Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of the German Empire, famously said, “Fools say they learn from experience; I prefer to learn from the experience of others.” What has led to the current confusion in Japanese politics? Two guest commentators from Asahi Journal known for their discussions in Kokkai tsushinbo [National Diet report card] reflect on Japanese political parties over the 20 years since 1992 to look for the roots of this disarray.
MIKURIYA Takashi: Today we would like to reflect on political parties in the past 20 years, including those that are now defunct, and their relation to politics. My hope is that by looking at what each party did and the policies they achieved, and evaluating them and gauging their historical significance, we can identify the structural problems in today’s government.
Let’s start in 1992. This was the year we saw the downfall of Shin Kanemaru, chairman of the largest faction of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and the Takeshita faction, owing to the Tokyo Sagawa Express incident in which he received 500 million yen in illegal donations. It was an era when factions within the LDP played key roles, and the Takeshita faction formed by Takeshita Noboru and Kanemaru Shin was particularly powerful. Kanemaru’s downfall prompted the faction to split into the Obuchi (led by Obuchi Keizo) and Hata/Ozawa (led by Hata Tstutomu) factions, which later led to the downfall of the LDP. Before we study the other parties, I think we must touch upon this Takeshita group.
MATSUBARA Ryuichiro: Former Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro was the key figure in all this. Ozawa voted for the non-confidence resolution against the Miyazawa administration and later left the party to form the Japan Renewal Party. This triggered the LDP breakup that would occur later. The Takeshita faction ended up as it did because of a devil of sorts within it, named Ozawa.
Ozawa at this point had already advocated the very ideals that laid the groundwork for the political and administrative reforms of the Hosokawa administration and structural reforms of the Koizumi administration that would come later. I feel that everything that has led to today’s politics sprouted from sometime around 1992.
Mikuriya: A key party here was the Japan New Party (JNP) that former governor of Kumamoto Prefecture Hosokawa Morihiro formed in 1992. The JNP ran for that year’s House of Councilors (upper house) elections and won four seats. Hosokawa had declared the founding of his new party in the monthly magazine Bungei shunjuu. This ultimately turned out acting like a public advertisement to seek candidates, which was something that no party had ever dreamed of doing. Hosokawa was sort of a genius, coming up with one innovative idea after another.
The JNP only held four seats, so without the right to participate in the House Steering Committee or ask questions in the assembly, it initially was unable to make noticeable moves. But having gradually gained power through gubernatorial/mayoral and regional elections, the party succeeded in the 1993 House of Representatives elections by winning 35 seats, all with first-time representatives. Fifteen graduates of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management won in this election, including current Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, which was another event that led to today’s situation.
Matsubara: What was truly shocking about Hosokawa for the general public like us was that he was the first politician to pay such attention to appearance. I wonder how many politicians back then cared so much about a single necktie. He was also the one that established the trend of disclosing everything and making decisions openly, as opposed to the closed-door politics of the LDP. Although whether or not that was truly good is another question. This is because, as we saw in the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) presidential elections in August, the party needs to form its cabinet on the premise of restoring harmony after the electoral battle.
Mikuriya: Indeed, this was when politics made the decisive turn toward avoiding behind-the-scenes decision-making. But the LDP was still unable to break out of its old system, and those who hated that trend began leaving the party like teeth falling off a comb.
Matsubara: In the 1993 House of Representatives elections, the Japan Renewal Party (JRP) won 55 seats and JNP 35, while the LDP lost its majority standing at 223 seats and fell to the opposition for the first time in the party’s history. Another key player here was New Party Sakigake, which was led by Takemura Masayoshi and won 13 seats.
Mikuriya: New Party Sakigake and the JNP were unmistakably the parties that opened the doors to political reorganization in the early 1990s.
Matsubara: These two parties were the equivalent of Apple and its role in the IT industry. The JRP was like the Microsoft that came later and attracted many people, but New Party Sakigake and the JNP were the ones that had the truly innovative ideas.
Mikuriya: Ozawa’s Renewal Party turned out to be the pursuer, but he ended up swallowing the other two parties with his influence. Getting the Socialist Party and Komeito involved as well, he set up a non-LDP coalition government, placing Hosokawa as prime minister and Takemura as chief cabinet secretary. The two parties initially had no intention of joining the alliance, but Ozawa brought them together, which was simply amazing.
Matsubara: Looking back now, this forming of a coalition government was the first event that demonstrated Ozawa’s power to its fullest extent. Hosokawa and Takemura ultimately parted over issues such as public welfare tax. Ozawa forcefully put together two people with completely different qualities and then broke them apart, so he displayed faces of both builder and destroyer. He did a similar thing later in the DPJ, but the case mentioned was the only time that he really succeeded.
