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No.4 ,Politics  Jan 30, 2011

OVERCOMING JAPAN’S CRISIS WITH POLITICAL REFORM

Japan is in a very difficult position, both domestically and internationally. On the external front we have seen a string of recent developments, notably the confrontation with China over the Senkaku Islands, the visit by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Kunashiri (one of the islands in the Northern Territories claimed by Japan), and the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea, along with the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, all representing profound challenges to Japan’s foreign policy and national security.

Domestically, we have accumulated a huge national debt, and taxes now account for only about 40% of the government’s total general revenues. Social security expenditures are rising by ¥1 trillion a year. To make ends meet, the government has been cutting back on spending in areas like science, culture, and education–money invested in Japan’s future.

On top of that, the government is now divided, with opposition parties holding a majority in the upper house of the National Diet, and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan is riven by a fierce internal conflict. As a result, the government is unable to reach decisions on key matters. In the face of this situation, the public has become introverted, and a sense of impasse permeates the atmosphere.

The government’s response to this set of challenges has been feeble indeed. But merely criticizing the government for its weakness will not solve the problems. Nor will replacing the prime minister. Regardless of who is at the helm, the internal and external situation will remain extremely difficult. Fiddling will not be enough to get us through this storm; we must move boldly and mobilize all the means at our disposal.

Opening Japan Anew

In the mid-nineteenth century Japan also found itself at a critical pass. At this juncture, the famous thinker and educator Fukuzawa Yukichi wrote of the need to establish a “basis of argumentation.” As he noted, “A castle wall will be of advantage to the man who guards the castle, but a hindrance to one who attacks.” So it is necessary to determine what sort of interests we are aiming to further with our arguments. And, he declared: “One cannot argue the good of the nation from the advantage of one individual. One must not discuss what is convenient for the coming year and err in plans for a hundred years.”[1. Fukuzawa Yukichi, An Outline of a Theory of Civilization, trans. David A. Dilworth and G. Cameron Hurst, III (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), pp. 8, 15. Originally published in Japanese as Bunmeiron no gairyaku, 1875.] Fukuzawa concluded that Japan needed to open itself up and join the international community, for which purpose it was necessary to import Western civilization.

It seems to me that today’s Japan once again must actively undertake a process of opening itself up. Our country must again take on the role of a challenger and head out boldly into the arena of global competition. For this purpose I believe we must tackle three tasks: (1) We need to implement reform of our tax system, including a hike in the consumption tax, and of our social security system. (2) We must reform our agricultural sector, participate in the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP), and undertake prioritized implementation of an appropriate growth strategy. (3) In order to maintain Japan’s security, we must maintain our security alliance with the United States and gradually increase our own defense capabilities, clearing away superfluous restraints in this area.

First of all, with respect to the consumption tax, which is currently applied across the board at a rate of 5%, some people suggest that it does not need to be hiked yet and argue that doing so is not a viable option at this point given the weak state of the economy. But even if we decided today on a rate hike, it would take at least a year to implement it–and even longer if the hike were accompanied by the introduction of measures like tax rebates for those with low incomes. A system of rebates would require the introduction of taxpayer identification numbers–something on which work has not even started. We must reach a decision on increasing the consumption tax as soon as possible and then implement the hike when the timing is judged to be right.

The second agenda item involves strategy for economic revitalization and development. This will not be possible without agricultural reform. Over the past five years Japan’s farming population has shrunk by 23%, and farmers’ average age is now above 65. If the shrinkage and aging were to continue at this pace (though of course they cannot possibly do so), there would be virtually no farmers left in another 15 years. This is a shocking situation. So we cannot maintain Japanese agriculture by continuing our current policies. If we look at the free trade agreement that South Korea has concluded with the United States, we see that the liberalization of agricultural imports has been deferred for 10 years. In Japan’s case, if we consider the options of (a) deciding to open the gates in 10 years and implementing the necessary measures to protect domestic farmers in the meantime and (b) simply leaving the current protections in place, I believe that the former is clearly better.

What is important in this connection is to extend protection to those who are serious about farming. According to Meiji Gakuin University Professor Gōdo Yoshihisa, Japan has a total of 2 million rice-farming households, but only 80,000 of them grow rice as their primary source of income. This is a startling set of figures. He also notes that many farmers are holding on to their plots in the hope of making easy money by selling the land on favorable conditions later. There is no need to protect farmers of this sort. We should stop trying to save weekend farmers and others for whom farming is a secondary activity and focus support on those who are willing to farm full time as their primary occupation.

