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Politics, No.2  Sept. 27, 2010


Looking at the Democratic Party of Japan these days, I cannot help feeling that it has headed out to sea on a journey without a chart. When the DPJ took over the reins of government from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party last autumn, it had a chart of sorts, namely, the manifesto it set forth as the basis for its campaign for the August 2009 House of Representatives election, from which it emerged victorious. But once the administration of Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio came into power, it discarded the planks of this platform one after another, deciding, for example, not to pay the promised “child allowance” in full and modifying its pledge to eliminate expressway tolls. In June this year Hatoyama resigned and Kan Naoto took the helm as the new captain of the ship of state, but the crew of the ship are still nervous, wondering where in the world he is going to take them. The ship seems to be adrift on the high seas.

The worst thing that can happen to an administration is for it to lose track of its bonds. Up to now the political schedule for submission of legislation and drafting of the budget gave people a certain idea of what lay ahead, and this in turn allowed the government to strengthen its bonds. But the prospects for the future have turned totally opaque. Prime Minister Kan allowed the DPJ’s defeat in the July upper house election to rob him of his confidence; he has been making no pronouncements to manage the situation, and he seems to have sunk into a state of dejection.

It is not just Kan; the whole DPJ has lost its power to drive politics forward. This goes deeper than the problems of policymaking and of dealing with short-term developments on the political scene. Nobody is attempting to direct the policy deliberations and majority-building operations for the upcoming session of the National Diet, in which the government can expect to face rough going. At this rate, the opposition forces are liable to take advantage of the government’s loss of its upper house majority to force the dissolution of the lower house and the calling of a general election.

Amid this disappearance of the bonds of political cohesion, Ozawa Ichirō, who was secretary general of the DPJ until this June, has started to reveal his presence in an eerie manner. He made no public pronouncements for a while after the upper house election, but as criticism of the Kan administration mounted, he began to let out critical comments of his own, suggesting that the DPJ’s defeat in the election had been only natural and that the campaign was tactically flawed. Given the suspicions of financial improprieties that hang over Ozawa, it seems likely that the DPJ would have suffered an even worse defeat if he had stayed on as secretary general after Hatoyama resigned in June, but a greater share of the blame for the outcome has been pinned on the new party leadership.

Shortly after he became prime minister, Kan showily declared that Ozawa had best keep quiet for a while, but after the upper house defeat he lost his resolve. The first step should have been an assessment of the results based on a clear identification of the election as having been a judgment on the nine months of the Hatoyama administration, during which Ozawa had been in charge of election strategy and other party affairs. But Kan ended up pulling his punches out of consideration for Ozawa. And with Kan unable to gain a firm grasp on the reins of government, the crafty Ozawa has once again started to prowl.

How the DPJ Has Relied on Ozawa

In an article I wrote for the March issue of Chūō Kōron, I noted that Ozawa Ichirō was “past his best-before date,” but the DPJ has continued to keep him on display. The media all eagerly report on his maneuvers–and in so doing, may well be playing along with his strategy.

The politicians of the DPJ have tended to focus on setting forth their shiny ideas and to make light of the necessary political nitty-gritty of power and wheeling-dealing. Last December, when the government was finalizing its draft budget for the coming fiscal year, Ozawa presented a list of priority requests for adjustments, and he succeeded in securing the reversal of the decision to abolish the provisional gasoline tax. As seen in this successful maneuver, politics in practice is an extremely complicated matter, requiring an agile combination of feints, thrusts, and pulls. And Ozawa is the only person in today’s DPJ who understands this type of politics and is capable of implementing it. The DPJ has been organized with everything in this area left up to him, and none of the other members of the party, including those considered Ozawa’s opponents, has learned the crucial political techniques of which he is a master.

I recall what one politician who held a key post in the Hatoyama administration had to say about Ozawa: “Ozawa-san is like the old type of sales promotion department manager. He can’t develop new products, but he’s great at clearing out the inventory.” This comment strikes me as brilliantly stating the essence of the matter. Ozawa may be of the old school, but he can be relied on to put together good election strategies and to undertake political adjustments. So in practice he was assigned all the essential dirty work.

However, the suspicions involving Ozawa’s funding run deep. On July 15 a lay prosecution review committee found fault with the public prosecutors’ decision not to press charges against his political fund management organization Rikuzankai for violations of the Political Funds Control Law in connection with its activities in 2007. A separate review committee is now looking at Rikuzankai’s 2004 and 2005 activities, and if it should decide that these merit prosecution, the public prosecutors will have no choice but to indict Ozawa. In this case he will probably be pressed to quit the DPJ and resign from his Diet seat. And even if he avoids such a fate, he will be called to testify before the Political Ethics Hearing Committee; he may be required to give testimony under oath.

