Abenomics: More politics than economics

In Tokyo, newly-installed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has unveiled a massive, multi-billion dollar stimulus package, ostensibly to get the static Japanese economy moving. The announcement came after the Prime Minister, in an obvious PR blitz, formed an “economic revitalization council” composed not only of Cabinet members but experts from the academe and the private sector, and called for greater monetary intervention to devalue the Yen.

If these are all designed to shed the Prime Minister’s image as a security hawk out of touch with important domestic concerns– an image that helped ruin his first administration from 2006 to 2007– to a premier who prioritizes the economy, then they’re probably working. Many in Tokyo are now saying that the new administration is a lot better than the one it replaced, simply because it is seen to be doing something. The media has even come up with a nickname for the Prime Minister’s economic policy: Abenomics.

The claim, of course, is that Abenomics could potentially resuscitate Japan’s economy the way Reaganomics did in America in the late 1980s, Thaksinomics in Thailand in the early 2000s, and, more recently, Aquinomics in the steadily-rising Philippines. Experts appear to be divided on whether this claim is valid or not.

Prime Minister Abe’s stimulus package adheres to the classic Keynesian principle of pump-priming the economy through aggressive government spending in order to encourage greater consumption and investments. In theory, this is an effective way to reverse economic contractions. The flip side, of course, is that massive state expenditures would result in the accumulation of more debt to cover the resulting budget deficit. For it to be successful, therefore, the spending spree must stimulate the economy enough for it to yield returns that would offset the ballooning debt.

What many in Japan don’t realize is that this same principle also served as a premise of the economic policies outlined by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) when it first came to power in 2009– the DPJ was of course ousted, I believe unfairly, late last year for failing to solve the economic malaise that for the most part was a result of decades of mismanagement by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) regime. However, the difference between the two major parties’ policies is that the LDP prefers pump-priming the economy by spending on infrastructure and aiding big businesses, hoping that these would create jobs and generate economic velocity; while the DPJ prefers giving dole-outs directly to the people, like monthly allowances for children, free high school tuition, and free expressway tolls, in order to encourage spending and stimulate the economy from the grassroots up, and perhaps even encourage families to produce more children.

While the Democrats’ policies were generally dismissed in Japan as populist and irresponsible, they actually resembled Thaksinomics, which boosted Thailand’s economy for the first time after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s economic policy of giving dole-outs to the rural poor in Thailand’s Issan areas resulted in an improved social safety net, which encouraged rural households to save less and spend more, which in turn stimulated the country’s manufacturing, services, and export sectors. Thaksinomics, in its various forms, was later on emulated by countries like India, China, the Philippines, and Indonesia. As for Japan, the DPJ wasn’t able to fully implement its populist policies since its governments were torpedoed by the elite bureaucracy, which appears to work in tandem with big businesses and its traditional partner, the LDP. Eventually, internal strife in the party resulted in the abandonment of its populist policies, leading to the defection of erstwhile party boss Ichiro Ozawa, the architect of DPJ populism, and his minions.

The focus of Abenomics’ stimulus package, meanwhile, seems to combine classic LDP strategy with Prime Minister Abe’s political ideology. On one hand, it calls for more construction of roads, tunnels, and bridges; and has more allocations for state subsidy for corporate innovation than for the speedy reconstruction of the earthquake- and tsunami-stricken areas in Tohoku. On the other hand, it allocates ¥3 billion for improving nuclear reactor technology, which betrays the Prime Minister’s indifference to widespread public clamor for the country to re-examine the viability of nuclear energy in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster; and ¥180.5 billion for purchases of various military hardware like PAC-3 surface-to-air missiles, which has nothing to do with stimulating a stagnant economy.

Perhaps the most disquieting feature of Abenomics is the dramatic increase in government spending on infrastructure, which is to be funded through state-issued construction bonds. In other words, the Abe government wants Japan, whose debt is already double the size of its gross domestic product (GDP), to borrow more so it can build more roads and bridges. Considering that Japan is already unmatched in terms of the amount of concrete it’s covered with, this approach is bewildering.

To be sure, there are urgent areas of development. Japan’s ageing infrastructure, which mostly dates back to the 1960s, needs maintenance and repair. That’s the lesson of the unfortunate collapse of the Sasago Tunnel in Yamanashi that killed nine people late last year. Similarly, the reconstruction of Tohoku requires billions of dollars. Yet, as the Japan Times said in its editorial, “because the Abe administration decided on the total amount of the package first without initially selecting necessary projects, chances are high that money will be squandered on nonessential projects.”

Indeed, such “nonessential projects” have for many years characterized the LDP’s spending track. Through much of the party’s almost uninterrupted fifty-year reign, politicians have scrambled for pork barrel funds to construct huge white elephants throughout the country. These public works projects were at the heart of the feudalistic socio-political set-up in the countryside during the post-war years: They created the impression that LDP politicians were doing something for their districts, which in turn strengthened their Koenkai machineries and their respective dynasties, while keeping the construction firms, which fund the LDP, happy.

The highly inefficient Japanese construction industry, together with the agriculture industry and the rural post makers, served as the electoral backbone of the LDP in the post-war era, and was pampered by the party rather well indeed. In his 2009 paper entitled Insights From Japan’s Lost Decade, Prof. Michael Heng Siam-Heng of the East Asian Institute (EAI) in the National University of Singapore (NUS) identified this cronyism as one of the causes of current Japanese economic woes.

In fact, after the Japanese bubble, which caused the country’s Lost Decades, burst in the early 1990s, the LDP governments unveiled a series of similar stimulus packages that spent trillions of yen to further cover the entire country in concrete. These projects succeeded only in lifting the GDP by at most 0.5% and causing the ballooning of Japan’s debt to more than 200% of its GDP, which is way bigger than those of Greece and other troubled economies in the Eurozone. These dimal– some would say disastrous– results were not really surprising, considering that the jobs created by such a multi-billion dollar spending spree were limited to a single sector and were temporary in nature, and that the spending itself was never rationalized effectively.

Taking these into consideration, one can easily see that increased spending on mindless construction projects could once again worsen Japan’s fiscal position in the medium- and long-term. But for Prime Minister Abe and his party, it probably doesn’t matter; the priority is to lift the GDP and the employment rate in the short-term, which would be enough for the LDP to claim that Abenomics is yielding returns. Indeed, achieving temporary bullish economic figures, at all cost, is the motivating factor behind Abenomics.

At the end of the day, Abenomics is probably more of a political kabuki; a matter of form over substance. Short-term economic growth rates, however minimal, coupled with the projection of an image of an economy-centric Cabinet, however shallow, would help the LDP-led coalition win the Upper House election in July, allowing the party to consolidate its return to power.

That, in turn, would give Prime Minister Abe the leeway to pursue his fetish: Further revising World War II history and changing Japan’s pacifist constitution.

On Manila’s support for the “rearming” of Japan

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario made news last week for expressing support for the “rearming” of Japan, saying Manila is “looking for balancing factors in the region,” and that Tokyo “could be a significant balancing factor,” presumably against an increasingly-assertive China.

It seems to me that the subliminal message of the way the international press has reported the Secretary’s comments is that, because of China’s intransigence, Japan’s standing among Asian countries is changing. Here are my two cents:

First of all, I don’t think this indicates a change in Japan’s standing among Asian countries. Unlike South Korea and China, which still hold deep grudges against Tokyo for its war crimes, Southeast Asian countries have never been distrustful of Japan in the first place, despite the fact that Tokyo has never really fully apologized for its wartime atrocities. Even in the midst of Chinese and Korean protests over the revisionism of the Japanese Ministry of Education, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the infamous Yasukuni Shrine, and former (and returning) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s insistence that there’s no evidence proving that the Japanese Imperial Army was engaged in sexual slavery during World War II, Southeast Asian countries have remained, at the very least, silent.

This is partly because massive Japanese investments and official development aid have arguably been the single, most decisive factor in ushering in a period of Southeast Asian economic development during the post-war period, which scholars dub as the flying geese model of development. Moreover, it was in an address to the Philippine Congress in Manila that former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda enunciated the so-called Fukuda Doctrine, which asserted that Japan would shun any military role and instead pursue economic cooperation with Asian countries regardless of their ideological inclinations. These had not only been reassuring for Southeast Asian countries; they also built robust Japanese soft power in the region, so much so that by the early 1980s, many Southeast Asian countries were already looking to Japan as a benign regional leader worth emulating. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohammad’s Look East Policy comes to mind, for instance.

In other words, far from being an indication of changing Asian attitudes towards Japan, Secretary del Rosario’s comments merely reflected a reality that many Western observers often overlook, which is that there’s actually a dichotomy of Asian attitude towards Tokyo: Southeast Asia loves Japan, while Northeast Asia distrusts it.

I suspect the reason behind this dichotomy is the fact that Southeast Asia has a longer history of colonialism than Northeast Asia. This differences in history has resulted in differences in dispositions of these Asian states’ respective national pysches.

A very weak China had to cave in to Western domination in the early part of the previous century, but it was Japan’s brutal occupation from the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War through World War II that truly humiliated the Middle Kingdom. China had generally regarded Japan as some sort of a cultural vassal nation, and subjugation by an erstwhile vassal nation can be a huge blow to the psyche of a nation that regards itself as a civilization-state. As for  Korea, another proud nation, it had never been colonized prior its annexation by Japan in 1910. In sharp contrast, Southeast Asian nations, with the exception of Thailand, had been colonies of various foreign powers for centuries prior to Japan’s invasion in the 1940s. Since Southeast Asians had been used to colonial subjugation, Japan’s occupation of their countries might not have been as big a blow to their respective national psyches as it was to those of Korea and China; hence their willingness to forget past Japanese atrocities even sans appropriate apology from Tokyo.

Secondly, I don’t think the “rearming” of Japan would be an effective balancing factor in the region, and by “effective” I mean stabilizing. I might be oversimplifying Secretary del Rosario’s comments, but it seems to me that he’s arguing that Japan should have capable armed forces that can check China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

But the Secretary should know that Japan had in fact already rearmed a long time ago, when General Douglas MacArthur, in order to fill the vacuum left by American forces that were sent from Japan to the Korean War, allowed Tokyo to form the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Indeed, the JSDF has a maritime force that can annihilate the Chinese navy and even give the American Seventh Fleet a run for its money. So, when we talk of a “rearming” of Japan, we’re not talking about Japan having its own armed forces, for it already has a formidable one. What a “rearming” of Japan means is Tokyo discarding its war-renouncing Article 9 of its Constitution and allowing it to participate in military activities that are offensive in nature. A “rearming” of Japan means changing its armed forces’ name from Self-Defense Forces (自衛隊) to National Defense Military (国防軍), which, by the way, is exactly what incoming Prime Minister Abe wants to do.

Now, would discarding Japan’s pacifist disposition be an “effective” balancing factor? If Tokyo participates in active military alliances with countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, would China turn less assertive in the South China Sea? Well, the argument invokes the classic realist balance-of-power calculus, which basically means that high fences make good neighbors. But– looking at the context of the East China Sea– we can see that Japan already has a very high fence, so why is China still not a good neighbor?

The problem with this realist perspective is that it assumes that states act rationally, and this assumption forms the basis of stability through balance-of-power theory. Well, if this were true, Japan would not have provoked the United States, which had a manufacturing capacity almost ten times greater than Tokyo’s, in 1941. But at that time, the myopic militarists, who were anything but rational, were steering Japan. In Beijing’s case, we know that the jingoistic hawks, buoyed by strong nationalist sentiments among the Chinese masses, are determined to steer China’s direction. And like the Japanese militarist of the 1930s, they are anything but rational– if they were, they wouldn’t have squandered China’s carefully-cultivated soft power by coming up with those maps and passports in the first place.