Mikuriya: Hosokawa had initially aimed for a “peaceful multi-partisan system” but teamed with Ozawa who advocated bipartisan. Looking back now, we can safely assume that today’s bipartisan government shaped its origins here. Hosokawa is probably aware of that, and he occasionally presents himself in the frontlines of today’s political scene. He probably wants to claim, “Hey, I was the original reform administration that led to all this today.” [Laughs]
Matsubara: Yet the Hosokawa administration resigned in 1994 after only eight months, and the Hata administration that followed lasted just 64 days. The LDP, Japan Socialist Party (JSP) and New Party Sakigake later formed a Ji-sha-sa (acronym formed from the Japanese names of the three parties) administration, while Ozawa united the former coalition government and formed the New Frontier Party, placing himself as the party’s Secretary-General. Here we saw the forming of a massive opposition of 214 seats in the two houses combined, but inability to increase seats in the 1996 general elections, and the party disbanded and split in 1997. You have to wonder why the New Frontier Party didn’t last long despite being a bigger party than the JSP. This vulnerability was quite strange.
Mikuriya: The loss in the 1996 elections wasn’t such a serious one, but the people who were eager to regain a ruling position were probably unable to wait until the next election. They all followed suit in leaving the falling LDP, but when they found that they didn’t claim immediate power in their new party, they started leaving again. It really felt like politicians had this “ruling party disease” and that they all wanted to be in the ruling party. More than the ideal of achieving a bipartisan system, they simply wanted to ride the winning horse. So people like Nonaka Hiromu, the acting Secretary-General of the LDP and the “ground-fighter of politics,” stirred this around and disintegrated the New Frontier Party.
Matsubara: In the Ji-sha-sa administration, Murayama Tomiichi of the JSP took the post of prime minister. The JSP is a party of ideologies, but when it assumed power, ideologies were unable to move anything. So they OK’d everything – the Japanese flag, the national anthem, a security treaty with the U.S., the Japan Self-Defense Forces. A party that stood on ideologies threw away all its ideals, which led to its collapse. By picking up power, it did itself in.
Mikuriya: Back then, the party was undergoing internal strife, and it was actually about to make a decision that it would approve everything but the legislation on the Japan Self-Defense Forces’ peacekeeping operations. Then Murayama came in and said that if that were the case, the Murayama administration would end then and there. All of a sudden, members all changed their attitudes. This was another party that had the “ruling party disease”; no members said, “Forget power and let’s stick to our ideals.”
Matsubara: In that sense, the only consistent one is the Communist Party. [Laughs]
Mikuriya: The Ji-sha-sa administration saw the LDP embrace the Socialist Party and commit a double suicide, after which the husband JSP died and the wife LDP survived. [Laughs]
Matsubara: It’s scary isn’t it? You feel something like the devil’s power at work here.
So the JSP renamed itself the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and sought to form a new party with New Party Sakigake. But the latter revealed an internal conflict between its representative Takemura, who wanted a merger with the entire SDP, and Secretary-General Hatoyama Yukio, who opposed merging with the entire party and insisted on an “exclusivity theory.” So Hatoyama, together with co-representative Kan Naoto of New Party Sakigake, went on to form the DPJ in 1996.
Mikuriya: Hatoyama and Kan saw the internal conflict of the New Frontier Party intensify right before their eyes, and probably felt that a party wouldn’t last long if it kept joining forces with everyone just to raise the count. That led to conflict with Takemura.
Matsubara: From the New Frontier Party, former Prime Ministers Hata and Hosokawa who conflicted with Ozawa left. The party ultimately disbanded in 1997 only three years after forming, and Ozawa launched a new Liberal Party. The New Frontier Party had formed a troika of Ozawa, Hata and Hosokawa with Ozawa again using his power to bring people with different views together for the sake of power in numbers, but repeated the same history of going awry and splitting up.
Mikuriya: And then, as if it were a homing instinct, he teamed with the LDP in 1999 to form a Ji-ji coalition (acronym formed from the Japanese names of LDP and Liberal Party). This was another mystery.
Matsubara: Though they did form a coalition, the “Ozawa Allergy” within the LDP was still strong. This was natural, since the LDP breakup had begun when Ozawa split the Takeshita faction.
And so Ozawa left again. Ozawa, for some reason, tends to repeat the process of joining and separating while occasionally trying to return to the LDP, as we see later in the issue of a DPJ-LDP coalition.
