No time was wasted today, as I was very rapidly thrown into the Nagata-cho life this morning. Almost immediately upon arrival at the office this morning I was whisked off to the Diet, where the Lower House’s Budget Committee was meeting to discuss this year’s budget. (Yomiuri on today’s meeting here; Asahi here.) From a seat in media gallery, I had a clear view of the government’s ministers, including Prime Minister Abe himself, as the government fielded questions from the opposition on anything but the proposed budget.
Indeed, the budget committee today — at least this morning — was used by the opposition to nag the government on the failings of its various members, including the smell of financial impropriety surrounding Agriculture Minister Matsuoka and Education Minister Ibuki, as well as a years-old bit of impropriety apparently committed by Finance Minister Omi (too complicated to spell out here), with the morning hearings finally steering in the direction of the budget just shy of lunch, when the government was asked about supporting for failing regions, with the name of “Yubari,” the bankrupt city in Hokkaido, invoked to criticize the government for its regions policy. Shortly thereafter, when asked about whether current negotiations with Australia for a free trade agreement — not to mention the barely alive WTO Doha Round — will ensure sufficient protection for Japanese agriculture, Abe roused himself from his seat and delivered a surprisingly spirited defense of the expansion of free trade, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
I say surprisingly spirited because Abe looked bored throughout the session, even when he rose to address a question. Perhaps Abe’s problem is that he’s a presidential — dare I say, Gaullist — figure trapped in a parliamentary system, a parliamentary system in which the Diet has seen its powers grow in the past fifteen years as the once-powerful bureaucracy has seen its power diminish. I can’t help but wonder if Abe wishes he was the head of state in a French-style system: president responsible for foreign affairs and outlining broad national goals, prime minister responsible for day-to-day management of parliament and moving the president’s agenda. Thus the boredom that he seems to show in news recaps on television is not just the result of selective editing; it’s his standard public posture.
In any case, the budget hearing was surprisingly lively, with both governing and opposition party members interrupting speeches, laughing raucously, and shouting speakers down.