The Kan administration has been taking a strict stand on political funding issues, but it is unable to eliminate Ozawa’s influence because it has tacitly recognized his power. And there is no movement toward replacing him in the role he has been playing. The problem with the DPJ is that it has not come up with any sort of simulation for how it would function in Ozawa’s absence. Nobody else in the party can perform the role he has taken on, including his willingness to play the villain and push for the revision of policies set forth in last year’s electoral manifesto.

Depending on how matters develop, particularly in the deliberations of the prosecution review committee, Ozawa may leave the DPJ. If he can get even five other legislators, such as some of the “Ozawa children” elected to the Diet for the first time last year with his support, he will be able to form a new party eligible for public funding.

Learning from the Old LDP

The old LDP always had a few people like Ozawa, well versed in the craft of political maneuvering. It had a golden age when it included political pros in the true sense of the term. Consider, for example, Nakasone Yasuhiro, who became prime minister in 1982. Initially he was seen as being under the sway of former Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei, and wags referred to the “Tanakasone cabinet.” Nakasone ran his administration with a sense of tension, relying on Tanaka’s support but at the same time looking for a way of eliminating Tanaka’s clout. He started out with a relatively low level of public support, but before long he succeeded in cutting Tanaka out of the loop, and he stayed in power for five years, a long run for a Japanese prime minister.

I once spoke to Nakasone about the launch of his administration and suggested that he had a poor start. Nakasone offered this clear reply: “That’s certainly true. But in my case, ever since I entered politics, I had been thinking about what I would do if I became prime minister; I had been running simulations in my head for a long time. It seems to me that it’s no good if we don’t have prime ministers like that.”

I agree with Nakasone’s view. There is a big difference in the ability to lead an administration between those who are propped up as candidates for presidency of the ruling party, win, and assume the premiership through the luck of the moment and those who have been steadily training themselves to become prime minister.

Takeshita Noboru, prime minister 1987-89, always handled dealings with other individual politicians and party-to-party negotiations on the basis of a long-term calculus, aiming to balance out the debts and credits over a span of 10 years or so. He became known for his extensive network of personal connections with politicians in the opposition as well as the LDP; he helped even opposition lawmakers find new jobs after they retired from politics.

All the media talks about these days is the phenomenon of nejire, or “twisting”–the fact that, as a result of the DPJ’s defeat in the July upper house election, control of the Diet is split between the DPJ, which continues to dominate the House of Representatives, and the opposition, which has won a majority in the House of Councillors. On the assumption that this will mean political paralysis, journalists are making a racket about what a dire state of affairs it is, but they are wrong. If the ruling DPJ, which is also the largest single party in the upper house, turns its thinking to ways of solving the nejire puzzle so as to get things done, it ought to be able to come up with all sorts of ideas. This is the task that tests the mettle of an administration’s leadership. The media, which can only come up with the story line that the Kan administration is doomed because it has lost control of the upper house, is conceptually impoverished. And Prime Minister Kan and his party, who have accepted this story line unthinkingly and have become paralyzed as a result, are also pathetic.

If the old LDP were facing this situation, its leaders would have come up with a scenario for the future, even if it involved farfetched thinking. Back in the late 1990s, when the LDP-led administration of Prime Minister Obuchi Keizō was in similar straits, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nonaka Hiromu declared, “I’ll prostrate myself in front of the Devil to get bills through the Diet,” and he brought Ozawa’s Liberal Party into the ruling coalition. And people like Kajiyama Seiroku, who served as chief cabinet secretary from 1996 to 1997 under Hashimoto Ryūtarō, surely were involved in all sorts of behind-the-scenes moves to put together the required majority to secure passage of the government’s legislation. The DPJ is completely incapable of this sort of thing.

During the upper house election campaign this year, Edano Yukio, who replaced Ozawa as DPJ secretary general in June, declared it would be easy to form an alliance or coalition as long as the parties supported the same policies. In fact, however, parties with similar policies have a harder time joining forces. If a smaller party is invited to join forces with a larger one and their platforms are alike, the smaller party is liable to lose prominence and get submerged. So that sort of coalition building runs into stiff resistance. By contrast, when two parties with contrasting policy agendas come together to iron out their differences, they may be able to come up with bold compromises. Edano’s statement reflects a view of democracy at the level of a classroom student council.

