Monday, August 30, 2010

Talking Ozawa and the economy on CNBC Asia

I was on CNBC Asia's Asia Squawkbox today to talk about the Ozawa situation and the state of economic policy.

Oddly enough, I was on CNBC Asia one year ago exactly talking about the DPJ's victory the previous day. What a difference a year makes.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ozawa's last stand?

"All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs." — Enoch Powell
Returning to his familiar role as Ozawa Ichirō's trusty factotum, former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio announced Thursday that he will be supporting Ozawa in a bid to unseat Prime Minister Kan Naoto in next month's DPJ party leadership election. Ozawa himself has yet to make an official announcement, but much like when Hatoyama was DPJ secretary-general under Ozawa, Ozawa conveyed his intentions to Hatoyama, and Hatoyama revealed them to the public. Naturally Hatoyama's backing Ozawa after earlier indicating his support for Kan is an insult to the prime minister.

I have held off from commenting on the possibility of an Ozawa run at the party leadership and premiership because the idea struck me as patently absurd (for reasons that Michael Cucek captured well here and here).

And yet here we are, with Ozawa on the brink of entering the ring once more. I suppose on the plus side, at least he's competing for a public post, one that would force Ozawa to assume public responsibility instead of hiding out of sight.

There is no shortage of speculation about Ozawa's motives for running, having to do with his tenuous legal position, his desire to reinsert himself into the policymaking process by running, losing, and then bargaining for an important post, or his genuine desire to, in Hatoyama's words, "to risk his life on behalf of the country." I have long since given up trying to read Ozawa's mind and am willing to believe that any, or all, or none of these reasons is the real reason for Ozawa's decision.

Whatever his reasoning, the consequences could be dramatic. The best-case scenario would be that Ozawa is simply unable to muster enough support and goes down to an embarrassing defeat that is a prelude to his departure from politics. It is unclear just how much support from the party's parliamentary caucus Ozawa can count on — for my part, I have always thought that the media has exaggerated the extent to which Ozawa can rely on an "army" of young MPs indebted to him for his assistance. Even more unknowable is the extent of Ozawa's support among the party's rank-and-file members, who will also be voting in the party election. Given the near-universal public disapproval (including DPJ supporters) of Ozawa, it is worth asking whether there are still enough pockets of support for the former party leader to make his candidacy viable.

And if he were, somehow, to defeat Kan and take the premiership? Many seem to think that Ozawa's becoming DPJ leader would be the catalyst for the long-awaited political realignment (although Your Party's Watanabe Yoshimi insists that the DPJ will break regardless of what Ozawa does). It is easy enough to see how Ozawa could trigger the realignment. Remember the "purge" of Ozawa loyalists that marked the transition from Hatoyama to Kan? Presumably the "magistrates" who opposed Ozawa and have occupied important positions under Kan would have little to look forward to under Ozawa, and would have two options outside of the cabinet: build anti-mainstream "factions" within the DPJ to challenge Ozawa, thereby completing the LDP-ization of the DPJ, or leave the party altogether to join with Watanabe or form yet another new political party. 

The reality is that while at another point in his career Ozawa might have been able to deliver a miracle, untwisting the Diet by encouraging members of other parties to defect or hammering out a new governing coalition, there is good reason to believe that Ozawa is out of miracles. As Kan has found as he has tried to coax the opposition parties to cooperate, with the DPJ reeling the opposition parties have the upper hand. The DPJ will pay a steeper price than the opposition parties for inaction, particularly as the economy worsens. Add Ozawa's unpopularity and his notoriety as a living symbol of the bad, old politics and the opposition's advantage grows. And if a Prime Minister Ozawa were the head of a nominally united but fractured DPJ his bargaining power would be undermined even further. Whoever wins the party election will still face a miserable political situation. Having Ozawa as prime minister would only make the DPJ's situation even more difficult.

It is ultimately for that reason that I suspect that Ozawa will provide another demonstration of Enoch Powell's maxim, adding a final defeat to a lengthy political career that has seen its share of defeats along with extraordinary victories, arguably none more extraordinary the DPJ's victory a year ago next Monday. Ozawa simply does not have a compelling case for why he should take charge of the government at this juncture — and I think that the party's voters know it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The politics of Kan's apology

"I would like to face history with sincerity," said Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto in a statement issued on 10 August, the 100th anniversary of Japan's annexation of Korea. "I would like to have courage to squarely confront the facts of history and humility to accept them, as well as to be honest to reflect upon the errors of our own."