Mikuriya: According to an LDP official, Ozawa seems to be fine until he forms a team, but starts to nitpick after that point. Rather than talking about greater philosophical issues, he keeps poking incessantly at small policies, such as approving this or that, or raising the tax rate by zero-point-x percent. And when they don’t approve, he pouts and starts grumbling. That sticky kind of quality might be what causes his tag-and-split habit.
Matsubara: On the flipside, he doesn’t insist too much on big ideals. The fact that he tried to return to the LDP may not be such a strange thing for him.
Mikuriya: But in the Ji-ji-ko administration that added Komeito to the Ji-ji coalition, he insistently hinted at breaking away from the coalition and made things difficult for Prime Minister Obuchi. Some say that the strain may have been a huge factor in Obuchi’s death from a stroke in 2000.
Matsubara: Despite all the trouble, the LDP back then still had people like Nonaka and Koga Makoto who were capable of using underwater tactics, which fought off Ozawa’s pressure. But today, no one in the LDP or DPJ can be a power against Ozawa.
Mikuriya: This was about the time when the LDP clearly started lacking human resources. During the Hashimoto administration, I once asked former Prime Minister Takeshita, “Who do you think will be prime ministers from this point on?” He answered, “I can guess that Obuchi would, but after that I don’t know.” No one at this point, other than Obuchi, had yet developed the attributes and experience to be a prime minister. And at the same time, the party no longer had anyone left to take on the “backstage” roles that Nonaka and Koga had assumed. So we would see another appearance-conscious politician like Hosokawa rise to the scene.
Matsubara: That person was Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro. Unlike LDP politics until then, which had been about gaining power behind the scenes, he was a politician who aimed to display maximum power in the open. The source of Koizumi’s power came solely from his performance in front of the TV cameras. They say today’s comedy shows need to make the viewer laugh once every 10 seconds or else they’ll change the channel. Koizumi was that type, who left a memorable impression every 10 seconds. People praised it as “one-phrase politics,” but I think it was innate talent. He also provided his own staff that did the backstage work.
Mikuriya: Executive Secretary Iijima Isao, who was like the head clerk of the Koizumi family, and Koizumi’s elder sister, handled all the backstage work. It was sort of like a family business. With this, Koizumi achieved a long administration that ran for five and a half years, and which completely discontinued the traditional LDP blood both in the open and behind the scenes.
Matsubara: It was impossible to even ask the succeeding Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to do what Koizumi had done in the open. Koizumi was also known as often making contentious remarks, but when he said them, they somehow didn’t become a problem. A while ago, former Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) Minister Hachiro Yoshio sparked a controversy with his “town of death” remark and resigned; but I think Koizumi’s “people have their ways; companies have their ways” remark when asked about the issue of illegal registration for welfare pension was far more controversial. The way he did it was almost an art. [Smiles]
Mikuriya: Even his reform of the postal service had more of an intent to show his opposition what he could do than a true desire to achieve the system.
Matsubara: I agree. Koizumi didn’t seem to have that much interest in postal policies. I think it mostly served a strategic role to crush the former Hashimoto faction. And once the whole series of tactics was done, he seemed like he had nothing more he wanted to do and hardly did anything for the last year.
Mikuriya: Indeed, he was practically on holiday. [Laughs]
Matsubara: For several years now we’ve been wondering why no administration lasts a single year, yet this man idled around for a full year. Is that amazing or what? [Smiles]
Mikuriya: Back then the public applauded how Koizumi went around hammering down all the previously existing LDP systems and rules. And that, in fact, destroyed the LDP. The way prime ministers after him kept changing and the government lost its ability to make decisions and push things forward was backlash from the Koizumi administration.
Matsubara: But the Abe administration that followed passed quite a number of pieces of legislation, such as on the National Referendum Law and reforms of the civil servant system. In that sense, this administration did its job. But since Abe couldn’t play down a contentious remark with a memorable phrase as Koizumi did, he lost badly in the House of Councilors elections. He ultimately ended up leaving the administration saying he had a sore stomach.
Mikuriya: The way in which Abe quit was very bad. They lost in the House of Councilors elections but he didn’t quit, and he went on to re-form his cabinet and even gave his general policy speech, and then he announced his resignation two days later. If a man of wisdom like Nonaka had been there, he would have hospitalized the prime minister as soon as he found out something was wrong. He and the sub-chief cabinet secretary members would have written up a “Message from the Prime Minister” and handled the resignation process systematically to avoid any embarrassment.
Matsubara: It was a symbolic event, where the backstage workings of the LDP didn’t function. In that sense, the LDP organization had already collapsed by then.