Joining forces despite policy differences was part of standard operating procedure for the old LDP. In earlier decades, when the LDP was at its peak, it actually relied on the left wing of the Japan Socialist Party rather than the right wing to keep the proceedings in the Diet going. Takeshita and other members of the LDP mainstream in particular were able to get bills enacted by reaching agreement with the left-wing Socialists. That was how it came to pass that the LDP, after losing power in 1993, regained control the following year by forming a coalition government with Socialist leader Murayama Tomiichi as prime minister. It was Takeshita who recommended letting Murayama take the helm. Politics involves connections that can lead in unexpected directions. In order to manage an administration successfully, a certain amount of underground work is essential. This sort of wisdom is particularly necessary at a time like this, when we face confusion on the political stage.

Incapable of Governing?

The DPJ has declared that it will not conduct behind-the-scenes maneuvering as a matter of basic principle, and in fact it is not doing so. It has a declared policy of doing everything through open negotiations. I understood that the party does not like doing things under cover, but in fact it is incapable of such operations. As Ozawa complained when the other party executives rejected his move to form a grand coalition with the LDP in 2007, the DPJ is actually “incapable of governing.”

At his press conference after the DPJ’s defeat in the upper house election became clear, Kan should have spoken of returning to the party’s starting point and explained what his administration intended to do next. In other words, he should have gone back to the original spirit of the party, but he was unable to do so.

Kan also went wrong by suggesting that his mention of the issue of raising the consumption tax was the cause of the DPJ’s defeat. He should have stuck to his guns and expressed his own thinking, noting that voters had not accepted the idea of hiking the consumption tax from 5% to 10% but that even so, in view of the state of Japan’s public finances, his call for discussion of this issue was not mistaken. If he had spoken at the postelection press conference about Japan’s agenda for the future, the subsequent course of events would surely have been quite different.

Another problem issue is the relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma in Okinawa. The bungled handling of this matter up to now has generated great mistrust, and nobody can believe Kan’s promise to reach a decision on the construction method for the proposed replacement facility by the end of August. Kan’s first words on this subject should have been to apologize thoroughly for the missteps taken by the Hatoyama administration. Moving ahead on this matter will probably have to wait till after this November’s gubernatorial election in Okinawa. An apology would have cost Kan something, but it would have made it possible to mark the end of the previous chapter and the start of a new one.

The members of the current DPJ, however, seem to be oblivious even to this sort of natural procedure. For a while Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya was ambitiously trying to sort out the Futenma issue with the local authorities in Okinawa, but now there is no sign of his involvement. The reason for this paralysis is that the DPJ lacks the sort of ability that the old LDP had to find solutions by working out compromises between the mainstream and non-mainstream camps and among the various factions. In the DPJ the term group is used rather than faction; the groups are loose networks of legislators, and it is not clear what direction they are facing. It comes down to a question of whether one stresses the individual or focuses on solidarity. The factions of the LDP came under criticism as being harmful in various ways, but they did have the advantage of making movement within the party visible thanks to their ability to hold their membership together.

Clearly there are lessons to be learned from the old LDP. But I should stress that it is the old LDP that I am talking about. Today the party has lost its ability to govern and has no truly capable politicians. If Tanigaki Sadakazu, the LDP’s current president, were to become prime minister, I doubt he would do significantly better than Hatoyama or Kan. In support of this view, I might note that opinion polls show almost 70% of the public opposed to letting the LDP return to power.

The current political scene presents a sorry sight: The expectations that flowered at the time of last year’s change of government have withered, and a sense of lassitude has spread far and wide across what appears to be a desolate plain.

The Ministry of Finance Wins

The DPJ proclaimed that it was going to switch from government dominated by the bureaucracy to government led by politicians. But it has failed to live up to this pledge.

To be sure, the starting point for this call was the impasse that had been reached in the existing system of government as practiced by the LDP, which featured heavy reliance on the bureaucracy. But the change to rule by the DPJ has not produced the hoped-for improvement in this area. To the contrary, popular mistrust in political leadership has grown even deeper.

