31 – Japan’s Political Tremors and Shifts (31 Mar 2011)

    Japan’s calamitous earthquake and tsunami were preceded by great tremors and shifts in its political system, the continuation and outcome of which will inevitably affect the longer term aftermath of the natural disaster.
    In September 2009 the relatively new DPJ ended a virtual one-party system that had lasted over half a century. But its coming to power had even greater significance. The problems and promise of this change revolve around a question that in Japan was never truly settled. Who has the right to rule? The constitution gives it without a moment’s hesitation to elected officials representing Japanese citizens. But tradition, rooted in the 250 years of the Tokugawa shogunate bureaucracy, has always favored the career officials. The post-World War II ruling party, the LDP formed in 1955, had not done much actual ruling once postwar reconstruction had been completed by politicians who had emerged from the bureaucratic elite. That reconstruction of a war-devastated country was never halted by a political debate about what to do next; it automatically evolved into an unofficial but very real national policy of seemingly limitless expansion of industrial production capacity, with little regard for other possible economic and social priorities. Alternative policies hardly registered in general discussion.
Earlier success of an extraordinary, finely tuned, system of industrial, financial, and political entities operating in concert, and producing the proverbial Japanese economic miracle, turned into a political burden. Overcapacity, neglected prefectural development, huge dollar profits that had to stay in the American economy, and dwindling demand from world markets befuddled incumbent authorities. The officials in the economic ministries and their cooperating counterparts in the higher echelons of industrial federations, the corporate clusters, and financial circles did frequently produce miracles of adjustment, but they could not replace or even question Japan’s set of basic priorities. The necessary political decisions for such an overhaul were forever postponed because those were not part of how the LDP exercised its power.
     What was needed, so a widening circle of politically concerned Japanese were concluding, was a political steering wheel with which to deviate from the basic course set in the early postwar and post-occupation years. When in 1993 two major political figures bolted from the LDP with their followers, and by doing so began a reformist political movement, the well-established structures and bureaucratic vested interests began finally to be seriously questioned.
     A first attempt to replace the LDP with coalition governments got stranded, as the elected politicians were no match for the bureaucrats controlling their own lines of communication with the administrative apparatus. It took five years for the reformists to come together in the DPJ, the first credible opposition party that was prepared actually to win elections, and replace the façade of government that had become the norm under the LDP with genuine cabinet-centered government intent on actually governing. The Socialists had only been interested in mere ritualistic opposition.
     To gain a good picture of Japan’s political situation, one must realize the hugely important role played by the main newspapers in creating what is understood to be political reality. Especially when major changes are afoot the papers tend to speak with one voice, which is normally critical of anything that threatens the established order. Senior editors share what must be graded as no less than an obsession of the senior bureaucrats with social tranquility and harmony. Hence the coming to power of the DPJ has awakened strong forces aiming to diminish its prestige and ridicule its actions.
     This must be kept in mind when one judges, with nothing else to go on than media evaluations, how Japan’s current government has been dealing with the recent calamity. Japan’s newspapers indulge in routine criticism of politicians in government, no matter what. Unfortunately, foreign reporters and commentators, including those of the Financial Times and the New York Times, fall back on copying their tone and opinion, for lack of independent knowledge.
     The Japanese business newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun, to take just one example, lamented the shortcomings of current government action, emphasizing the poor lines of command running from responsible politicians to the officials carrying out rescue and supply operations. This was perfectly true. But the paper failed to mention that the feebleness of such coordination was precisely the number one weakness of Japan’s political system that the founders of the DPJ had focussed on as something to be repaired. And it is indeed trying hard to overcome bureaucratic rigidity and untested chains of command and lines of communication.
     Those who have impatiently decided that the DPJ taking over from LDP has been Tweedledee replacing Tweedledum ought to pause and bring bring to mind how after the previous catastrophic earthquake, which struck Kobe in 1995, the central government appeared to be washing its hands of the miseries of the victims. The contrast could hardly be greater with what is happening now.
     Citizens of Kobe who were extricated from the rubble of their collapsed homes, and survived the fire that eliminated an entire city district, were looked after if they belonged to corporations or religious groups. Those who were not so lucky were expected mostly to fend for themselves. This reflected a feudal like approach that comes with Japan’s peculiar form of corporatist political structure, in which the link between the citizen and the state plays significantly less of a role than it is expected to do in modern democracies. The governmental neglect of the Kobe earthquake victims was widely decried, and it became one of the major sources of public indignation that gave significant impetus to the reformist movement from which the DPJ and Kan have emerged.