If anything, a re-militarized Japan would only fuel extreme nationalist sentiments in China, which would further embolden the Chinese hawks. The ruling Communist Party, seeing a need to pander to these jingoistic sentiments in order to preserve its legitimacy, would then be forced to act more aggressively to protect China’s perceived core national interests. It would only make China less rational. Far from being an effective balancing factor, therefore, the “rearming” of Japan would only further destabilize the already volatile regional situation.

China has unleashed a mad genie

Following the unprecedented inclusion of the disputed Senkaku Islands in the official Chinese baselines map, Beijing sent a flotilla of six maritime vessels in the disputed waters to challenge Japan’s possession of the disputed territory last Friday. The flotilla left on the same day, but its deployment was reminiscent of the stand-off between China and the Philippines earlier this year. Osamu Fujimura, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, called it an “invasion.”

Meanwhile, massive and violent anti-Japan protests continue to sweep major Chinese cities, threatening Japanese nationals and business establishments. The protests, endorsed by the semi-official Chinese media, have an unmistakable imprimatur from among the higher-ups in Beijing. The Chinese government itself has been scrapping official contacts with Japan, and linking such cancellations to the simmering territorial dispute. All these, according to China, are consequences of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s “reckless” decision to “nationalize” the Senkaku Islands. In short, Japan provoked China.

This is far from the truth, of course. The Chinese know that Prime Minister Noda’s “nationalization” of the islands was in fact done in good faith. The Japanese government was merely preventing the ultra-nationalist (and anti-China) Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, from purchasing the islands from their private Japanese owners. Governor Ishihara wanted to build structures on the island that would have ruffled more Chinese feathers; Prime Minister Noda was trying to prevent a potential crisis, and he thought Beijing understood. In fact, some academics are pointing out that the Chinese had actually been sending signals that the Noda government’s efforts to outbid Governor Ishihara are acceptable to Beijing. But apparently, something has changed.

Just like the anti-Philippine jingoism in Beijing earlier this year, the Chinese government’s encouragement of anti-Japan sentiments is driven by domestic considerations. Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Chongquing kingpin Bo Xilai, has just been convicted of murdering a British national. Also, in the midst of the once-in-a-decade power transition in Beijing, President Hu Jintao’s heir apparent, Vice President Xi Jinping, has gone missing. These developments have focused public attention  on the Communist Party (CCP) elite, which has suddenly found itself at risk of being the subject of public scrutiny. The party elite needed a distraction.

Once again, Beijing is playing a dangerous game. Chinese resentment of Japan is deep and bitter, thanks in part to Japan’s failure to fully atone for its long history of atrocities against the Chinese people.  Many Chinese believe that  old scores with Japan have yet to be settled, and, with their new-found confidence driven by their country’s rise, they believe that the time is ripe to settle these scores, and to get even with their Japanese neighbors. This is exactly the point of the Global Times’ recent editorial.

Anti-Japanese sentiments in China are like a mad genie. The CCP has unleashed the genie; now, it might have difficulty bringing the genie back into the bottle. The smarter people in Beijing know that, when the dust of the leadership transition settles, China would have no choice but to manage its dispute with Japan and stabilize the bilateral relationship. Hence, the need to prevent the genie from going out of its master’s control.

Unfortunately, the smarter people in Beijing have yet to consolidate their control over policy-making. The jingoistic actors, among both the party and the increasingly powerful and independent People’s Liberation Army (PLA), are wrestling for influence, too. This explains the mixed signals China has been sending.

Last Friday’s development, for instance, was an unmistakable manifestation of this power struggle: The hawks, emboldened by China’s victory in its stand-off with the Philippines earlier this year, sent six maritime vessels to the Japanese-controlled waters off Senkaku; but cooler heads prevailed in having the flotilla recalled. They knew the risks of engaging Japan in a maritime stand-off: Unlike the Philippine Navy, which is arguably the weakest navy in the region, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces is the biggest Asian navy. But just the same, the Chinese Bureau of Fisheries Administration, one of the “nine dragons” identified by the International Crisis Group as having the most to gain by stirring up China’s territorial disputes, has threatened to send a couple of ships back this Sunday.

This uncertainty will limit the wiggle room for both Beijing and Tokyo to manage the situation, which means that we have yet to see the worst of this crisis. While this blog is ruling out any military confrontation, economic skirmishes between the world’s second and third largest economies are likely. China certainly has the ability to hurt Japan economically, and there already are calls in Tokyo for the government to prepare for the worst.

Understandably, this whole imbroglio has left the Noda government with no choice but to drop all efforts at conciliation. A weak response to any Chinese attempt to challenge Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands would doom Prime Minister Noda’s administration (although it’s already doomed in the first place, but that for another blog entry). Meanwhile, the five candidates for the presidency of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which looks set to regain power when elections are called this year, are trying to outdo each other in calling for a more hawkish position vis a vis Beijing. One of them, Nobuteru Ishihara, is the son of the anti-China Governor of Tokyo and a long-time friend of President Aquino of the Philippines, who also has no love lost for the Chinese. Another one, Shinzo Abe, is the most hawkish of all credible Japanese politicians at present. One of the two would become Japan’s next Prime Minister.

Ozawa underwhelms

It’s difficult to make sense of Ichiro Ozawa’s resignation from the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) because, well, it just doesn’t make sense.

Only 51 of the so-called Ozawa children joined the ex-DPJ strongman when he defected on Monday, and two of them backtracked on the very same day, bringing the number of pro-Ozawa defectors to 49. Not only is this number not enough to deprive the DPJ of its majority in the Lower House, it’s also decreasing. Yesterday, one Ozawa defector repented to the DPJ while another declared that he will not be joining an Ozawa proto-party but will instead be an independent.

A report by the Japan Times mentioned that a second wave of pro-Ozawa defections could be looming, but with the initial Ozawa blitzkrieg this underwhelming, one can be forgiven for ruling such a scenario out. In fact, I can bet that the immediate concern in Ozawa’s office is not to encourage more defections from the DPJ but to prevent counter-defections.

The new Ozawa group, assuming the pro-Ozawa Kizuna Party joins it, may gain enough votes to introduce a no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. But having such a motion passed would be next to impossible, since that would require not only the support of all non-DPJ parties, including the Communists, but the defection of around twenty DPJ members as well.

This has actually been a victory for Prime Minister Noda. As Dr. Corey Wallace, an observer of Japanese politics, opined, Ozawa’s underwhelming defection has solved the Prime Minister’s dilemma on how to handle the rebels who voted against his tax hike pet project. With Ozawa in the party, Prime Minister Noda had been under pressure from both the DPJ and his tax hike partner, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to severely punish the rebels, which could have resulted in a bigger defection that could have compromised the DPJ’s majority. With Ozawa gone, the Prime Minister has been able to adopt a strategically lenient tack without appearing weak.

Moreover, with Ozawa gone and all the other party heavyweights co-opted, Prime Minister Noda is set to be re-elected party president this September, unless he makes a major gaffe in the next two months. Who knows, he might even be the first Japanese premier since Junichiro Koizumi to stay in office beyond the traditional one-year shelf life.

As for Ozawa, the prospects are not very promising. Without the DPJ’s protection, he would probably have to spend the rest of his time in the Diet answering questions from several committees investigating his past shenanigans. Perhaps more painfully, Ozawa, long regarded for his catalytic role in Japan’s political history, would probably descend into political irrelevance; meaning, like that blue-eyed shogun of post-war Japan, the shadow shogun would just have to fade away. To avoid this fate, Ozawa would have to build a viable political vehicle. If he can’t increase his group’s numbers, he would have to join forces with others.

A reunion with the LDP-Komeito bloc is extremely unlikely, since that erstwhile ruling coalition still has an axe to grind against Ozawa. The LDP would rather maneuver to have an LDP-DPJ grand coalition– which could be headed by an LDP prime minister, who knows?– than join hands with its two-time “destroyer.”  Ozawa would have to find another partner.

Perhaps the best chance for Ozawa to stay relevant is to strike a partnership with the charismatic Mayor of Osaka, Toru Hashimoto, and the loose movement that he leads.

A Political Science professor from a leading university in Osaka, whom I met last week in an international conference on North Korea in Manila, says that Mayor Hashimoto’s real goal is to gain control of the Kantei, and that he sees the next election as a litmus test of sorts for this ambition. This probably explains his openness to the idea of a tie-up with Ozawa. Despite the Osaka Restoration Association’s pro-tax hike stance, for instance, the Mayor has criticized the Noda government’s “betrayal” of the DPJ manifesto, saying that Ozawa’s actions are “understandable.”

The problem is that Mayor Hashimoto’s bloc is a loose entente that is hardly monolithic. The Mayor’s partner, Osaka Governor Ichiro Matsui, has made it clear that the DPJ’s 2009 manifesto, written by Ozawa, is incompatible with the Osaka Restoration Association’s ideals and that the Association should therefore not join Ozawa’s group. Another important player, the eccentric Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who is planning to form a conservative party that will join a Hashimoto coalition, has a personal animosity with Ozawa. Building consensus with these political actors would be very challenging, to say the least.

Ozawa’s backroom skills will again be tested, perhaps for the last time.

Noda’s LDP card

Tokyo is currently abuzz over the decision of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to reshuffle his Cabinet yesterday. He fired key officials like Justice Minister Toshio Ogawa; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister and former candidate for Prime Minister Michihiko Kano;  Land, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism Minister Takeshi Maeda; and Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka. Kano’s ministry was implicated in a recent Chinese spy scandal, while the other ministers have been widely criticized for several embarrassing gaffes. Maeda and Tanaka, for example, had been officially censured by the opposition-controlled House of Councillors.

But the motivation behind the sacking of these ranking officials is not to impose accountability for their infractions but to pave the way for negotiations with the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) over the proposed increase in the country’s sales tax, the Prime Minister’s pet project. In short, the ministers are being offered to the opposition as sacrificial lambs.

The Prime Minister is trying to win the opposition over after failing to gain the support of Japan’s acknowledged shadow shogun, Ichiro Ozawa, for the tax hike measure. Ozawa, who has recently been reinstated as a member of the ruling Democratic Party (DPJ) after having been acquitted of corruption charges, has consistently opposed any increase in the nation’s taxes. Prime Minister Noda argues that the country needs the tax hike to finance its ballooning social services and to pay off its debt. Ozawa, on the other hand, insists that the government must first reduce its spending, and therefore streamline the bureaucracy, in order to solve the deficit. He’s been very consistent with this position ever since.

The two rounds of talks between the Prime Minister and the shadow shogun ended in a deadlock last week. And while Ozawa hinted that he is still open to continued talks, Prime Minister Noda, who had called the negotiations with Ozawa a “lifetime gamble,” is making it appear that he’s giving up. Many are saying that the stalemate has diminished the Prime Minister’s political stock and boosted Ozawa’s.

“All this pomp surrounding a meeting with a member of his own party, as if he were welcoming a foreign dignitary, is a huge blow to the Prime Minister’s authority,” says LDP president Sadikazu Tanigaki.

Of course, that “member of the party” happens to be Japan’s leading political tactician who commands an army of around one hundred loyal Lower House parliamentarians. Prime Minister Noda’s tax policy won’t clear the Diet without those one hundred votes, which is why he’s trying to lure the opposition’s votes instead. This goal– gaining the opposition’s support after failing to get your party-mates’ nod– is a political peculiarity that can only happen in Japan.