Emblematic of the DPJ administration’s shortcomings is the failure of the “National Strategy Bureau” concept. The idea, as set forth in last year’s manifesto, was that this organ would “bring together talented people from both the public and the private sector to shape a national vision for the new era, and formulate the budget framework with politicians taking the lead.” This was to be the symbol of the new administration and its switch to politician-led government. After the DPJ took power, it did establish a new organ called the National Policy Unit, but it has not functioned at all for the past nine months.[1. Since creating a new bureau requires legislation, the administration chose to start by setting it up as an office-level organization.–Ed.] The talented people assembled as members have been left cooling their heels. When Kan became prime minister, I thought we would finally see this organization start functioning properly, but instead its responsibilities were abruptly shrunk, with formulation of the budget being handled by the Ministry of Finance, just as before.

MOF should be happy that the string of prime ministers without strong opinions has continued. As things have been going, the DPJ has no choice but to listen to the instructions from the MOF mandarins on how the system operates and rely on their arrangements. The other central government organs have been left relatively weaker by the new administration’s review of existing government programs (jigyō shiwake) and other developments, and so it seems we are about to witness the emergence of the Finance Ministry as the unchallenged victor.

What would have happened if the originally planned National Strategy Bureau had been created and allowed to wield real power? With members including highly talented individuals from the private sector and from government organs other than MOF, it would have been a presence not to be ignored, and there would have been a healthy tension between it and MOF.

I had seen the National Strategy Bureau concept as being ready for some additional content. My expectation was that it would begin a second stage of work to follow up on the program reviews conducted by the other major new organ, the Government Revitalization Unit. So I feel very disappointed that this has all come to nothing of substance.

Meanwhile, the bureaucrats in ministries and agencies other than MOF are feeling a deep sense of disappointment. Some of them took a positive stance toward the DPJ administration, thinking that they would be able to do useful work if the cabinet ministers and other senior politicians were serious about moving forward, but even these optimists now feel betrayed.

When Tanaka Kakuei (prime minister 1972-74) was still a relatively junior politician, he submitted a string of bills to the Diet on his own initiative, such as legislation introducing the gasoline tax to provide revenues for road construction. He was able to accomplish this because he tapped the talents of bureaucrats, including young civil servants.

In my meetings with people in the world of government and politics, I found that some bureaucrats, particularly the relatively young ones at the level of division director and below, who still have many years to go in their civil service careers, harbored a certain level of hope toward the DPJ administration. The DPJ should have been able to adopt a strategy of getting these people to provide helpful ideas for the drafting of legislation, but it lacked the ability and patience to do so.

It seems to me that the lawmakers of the DPJ may have felt overawed by the civil servants of the central government organs, which are full of elite graduates of the University of Tokyo. The new administration adopted a stance of having the minister and other senior politicians in each ministry make all the decisions, taking this to be “politician-led government,” and the politicians failed to engage properly with the bureaucrats. They did not have it in their minds to work together. The bureaucrats could hardly be expected to go along with the politicians under these circumstances.

Dealing with a Split Legislature

Now the DPJ administration faces a legislature in which the opposition dominates the upper house, and there is a chance that it will postpone submitting legislation for the implementation of its policies out of fear that the bills will be voted down. Such a defeatist approach, however, will only make the civil servants less inclined to follow along. If the politicians fail to take responsibility, rather than political leadership we will see increased mistrust of politicians within the bureaucracy. It may turn into a vicious circle. The administration’s legislative agenda includes such items as reform of the postal system, civil service reform, voting rights for non-Japanese permanent residents in local elections, and optional use of separate surnames by married couples. If it refrains from submitting bills on such matters because it is afraid of encountering hurdles in the Diet, it will not be able to get anything done.

The current administration is likely to face especially rough going in December when it attempts to finalize its draft budget for the coming fiscal year. If Ozawa survives in office until then, the government may once again manage to conclude the process successfully. That would represent a repetition of last year’s “nightmare.” But the alternative is probably a real impasse. Under the Constitution, the government can enact the budget on the strength of its lower house majority, but it is liable to run into a roadblock when it seeks approval of the opposition-controlled upper house for the related legislation required for implementation of the budget. The split in the Diet will also probably be an impediment to legislative action on the administration’s proposals for pension reform. Unless there is a forum for concrete deliberations with the opposition, the administration is likely to find itself completely stymied.

In this light, the first thing the DPJ administration should have done in the wake of its defeat in the upper house election was to set up a new suprapartisan organ for policy deliberations. It should have moved to create a body for the drafting of legislation aimed at raising the National Policy Unit to the level of a bureau. If there were a National Strategy Bureau considering the country’s future, the opposition would not be in a position to reject its proposals entirely. So the government should have had this bureau thrash out ideas and gradually learn how to get its bills through the Diet.