     This time around things are not left to local authorities. The government of Kan Naoto demonstrates that it very much wants to be in charge of rescue and support operations with frequent cabinet meetings and newly formed task forces. Kan himself has been televised with relevant officials, all wearing the uniform work fatigues typical for Japanese engineers. He shows no talent to become a TV personality able to project a grand image of leadership, leaving it to Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio, who holds daily press conferences, to be the face of the government. But under current multi-crisis circumstances the DPJ politicians have already set a standard of political command unprecedented in post-Meiji Japan.
     Compared to the single crisis of the Kobe earthquake, the DPJ government is expected to deal with four crises simultaneously, and is hampered by huge logistical problems that since the end of World War II no cabinet has had to face. Aside from the early breakdown of communication and transportation networks, it must cope with an administrative system over which the LDP had neglected to establish control. Important parts of it are, as it were, out of effective reach of the cabinet ministers supposedly in charge of them. The confusion that attends the information about the crisis of the Fukushima nuclear reactors illustrates this. Their owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, along with its ‘regulators’ in the bureaucracy exist in a political twilight zone that is in effect neither public nor private, with discretionary power outside the purview of the elected officials. As is the case on many other industrial–government interfaces, responsible officials are not used to being held to account by Japan’s politicians.
     The DPJ as a whole had not found its footing when disaster struck. As was entirely predictable, what it wanted to accomplish has required a major struggle with career officials in many parts of the bureaucracy, including the judiciary, who have been battling to preserve the world they have always known. The attempt to alter a political status quo that has had half a century to form and consolidate is no joking matter, and the world could learn much about the mutual frustrations of preservers and reformers. The latter, inexperienced, may wield hatchets in a counterproductive manner. The former are, of course, better equipped, and in Japan’s case well experienced in cutting down to size ambitious politicians, whose ambitions include major alterations inside the ministries. They are aided in this by what I think of as a built-in systemic immune system, which is activated by combined efforts of the public prosecutor and the big newspapers. These manage to create political scandals almost at will with much hyped-up ‘violations’ of political funding laws, of purposely vague design, for forcing difficult politicians to step aside or down.
     Originally, Japan’s most formidable politician, Ozawa Ichiro, was expected to become the DPJ’s first prime minister. He ignited the reformist movement in 1993 with his exodus from the LDP, he created the DPJ, and he engineered its astonishing electoral success in 2009. As the talented giant on Japan’s political scene, he is obviously very controversial. Consequently, a character assassination attempt of varying intensity against him has been underway since 1994. In the face of DPJ victory at the polls, the defenders of Japan’s political status quo, and influential newspaper editors, along with those who feared the opening of bureaucratic closets with skeletons, decided that Ozawa should not be allowed to manage a government. The ‘discovery’ of supposed financial misdoings by his secretaries forced Ozawa to withdraw to a position behind the scenes. If the DPJ has since 2009 been the single biggest threat in half a century to Japan’s bureaucracy-dominated status quo, Ozawa is its single biggest threat to the bureaucracy inside the party for trying to keep it on its reformist course. He made political history when shortly after the DPJ taking over he arranged for China’s visiting vice president to meet with the Emperor. When this seemed to give the ultraconservative Imperial Household Agency a collective heart attack, he reminded those career officials that they had to begin reckoning with the fact that the elected officials in the cabinet, and the elected politicians in Parliament, would be making the major decisions.
     Once having taken over the government, the DPJ was almost immediately scarred by the demise of its first cabinet formed by Hatoyama Yukio. Its cause has been mostly overlooked outside Japan. Washington administered that big blow to the reformists. For decades American officials dealing with Japan had been critical of its low profile in international affairs, and of the difficulty of negotiating with a country whose political center could not be found. (Few ever understood the connection between that peculiar political structure and the odd reliance of Japan’s bureaucrats on Washington for not having to submit themselves to a made-in-Japan political steering wheel). But when Ozawa made clear that improved relations with China would be a good idea, and Hatoyama announced that he was interested in helping to bring about a “more equal” relationship with the United States, Washington developed cold feet. Secretary Clinton arrived in Tokyo before the elections that were expected to bring the DPJ to power, and Secretary Gates did so afterwards, both with the message that no matter who was going to actually run Japan, the country’s position in the world and especially what it is expected to do for the United States cannot possibly be changed.