But is the Prime Minister really trying to lure the LDP as an end goal in itself, or is he merely trying to bluff his way to gain Ozawa’s grudging support? Is this another game of brinkmanship, Nagatacho-style?

The LDP has two preconditions for its support for the Prime Minister’s tax hike proposal. Firstly, it wants the DPJ to part ways with the hugely unpopular Ozawa. Secondly, it wants the Diet vote on the tax measure to be followed by a snap election. The LDP, which has recently made gains in opinion polls, badly needs an election soon, before the Third Force movement led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto could assemble its national machinery and therefore present itself to the public as the viable non-LDP alternative to the underwhelming DPJ.

For Prime Minister Noda, an early election means that his party could lose its grip on power only three years after it overthrew the long-entrenched LDP hegemony. For Ozawa, on the other hand, an early election could obliterate his army of one hundred, since they are all political lightweights with no substantial machinery to keep their Diet seats. It doesn’t help that Ozawa’s war chest has been practically depleted, and that he’s now too old to build another political party from scratch.

“I’m willing to risk my political career for this,” says Prime Minister Noda. By trying to lure the LDP, and hinting that he may agree to hold early elections in exchange for its support, the premier seems to be telling Ozawa that he’s willing to risk the DPJ’s hold on power, too.

Will the shadow shogun call the bluff?

Understanding Fukushima

Japan and the world pause in prayer today for the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that hit the country’s northeastern region exactly one year ago. The said natural disasters led to the meltdown of several reactors in one of Tokyo Electric Power Corporation (Tepco)’s nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture. Although the Japanese government at that time tried to downplay the extent of that nuclear whammy, ostensibly to prevent widespread public panic and chaos; it was, in retrospect, the greatest existential threat Japan has ever faced since World War II.

While the earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters that were beyond human control, the Fukushima disaster wasn’t. The best way to honor the victims of the March 3, 2011 disasters, therefore, is to understand what went wrong in Fukushima with the view of preventing, or at least mitigating, another such disaster.

The real lesson of Fukushima, according to former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, is that nuclear power should never be considered an option by any nation. “I have thought very hard about the types of safety measures necessary to prevent any such disaster from happening again,” writes Kan, “However, when one weighs these measures against the tremendous risks, it is clear that no amount of precautions will make a country completely safe from nuclear energy. I have reached the conclusion, therefore, that the only option is to promote a society free of nuclear power.”

Of course, many, including International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano and current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, would disagree with the former Prime Minister’s conclusion. Indeed, from a pragmatic perspective, nuclear energy remains to be the way to go. But it’s clear now that, as Japanese-American physicist Dr. Michio Kaku said, when Japan decided to pursue nuclear power as a matter of policy thirty years ago, it had made a Faustian deal with the Devil, so to speak. The benefits of nuclear energy in terms of reliable and cheap energy are so great, but so are the risks it poses. What Dr. Kaku doesn’t know, however, is that the Japanese public was never actualy informed of these risks.

‘Absolute safety’ myth.

A very informative and hard-hitting 400-page report by Professor Yoichi Funabashi and Kay Kitazawa of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation exposes an “absolute safety” myth regarding nuclear power. In their zealous desire to win public support for nuclear energy in the 1970s, the nuclear lobby– composed of nuclear proponents in the private sector, local government, and the powerful Ministry of the Economy, Trade and Industry (METI)– deliberately downplayed the risks of nuclear energy. In fact, even their disaster drills were done half-heartedly since “Japan’s nuclear community has also feared that preparation for a nuclear accident would in itself become a source of anxiety for people living near the plants.” Over time, even Tepco officials themselves were trapped by this absolute safety myth. As a result, there had been a general sense of complacency in the nuclear energy industry regarding the safety of the power plants.

As an excuse for the insufficiency of the safety measures of the Fukushima power plant, for instance, Tepco’s officials had said that the scale of the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami had been unprecedented, and therefore unanticipated. But, as Funabashi and Kitazawa’s report stated, the March 11 tsunamis couldn’t have been unanticipated since simple research would show that the Jogan Tsunami of 869 AD in the same area actually had similar heights. Indeed, “even Tepco’s own nuclear energy division understood that there was a risk of large tsunamis at Fukushima,” yet the company never bothered to put up safety mechanisms that would have protected the Fukushima plant from last year’s tsunami.

Inefficient bureaucracy

Complicating this is the lack of an efficient and independent government regulatory authority that would have ensured the safety of the country’s nuclear power plants. Enforcement of such safety regulations was supposed to have been the job of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), but the agency had been largely ineffective. NISA is under the wing of the METI, and METI is a proponent of the nuclear lobby. It doesn’t take rocket science to link the corrupt practice of amakudari to the lack of NISA’s teeth in policing the nuclear energy industry. In fact, even the IAEA had long raised this problem with Japan, but the bureaucrats in Tokyo had always been dismissive. It would have been logical to put NISA under the Ministry of the Environment, or perhaps to make it an independent agency under the Prime Minister’s office; but Tokyo, long controlled by bureaucrats who serve corporate interests more than national interests, had not even thought about it.

Indeed, this problematic bureaucracy posed more problems during the actual response to the disaster itself. The people that make up NISA, for instance, could not even answer then Prime Minister Kan’s questions, since they knew almost next to nothing about nuclear power plants or what was going on in Fukushima. This was because the NISA is staffed not with technical experts but with career civil servants. Usually, these bureaucrats barely warm their seats before hopping to other METI positions; therefore, there had been very few reasons for them to be experts in their job.

Kan: An underrated leader

When the nuclear crisis broke out, bureaucracy and red tape between the Prime Minister’s Office and practically all the other government agencies had already been posing a problem in terms of responding to the tsunami and earthquake disasters. Such problems were unacceptable in confronting the nuclear disaster. Fukushima, after all, was in fact a virtual war with an invisible foe. It was a race against time to prevent a nuclear menace that would have paralyzed practically half of Japan, including Tokyo, a city of thirty million people.

As a result, Prime Minister Kan stepped up, appointing private advisers to do what the bureaucrats failed to do, which was to give him sound advice. He became intensely involved, micro-managing the government’s response to the disaster and in the process infuriating some politicians, Tepco officials and the powerful bureaucrats who appeared to have been more concerned about the Prime Minister’s encroachments on their turfs than the existential threat posed to the entire nation by the invisible nuclear enemy.

The Prime Minister’s leadership in that crucial time in the nation’s history may have been a bit underrated. It is true that he failed to rally the people, who had been waiting for assurance from their leader, at the crucial moments of the disaster; but that’s, at worst, merely a minor oversight. Besides, rallying and assuring the people was more of an Emperor’s job than a Prime Minister’s; and His Majesty certainly did a very admirable job in that regard. What’s more important to note is the fact that Prime Minister Kan risked his career by making bold decisions, such as his appeal to the sense of duty of Tepco officials who had ordered their workers in Fukushima to leave the plant when radiation levels rose to alarming levels. It was practically an order for those civilians to die for their country– certainly very controversial but arguably necessary in the context of those events.

Amidst the confusion, Prime Minister Kan’s hands-on involvement gave direction to the government’s efforts, which included the largest mobilization ever by the Self-Defense Forces (SDF). He held on despite the obstructions from some politicians, including those within his own party; the nuclear lobby; the bureaucracy; and the mainstream media. They all demanded his resignation. And when what little political capital he had were zapped by all these, he used his resignation as a leverage to push for what he thought were vital pieces of legislation. Clearly, Prime Minister Kan had exemplified selfless leadership, patriotism and a deep sense of duty. Unfortunately, not only is his leadership in those trying times under-appreciated; it’s being pilloried in the mainstream media. I hope history would be kinder.

The larger ill

The fact of the matter is that the Fukushima disaster could have been prevented, and the government reponse to it could have been better, had there been honesty on the part of the nuclear lobby in characterizing the risks of nuclear power; proper system of checks and balance in implementing government safety regulations regarding the nuclear power plants; and more efficient coordination between the Prime Minister’s Office and the various government agencies. The lack of all these is symptomatic of a larger ill: A strong but short-sighted bureaucracy.

Sadly, Japan is not learning its lessons. Bureaucratic delays and squabbling continue to stall the creation of a master plan for rehabilitation and reconstruction, thereby wasting an entire year for the country, for instance. It’s often said that Japan has plenty of fine citizens, but I can say that there seems to be a shortage of fine leaders.

Hashimoto’s revolution

The unfolding political tectonic shifts in Japan that I described in a previous post has become more interesting. Apparently, Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s goals are no longer limited to regionalist devolution. It appears that what he really wants– and this is not really a surprise to observers who have been closely following the flamboyant mayor– is a new Japanese revolution, perhaps one as significant as the Meiji Restoration itself.

Last week, Hashimoto’s political party, the Osaka Restoration Association (Osaka Isshin no Kai), promulgated a list of goals that it said it would pursue should it enter national politics. These goals include the removal of pension for rich retirees; the abolition of grants from Tokyo to local governments and its replacement with direct local government taxation; the abolition of the House of Councillors; and, as if these weren’t bold enough, the direct election of the Prime Minister. In short, Hashimoto’s clique is calling for a shift from a unitary, bi-cameral parliamentary configuration to a quasi-federal, unicameral quasi-presidential form of government.

These bold platforms have gained the support of the leaders of the regionalist movement like Aichi Governor Hideaki Omura and Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura, as well as the former Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) heavyweight and current Minna no To (Everyone’s Party) chieftain Yoshimi Watanabe. Watanabe’s support, which I find a bit surprising, seems like a desperate ploy to use Hashimoto’s energy to reinvigorate his heretofore marginalized micro-party. I wonder if he realizes that Hashimoto’s group is in fact a long-term threat to the Minna no To.

It is interesting to hear what Ichiro Ozawa, the erstwhile shadow shogun and Democratic Party (DPJ) kingpin, has to say about Hashimoto’s manifesto. Ozawa, who has recently made himself busy criticizing Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s tax increase proposals, will probably be emboldened by last Friday’s court decision to disregard the only evidence in his pending corruption case and go all out against the Prime Minister and his anti-Ozawa handlers. Recently, Ozawa has been sending feelers to Hashimoto’s camp. Apparently, the power-broker sees Hashimoto as a hedge in his apparently brewing plot to take on Prime Minister Noda.

Of course, there are some differences between Hashimoto’s goals and Ozawa’s vision– Ozawa is on the left in terms of social spending while Hashimoto is quite libertarian, for instance; but the two share the opinion that Japan needs to repudiate the bureaucrats and the current political establishments, and to pursue a more independent foreign policy. These common grounds could be enough for Ozawa, a notoriously savvy negotiator, to strike an alliance of convenience with the popular mayor. And indeed, for Ozawa– and Watanabe for that matter– the incentive to win Hashimoto over is quite high: Tuesday’s poll show that a resounding 53% of the Japanese electorate want neither the DPJ nor the LDP but a third force to form the next government.

The problem with Hashimoto, however, is that his goals are so radical they would need constitutional revisions, which in turn would require two-thirds nod from both houses of the Diet and, ultimately, the public’s approval in a plebiscite. All these require enormous political capital, and it’s even unclear if Hashimoto can maintain his current snowball, considering how short the Japanese public’s political attention span is. Unless Hashimoto is merely raising the stakes so he could strategically negotiate to the middle– a strategy that is not without high risks– it’s quite easy to dismiss Isshin no Kai’s platforms at this point as, for the lack of a better term, delusional.

But one can never really tell. As I’ve said last week, these are interesting times for Japan.