Stronger Policies for National Security

Third on the list of areas to address is national security. The top item on our agenda in this area should be to establish an organ like the United States’ National Security Council. The biggest problem with Japan’s national security policy is bureaucratic sectionalism, with a variety of actors–the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, the Coast Guard and the Maritime Self-Defense Force, the Ministry of Justice (Immigration Bureau), the police, and so forth–each going its own way. What we need is a small group of cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, at the head of an elite corps of experts constantly thinking of every possible scenario and making preparations, with the ministers and experts maintaining constant contact.

Also we need to relax the current Three Principles on Arms Exports. Unless we do so, we will be unable to participate in today’s international development and joint production of military hardware–or if we do participate, we will end up paying very dearly. So relaxation of the existing restraints is absolutely essential in order to procure weapons in a rational manner.

In addition, it is important for us to reconsider our current self-imposed ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense. As things currently stand, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the US military would not be able to cooperate effectively in response to a security-related emergency. The existing law to deal with “perilous situations in areas surrounding Japan” is defective in many respects. And a major impediment to bilateral security cooperation is the official government position on the right of collective self-defense, namely, that Japan has this right but cannot exercise it under the present war-renouncing Constitution (I believe that this opinion, issued by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, represents a mistaken reading of international law). It is hard to imagine anything as absurd as being unable to act together with the military forces of one’s ally, but that is Japan’s current status.

Next, we need to shift our security priorities to emphasize the southwest (Okinawa Prefecture). We should greatly reduce the Ground Self-Defense Force presence up north in Hokkaidō, reorganizing the remaining units into a smaller and more mobile contingent and making it possible to move them to the southwest at a moment’s notice. The money saved by reducing the scale of the forces in Hokkaidō should be used to beef up our arsenal of submarines, escort ships, and other advanced armaments.

What I would note in this connection is the importance of Okinawa in terms of deterrence. Two elements are important for deterrence: the existence of a capability to respond to an attack with great force and the belief by the potential adversary that there is a strong possibility of such a response. Even if the capability to respond exists, it will not serve as a deterrent if it is unclear that it will be implemented. I believe that it would be a good idea to relocate the existing US Marines Futenma Air Station in Okinawa to Henoko, which is also in Okinawa, but I do not think that the new site absolutely must be within Okinawa. What is important is the bilateral relationship of cooperation and trust. It would actually be better to relocate the Marines somewhere outside of Okinawa, provided our neighbors believed that the US forces would be sure to rush to the scene if necessary, even though it might take them one or two more hours to arrive. So the best approach at this point (now that it seems effectively impossible to implement the previously agreed plan to relocate the facility to Henoko) would be to leave the facility where it is for the time being, taking steps to provide greater safety for nearby residents, and work seriously with the United States to consider all the possibilities for a new location.

I would also note, however, that the presence of US forces at Kadena and other bases in Okinawa is of decisive importance. These forces are Japan’s American hostages, so to speak. As long as US forces are stationed there, an attack on Okinawa would produce a response from the US military. So the US forces in Okinawa have great significance in providing certainty that the deterrent capability would be exercised.

Some people oppose the position I have sketched out above concerning security policy. For example, the Social Democratic Party is absolutely opposed to revision of the Three Principles on Arms Exports, declaring that Japan must not become a “merchant of death.” But even if these principles were relaxed to a certain degree, Japan would still have the most peace-loving policies of any major nation; the idea of our country becoming a “merchant of death” is over the top. The SDP suggests that moving away from the three principles would damage Japan’s international image as a country of peace, but I have never met an international expert who has a high opinion of these principles. Most do not even know that this policy exists. And the few who do urge Japan to build up its defense capabilities. Otherwise their own countries’ security will be jeopardized.

Some people assert that a shift to a focus on the southwest (with a more mobile defense capability) will fan tension with our neighbors. (See, for example, Sotooka Hidetoshi, “Shin Bōei Taikō ‘yokusei no gensoku’ hazusu no ka” [Will the New National Defense Program Guidelines Remove the “Principle of Restraint?”], Asahi Shimbun, December 15, 2010.) Chinese Ambassador Cheng Yonghua has also expressed this view (Asahi Shimbun, December 9, 2010). This is a totally wrongheaded argument. Focusing on the southwest simply means strengthening Japan’s ability to protect its own territory on land, in the sea, and in the air. It is a purely defensive measure. Will China become friendly toward our country if we refrain from doing this? No, it will only become more expansionist. That is how military dynamism operates. Sotooka has voiced his view in ignorance of this dynamism; Ambassador Cheng has expressed his view in knowledge of it.