     The center of gravity among the American officialdom overseeing and managing US-Japan relations has in recent years shifted from State and Treasury Departments to the Pentagon. Even the diplomats dealing directly with Japan tend to be Pentagon alumni. Hence, unfortunately, at this point of Japan’s political overhaul, with a new government composed by a new political party that had announced its intention actually to govern, and to playing the long-awaited more positive role vis-à-vis its Asian neighbors, Washington decided to test its loyalty with a plan hatched by Donald Rumsfeld to build a new Marine base on the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa in an aquatically vulnerable environment.
     The LDP had earlier buckled under Rumsfeld’s intimidation, but then in venerable LDP style had proceeded to do nothing, and had been happy to dump the agreement into the lap of the new government. The base building plans are not feasible. Forcing the issue would almost certainly create an uproar in Okinawa that no government in Tokyo is likely to survive. But Prime Minister Hatoyama miscalculated. Insufficiently aware of the sacred status of the United States Marine Corps in American politics, and of the extent to which American decision-making with regards to his country is now directed by the Pentagon, he believed that in a face-to-face meeting with the new American president, in which he hoped to discuss long-term matters affecting the East Asia region, the conflict could be settled. An entirely reasonable supposition, if constant avowals by Washington of Japan being America’s most important ally in the Pacific region are to be taken seriously. At least three attempts to achieve such a meeting where rebuffed by Washington, and at one point president Obama was told by his advisers not to give Hatoyama more than 10 minutes of his time in case they ran into each other at some international event.
     In the meantime, the American media, foremost among them the Washington Post (which no longer had a regular correspondent in Tokyo), contributed to denigrating the prestige of Japan’s new governing party, referring to Hatoyama as being “a loopy prime minister”. Also because of the clear intentions of this first DPJ cabinet to improve relations with Beijing, and its interest for the idea of ASEAN+3 (China, Korea and Japan), it had become quite clear by December of 2009 that Washington wanted rid of it. This was accomplished in May of the next year after Hatoyma, misinformed and misled by an adviser operating on the US-Japan interface, could not keep his promise of safeguarding the interests of the Okinawan people, and offered a customary resignation.
     The easily intimidated career officials in Japan’s foreign and defense ministries, along with a bunch of supposedly wise men, have long been oblivious to the fact that the United States needs Japan more than the other way round. In this case they won an early major confrontation with the DPJ. The United States missed a valuable opportunity to plan new policy with a genuine ally rather than the reluctant vassal that Japan has always been. And Japan’s reformist movement was sent off course.
Japan’s newspaper editors, ill-equipped to handle the confusing details of a for them entirely new situation, were effectively playing on Washington’s side against the DPJ before they began to understand what was happening. It was under those circumstances that Kan, a prominent member of the first group of reformist politicians, took his turn as prime minister.
     The seventeen months of struggle against external enemies has marked the DPJ with inner turmoil, which has been an additional obstacle for Japan’s reformist movement to show its worth under the current calamious circumstances. Kan’s government and his own position in it was anything but stable before the Earth’s unstable crust near and underneath Japan shook up the country in a worse way than anyone had yet experienced. A number of political analysts, and a considerable number of politicians in his own party, had been predicting the imminent end of his prime ministership. Rumors had begun to spread of the possibility of a irreparable split in the DPJ, with roughly half the party joining Ozawa in a attempt to forge a new reformist coalition with parts of the disintegrating LDP and other opposition groups.
     That would have been the result of Kan distantiating himself from Ozawa, prompted by the most recent episode in the character assassination campaign. Even while the public prosecutor had had to drop his case against Ozawa at the end of 2009 for lack of evidence, the status quo zealots introduced a method of mandatory indictment based on the conclusions of a civilian panel that had never been used before. After two unsuccessful tries with such panels, the third panel decreed that Ozawa must face trial. Editorials emitted the predictable anti-Ozawa howls early this year, and Kan Naoto, who owes his political importance and position to Ozawa, apparently scared of bureaucratic intimidation and of the waves of media criticism that he believes might undermine his prime ministership, had begun to call for Ozawa’s departure from the party.
     How all this will play out once the immediate aftermath of earthquake, tsunami, logistics, energy crisis, and nuclear radiation scare becomes clear will, without question, help determine in a major way how Japan emerges from its greatest catastrophe since World War II. For the moment it would appear that Kan’s cabinet will have a longer lease on life than had been anticipated. But Kan’s mistake of allowing himself to be intimidated by Ministry of Finance bureaucrats who, influenced by neoliberal dogma, had turned reduction of government debt into a misplaced priority, may diminish the potential for economic and socio-political rejuvenation, which hopeful and thoughtful Japanese of my acquaintance believe may come out of the disaster.