Regionalism provoking tectonic shifts in Japan

Japan’s Agency for Reconstruction, a full-fledged cabinet ministry with three bureaus and six branches, has debuted yesterday in Tokyo to coordinate the government’s efforts to rehabilitate the country eleven months after the infamous Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear whammy. While everyone wishes the Agency well, it is clear that reconstructing the country requires not more bureaucracy but a sense of unity among the country’s leaders. Unfortunately, there’s no such unity; bickerings among the different political actors continue to plague the country’s leadership.

Of course, as a student of politics, I find these bickerings, and the political maneuverings that come with them, very interesting. Fascinating political developments have been unfolding in the country recently. Just as everybody thought that there couldn’t have been anything more dramatic than the ouster of the long-entrenched Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 2007, the resulting shadow battle between the reformists and the political establishment, and what everyone thought was a track towards a two-party system; more tectonic shifts are actually occurring: ones characterized by the rise of new political actors, the re-invigoration of previously marginalized political actors, and the corresponding reaction from the traditional political actors. And these shifts have been triggered not from Tokyo but from Osaka, Nagoya, and other regional centers.

Local government leaders who have increasingly been binding themselves together to push Tokyo to cede more powers to the prefectures have become, for all intents and purposes, full-fledged actors in the national political scene. While the movement for regionalist devolution has been around for quite a time, never has it reached the heights it currently enjoys. The movement’s popular poster boy, the boyish-looking Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, described by many as a revolutionary, has stunned the country with his bold and cunning maneuvers.

Mayor Hashimoto had served as Governor of Osaka since 2007, where he pushed for several local reforms that were derailed by local bureaucrats and city mayors working to protect their turfs. Among his pet proposals was the merging of the city and prefectural governments of Osaka to create a metropolitan entity similar to Tokyo. But when the then Mayor of Osaka, who was anxious to protect his city’s autonomy, blocked this move, the exasperated Hashimoto resigned as governor, challenged the incumbent mayor in the election, and sent his lieutenant to run for his gubernatorial post. With the highest voting turn-out in history, Hashimoto and Ichiro Matsui won the mayoral and gubernatorial elections, and their local party, the Osaka Restoration Association (Osaka Isshin no Kai), won control of Osaka city and prefectural councils.

Hashimoto’s dramatic victory prompted the creation of a formidable but loose entente among like-minded local government leaders. Among those who have joined the alliance are Aichi Governor Takeaki Omura, Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura and the maverick Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara. These leaders have demanded the beleaguered government in Tokyo to cede more powers to the prefectures, with Hashimoto vowing to send political assassins to unseat their members in parliament should the major Tokyo-based political parties ignore his group’s demand. It doesn’t look like an empty threat.

The Governor of Aichi, for instance, is establishing a political training institute that many observers say is a prelude to the creation of his own political party. Mayor Hashimoto’s party, of course, is already a force to reckon with in the Kansai region. The governors of Ehime, Kagawa, Kochi and Tokushima in the Shikoku region have also expressed their intention to form their own regional association and to collaborate with the Kansai regionalists. And no less than Democratic Party (DPJ) kingpin and perennial schemer Ichiro Ozawa, whose political acumen is probably unmatched in Japan, has acknowledged the regionalists’ political rise: Governor Omura has been invited to speak at a caucus of around 100 Ozawa minions in the Diet while the erstwhile shadow shogun is reported to have been sending feelers to Mayor Hashimoto’s camp.

Meanwhile, some of the former political bigwigs who had found themselves in the political wilderness after they bolted the LDP in 2007 and formed their own micro-parties, are seeing Hashimoto’s movement as an opportunity for them to again play a bigger role in national politics. In particular, micro-parties Tachiagare Nippon and Minna no To are now presenting themselves as a vehicle for Hashimoto’s entry into the national political stage. An alliance of convenience would most likely loom between Hashimoto and either of these parties. Both would be needing each other: Hashimoto needs these parties’ machineries and national political network, while the parties could use Hashimoto’s energy. Indeed, in a recent TBS poll, seventy five percent of respondents believe that it’s high time for the regional parties to enter national politics while Hashimoto was voted as the most electable official, followed by Governor Isihara and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

All these are becoming a challenge to the two major political parties, the ruling DPJ and the opposition LDP.

For the DPJ, particularly Prime Minister Noda, this is an added complication to the already difficult situation he is in. His bold moves to trim the Diet and to raise taxes are facing opposition from the political establishment, even from within his own party. Ozawa, who represents the intra-party opposition to Noda, is opposing the Prime Minister particularly on his tax measures, which has always been and will always be a political taboo in Japan. Indeed, former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who had entered office with substantial public support, lost the Upper House of the Diet to the LDP when he proposed tax increase last year.

In fairness to Ozawa, he has been consistent with his views on the tax issue ever since, and his beef with Noda’s tax policy proposal appears to be principled. He has been going around rallying support against the proposal, even courting the regionalists themselves. If Ozawa, known for his great backroom skills, succeeds in winning over the Hashimoto forces, he would give the Prime Minister some very painful headaches, to say the least.

But the threat to the LDP is actually bigger. After its downfall in 2007, the party, which had led Japan almost uninterruptedly for fifty years, has been gaining brownie points due to the incompetence of successive DPJ governments. Under the leadership of party chief Sadakazu Tanigaki, the LDP enjoyed an increase in popularity ratings, leading to a point where it could have easily regained control of the government had there been snap elections. But this public support represented a vote against the DPJ instead of a vote for the LDP. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the public’s attitude towards the LDP, whose long rule incubated graft and corruption, remains highly cynical.

The rise of the Hashimoto-led regionalist forces, if they successfully forge tactical alliances with Ozawa and the other national but small parties, could present themselves as an alternative to both the corrupt LDP and the incompetent DPJ. This is why I believe the LDP would probably push the Prime Minister to call for elections as soon as possible, before Hashimoto’s forces could build a substantial political machinery.

Of course, popular as they are, the Hashimoto forces, even with support from micro-parties, will never be able to wrest control of Tokyo on their own. The best they can do, assuming they become able to field enough parliamentary candidates, is to represent a third force that could ensure that neither the DPJ nor the LDP would be able to command majority in the Diet. In such a scenario, it would be exciting to see how Hashimoto, Ozawa, Tanigaki and Noda would play their cards.

Interesting times, indeed.

Update, January 12: Yomiuri Shinbun reports that 2,750 people have applied to be part of Mayor Ishihara’s “political training institute.” Obviously, these applicants want to be on the shortlist when the popular mayor selects his candidates for parliamentary seats in the event of a snap election. Meanwhile, the eccentric Tokyo Governor Ishihara has called on his son, Shintaro, to resign as Secretary-General of the LDP, saying the party is irresponsible. This will surely heighten the apparent rift between the father and the son.

On Japan’s new leader

Later today, the Diet of Japan will proclaim a new Prime Minister for the sixth time in five years. The man, Yoshihiko Noda, has vowed to unite the country in order to move it forward. But before he could seek to unify his country, he would have to unify his own party first.

Noda’s election was a result of a process that drew the interest of many students of modern politics. It was an epic political battle that saw the defeat of Japan’s erstwhile shadow shogun, Ichiro Ozawa.

Few predicted that the 54-year-old would emerge victorious. In fact, many analysts in the mainstream media had already counted him off after his candidacy suffered tremendous set-back when the popular Seiji Maehara entered the race. Maehara and Noda share the same constituencies: The “mainstream” factions led by power-broker Yoshito Sengoku, Secretary-General Katsuya Okada, out-going Prime Minister Naoto Kan, and the other groups that sought to keep Ozawa—for better or for worse, Japan’s greatest political tactician in the last thirty years—in his political cage.

Ozawa, the enigma who had brought down and propped up many parties and governments, is running out of time. He is growing old, and his vision, as outlined in a “blueprint for new Japan” that he wrote twenty years ago, is yet to be realized. His influence is also receding. He had been isolated by Prime Minister Kan from the government, and his party rights have been suspended after he was indicted for a corruption scandal. But he still has some cards to play: Around 120 loyal lawmakers who owe him their political careers. He used them in his attempt yesterday to install yet another puppet, a politician with dubious integrity and ability named Banri Kaieda, as the next Prime Minister. It was a desperate life-or-death battle for Ozawa, as it was for Sengoku, Okada, Kan and others who are hell-bent at preventing an Ozawa come-back.

Analysts thought Kaieda would win the first ballot, followed by the popular Maehara. But the anti-Ozawa groups knew better. They sensed that Noda is less divisive than Maehara, who was very vocal in his criticism of Ozawa. Noda is therefore more winnable, especially for some Ozawa children whose loyalty to their master is shaky and would thus think twice before voting for a joke named Kaieda. And so, while Kaieda took the first ballot, with all the Ozawa votes solidly behind him; Noda was propelled to second place, with around one hundred votes. Since Ozawa’s numbers failed to reach the required 200 votes, Kaieda and Noda faced off in the second round of voting, at which point the other candidates—Maehara and Michihiko Kano—joined forces behind Noda.

“From now on, let’s take no sides,” the surprisingly eloquent Noda said after having been proclaimed winner. This statement is not just an exhortation for unity; it’s a warning.

If Ozawa continues to sabotage Noda’s administration the way he sabotaged Kan’s, Noda could either succumb to the opposition’s pressure to call for an early election or there could be a major party split, something that even Ozawa would not want. In the event of an early election, the Ozawa children—freshman lawmakers with neither political machinery nor the godfather-shadow shogun—would be the first casualties. Moreover, schism in the party would drive Ozawa and his ilk back to the political wilderness, where it would perhaps take them another thirty years to regain power. It would seem, therefore, that Ozawa has no choice but to cooperate with Noda, bear with the humiliation of being sidelined, and in the meantime silently prepare for battle in next year’s general election. But how can Ozawa, Yukio Hatoyama and their ilk cooperate with a Prime Minister who has promised to drop the 2009 DPJ Manifesto, the basis of the party’s mandate, like hot potato?

Obviously, it would be unwise to count Ozawa off the equation. He is likely to continue lurking in the shadows, which means keeping the party intact would be very challenging for the new Prime Minister. The wise thing to do is to avoid excacerbating the situation by appointing either Okada, Sengoku or any of their ilk to the position of Secretary-General. To placate the pro-Ozawa groups, that post must go to an elder politician who would be acceptable to everyone, like Speaker Azuma Koshiishi, for instance. (Update, Sept. 1: Noda has appointed Koshiishi as Secretary-General.)

Another challenge would be getting the opposition to cooperate. Noda has repeatedly talked about building a grand coalition between the ruling party and the opposition. But the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) would likely remain lukewarm to such a proposal, since its support rate has already overtaken that of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), thanks to Ozawa’s shenanigans and Kan’s shortcomings. If the LDP’s actions in the past couple of months are any indication, the opposition would surely give the DPJ a dose of Ozawa’s medicine: Obstruction of the government in order to pressure it to dissolve the Diet and call for early elections, which if held today would result in an LDP come-back.

There’s a glimmer of hope, of course. A moderate faction in the LDP, led by Aquino admirer Nobuteru Ishihara and his fellow young turks, is willing to cooperate with the DPJ government. Of course, such attitude is not out of idealism or principles but of pragmatic considerations. The politically powerful religious sect Sokka Gakai, which controls LDP junior partner Komei Party, is tired of too much seikyoku, or political maneuverings, and wants Japan’s leaders to get their acts together in this time of great national crisis. If the opposition is to maintain its control of the Diet’s Upper House, the LDP must maintain its partnership with the Komei Party; which means the LDP must avoid incurring the ire of the Sokka Gakai leadership.