The Opinion Poll Fetish

One element that is jeopardizing Japanese politics is the media-orchestrated obsession with support rates as indicated by public opinion polls. Prime ministers have a chance to show their mettle by bearing up during phases when their support rates are declining and working to turn the downward trend around. But instead they are overreacting to the short-term movements in the poll figures.

Back when Satō Eisaku was prime minister (1964-72), he experienced relatively low support rates, but he did not let these figures bother him. He said that such numbers were just one aspect of politics as reported by the media and that it was sufficient for him to do his job properly. Without such an attitude, it is unlikely that he would have been able to stay in office so long and successfully pursue his goal of winning reversion of Okinawa from US control.

Nowadays media organs are conducting opinion polls incessantly. A political talk show on which I am a regular participant always features a board displaying the latest movements in the administration’s support rate, accompanied by comments like, “The support rate has plunged. What’s going to become of the Kan administration?” It seems as though they are hoping for the prime minister to step down.

Opinion polls have become much more influential than they were in Prime Minister Satō’s time, and they have turned into a fetish. This is the ultimate form of TV politics. Now the polls are conducted by phone rather than face to face as in the past. This situation, in which each media organ is conducting such polls so frequently, can only be called abnormal. One political reporter I know admits that this is a peculiar state of affairs, but he declares, “The other companies are doing it, so we can’t stop.”

The media enthusiasm for polls is fueled by the viewership ratings that they attract. And in fact, the ratings for that political talk show go up as soon as the board displaying the administration’s support rate is shown. In the final analysis, even the public that awaits the poll results is being manipulated. People look at the fluctuations in the support figures and nod when the numbers are down as they expected. Or they may compare the results of different polls, noting that one paper shows a smaller rise than the others. It is like enjoying a type of gambling.

The roots of this situation go back to Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001-6). Koizumi had declared that he was out to “destroy” the LDP, the party he led. Unable to rely on the LDP as a majority support base, he made full use of the TV media instead. He successfully built up his own popularity through TV politics with repeated use of short phrases as sound bites. But none of his successors have been able to do anything about their declining support rates. TV politics is a double-edged sword. It brings political affairs closer to the public, but the downside is that it rates politicians by their level of popularity, just like entertainers.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, politics has come to be viewed more lightly than before. People now consider the techniques employed by political pros to be obnoxious and unnecessary. But the public will eventually have to pay the bill for “light” and amateurish politics. The dysfunctional political system is surely causing pain in people’s everyday lives, but distracted by the media, they have become numb to it. This numbness, however, will not last forever. When people really start to feel the pain, their mood will shift dramatically, and they will want someone powerful to take the reins–regardless of whether that person is “dirty” or not. History teaches us that despair in politics can make people yearn for a hero figure.

Actually, this is why even now we hear murmurs here and there from people longing for the emergence of Ozawa Ichirō, the final disciple of Tanaka Kakuei and the quintessential political pro. And in the context of the long-term stagnation of the economy and overall atrophy of the nation, if a powerful demagogue were to emerge, there is a danger that Japan could suddenly make a sharp shift of course and head in an extremist direction.

Politics is useless unless it can offer the people at least a slightly brighter prospect for the future. The DPJ ought to take a page from the old LDP’s book and skillfully send up ad balloons to publicize its new ideas. The public will not follow an administration that comes out only with negative messages, such as that the age of economic growth is over and that progress in science and technology is failing to produce any worthwhile results. Instead the administration should focus on the promise of a bright future from newly emerging industries.

I had been expecting to see a realignment of forces within the political world. The DPJ has swollen, and meanwhile the LDP seems to be headed for self-destruction. The collapse of the former ruling party will create political refugees looking for a new home. I had imagined that they would combine forces with some of the members of the DPJ and that this would lead to a breakup of the DPJ, which harbors internal contradictions regarding ideology and policies. But now even this seems to be no more than a dream.

We cannot hope for brighter prospects unless politics can recover its former dynamism. If the present aimless drifting continues, we are liable to reach the worst possible conclusion: And then there were none.

Translated from “Kaizu naki Nihon seiji, soshite dare mo inaku naru,” Chūō Kōron, September 2010, pp.110-17. The original article was compiled by journalist Kikuchi Masanori from an interview with Mikuriya. (Courtesy of Chūō Kōron Shinsha) [September 2010]