Politics, No.2  Aug. 7, 2010


HANDŌ KAZUTOSHI In the first sixty-five years following World War II, Japan had thirty prime ministers, if you begin with Higashikuni Naruhiko and count up to Asō Tarō. I made the interesting discovery that looking at them in three equal groups, divided chronologically, is an excellent way to go about understanding postwar Japan.

The first group of ten begins with Higashikuni Naruhiko [prime minister Aug.-Oct. 1945] and ends with Satō Eisaku [1964-72]. The members of this group were mostly seasoned former bureaucrats, including veterans of Japan’s prewar bureaucracy.

The next group extends from Tanaka Kakuei [1972-74] through Miyazawa Kiichi [1991-93]. In contrast to the first group, which was dominated by people who rose up through the bureaucracy, six out of ten in this group began their careers as party politicians. As a group, they were tempered by the heat of factional strife.

Finally, we have the third group of ten, from Hosokawa Morihiro [1993-94] to Asō Tarō [2008-9]. Here we have a parade of second- and third-generation politicians–children of privilege who rode into politics on their parents’ or grandparents’ coattails and rose to the premiership without having to struggle for it. To be blunt, they were poorly prepared for the job and lacked a historical or global perspective.

Last year the Democratic Party of Japan broke the Liberal Democratic Party’s decades-long lock on power, and Hatoyama Yukio took over from Asō. For a moment we thought Hatoyama’s premiership was the dawn of a new era, but it didn’t last. So I think it makes more sense to classify Hatoyama as the eleventh member of group three. Now, with Kan Naoto having succeeded Hatoyama, it does look as if the fourth era begins with Kan. What’s your view on all of this?

MATSUMOTO KEN’ICHI Certainly Hatoyama is a classic example of someone who road to the top on his father’s and grandfather’s coattails. [Like most second- and third-generation politicians] he started out in the LDP. And the way he fumbled as a result of his idealism culminates a trend set by the previous three prime ministers during the last gasp of the LDP’s long reign. No member of group two–the experienced party politicians–would ever have tied his own hands the way Hatoyama did by pledging to resolve the Futenma air base issue by the end of May. I agree that it makes sense to put Hatoyama in the third group.

HANDŌ And what about Kan?

MATSUMOTO He’s not a second-generation Diet member, and he didn’t get his start in the LDP. Maybe we should say that the real “regime change” only occurred last June with the emergence of Kan and [Chief Cabinet Secretary] Sengoku Yoshito.

HOSAKA MASAYASU This is less nuanced view than Mr. Handō’s but it seems to me that the Tanaka Kakuei-style money politics of the Shōwa era [1925-89][1. Tanaka Kakuei (1918-93) built a political empire by securing the allocation of government funds for regional development projects. Supported by the construction industry and other interests that benefited from those projects, he was able to raise vast sums to help elect members of his faction, which grew to be the LDP’s largest and most powerful.–Ed.] continued to hold sway into the current Heisei era. If you looked at the Hatoyama cabinet objectively, it had the appearance of an unholy alliance between the old Tanaka faction and the old Socialist party. And it was always focused on how to divide up the pie and never on issues of principle or ideology. Perhaps it’s partly wishful thinking, but I do get the feeling that with Kan, that era is finally coming to an end.

Disturbing Parallels

HOSAKA In any case, from Abe Shinzō [2006-7] up through Hatoyama, no one has lasted in office more than a year. Now, if you look back over the Shōwa era, the same situation occurred three times previously: from around 1935 to the first cabinet of Konoe Fumimaro [1937-39]; in the immediate postwar years, up to the start of the second cabinet of Yoshida Shigeru [prime minister 1946-47 and 1948-54]; and from the collapse of the Tanaka cabinet up to Nakasone Yasuhiro [1982-87].

What were the factors underlying those earlier periods of instability? Before the war, the changes at the helm were largely driven by the military, which was flexing its muscles in the arena of national politics. Immediately after the war, the Allied Occupation played a comparable role. And in the so-called post-Tanaka era, Tanaka appears to have been pulling the strings from behind the scenes and replacing any prime minister that didn’t do as he wanted.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the main force behind the continual changes of the past few years has been a phenomenon best described as populism. These days so-called public opinion, as fanned by the media, has been manipulating national politics in much the same way that the military, the Occupation authorities, and the Tanaka faction ran the show from behind the scenes in the past.