Unfortunately, many of Noda’s pronouncements do not sit well even with the Sokka Gakai. They are also polarizing and unpopular. He wants to raise taxes and continue Japan’s borrowing, for instance. The LDP and the Komei Party won control of the Upper House precisely due to Prime Minister Kan’s attempt to raise taxes last year. And it’s a consensus among political analysts that talking about raising taxes is a political no-no in Japan, as Kan had learned at great cost last year.

By suggesting such a highly unpopular measure, is Noda being brave or is he just being naïve? Well, when asked by a reporter during the campaign if he still stands by the assertion he made many years ago that Hideki Tojo, Tomoyuki Yamashita and other convicted Class A war criminals were not really criminals, he said: “Basically, my opinion has not changed.”

Bravery or naïveté? You decide.

Japan’s petty intramurals

Today, members of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) will participate in the most important election for Prime Minister of Japan in the decade.

Obviously, much is at stake in this election; the new leader must have the ability and the willingness to unite his people in rebuilding an earthquake-torn country in the short term, and reversing the downward spiral brought about by the Bubble and the subsequent two-and-a-half decades of stagnation in the long term. Given these urgencies, it’s reasonable for an ordinary Japanese to expect an election marked by a high level of discourse, with statesmen exchanging visions that would inspire their countrymen to rebuild their country and end the prevailing national malaise.

Unfortunately, this election is far from that. There’s no high-level discourse on how to move the country forward, just shameless political maneuverings driven by personal ambitions and motivations. Perhaps with just one exception, the politicians vying for the top job in today’s election are not there to implement the policies and grand ‘visions for the future’ they pay lip service to, but rather to jockey for the country’s highest position merely to cap their respective careers. For them, becoming Prime Minister is the end in itself; being able to implement whatever plans they have, and therefore to contribute a stone in the edifice, is merely secondary. It’s often said that Japan has plenty of fine citizens, but I can say that there seems to be a shortage of fine statesmen.

To understand why this is so, we have to consider that, structurally, Japanese politics has always been shady and transactional, thanks to sixty years of “governance” by the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the all-powerful Bureaucracy and their allies in the private sector. Factionalism and horse-trading among shadowy political figures meant politicians practiced seikyoku, or political maneuverings, more than seiji, or politics, itself. To accommodate everyone, political factions in the LDP had instituted the revolving door system in the office of the Prime Minister; Japan had to change its leader almost as often as Madonna had sex. As a result, a mentality of entitlement consumed many status-conscious elder politicians – they all think that it’s their turn, so to speak.

Not that there are no good politicians in the country. Indeed, the DPJ came to power with the mandate of bringing about change in the country’s political landscape. And many of the party’s members take that mandate to heart. For instance, the out-going Prime Minister, for all his shortcomings, is a man of principle. Abandoned and isolated by the self-serving bureaucrats and obstructionist opposition politicians, he tried to respond to the greatest post-war crisis ever to hit the country with utmost diligence. Standing firm with his principles, he refused to bow down to the greatest political tactician in the last thirty years, Ichiro Ozawa, and tried to fend off his numerous attempts to sabotage his administration.

Incidentally, Ichiro Ozawa is an important reason why today’s election has become a petty political intramural that the Japanese don’t deserve. He is also the architect of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s downfall. And the biggest, if not the only, issue in this election is all about him: Should he be let out of his political cage or not?

Ozawa is an enigma that fascinates many students of politics. On one hand, he is a reformist who has spent much of his political life trying to dismantle the old system where instead of the elected politicians, the bureaucrats, and by extension the big private lobbies, call the shots; and to get Japan to pursue a more independent foreign policy. On the other hand, he is a shadowy figure notorious for the skillful way with which he navigates the political backrooms. He had brought down the powerful LDP twice. During the first time, he propped up prime ministers Toshiki Kaifu and Morihiro Hosokawa, considered them his puppets, and destroyed them when they turned against him. He obstructed recent LDP prime ministers Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso and eventually brought down the LDP for the second time, propping up another puppet, Yukio Hatoyama. The DPJ, knowing that Ozawa’s political acumen is the key to gain power, had initially rallied behind the shadow shogun; but as soon as the party took the reins of power, divisions brought about by Ozawa’s dictatorial methods surfaced, the result of which is the present cleavage within the party between the pro-Ozawa and the anti-Ozawa factions.

Hatoyama’s successor, Prime Minister Kan, bent on being his own man, tried to isolate Ozawa and undermine his influence. This prompted Ozawa to challenge Kan in last year’s regular DPJ election; but alas, the party’s grassroots chapters rallied against him. The bureaucrats then had Ozawa indicted for an old corruption scandal, and Kan and the party executives had him suspended from the party and stripped of voting rights. Furious, Ozawa then rallied his supporters to file a no-confidence vote against Kan last June, which the latter narrowly dodged only by promising to step down at a later date. That attempted coup was seen by many as the last hurrah from Ozawa, who seemed to be running out of options. But as always, those who counted the shadow shogun out had been wrong.

Of the five candidates in today’s election, the public’s choice is staunchly anti-Ozawa. Former Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, a young, photogenic politician whom many analysts think has the potential to be the next Junichiro Koizumi, is the only candidate who has repeatedly said that Ozawa’s party rights should not be restored until after his acquittal. He is also the most popular. If today were a regular DPJ presidential election, Maehara would win and Ozawa would be finished. But today’s election is not a regular one, and the rules can work in Ozawa’s favor. In a regular election, Diet members, party executives, and grassroots party chapters may vote. Ozawa and his ilk are not popular with the grassroots party members, thanks to their notorious reputations. This is why Ozawa lost to Kan in last year’s election. But since Kan’s two-year term has not yet expired, today’s election will be a special one; meaning, only the Diet members may vote. In short, the public will be merely spectators in the election.

There are 398 Diet members in the DPJ. 120 of them are loyal to Ozawa, while around forty to fifty are said to be loyal to Ozawa’s sidekick, Hatoyama. In the past week, Ozawa and Hatoyama wasted no time in whipping up their respective factions so they could vote as a solid bloc.

To be the next DPJ president, a candidate must obtain at least 200 votes. The Ozawa-Hatoyama bloc has around 170 votes. There are, give or take, around fourty non-aligned votes, which leave us with around 188 anti-Ozawa votes. If all these 188 could rally solidly behind Maehara, then he can be assured of victory, as we can safely say that the neutral members would back the public’s choice. Unfortunately, the anti-Ozawa bloc is divided between Maehara and another candidate, Finance Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

Noda and Maehara are both alumni of the Matsushita Institute of Governance, and as such propriety requires them to give way to the other in any leadership race. Noda had once given way to Maehara when the DPJ was still in the opposition, and Maehara had initially suggested that he would not run but support Noda instead. But Maehara’s supporters successfully encouraged him to run at the last minute, dealing a big blow to the candidacy of Noda, who had earlier been seen as the front-runner.

The Ozawa-Hatoyam bloc, on the other hand, is rallying behind Trade, Economy and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda. There are several reasons why that man should not become Prime Minister. First, as the head of the METI, he should be held responsible for the nuclear mess, the cover-up, and the other shenanigans the Ministry bureaucrats did on behalf of TEPCO and the nuclear lobby. Second, he broke down and wept at a Diet hearing regarding the Fukushima mess, suggesting that he could not, and would not, stand the heat and should therefore be out of the kitchen. Third, while he is singing praises for Ozawa now in exchange for his support today, he once wrote a book entitled Why I Hate Ozawa’s Politics. This tells a lot about how easily he can drop his principles for his ambitions. But thanks to Ozawa and Hatoyama’s support, Kaieda is actually leading the race.

Should Kaieda win the vote, Ozawa can expect to be re-instated in the party. This means that there would again be, at best, a dual power structure where Ozawa could exercise veto power over Kaieda’s appointments and key policies. This is of course fine for Kaieda since, as we have earlier noted, becoming the Prime Minister of Japan is for him an end in itself, being able to completely wield power is just a bonus. But if Ozawa’s candidate loses, then Ozawa, already isolated and growing old, may face the prospect of becoming politically irrelevant within the DPJ. Today’s election, therefore, could be a life-or-death battle for the erstwhile shadow shogun.

Japan blinks

A friend on Twitter asked yesterday if the decision to release the Chinese captain being held for slamming his boat on two Japanese Coast Guard ships was really made by the Okinawan prosecutors. I think it is obvious that the answer is no; it was a political decision made to appease China, whose sabre-rattling over the incident has effectively frozen Sino-Japanese relationship for the first time in five years. (Update: Yomiuri Shinbun source confirms in a Sept. 26 report that the decision came not from Okinawa but from Tokyo)

The incident occured on September 7, when Zhan Qixiong’s fishing trawler were ordered to stop by two Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats in the waters off the disputed Senkaku Islands. Instead of stopping, the captain allegedly rammed his trawler to the patrol boats, prompting the Coast Guard to arrest him and turn him over to Japanese prosecutors. In response, the Chinese government condemned the arrest as an infringement on Chinese sovereignty and called on Japan to “make a political decision” of releasing Zhan. Japan, which occupies and administers the Senkakus, countered that the incident must be approached in accordance with its domestic laws.

What then followed was a series of surprisingly hawkish diplomatic maneuvers from Beijing. It cancelled talks on joint-exploration proposals on the gas fields of the East China Sea, scrapped high level visits to and from Japan and asked travel agencies to avoid soliciting customers for their Japan tours. In New York, Premier Wen Jiabao cancelled the customary bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister of Japan in the sidelines of the opening of the United Nations General Assembly and, in a speech before a group of Chinese-Americans, warned Japan of “consequences” unless it releases the Chinese captain.

On Thursday, Chinese customs officials restricted Japan-bound rare earths materials, which are needed to manufacture, among other things, hybrid cars, computers and guided missiles. While it is obvious that the customs restrictions on these exports are connected to the Senkaku dispute, the Chinese government denied that it had imposed a trade sanction against Japan because doing so would be against the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Understanding China.

In explaining China’s hawkish reactions, most analysts point to the usual suspect: Chinese nationalism. Indeed, my (limited) understanding of the political dynamics in the People’s Republic tells me that nationalism is one of the two ultimate support pillars of the present regime in Beijing, the other being economic development. These two pillars make the Chinese people unite behind the regime and in the process ignore its political and human rights abuses. It is therefore safe to say that it will always be in the interest of the Chinese government to cater to its people’s nationalism. However, it must be pointed out that while there were serious manifestations of nationalist sentiments (mostly on-line) over the Senkaku row, they certainly did not rival the 2005 anti-Japan protests against Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni war memorial. In fact, given their scope, it is even possible to suggest that these nationalist manifestations were state-encouraged rather than spontaneous.

China’s disproportionate maneuvers against Japan undid five years of progress in Sino-Japanese relations, something both Tokyo and Beijing worked hard to achieve. Shelving these gains over an errant Chinese fishing boat captain could not have been caused– at the very least not solely– by these so-called manifestations of nationalism on the part of ordinary Chinese citizens. Most likely, the Chinese government perceived the new government in Tokyo as inexperienced and saw that Japan’s security ties with the United States is strained due to the recent Okinawa base row and that, therefore, this incident is an auspicious opportunity for China to reassert its sovereignty over the Senkakus even at the expense of recent improvements in its ties with Tokyo.

But whatever the reasons behind it, China’s sabre-rattling represents a right-ward shift in Beijing’s attitude with regards to its relations with Japan. And this in turn is part of an over-all right-ward shift in Beijing’s attitude vis a vis the whole Asia-Pacific region. In a recent post, China’s Credible Chalenge, I wrote that China’s over-all actions throughout the region have recently been characterized with growing confidence coupled with increasing assertiveness, most especially in the disputed areas in the South China and East China seas. Going against the spirit of the ASEAN-sponsored 2002 Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, for example, the Chinese government has very recently classified the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands as “core interests”, a language that had traditionally been reserved for Tibet and Taiwan.