Dealing with a Divided Diet

Having thus established our basis for argumentation, let us now consider the actual state of affairs in which we find ourselves. The latest general election for the House of Representatives was in August 2009, when the DPJ won a major victory. Since the members were elected to four-year terms, the next general election will be held no later than August 2013. It is possible for an election to be called sooner, but the power to dissolve the lower house and call an election rests with the prime minister, and he will not readily exercise this option inasmuch as the DPJ is likely to emerge from an election with considerably fewer seats than it now holds. This is similar to the situation the Liberal Democratic Party faced in the years before 2009: Having won a major victory in the September 2005 lower house election, the LDP could not bring itself to call a general election until almost the end of the members’ four-year term.

It is absolutely necessary to move forward with the reforms I touched on above during the period between now and the next election–or at least with preparations for their implementation. It seems to me that Japan’s future prospects will be dire indeed unless we can achieve a national consensus for hiking the consumption tax relatively soon–such as with the 2013 election.

Solving the major problems we face will require the exercise of strong authority. But the national legislature is now divided, with different sets of forces commanding majorities in the upper house and lower house. The Japanese people have traditionally tried to avoid a concentration of power. And the current Constitution gives the upper house power almost equal to that of the lower house. This differs from the situation in most parliamentary democracies with bicameral legislatures, where the primacy of the lower house is a basic principle. And it further promotes the dispersal of power.

The chances are great that the phenomenon of a split Diet will become the norm from now on. Today’s voters are fickle. If the leader that emerges victorious from an election fails to produce good results in short order (even though it is obvious that, given the problems described above, quick and easy results are impossible), they quickly abandon their support and start looking for somebody else. Even Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001-5), who enjoyed high popularity, had a mixed record when it came to national election results: two victories and two defeats.

On top of that, the policy positions of the two biggest parties, the DPJ and the LDP, are similar. This is different from the state of affairs that prevailed for many years under the so-called 1955 system, when the LDP held power and its main rival was the Japan Socialist Party. So it is easy nowadays for voters to switch their support from one of the major parties to the other. Also, under the current electoral system, it is hard for any single party to win a majority in the House of Councillors. In fact, no party has held an outright majority in the upper house since 1989.

My opinion is that in order to deal with this problem of a split Diet, ultimately we should amend the Constitution to allow the lower house to enact pieces of legislation that do not make it through the upper house by approving them a second time by a simple majority rather than by the two-thirds majority that is currently required. But we cannot do that in time to deal with the current set of problems. Also, the provisions of the Diet Act concerning the operation of joint committees of the two houses need to be revised. But this too will take longer than we can afford to wait. So we must change the customary practices of the Diet to match the provisions of the Constitution that specify Japan is to be governed under a parliamentary cabinet system.

One point on which just about everybody will probably agree is the need to change the system for legislative confirmation of appointments. If the House of Councillors rejects the government’s nominees, it can make it impossible for the government to fill key posts. This upper house veto power is excessive.

Another problem is the use of upper house censure motions against members of the cabinet. These motions have no legal force, and if an opposition-controlled upper house passes them indiscriminately, the government may become paralyzed. These motions should be ignored. Alternatively, the lower house could annul them by passing motions of confidence in the ministers in question.

The customs that took hold during the long years of the 1955 system are contributing to the current instability. In those days the LDP held a firm hold on the government, and the opposition was powerless. The role of both the opposition and the media was to apply the brakes to keep the LDP from going too far. But today the engine has lost power; the government cannot accomplish anything big. Even so, media organs are still quick to criticize. Strengthening national security policy is dangerous, they say. Participation in the TPP will deal a blow to farmers. Raising the consumption tax will cause some people to suffer. Limiting social security expenditures will also hurt some people. They are good at coming up with complaints like these, but what do they suggest we do? Inaction will result in national ruin. Criticisms that do not include alternative proposals should be ignored.

Conflict Within the DPJ

The next problem is the split within the DPJ between supporters and opponents of Ozawa Ichirō. One of the points of conflict relates to alleged irregularities in his political funding. Former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio (September 2009 to June 2010) also had major problems in this area. In the end charges were not filed against him, but I believe that in other democratic countries his apparent tax evasion would have ended his career as a politician.

The problems in Ozawa’s case are even bigger, and though the public prosecutors decided not to file charges against him, the lay panel reviewing the case is leaning toward a call for his prosecution. In his own defense Ozawa stresses the prosecutors’ decision not to press charges, but the public prosecutors do not press charges unless they are confident of winning a conviction. This is one of the reasons that they are now under criticism. It is also a factor behind the recent introduction of a system of lay judges. On top of that, the law governing political funding is defective in many respects, including the loophole it leaves for funds handled by the local branches of political parties. The prosecutors may not have been able to put together a watertight case showing illegality in Ozawa’s handling of his political funds, but there were clearly substantial problems in terms of political ethics. Even so, Ozawa has refused to explain or defend himself in the Diet. This is inexcusable behavior from a party member.