Mikuriya: We then got the Fukuda administration, which was a sort of a “coffee break” administration from the air that, after a man who kept shouting reforms and a person whose only virtue was his young age, people wanted a prime minister who was more settled. People often compare Prime Minister Noda to Obuchi in terms of modesty, but I would say he is closer to Fukuda Yasuo.
Matsubara: But Fukuda rode Ozawa’s proposal of a coalition.
Mikuriya: You know, I think Ozawa really thought he could pull off a coalition. When he dragged along Hosokawa in 1993 and placed him on the prime minister seat everyone was confused, but they ultimately followed. That is why he thought he could launch a surprise plan like a coalition and ultimately pull it off with his magical power. But that didn’t happen. This was a huge shock for Ozawa, and I think the reason he has seemed instable since then owes to the effects of this failure.
Matsubara: But he later battled the succeeding Aso administration and the House of Representatives elections and overturned the regime. Ozawa unmistakably had a huge influence on this, but a coalition and a regime turnover are two completely opposite results. How could he devote his energy to two completely opposite behaviors in the course of a single year?
Mikuriya: That’s another mystery. It’s probably the same as it was in the Ji-ji coalition – I guess he feels like doing a coalition every now and then. [Laughs] But that personality may just be the reason he is still around. If Ozawa was really an incessant destroyer, I think he himself would have been destroyed at some point. It seems like there is always that former LDP system somewhere within him, which politicians will understand.
Matsubara: But just when the regime overturn was within his sight, Ozawa became the target of accusations concerning political donations, and ended up resigning as party president. The way the prosecutors moved here was almost political.
Mikuriya: It was political. Ozawa had staged the regime turnover but Hatoyama ended up picking up all its fruits.
Matsubara: I’m sure no one knows what’s legally right and wrong better than Ozawa. He was that careful, yet the prosecutors stormed in on him. There must have been some legitimate reason, a clear intent.
Mikuriya: They probably didn’t like the full series of reforms that attempted to strip power from Kasumigaseki. They must have also felt that they wanted to avoid the regime falling into the hands of the DPJ that could have done anything. Though it did assume power but didn’t do anything decent. [Smiles]
Matsubara: The DPJ that currently holds power is ultimately a party that gained strength from merging with Ozawa’s Liberal Party. It’s the same as the New Frontier Party in the sense that it’s a mishmash of people and lacks unity. So why then doesn’t it split, as did the New Frontier Party?
Mikuriya: Everyone probably learned the lesson when the New Frontier Party broke up — you get nothing if you break up a party. And they are currently in power, too. They won’t want to give up the power they finally acquired.
Matsubara: So would that make the DPJ a “Wiser New Frontier Party?”
Mikuriya: I would say so. But that’s not a result of an evolution in democracy; it only means that the DPJ had become a party like the LDP, that can’t do anything unless it’s in power. That’s why the current situation is not truly bipartisan. After every election, one of two identical parties just wins more votes than the other; nothing changes even when the regime changes. In the least, it’s not textbook bipartisan but more “deformed unipartisan.”
Matsubara: There are really no differences in their policies. Plus, neither the DPJ nor LDP today can handle behind-the-scenes politics, so you have two identical parties taking up most seats but matters don’t move forward. True, they each rule a house, but it should only take some creative ideas to pass bills in such a state.
Mikuriya: Divided rule isn’t all that rare in parliaments around the world, but they still get things done. The Japanese parliament gives up before it even thinks about how it could get things done. The ruling party is under the notion that it can pass policies only when it holds the majority of both houses.
Matsubara: So we’ve looked back at the last 20 years and realized that it was the “20 years of Ozawa.” No matter what we talk about, it comes down to Ozawa. And what’s amazing is that Ozawa doesn’t have fixed political ideals. [Grins] I personally believe that politicians need to be carnivorous, but there is no one who has the nerves of, and could take the place of, Ozawa.
Mikuriya: I’m hoping there is someone somewhere, but they’ve all been blunted. I’m feeling that the media demands too much common sense from politicians.
Matsubara: Politicians need to have a certain level of uncommon sense. There need to be people who say outrageous things to breathe some life into politics.
Mikuriya: Ozawa during his LDP days used to voice his outrageous plan of filling 200 seats solely with Takeshita faction members, which sparked antipathy within and outside the party. Will we see anybody like that in times to come? The media should stop nitpicking every comment they hear and reporting, “Isn’t this controversial?” A government full of honor students won’t give Japan the power to push forward from its current recession.
Translated from “Nihon-shinto ga taaningu pointo datta,” asahi journal 2011, pp. 56-62. (Courtesy of Asahi Shimbu Company)
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