This shift in policy can probably be explained by recent reports showing that the generals of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have re-asserted their influence in China’s policy-making process. For the most part since the Tianamen Square massacre, the PLA had generally abdicated much of its influence to civilian leaders of the Communist Party. But when President Hu Jintao courted the support of the PLA generals to win his 2004 internal power struggle with former president Jiang Zemin, his government became beholden to the military, whch in turn moved to re-establish itself as a major policy-making actor in Beijing. For a more detailed account of this rise of the military, see the essay The Remilitarization of Beijing by long-time China watcher Gordon Chang on The Diplomat.

In the said essay, Chang pointed out four things that indicate that senior military officers are gaining power in the Chinese capital: “First, their hawkish views are in fact becoming the policy of the country. Second, there are too many public reminders to the military that ‘the Party controls the gun’ to think this hasn’t become an issue. Third, splits in the run up to the 18th Party Congress, to be held in late 2012, appear to be once again giving leverage to the military as they did a half decade ago. As Hu and his rivals struggle over various matters—especially the slate of candidates to take over the country in 2012—the military is bound to consolidate its recent gains and seek even more control over the country’s finances and external policies. Fourth, although Hu has said that increases in military spending should be commensurate with the growth of the economy, it appears the PLA’s budget hikes have outpaced economic growth in recent years.”

Japan’s Bungle.

It is likely that Japan missed the changes in the opaque policy-making structure in the Chinese capital. If not, then it made a mistake by arresting Zhan and turning him over to the Okinawan prosecutors instead of just immediately deporting him. This is because it would be naïve for Japan to believe that a Chinese government that is under the influence of hawkish military officers would shelve national pride and react to the situation calmly.

In 2006, when Hong Kong activists went to the Senkaku to protest Japan’s occupation of the islands and were intercepted by the Japanese Coast Guard, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a China hawk, decided to deport the activists instead of arresting them, thereby sidelining Japan’s local laws in favor of a larger concern: stability in the East China Sea. That decision prevented an deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations, which at that time had already been in an all-time low due to Koizumi’s visits to a Shinto war shrine in Tokyo that honors Japanese war criminals. Had the current Japanese government seen the Zhang incident the way Koizumi saw the 2006 incident, things would have been different; the hawks in Beijing would not have been given the chance to flex some muscles. Sadly, Tokyo failed to see the matter from a broader perspective. To be fair, however, the reason why Japan failed to appreciate these important factors is because there was a power vacuum in Tokyo due to intense campaigning and the election for the country’s premiership during the first two weeks of September.

Having said these, I think Japan’s real bungle is its decision to succumb too soon to China’s pressure by releasing the Chinese captain when it clearly didn’t have to.

Firstly, while they are of serious concern, the cards China played were really of very little consequence to Japan. In fact, the cancellation of diplomatic and cultural exchanges and the saber-rattling by Chinese leaders hurt China more as these only succeed in helping Japan win in the world court of public opinion.

It appears that China’s decision to impose an unofficial embargo on rare earth materials to Japan was already among the last non-military cards Beijing could use. But even this would not have hurt Japan very much. This is because, firstly, Japan has a large stockpile of rare earth materials that it has built over the years and that; secondly, China is not the sole producer of these materials. On the contrary, this unofficial embargo could even backfire on China as it could in the long run encourage the United States to re-start mining these materials to cater to the lucrative Japanese market, thereby hurting the Chinese rare earth mining industry.

Secondly, the Japanese government has been successful in getting the United States to categorically state that the Senkaku Islands “are covered by the Japan-U.S. security treaty that allows Washington to retaliate against a military strike on Japanese territory,” something then President Fidel V. Ramos of the Philippines, the other American treaty ally in Asia, tried but failed to do when his country faced Chinese intrusion in the Mischief Reef during the 1990s. This, coupled with the fact that the Japanese Naval Self-Defense Force is still bigger and more powerful than the Chinese PLA Navy,would have been an effective deterrence to whatever “consequences” Wen warned Japan about.

It is clear that Japan has more cards to play in this dispute. Had Japan played these cards well, China would have been rendered impotent and the stature of the hawks in Beijing would have been, at the very least, diminished. But by choosing not to play those cards, Japan has in effect validated the policy prescriptions of these hawks.

It might be a bit of a stretch to say that the Japanese government has just made a mini Munich, but we can say that the Japanese decision will be seen in Beijing as a sign of weakness; an incentive to resort again to similar bullying tactics in other areas of contention with Japan in the future. In fact, this early, instead of moving to put a closure to the incident, China has upped the ante by demanding an apology from Japan for its imprisonment of Zhang.

Finally, from a broader and more important perspective, Japan’s bungle only emboldens an increasingly confident China to continue its current course of assertiveness throughout the Far East.

Ichiro Ozawa and the battle for Japan’s political soul

In an article I wrote for an online news website around three months ago, I said that the biggest challenge that would confront the then newly-installed Prime Minister Naoto Kan would be a potential comeback by Ichiro Ozawa, the erstwhile shadow shogun whom Kan at that time humiliated and stripped of influence within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). At that time, I predicted that Ozawa would field one of his puppets to challenge Kan in the DPJ presidential elections this Sept. 14. I was wrong. Ozawa would pull a comeback, alright; but he is not appointing a puppet to run in the elections. He himself would challenge the Prime Minister.

The king-maker has decided to be the king himself.

This is so far biggest political surprise of this particularly turbulent year. Everybody knew that Ozawa would one day seek the position, but it was almost a consensus that he would not do so just yet simply because his popularity is at its lowest point right now. Opinion polls point out that around 63 to 78 percent of the public are opposed to Ozawa becoming Japan’s leader. Within the DPJ, the percentage is even higher: 80 percent of the 300,000 party members favor Kan over Ozawa. A Prime Minister Ozawa, therefore, would be a prime minister devoid of the people’s mandate.

So why did Ozawa, arguably the most savvy Japanese politician in recent history, decide to throw his hat to the ring at the least auspicious time? This is something that only Ozawa and perhaps people close to him could tell. But we can get a clue by understanding the context in which Ozawa, Kan and others are operating: an intriguing internal power struggle for control of the DPJ which in turn is an integral part of the on-going shadow battle for Japan’s political soul, something that should draw the interest not only of Japan observers but also all students of history and politics everywhere.

Shadow showdown.

Filipinos like to point out that behind their country’s democratic façade is an arena where the major players are the influential dynasties, big business interests and other elite institutions that maneuver to get the bigger slice of the nation’s pie. Similarly, in Thailand, the Royalists and the Bangkok elite, backed up by the military, are at the nation’s helm. In these two settings, as it is in many other countries, the people are marginalized and democracy is not promoted beyond the usual lip service. The same has always been true in Japan, where the ruling establishment and not the people dominates the government.

In Japan, the ruling establishment is an alliance composed of traditional politicians of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP); the all-powerful bureaucracy; and the keiretsu, or big business interests. In this alliance, the politicians (denoted by the metonym Nagata-cho after the district in Tokyo where the Diet and the Kantei, the Prime Minister’s official residence, are located) enjoy the perks of power but the bureaucrats (referred to as Kasumigaseki after the district in Tokyo where ministerial offices are located) are the ones calling the shots.

The politicians employ pork-barrel politics to entrench themselves in their districts, bringing about massive public spending on infrastructure that bring benefits not just to the rural folk but also to the business establishments and the construction companies that in turn contribute highly to many a politician’s campaign chest. On the other hand, bureaucrats in Kasumigaseki, upon retirement from government, are given lucrative positions as advisers in big companies, making them arguably beholden to corporate instead of national interests. This practice is called amakudari, which literally means ‘to come down from heaven.’ While this corrupt arrangement has made Japan the economic giant that it is today, after the bubble burst in the 1990s this set-up has become unresponsive to the new challenges facing the country, which is now entering its third consecutive ‘lost decade’.

The reformist DPJ was formed on the principles of changing this corrupt arrangement. One of its core principles is that Japan should be a real parliamentary democracy where the Prime Minister and his Cabinet as chosen by the representatives of the people, and not the unelected bureaucrats, call the shots.

When the party won control of the Upper House of the Diet in 2007, it began a serious battle to wrest power from the ruling establishment. While it has succeeded in ending the fifty-year rule of the deeply-entrenched LDP in a landslide election victory last year, it has not yet taken control of the country’s political soul; the bureaucrats are responding with an extremely impressive resistance. It is unfortunate that the mainstream media and the general public are missing this on-going battle for this could cause a tectonic shift in the country’s political alignment not seen since the Meiji restoration.

This battle, for instance, has already claimed as one of its first casualties the administration of the first DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama. One of Hatoyama’s campaign promises was to relocate the US military base in Futenma out of Okinawa. This was opposed by Washington, which had already concluded an agreement with the LDP to move the base within Okinawa. Confident that he can strike a deal with President Barack Obama if he meets him personally in the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington earlier last April, Hatoyama set a deadline for the resolution of the issue. But alas, Japanese bureaucrats connived with American mandarins to deny Hatoyama a meeting with Obama. He was even humiliated by the White House by sending neither the Vice President nor the Secretary of State but the Secretary of Energy, third to the last in the US Order of Precedence, to greet him. At the end of the day, Hatoyama could not come up with a detailed relocation plan, partly because he could not get help from the bureaucrats and mostly since no other prefecture was willing to host the base, and he failed to meet his deadline. Having totally depleted his political capital, he resigned.

In lieu of the coming elections for the Upper House in July, Ozawa, who was facing a money scandal that is for all intents and purposes a joke but a convenient one for the bureaucrats who partly control the Public Prosecutor’s Office, also resigned so the party could regain its lost political capital.

DPJ spectrum.

The fall of Hatoyama also meant the fall of Ozawa, who had been the shadow shogun that wielded power behind the scenes. Hatoyama was replaced by Naoto Kan, who surrounded himself with anti-Ozawa party bigwigs, most notably Yoshito Sengoku and Yoshihiko Noda, whom he appointed secretary-general and finance minister, respectively. Upon assuming office, Kan immediately purged the Cabinet and the party leadership of all Ozawa loyalists and publicly told the kingpin to “stay quiet for a while.” Given Ozawa’s unpopularity, these gestures earned Kan and his cabinet a significant rise in approval ratings.

To see how painfully humiliating these must have been to Ozawa, we must understand that Ozawa is a proud man. And he has every reason to be so. He came to the presidency of the DPJ in 2006 when the party was still licking its wounds from a major defeat by the Junichiro Koizumi-led LDP, yet the very next year the DPJ stunned the nation when it grabbed control of the less-powerful Upper House of the Diet for the first time. In 2008, Ozawa secretly tried to form a grand coalition with the LDP, then led by Yasuo Fukuda, to resolve the parliamentary gridlock that the DPJ’s victory had created; but when this was made public the DPJ was unanimous in opposing it and in condemning Ozawa for even thinking about it. Ozawa threatened to resign, but the Democrats knew that only Ozawa could lead the party to power so they begged for him to stay. In 2009, when it was certain that Ozawa would lead the DPJ to power and become prime minister, the money scandal that dogs him to this day first came out and he was forced to resign. Just the same, he appointed his lieutenant Hatoyama to be his puppet and led the party to a landslide victory in the general elections that followed. For Ozawa, therefore, Kan and his group’s attempt to have him sidelined despite the fact that the party owes its present position to him smacks of grave ingratitude.