MATSUMOTO I think the closest parallel to the situation today might be the early Shōwa era, before the war. As the two-party system functioned in that period, the only thing either party seemed to care about was tripping up and obstructing the other. Their conduct created a vacuum of leadership that the military moved in to fill. At the same time, the kind of populism you’re talking about ran rampant. The military chose Konoe, who had the image of a clean political outsider, as a leader who would help bring the public over to its side. You can see the parallels between Konoe’s popularity and the public sensation created by outsiders like Koizumi Jun’ichirō [2001-6] and Hatoyama when they came to power.

HANDŌ And by Hosokawa earlier.

MATSUMOTO Come to think of it, Hosokawa [Konoe’s grandson], Koizumi, and Hatoyama are all directly descended from men who were at the center of the political scene in 1940, when all the parties were dissolved into the Imperial Rule Assistance Association [Taisei Yokusankai]. It’s almost as if they’re reenacting the political meltdown of the early Shōwa. [Laughs]

HOSAKA That’s how little Japanese politics has progressed.

Can Kan?

HANDŌ So, do you think Kan Naoto can turn things around?

MATSUMOTO Kan was born in 1946; he’s one year younger than me. People in our age group have no connection to prewar history, and we’re also divorced from postwar LDP politics. All the recent prime ministers through Hatoyama have been products of the “1955 system,” when the LDP, as the perennial ruling party, and the Socialists, as the perennial opposition, lived in a symbiotic relationship of sorts, but not Kan. So it’s a fact that his background as a politician is fundamentally different from that of all the prime ministers to this point.

HANDŌ He entered politics through grass-roots activism, not under the sponsorship of a major party.

HOSAKA I think it remains to be seen whether that ends up being a help or a hindrance on balance. It may be an advantage in that he’s able to view things from the perspective of ordinary citizens, unlike most second- and third-generation politicians–a man of the people, as it were. Of course, it sounds great to be a man of the people, but as a political compass, the people can be very uncertain and fickle. Unless Kan can stand firm in his own beliefs, the whole thing could come undone.

MATSUMOTO Grass-roots movements don’t have a vision of the state; on the contrary, they tend to stand in opposition to state power. Grass-roots organizers aren’t oriented to the idea of steering the ship of state or leading the nation, and they have no experience with it.

HOSAKA When Kan was minister of health and welfare [1996-98], he got a lot of favorable press for encouraging an investigation into the scandal surrounding HIV-tainted blood products. But that was one specific issue, not a matter of overall government policy. As you say, Kan’s leadership ability in terms of steering the nation as a whole is still an unknown quantity. And the policy speech he gave to the Diet right after he was installed as prime minister doesn’t give any clear indication of his political principles.

MATSUMOTO He hasn’t conveyed a clear vision for the nation. He’s just talked about “a strong economy, robust public finances, and a strong social security system.” Former Prime Minister Nakasone commented that it was the kind of formula you’d expect from the minister of finance, not the prime minister, and I have to agree with him.

The Two-Party System’s Dismal Record

HANDŌ Mr. Matsumoto mentioned that the political scene today has a lot in common with party politics prior to World War II. From a systemic viewpoint, what the two eras have in common is the two-party system. I’ve been forced to the conclusion that the two-party system and single-seat electoral districts are just not compatible with Japan’s political culture.

The prewar two-party system began near the end of the Taishō era [1912-26], when the Kenseikai [Constitutional Party] came to power with Katō Takaaki [1924-26] as prime minister. At that time Foreign Minister Shidehara Kijūrō made the single most important statement an administration can make when the government changes, by announcing that Japan’s foreign policy would not change.

MATSUMOTO Shidehara was criticized for being weak-kneed on foreign policy, but he understood that the most important thing in diplomacy is continuity. And so did Wakatsuki Reijirō [1926-27, April-December 1931] and Hamaguchi Osachi [1929-31], former bureaucrats who subsequently came to power as leaders of the Rikken Minseitō [Constitutional Democratic Party].

HANDŌ Exactly. After the Katō cabinet, the Rikken Seiyūkai [Friends of Constitutional Government Party] came to power, and then in 1929 power shifted back to the Minseitō, which was essentially a continuation of the Kenseikai. But throughout that process the government maintained its basic policy of international cooperation. In 1930, the Hamaguchi cabinet defied the military’s opposition and signed the London Treaty for the Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armament. It was one of the most glorious moments for parliamentary democracy in Japan.