The DPJ’s response to Ozawa’s posture was totally inadequate. Now, in mid-December, the party has finally indicated it will seek to summon him as an unsworn witness before a Diet ethics panel. The media is having a field day reporting on developments like this as showing turmoil within the DPJ and speculating on the possibility that the party will break apart. But as long as this political funding issue is hanging over it, the DPJ cannot possibly exercise strong leadership. The party should go ahead and expel Ozawa.

The DPJ is also split on the issue of Japan-US relations. I believe that the recent problematic actions by China, North Korea, and Russia are connected to the rockiness in our alliance with the United States. China’s military budget has grown by a multiple of more than 20 over the past two decades (while Japan’s has remained almost unchanged), and recently the Chinese have been stepping up their maritime activities. Former Prime Minister Hatoyama bears considerable responsibility for causing trouble in Japan-US relations at a juncture like this.

Ozawa, who served as secretary general of the DPJ while Hatoyama was prime minister, placed considerable weight on the party’s alliances with its partners in the ruling coalition, namely, the SDP, whose posture on national security is considerably different from the DPJ’s, and the People’s New Party. The problem with the Hatoyama administration’s handling of the knotty issue of relocating the US Marines Futenma facility was not the fact that it tried to find a new location outside of Okinawa but the way it approached the matter. Under the current administration of Prime Minister Kan Naoto, this issue is still deadlocked, but at least the government is now taking greater care to maintain good relations with the United States.

A third area in which the DPJ is divided is the issue of fiscal discipline. Prime Minister Hatoyama and Secretary General Ozawa both sought to push through implementation of the new spending programs that the DPJ promised in its 2009 electoral manifesto (such as the child allowance) even though the administration was unable to make spending cuts on the scale set forth in the same manifesto. Prime Minister Kan, by contrast, touched on the possibility of hiking the consumption tax from 5% to 10% shortly after taking office.

Kan is also in favor of participation by Japan in the TPP multilateral trade pact, but a considerable number of DPJ legislators are opposed.

The Choice Before the DPJ

At this point (mid-December 2010) some within the DPJ are exploring the possibility of restoring the party’s alliance with the SDP, which left the ruling coalition at the end of May last year. The idea is to form a coalition with a two-thirds majority in the lower house, which would make it possible to enact legislation even without approval of the upper house. In order to accomplish this, it would naturally be necessary to keep the members of the Ozawa camp within the DPJ. Since the coalition’s two-thirds margin would be very slim, this camp would probably gain a greater say.

Such a ploy would be suicidal for the DPJ. The public could be expected to respond harshly to efforts to placate Ozawa and his followers. And forming an alliance with the SDP would run directly counter to the need for Japan to open itself vigorously to the rest of the world. The SDP’s stance on national security is problematic, as I have noted above; it also opposes participating in the TPP, hiking the consumption tax, and lowering corporate taxes–a totally unrealistic set of positions. And its support rate is a mere 2%. It would be irresponsible for the administration to ally itself with such a party. The same can be said for the DPJ’s ongoing alliance with the People’s New Party.

Rather than attempting to put together and maintain alliances with minor parties whose agendas differ from its own, the DPJ should focus on implementing the policies I have sketched out above. It should take a firm stance toward Ozawa in connection with his political funding record (accepting that this may cause it to lose a few members), promptly participate in the TPP process, move urgently to hike the consumption tax and reform the social security system, and strengthen the nation’s defense policies. Prime Minister Kan and his colleagues have been proclaiming the need for policies of this sort. But people are not sure that the administration is truly committed to implementing this agenda.

Kan took some flak for his recent remark that as a new prime minister he had been driving with a learner’s permit. But if that was his way of admitting his performance has not been satisfactory, it is not such a bad thing to say. I hope he will make up his mind to lead resolutely henceforth. And if he cannot vigorously implement the above agenda, the DPJ should replace him with somebody who will.

The DPJ should also explore the possibility of forming an alliance with the LDP. The LDP was in charge of the government for many years. Instead of devoting themselves to silly efforts to trip up the administration, the Liberal Democrats should act in a way that will serve the national interest and move toward formation of a grand coalition or alliance with the DPJ.

Three-Member Districts for the Lower House

In order to move ahead with the task of opening Japan up vigorously to the rest of the world, we should also consider revising the current electoral system for the House of Representatives.