But more than that, it was Kan’s policies that really angered Ozawa. Dropping the populist promises that the DPJ made in last year’s elections like hot potato, Kan instead proposed to raise taxes and limit government spending on social security. These bold proposals led to a significant drop in Kan’s approval ratings that resulted to the LDP’s victory in the Upper House elections last July, the very same thing that Ozawa wanted to avoid by resigning.

While Kan honestly believes that his unpopular policies, which he calls theThird Way, are the bitter pill that would help cure Japan’s economic ills, particularly its ballooning foreign debt; Ozawa saw it as a sell-out to the bureaucrats who favor the same policies. For Ozawa, these policies were crafted by bureaucrats who are out of touch with the real needs of the general public. For him, addressing the needs of the people whose consumption would provide economic velocity must be prioritized over the payment of Japan’s debt. For Kan, on the other hand, pursuing Ozawa’s populism at a time when the country’s finances are strained is no different from the LDP’s irresponsible pork barrel politics.

And these differences in economic policies are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath is an actual battle for control of the party between two warring factions: the Ozawa group and the anti-Ozawa group.

The Ozawa group believes that the party must stick to its core principle of dismantling the establishment, which can only be realized by entrenching the party’s grip on power. To this end, the party should stick to its populist campaign promises at all cost. Structurally, this group adheres to Ozawa’s backroom politics that emphasizes patron-client relationship and behind-the-scene deals. Presumably, this group is composed of the so-called Ozawa Children, around 150 neophyte Diet members whom Ozawa recruited to successfully run in last year’s general elections, and the former members of the various socialist parties that had earlier merged with the DPJ. We can say that this group is the fundamentalist faction of the DPJ.

On the other hand, the anti-Ozawa group is more flexible in terms of adhering to the party’s goal of wrestling power from the bureaucrats. It sees the DPJ populist platform as nothing more than a tool that the party used to gain power; therefore, when the country’s interest so requires, it should be abandoned. Structurally, this group is grassroots-oriented, transparent and media-savvy. It is composed of Kan, Sengoku, Noda and former party presidents Seiji Maehara and Katsuya Okada and their respective factions. We can say that this group is the pragmatist, moderate faction of the DPJ.

Desperate Ozawa.

Most people don’t appreciate the fact that the Kan-Ozawa showdown is not just a normal power struggle between two individual politicians but a real battle for the party’s direction simply because they assume that Ozawa, notorious for the skillful way with which he navigates the political backrooms, is interested only in wielding power and not in formulating policies that would improve the country and the people. This is a very unfair impression. More than anyone else, it is Ozawa who has been consistent with his ideals and principles.

The platform he crafted for the DPJ last year and the policies he has been espousing are still the same things he had advocated twenty years ago when he first published his book Blueprint For New Japan. Indeed, a couple of decades ago Ozawa had been a rising star in the LDP, becoming the youngest secretary-general of that powerful party. As the LDP’s number two, party big-wigs resented having had to appeal to him because he was twenty-years their junior, yet they had grudging respect for his skills. Back then, the only thing Ozawa had to do to become prime minister was to remain alive; yet he stunned the nation by bolting the then deeply-entrenched party. If Ozawa was corrupt or interested only in the perks of power, he would have remained in the LDP. But Ozawa’s driving ambition is to really dismantle the ruling establishment in order to build a new Japan and that required him to betray the LDP.

For Ozawa, the realization of his political principles is bigger than anyone and anything else, including the welfare of his own party. This I believe is the driving force behind Ozawa’s desperate attempt to wield control of the DPJ from the anti-Ozawa forces.

I say desperate because Ozawa knows that, firstly, he is facing an uphill battle. While it is true that the overwhelming majority of the Democrats in the Diet whose votes would practically decide who gets to be party chief and therefore prime minister belong to the various pro-Ozawa factions, the rising tide of public opinion against their master could at the very least make them think twice about supporting Ozawa. Many of them would have to weigh loyalty to the man who brought their party to power against their own political careers or, indeed, the welfare of their party itself.

Secondly, Ozawa’s entry into the race is putting the party at great risk. This is because, as stated above, if Ozawa wins the election his government would be devoid of mandate and would therefore have very little or no political capital. To makes matters worse, most of the party bigwigs are anti-Ozawa, which means that he would have to rely on not-so-experienced supporters to fill posts in his cabinet. This would complicate the already nasty fact that an Ozawa government would come to power amidst a resurgent opposition that collectively enjoys a majority in the Upper House. Ozawa had used the DPJ’s Upper House majority from 2007 to 2009 to force the LDP to dissolve parliament and call for general elections. This time around, Ozawa might get a dose of his own medicine.

Ozawa’s supporters say that his backroom negotiations skills make him the perfect man to gain the cooperation of smaller opposition parties and even the LDP. But I doubt he would be as successful this time, simply because his unpopularity would deter any political party from dealing with his government.

In the final analysis, therefore, the prospect of a Prime Minister Ozawa is a paradox.

It’s a paradox because by insisting on “saving” his party and zealously pursuing the dismantlement of the ruling establishment, Ozawa might just end up destroying his party and restoring the ruling establishment.

Should he be forced to call dissolve parliament at the middle of his term, which many analysts believe is certain, the DPJ would surely lose control of the government and the forces of the ruling establishment would win this shadow battle.

More than that, it’s paradox because the fundamental premise of Ozawa’s core principles is that, since Japan is a democracy, the people’s representatives and not the unelected bureaucrats and other elite should take the nation’s helm. Yet by becoming a prime minister devoid of the people’s mandate, he would be no different from those he has been spending all his life and energies to oppose.

How small parties can play big in Japan

The self-proclaimed reincarnation of the Buddha, 53-year-old Tokyo University graduate Ryuho Okawa, said the spirit guide of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has informed him of the dictator’s plans to nuke Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo. To prevent this, he said Japan must amend its pacifist constitution and prepare for battle with China and North Korea. To this end, he has founded the Happiness Realization Party, one of several political blocs vying for seats in the House of Councillors in the upcoming July 11 elections.

If you think “Happiness Realization” is a peculiar name for a political party, you should hear the names of several other small political parties that have sprouted around Tokyo these past few months: Shintou Kaikaku or the New Renaissance Party; Tachiagare Nippon, which literally means “stand up, Japan” but is called Sunrise Party in English; and Minna No Tou, which literally translates to “everyone’s party” but uses as its official English name the phrase Your Party. There’s also the Nihon Soshinto, which in English is called The Spirit of Japan. Despite their rather colorful names, however, these parties are being taken seriously by many political observers.

This is partly because, with the exception of the cultish Happiness Realization Party, most of these groups were founded and are being lead by political heavyweights, all of whom used to be stalwarts in the formerly powerful Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Former Finance Minister Kaoru Yosano, for example, leads Tachiagare Nippon with another former LDP heavyweight, Takeo Hiranuma. The party is supported by the outspoken conservative governor of Tokyo and long-time family friend of President Noynoy Aquino’s, Shintaro Ishihara. On the other hand, Your Party is led by former Minister of State for Financial Policy Yoshimi Watanabe while the president of New Renaissance is Yoichi Mazusoe, a former health minister who until his defection was LDP’s most popular politician.

But more importantly, these small groups are rising in importance because of the increasing number of undecided voters who are seen by many to be unwilling to return the LDP in power on one hand and dissatisfied with the performance of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which ended LDP’s almost unbroken five-decade rule last year by promising change only to end up bogged down by perceived poor leadership, on the other hand.

Initially, the DPJ recovered from its plunging support ratings when its leader, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, resigned over the Okinawa base row and was replaced by the no-nonsense popular former activist and grassroots organizer, Naoto Kan. But when  Kan boldly proposed a ten-percent increase in the consumption tax to address the ballooning national debt, he was greeted with an Asahi Shinbun poll showing a nine percent decrease in his support rate.

Proposing an increase in any tax prior to a general election used to be a political taboo in Japan . But both Kan and LDP President Sadakazu Tanigaki apparently thought that Japanese voters have been spooked by the economic disintegration that occurred in Greece earlier this year and are therefore now open to the idea of raising taxes to address the country’s worsening financial shape.

“Kan ’s adoption of this line of thought is all extremely vexing for his counterpart at the Liberal Democratic Party, Japan ’s long-running stalwart of establishment power. Kan ’s suggestion that nonpartisan debate should take place about raising the tax has infuriated LDP leader Sadakazu Tanigaki, who had hoped to play the fiscally responsible party card himself in this election. In refusing to consider such a nonpartisan approach, Tanigaki now ends up looking churlish,” wrote  Japan blogger Paul Jackson on The Diplomat.

Both Kan and Tanigaki, however, seem to be failing to properly play the fiscally responsible party card. Tanigaki’s party lacks credibility as it was under this party’s long reign that Japan was thrust into this financial mess in the first place. Kan , on the other hand, is inclined to present a grand plan that seems to lack solid foundations. Writes Jackson : ” Kan ’s plans to raise the sales tax and achieve a primary balance surplus by 2010 are sketchy to say the least. How will any extra money from the increased consumption tax be used? How will other taxes be changed? How will the regressive nature of the sales tax be mitigated? And when exactly will the tax hike take place?”

In addition, Kan seems to be failing to gain consensus within his own party on the tax increase issue. Ichiro Ozawa, the erstwhile powerful DPJ kingpin and shadow shogun whom Kan dethroned right after his election last month, has openly criticized the prime minister’s tax increase stance.

“The prime minister seems to talk continuously about [raising the tax to ten percent] but out here in the countryside, as compared to the city, the economic situation is severe. If you talk out [in the countryside] about a ten percent consumption tax, for myself this gives me tremendous worries,” Ozawa said during a visit to the northern prefecture of Aomori on June 25.

Ozawa, who led the DPJ to its historic landslide victory last year, is an advocate of DPJ’s expensive populism. He insists that the party should not renege on its campaign promises of free expressway tolls, free high school tuition and monthly allowance from the government for every Japanese child. Kan , on the other hand, believes that the government is not in the position to afford these dole-outs and should focus instead on addressing the country’s worsening financial conditions.

To get Japan’s economy back in shape, Kan said the country must pursue the so-called Third Way and do away with the first two economic strategies that have failed to reverse the continuing stagnation of the Japanese economy.

Kan described the “First Way” as the government investment driven policy of the early LDP governments. This involved massive public spending on infrastructure like airports, ports & railways, and roads & bridges that initially provided employment and encouraged private investments. But although this approach became obsolete after Japan ’s economic bubble burst in the early 1990s, the LDP continued it because it provided its members the reason to grant themselves pork barrel funds which they used to strengthen their political clout in their respective districts. The result was massive and wasteful spending that stretched the government’s resources and exacerbated the public debt.

On the other hand, Kan referred to the ” Second Way ” as the market-oriented reforms that were implemented by the flamboyant Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2006. The Koizumi reforms liberalized the market and allowed firms greater flexibility with regards to labor and employment. The result was sustained increase in corporate profit that was coupled, however, by the end of the Japanese corporate practice of providing lifetime employment, massive lay-offs and the institutionalization of the hiring of temporary workers who received little or no social security benefits. The reforms ultimately led to the “working poor” phenomenon. The working poor are those who are employed but are not earning enough to survive the expensive Japanese standard of living. They are often called Manga Cafe or McDonald’s refugees because most of them are unable to afford housing rents and are therefore forced to seek refuge every night in twenty-four hour establishments.

“If a company implements bold restructuring measures in decisive fashion, and thereby restores its business performance, its chief executive would win acclaim. If, however, we look at the whole country, we find that this policy drove many people from their jobs, made people’s livelihoods even more strapped, and aggravated deflation. The point is that an enterprise can restructure and lay off employees, but a country cannot restructure and lay off its people,” Kan said in his first policy speech in the Diet ( Japan ’s parliament).