HOSAKA But then the opposition Seiyūkai raised the issue of the independence of the supreme command to use as a political weapon against the Minseitō.[2. Under the Meiji Constitution, supreme command of the army and navy belonged to the emperor and was therefore independent of the prime minister and affairs of state. However, ordinary defense spending came under the jurisdiction of the state budget, not the supreme command, and was therefore decided by the cabinet with the approval of the army and navy high command. When Hamaguchi signed the London Naval Treaty, the opposition Seiyūkai attacked the treaty as a violation of the independence of the supreme command, claiming that military spending also came under the supreme command. As a consequence the government came under increasing attack from the army and navy high command and right-wing groups, and it gradually lost control over the military.–Ed.] Inukai Tsuyoshi went so far as to call for abrogation of the London Naval Treaty. Thanks to party politicians like Inukai and Mori Kaku, policies that the former bureaucrats had diligently preserved through all the changes in government were casually overturned, and before you knew it Japan was on the road to perdition.

MATSUMOTO It was a vivid display of the failings of party politicians.

HANDŌ In short, there was a brief moment there when a two-party system functioned well–but it didn’t last. Altogether Japan had only eight years of two-party democracy. In the end it was dragged down by partisan gamesmanship, and serious policy debate went by the wayside.

HOSAKA Grabbing power became the be-all and end-all, and there were no holds barred, from digging up dirt about the other party to handing out bribes. I once read the proceedings of a Diet session in which the Seiyūkai is questioning the administration, and it was unbelievably crass. It was basically a torrent of abuse, totally unworthy of an exchange in the Diet.

HANDŌ Of course, the parties routinely resorted to all kinds of deals and tricks to garner a majority, including recruiting politicians from the opposition camp.

What Hatoyama’s Grandfather Didn’t Tell Him

MATSUMOTOBefore the war, Hatoyama Ichirō, Yukio’s grandfather, would ordinarily have allied himself with the Minseitō, but he was recruited by the Seiyūkai under Hara Takashi [1918-21]. In the early 1930s, he followed Inukai’s lead and attacked the Minseitō over violation of the supreme command. In the end, that behavior led to the downfall of party government. Perhaps he felt some sense of guilt about it, because he didn’t run as a candidate in the Yokusan election. [3. The “Yokusan election” was a rigged election held in April 1942 under the auspices of Imperial Rule Assistance System Council (Yokusan Seiji Taisei Kyōgikai) to elect a rubber-stamp Diet for the military government.–Ed.] But what I can’t understand is how he could completely pass over that episode in his memoirs. I’ll bet his grandsons don’t even know about it.

HANDŌ Actually, his ghostwriter was Hosokawa Ryūgen, but I was the in-house editor assigned to Hatoyama’s memoirs, and I was a frequent caller at the so-called Hatoyama palace. One day I remarked to him, “I see there’s no mention at all of the whole ‘independence of the supreme command’ episode.” He replied, “You people don’t need to know about that.” [Laughs]

HOSAKA After the rise of the Yokusan government, Hatoyama allied himself with the liberal anti-military camp, and he probably didn’t want to sully that record.

MATSUMOTO But that’s not good for the health of Japanese politics. If we want to address the issues facing our two-party system today, it’s important that we try to understand why party politics self-destructed back then. As one of the key players, Hatoyama Ichirō should have offered a full confession and insisted that his grandsons read it.

In Search of Vision

HANDŌ As I see it, the fact that World War II was preceded by a political situation so similar to what we have today puts an enormous responsibility on our politicians. We were discussing the fact that Kan hasn’t conveyed a clear vision for the nation. I think what we need most right now is a leader who can clearly discern the direction in which Japan should go and show the people the way.

MATSUMOTO That was why the DPJ created the National Policy Unit. But it didn’t function that way in practice, and the Hatoyama government acted in a very haphazard fashion.

HANDŌ The international situation has changed fundamentally since the Cold War era, so there’s a need for new guidelines with respect to national security. Where the demographic crisis is concerned, we need to ask whether cash handouts to families with children are really going to boost Japan’s fertility rate. For key issues like these, we need to look ahead twenty years or so and take steps now to prepare, or it’s going to be too late.