Today the major parties’ policy stances are considerably closer than they were in the days of the 1955 system. People’s opinions have also converged. The percentage of those who support the Japan-US defense alliance is higher than ever before. We see increased understanding of the need for a consumption tax hike. And a majority is now in favor of the TPP. Even so, politicians find it difficult to voice their own support for such policies. This is because they fear the electoral consequences. They hesitate to say anything that might cost them even a single vote.

Being a politician is not an easy job. Politicians bear heavy responsibilities and must be constantly on the move. We need capable leaders, and so we hope to see talented people enter politics and mature. But politics is altogether too risky as a profession. The biggest danger is of losing an election. Politicians end up becoming ready to do just about anything to get reelected. And so they oppose policies that could erode their support.

For some time now I have been advocating a system of three-member districts for the House of Representatives. For example, the nation could be divided into 150 such districts for a total of 450 lower house members (see my book Gurōbaru pureiyā to shite no Nihon [Japan as a Global Player] [NTT Publishing, 2010]). This would allow the formation of the sort of grand coalition or alliance among the major parties that I mentioned above.

In the past I opposed the system of multiple-seat districts, which was used for the lower house until the early 1990s. Under this system as previously implemented, some districts had four or five seats, and particularly in these cases it was possible for candidates to win seats even with low levels of support. This meant that even parties with extreme ideologies or policies were able to maintain a certain level of representation in the Diet.

This explains why the JSP was able to survive as a significant force for so many years even though it did not win that many votes. It maintained its position as the top opposition party despite the fact that it was not ready to take power and did not advocate realistic policies. And the fact that such a party was heading the opposition enabled the members of the LDP to focus their attention on their internal power struggles. So this state of affairs also had an adverse effect on the LDP.

Another problem with the old system of multiseat districts was that, in order to maintain an unbroken hold on power in the face of this sort of opposition, the LDP needed to win three or four of the seats in the five-seat districts and two in the four-seat districts. So it would have three, four, or sometimes even five endorsed candidates vying with each other in the same electoral district. Naturally these rival LDP candidates ended up competing on matters other than policy, such as services to constituents. Individual candidates sought the support of powerful figures within the party, and these powerful figures strove to gather as many legislators as possible into their own camps so as to improve their chances of winning the party presidency (a post whose holder was sure to become prime minister). In other words, the electoral system promoted the emergence and persistence of factional politics within the LDP.

Today the parties with extreme policies have almost completely faded away. The SDP, which is the successor to the old JSP, holds a mere 6 of the 480 seats in the House of Representatives. And the LDP’s factional politics have also receded. So the problems created by the old multiseat system can be said to have been just about completely overcome.

Suppose we were to adopt a system of three-member districts. Most of them would probably either be split two to one between the DPJ and the LDP, with the DPJ taking two seats in some cases and the LDP taking two in others, or split three ways, with the DPJ and LDP each taking one seat and a smaller party, such as the New Kōmeitō or Your Party, taking the third. The parties in the Diet could then form alliances based on the proximity of their respective policy positions.

It has been common in countries around the world for parties to form coalitions in the face of national emergencies. In Britain, for example, the Liberals, Conservatives, and Labour formed a national coalition government during World War I; from 1931 through 1939 the Conservatives, most of the Liberals, and a portion of Labour again combined forces, and from 1939 through 1945 all three parties formed a wartime coalition. Britain’s system of single-member constituencies makes it harder to put together a coalition than a system using proportional representation, but even there it has not been unusual to see grand coalitions.

Some people suggest that formation of a grand coalition would be like a return to Japan’s wartime Imperial Rule Assistance Association, but this is an ill-informed opinion. The Imperial Rule Assistance Association was formed in 1940; most of the existing political parties were dissolved at this point and their members joined the new association. The lower house election that was due to be held the following year was postponed in the name of “national unity,” and when an election was held in 1942, the association nominated candidates for all 466 seats, seeking to monopolize its hold on the chamber with unanimous support from the government and the people. Even so, about 20% of the victors were candidates who ran without the association’s backing. In today’s free Japan, it is impossible for dissent to be stifled. And it is also impossible to conceive of interference in an election by a united government-popular front. The political parties would continue to exist even under a coalition, and so the analogy of the Imperial Rule Assistance Association is completely invalid. Particularly if each district elected three members, free competition would be assured.

Some portions of this proposal still need some polishing, but I offer it for general consideration.

Translated from “Kaikoku shinshu no seiji kaikaku de kokunan o norikoeyo,” Chūō Kōron, February 2011, pp. 94-101. (Courtesy of Chūō Kōron Shinsha) [February 2011]

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