Kan’s “Third Way” calls for striking the balance between market liberalization on one hand and labor welfare on the other, as well as between strengthening social security on one hand and addressing the country’s gargantuan debt through tax increases and reduced government spending on the other. These tough balancing acts require bold legislations. And to pursue these bold legislations, Kan would need, as one analyst said, elective dictatorship, or a Diet completely controlled by the Government, which requires a strong DPJ majority in the Diet.

A strong DPJ majority, however, will be elusive for Kan. Right now, the DPJ is hanging on to a razor thin majority in the House of Councillors, and needs the cooperation of smaller parties like the Kokumin Shintou (People’s New Party) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Both of these parties have been at odds with the DPJ. The leader of Kokumin Shintou, for instance, recently resigned from the cabinet after Kan rebuffed his demands to postpone the elections and extend the Diet session so his pet bills reversing the privatization of the Post Office would be passed. The SDP, on the other hand, left the ruling coalition after failing to force Hatoyama to move the American base out of Okinawa .

This set-up is most likely to continue if surveys by the relatively DPJ-friendly liberal media are to be believed. In the latest Asahi Shinbun House of Councillor seat projections, the DPJ will end up with the same number of seats it currently has while the projections by Tokyo Shinbun shows the DPJ losing two seats.

These projections are better than the situation in 2007, when the DPJ got its upper house majority and rejected all key LDP legislations from the lower house and led to a parliamentary gridlock that forced Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda to resign in 2008. But if these projections prove to be accurate, Kan would probably be forced to tone down a bit with some of his Third Way initiatives in order for him to successfully haggle for the support of the smaller parties.

Meanwhile, the opposition LDP, thanks to Tanigaki’s poor leadership and the defection of its popular heavyweights, would likely end up needing the support of small parties too as it is less likely to do well in the polls.

These political realities for the LDP and DPJ give the smaller parties the unique opportunity to be big players in the aftermath of the elections. Both the DPJ and the LDP would be dependent on the support of these microparties to pursue their own agenda. The experienced politicians running these microparties are aware of their tremendous leverage over the two major parties, provided they win some Diet seats in this Sunday’s elections. They would most likely maneuver to get either the LDP or the DPJ to do their bidding instead of the other way around.

Compounding the situation is the fact that, on one hand, these microparties have professed dislike for the LDP and are therefore unlikely to forge a permanent alliance with the main opposition party while on the other hand, most of these groups- with the exceptions of the Communist, Social Democratic and Women’s parties- are on the right side of the spectrum and are thus unlikely to join a coalition with the left-of-center DPJ. Engagement by the DPJ with these microparties, therefore, would most likely be through forging of temporary tactical alliances on certain issues instead of more stable coalition partnerships. In Japanese, this is called barabara rengo or chaotic confederacies.

“We need to observe the situation with a certain amount of caution. None of these new parties will be able to win enough seats to individually make a significant difference,” said Yasuhara Ishizawa, professor of politics and media at Gakushuin Women’s College. “But they definitely will be destabilizing factors”

Japan: New PM ousts Shadow Shogun.

A Kyodo News poll released Wednesday revealed a 63 percentapproval rate for the cabinet of newly-elected Prime Minister Naoto Kan, an impressive increase from the dismal 19.1 percent rating that dogged the cabinet of his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama. This is despite the fact that eleven of Hatoyama’s seventeen cabinet members- including the ministers of Justice, Defense and Foreign Affairs- were retained by the new prime minister.

Analysts say that the reason behind the favorable support rate for the new cabinet, despite the retention of key Hatoyama stalwarts, is the result of Kan’s trying to dilute the influence of Ichiro Ozawa, the powerful DPJ secretary-general who also resigned with Hatoyama last week. Shortly after Kan assumed the position of prime minister, he told Ozawa to lie low and keep his comments to himself, and appointed staunch Ozawa critics Yukio Edano and Yoshito Sengoku to the posts of DPJ secretary-general and chief cabinet secretary, respectively.

Continue reading “Japan: New PM ousts Shadow Shogun.”

Thoughts on Hatoyama’s resignation.

“Do you know how many Japanese prime ministers I dealt with when I was in office? Seven! Would you believe that?”
 – Bill Clinton.

Indeed, Japan sees prime ministers come and go as often as Madonna has sex. Last Wednesday, after only eight months in office, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced his resignation, citing his failure to fulfill his campaign promise of moving the American military base in Futenma out of Okinawa. He’s the fifth prime minister to resign in four years.

So what do I make of this significant yet seemingly random event in Japanese politics?

Continue reading “Thoughts on Hatoyama’s resignation.”

Ozawa quits, Aso in danger.

The notoriously brilliant backroom negotiator who have been instrumental for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s temporary ouster from power after decades of dominance in the early 1990s and who was, just months ago, seen as the next Prime Minister of Japan, has finally ended his political career. With tears in his eyes, Mr. Ozawa yesterday announced his intention to resign as president of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) “in order to save his party’s reputation and to realize his goal of wrestling power from the LDP.”

“We definitely need to secure victory (in the election). . . . Forming solidarity is indispensable for that purpose,” he said. “If I’m posing any problem for that goal, that’s not what I want to do.”

Continue reading “Ozawa quits, Aso in danger.”

Kim Jong-Il launches his rockets.

And the biggest gainer is Taro Aso

For the nth time, global attention is on North Korea as it defiantly carried out just a while ago a rocket launch seen by many in the region as provocative.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the “liftoff took place at 11:30 a.m. (0230GMT) Sunday from the coastal Musudan-ri launch pad innortheastern North Korea.”

Not surprisingly, the launch was followed by a chorus of condemnations from some world leaders. President Barack Obama called it “provocative” while President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea called it “reckless.” Japan, meanwhile, has requested an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council which will begin hours from now.

Continue reading “Kim Jong-Il launches his rockets.”

Political kabuki.

Japan’s warning to North Korea over its planned missile launch reveals the willingness and the ability of Tokyo to flex some of its military muscles amidst its supposed “lack of a standing military forces.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamuro said Japan could shoot down the rockets.

“Legally speaking, if this object falls toward Japan, we can shoot it down for safety reasons,” he asserted.

Yesterday, North Korea revealed coordinates forming two zones where parts of the multiple-stage rocket would fall, unveiling its plan to fire the projectile over Japan toward the Pacific Ocean sometime between April 4 and 8. One of the “danger” zones where the rocket’s first stage is expected to fall is in waters less than 75 miles from Japan’s northwestern shore.

Continue reading “Political kabuki.”

Rough sailing indeed.

Last December, I speculated that 2009 would be a tough year for the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean Nuclear Crisis. It seems I was right.

Last year, Pyongyang embarked on its usual saber-rattling rethoric after Japan decided to halt its fuel aid to the hermit country for its “failure to resolve” the issue of North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals. The North Koreans insisted that the issue has been resolved, claiming that the Japanese abductees are already dead. Japan refutes this, saying Pyongyang has consistently failed to present conclusive pieces of evidence that will prove the death of the abductees.

And yesterday, an ex-spy from North Korea who had defected to and is now living in South Korea, Kim Hyon Hui, met with the family of Yaeko Taguchi, one of the Japanese abductees, in Busan. Kim told Taguchi’s relatives that the abductee is still alive.

Continue reading “Rough sailing indeed.”

Rough sailing ahead for the six-party talks.

Looks like 2009 would be a tough year for the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis.

A Japanese newspaper has reported that a senior North Korean diplomat has stated that Pyongyang would halt the process of dismantling its nuclear facilities unless Japan “implements heavy fuel assistance” to the hermit regime.

It can be remembered that right after the appointment of conservative Taro Aso as Japan’s prime minister this year, Tokyo announced that it will no longer extend fuel aid to North Korea unless progress is made on the abductions issue. In turn, North Korea has accused Japan of not fullfilling its end of the bargain, claiming that fuel aid has already been agreed upon in the negotiations.

Continue reading “Rough sailing ahead for the six-party talks.”

Japan: Aso wins. For now.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has just now elected Taro Aso as its president.

Speculation that the presence of so many candidates might deprive Aso of the needed majority votes and lead way to a run-off where anti-Aso forces could consolidate and deny Aso the party presidency for the fourth time did not take place, as the former foreign minister was able to secure 351 out of the total 525 votes in the first ballot.

Amazingly, former Economics Minister Kaoru Yosano landed second with 66 votes. The other favorite, TV personality and Japan’s first female National Security Adviser and Defense Minister Yuriko Koike, landed third with 47 votes. I find this surprising, for Koike enjoys the support of Koizumi and his children. But then again maybe it’s Koizumi’s support that made her lose?

Aso, who just turned 68 the other day, is set to become the country’s first Catholic prime minister when the Diet convenes this Wednesday. But the next question is, how long will Aso hold power?

He may try to buy time as much as he want, but there’s no doubt that a snap elections this year is inevitable. The LDP election got for the party much publicity, but most in the media described the hype as what it really was: a political kabuki geared towards grabbing the limelight from the DPJ, kind of like the Postal Debate during the Koizumi era.

Aso, a former Olympian and a self-proclaimed manga addict, is popular and populist. But it remains to be seen whether he can do a Koizumi under the present circumstances. Yes, he is popular. But the LDP and its policies are not.

If you like what you read here, you will definitely like The Observers, a group blog on politics, society, history, and international affairs. The Nutbox has moved to the said website. 

Aso will win Japan’s premiership

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) is now reaping the consequence of deciding to re-install Ichiro Ozawa unopposed as party president this month. No less than the party’s secretary-general, Yuko Hatoyama, is publicly worrying about the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) presidential election’s monopoly on media coverage.

But you can’t blame the media. And the public. The DPJ has decided to junk real selection process in favor of convenience (it knows that Ozawa, whom the party begged to stay when he resigned last year, is the only one among its ranks cunning enough to lead the party to an electoral victory). The LDP, on the other hand, is seeing a multitude of faces, most of them young and popular, vying for the party’s– and the country’s– top position. It is easy to say which party’s presidential election is exciting and which is boring.

Just yesterday, two more politicians entered the race for the LDP presidency: Kaouru Yosano and Nobuteru Ishihara. They joined the two earlier favorites: Yuriko Koike and Taro Aso.

Continue reading “Aso will win Japan’s premiership”

Japan’s Fukuda quits.

Yasuo Fukuda has just resigned as Prime Minister yesterday, citing his unpopularity and his failure to get the Opposition, which controls the Upper House, to cooperate with his policies as reasons. This is not at all unexpected, but just like Abe’s abrupt resignation last year, the timing is surprsing as it came only a day after the government announced a multi-million dollar economic stimulus package.

“When taking into consideration that the people must come first, we must not create a political vacuum by horse-trading,” Fukuda said. “On this occassion, we must promote policies under a new line-up– that is my conculsion and I have decided today to step down.”

He then hit, for the last time, the Opposition, whom he tried last year to invite to form a coalition government: “As long as some Opposition parties continue to prevent me from doing my job, I think I would just cause confusion.”

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has been very vigorous in its blockade of key government policies as the dominant party in the Upper House. But Fukuda’s party has always been at fault, too, for ignoring the Opposition’s valid points most of the time.

I can’t really blog about this major development at length today because I have class. But I sense that the LDP is gearing up for parliamentary elections, which is why the party has to get rid of the unpopular Fukuda.

It is certain that the LDP would elect a popular leader who will lead them to the polls. Yes, Taro Aso will now, finally, get his chance to occupy the Kantei, which probably means goodbye to the Fukuda Doctrine and hello once again to conservatism. Or maybe it’s goodbye to LDP and hello to Ozawa?