MATSUMOTO Let’s get down to specifics, then. Kan talks about a strong economy, but economists project that Japan’s gross domestic product in the period from 2025 to 2050 will be 5 percent of the world total, as compared with 15 percent for China and 10 percent for India. As the gap in living standards shrinks, it stands to reason that those two countries’ shares of global GDP will approach their shares of the world’s population. We need to plan with this kind of future as a premise instead of searching in vain for some way to resurrect the bygone years when Japan’s economy was surging ahead rapidly.

It’s the same with security. America’s days as a hegemon ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. After the experience of the Gulf War and the debacle in Iraq, even Washington has to be cognizant of the limits of unilateralism. In fact, that’s why the US plan for realignment of its overseas military forces calls for gradual withdrawal from the Philippines and South Korea. In these circumstances it can’t be wise for Japan alone to cling to the strategy of following in America’s footsteps.

HOSAKA Not long ago I spoke personally with an official in the US State Department who’s working on an internal report on Japan. This official told me that the Japanese have the wrong idea about the Japan-US security arrangements, that the United States hasn’t seen a compelling reason to keep its forces in Japan since the end of the Cold War. It’s Japan that would be in a fix if they didn’t stay. And besides, there are other Asian countries that want a US presence in Japan. This was one person’s viewpoint, but it’s clear in any case that the idea of revamping the Japan-US security relationship is beginning to gain ground in the United States.

Where Japan-US relations are concerned, we should also be aware that while the fierce anti-American nationalism that has flared up in the past has subsided, it hasn’t been extinguished. With his background in civic protest movements, Kan must have absorbed some of that attitude. Do you think it’s possible that it could influence his policy decisions?

MATSUMOTO Oh no, I don’t think so.

HANDŌ I don’t think so, either.

MATSUMOTO I think genuine anti-Americanism was closely tied up with the humiliation of the Occupation. I don’t think people younger than us feel that humiliation any more.

I went to Turkey when the war in Iraq broke out, and I happened to stay at a hotel run by a retired official of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, so I had an opportunity to talk to him. I remember he said, “We’ll allow the US military to transport weapons and troops through our territory. But we won’t let the British military through under any circumstances.” And as it turned out, that was what the Turkish Parliament decided. After siding with Germany in World War I, Turkey was partitioned and occupied by Britain, France, and Greece in 1918. That’s almost a hundred years ago now, but they can’t forgive their former occupiers. Oh, and then he added, “Having never been occupied by a foreign country, you Japanese probably find it hard to understand that feeling of humiliation.” [Laughs]

HANDŌ I experienced the air raids as well as the Occupation, so I definitely have some ambivalence toward the United States.

MATSUMOTO I think the ambivalence is a testimony to how skillfully the US Occupation governed. I myself grew up in a base town . . .

HANDŌ Of course, even leaving aside the Occupation, people who came of age between the end of World War II and the 1960 revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty have been influenced by the political mood of the time, including the fierce opposition to the treaty. But younger generations missed all of that.

The Dangers of Mobocracy

HANDŌ In a two-party system, where control of government is the be-all and end-all, parties are sometimes inclined to enlist the cooperation of powerful forces in other sectors. Before World War II they got cozy with the military and became engulfed in the tide of militarism. As Mr. Hosaka pointed out, today the power they’re courting is so-called public opinion–or ultimately the media, which shapes public opinion.

MATSUMOTO I couldn’t agree more, and one of the most blatant manifestations of this trend is “TV politics.” We’ve reached the point where politicians simply can’t “sell” themselves unless they appear frequently enough on TV.

HOSAKA This is another issue that calls into question the mettle of our politicians. If they don’t wake up to the dangers inherent in this state of affairs, the people could ultimately turn their backs on parliamentary democracy. Fortunately we don’t have the kind of military establishment that existed before World War II, but even so, if we allow this kind of political disarray to continue, the nation’s vitality will just continue to ebb.

MATSUMOTO Frankly, I think the Japanese people themselves are being put to the test.

HANDŌ In the final analysis, our elected politicians reflect the inner quality of our people. If that quality is high, good leaders will emerge as a matter of course. We can’t allow the state of party politics today to lead us to tragedy, as a similar situation did in the years before World War II. What the Japanese people need to do now is look at things calmly and objectively and ask themselves, from a long-range perspective, what kind of political system is best for Japan.

Translated from “Nihon ni ni-dai-seitō sei wa muri,” Chūō Kōron, August 2010, pp. 70-79; abridged by about one-third. (Courtesy of Chūō Kōron Shinsha) [August 2010]