In what is now being referred to as the Kan Statement, the prime minister acknowledged the suffering caused by Japan's "colonial rule" and apologized to the Republic of Korea, and also pledged to return the remains of Koreans as well as cultural artifacts removed to Japan during the annexation.
Cynics will undoubtedly be quick to note that this is only the latest in a lengthy list of apologies issued by Japanese leaders for Imperial Japan's behavior — and one need not be a cynic to ask what value one more apology will have for Japan's relationship with South Korea or its standing in the region more generally. Japan's conservative ideologues, never shy in their opposition to what they see as "masochistic" behavior on the part of Japan's leaders, have vociferously opposed the statement. In a lengthy editorial published the day after the statement, the Sankei Shimbun, a revisionist right-wing daily, criticized the government for "imposing" a "one-sided view of history," denigrating the achievements of Meiji Japan in the process. The paper stressed that it is necessary to balance the "shadow" of Japanese rule with the "light," which came in the form of education and railroads.

In its coverage, Sankei also raised questions about the procedure by which Kan secured cabinet approval for his statement, claiming that Kan foisted the statement on his cabinet and the ruling DPJ, over the objections of party members.

Two days after the statement an "emergency citizens' meeting" met in central Tokyo to demand the withdrawal of the apology. Headed by Odamura Shirō, a leading conservative figure who was involved in opposition to the infamous "comfort women" resolution passed by the US House of Representatives in 2007, the meeting passed a resolution calling for a bilateral relationship based not on feelings of moral superiority for one party and guilt for the other and questioning the legitimacy of prime ministerial apologies. (Of course, the resolution also called attention to the role played by Japan in triggering Korea's economic development.)

The revisionist right's reaction to Kan's statement has less to do with South Korea, however, and more to do with the right's program for Japan. Its reaction is, above all, narcissistic: what does Japan lose by apologizing to those harmed by Japanese imperialism? As Kan himself noted, there is nothing cowardly about frankly acknowledging one's transgressions without hedging or equivocating. And while the list of apologies to Japan's neighbors is lengthy, it is precisely because conservatives question the legitimacy of those apologies — most notably the Murayama statement — that prime ministers are compelled to keep issuing new ones. The revisionist right believes that a "proper" and "truthful" historical perspective are critical for national pride, which it believes to have been corroded by the left-wing academics and media personalities and pusillanimous politicians. While they claim to be interested only in historical fact, their selective reading of history belies a blatantly opportunistic approach to Japan's imperial past that belittles the claims of Japan's victims and presents a blatantly self-serving (and at least in this telling contradictory) narrative in which Japan was not a colonizer, and even if it was, it was a benevolent one that hastened the demise of those wicked European empires.

Japan's revisionist right, of course, is not the only political group that propagates a self-serving account of its past that explains away inconvenient enormities (cf. the United States and Hiroshima, among other examples). But the revisionist right's attitude has persistently placed a stumbling block in the path of better relations with South Korea and China. As Kan makes clear in his statement, a good relationship with South Korea is critical in the years to come. While I do not doubt that Kan's apology is sincere, it also comes with strategic benefits, as President Lee Myung-bak appears no less interested in building a close relationship with Japan. Since taking power last year, the DPJ has steadfastly worked to build closer bilateral relationships throughout the region. This latest apology is but another step in that program.

And so the battle over Kan's apology pits two very different world views against each other. For Kan and members of his cabinet, Japan's future is in Asia, which means maintaining partnerships with important countries in the region. If apologizing to South Korea again strengthens Japan's position and clears the way to closer and deeper exchanges not just with Koreans but other Asian peoples, it is an exceedingly small price to pay. For Japan's revisionists, any unambiguous admission of Japan's guilt is evidence of "masochism" and an indication that Japan's leaders are simply not up to the challenge of competing with China for predominance in Asia. If Kan's view is strategic (although, again, not only strategic), the revisionist right is absolutist, and were it embraced by those in power it would result in an ignoble and ultimately self-defeating isolation for Japan in the region.

Of course, there is actually little risk of the revisionist agenda being implemented. Even Abe Shinzō, the most unabashedly revisionist conservative prime minister Japan has had in recent years, recognized the value of strong relationships with both South Korea and China and was willing to make concessions on the history issue, whatever his personal beliefs. Since Abe's downfall in 2007 the revisionists have been increasingly marginalized in Japanese politics, their influence virtually non-existent under the DPJ despite having sympathizers within the party. Indeed, their influence may be inversely proportional to the amount of noise they are capable of generating through various media outlets.

As Jun Okumura suggests, it is now up to South Korea to accept Kan's apology in good faith. That, of course, points to the central problem with apologies between nations: no matter how sincere the apology (and the acceptance of the apology), it is difficult for one leader to bind the hands of his successors. Nevertheless, by building a closer bilateral relationship, Kan and Lee can do their part to minimize the harm that can be done by political actors in both countries who wish to exploit history for political gain.