement is less than ideal. For example, two years before he became known within US-Japan circles for issuing a warning to the Hatoyama government not to challenge the 2006 agreement, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a speech in Tokyo calling for a review of the alliance that would seek to answer basic questions about its raison d'etre. 

But no one has taken up Gates's call, perhaps in large part because there are no easy answers to the challenges that face the alliance. Japan's domestic political environment shows no signs of changing (at least as far as the alliance is concerned), and the political environment could even worsen if the ruling parties fall short of a majority in the upper house. While China occasionally acts in ways that could trigger a shift in Japanese public opinion, on the whole China has been restrained, meaning that Japan will continue to seek a constructive partnership with China. There are no signs that the US commitment to regional security is wavering, but given the state of the US economy it is impossible to rule out an isolationist turn (fears of which naturally lead Japan and other countries in the region to consider their options).

In other words, the new project for the alliance is learning to accept and make the best of these constraints. As leaders of both countries say, the alliance continues to play an important role in providing peace and security in the region, but the idea that the alliance could be something more than a "passive" or negative force for peace (what, after all, could be more passive than oxygen, Joseph Nye's commonly used metaphor for the US presence in Asia), that it could play a creative role in promoting US values or reshaping the regional security environment appears to be increasingly fanciful. The alliance may well survive for decades to come, but its survival — and the form it takes — may depend less on decisions made in Washington and Tokyo than on decisions made in Beijing.