Matsuoka Toshikatsu, RIP

Beleaguered Agriculture Minister Matsuoka Toshikatsu was found dead by his own hand this afternoon.

I am somewhat hesitant to comment on the political ramifications, seeing as how this is a grim end to a sordid affair (and career); but it demands some response. Obviously I mean no disrespect to those grieving. This is a terrible end, and it should not be celebrated.

Nevertheless, as the campaign for the 2007 Upper House elections ramp up, Matsuoka’s suicide may have dramatic ratifications for the outcome of the election. Consider that just before his death, newspapers reported that the Abe Cabinet’s popularity had suffered a drastic decline (Mainichi reported 32% support versus 44% opposed; Nikkei reported 41% support versus 49% opposed, with a 12% drop in support). It is difficult to see how Matsuoka’s suicide will stanch the government’s hemorrhaging of support. If anything, Matsuoka, by his death, may have raised the “money and politics” issue to greater prominence in debates leading up to the election. It is certainly hard to see the election being contested on constitution revision after this, no matter how much Abe insists that it should be.

The unknown factor is whether there will be a sympathy vote, and if so, will it be big enough to turn the tide in the LDP’s favor. Obviously it is much too early to tell. But this election will be closely contested, and every little twist in the coming days could have an impact come July.

In any case, Matsuoka ought not to pass on without leaving his mark on Japan. With luck, the full extent of his gross misuse of his office since his first election in 1990 will see the light in the coming days and weeks — spurring the Japanese people to demand an end to, once and for all, the LDP-controlled policy making system that has enabled Diet members to direct public funds to private ends and to place private interests before the public interest. Now that would be a fitting tribute to a man who lived on a steady diet of pork-barrel spending and borderline bribery.

Does anyone really think that a political system headed by a cabinet in which one minister commits suicide to avoid facing questioning over his alleged corruption, two others resign due to corruption charges, and a third stonewalls when criticized for calling women “machines for making babies (with the prime minister defending each in turn) is healthy? (But as Shisaku rightly points out, it is not the suicide that makes Japan’s political system problematic, seeing as how it’s the first suicide of a cabinet minister in the postwar era.)

UPDATE: I should add that I actually had a grudging respect for Matsuoka. Unlike many of his peers in the Diet — who either inherited their seats from their fathers or glided effortlessly from Tokyo University to elite, generalist positions in the bureaucracy to the Diet — Matsuoka was a self-made politician. After failing to earn admission to the National Defense Academy, he went to Tottori University, where he studied forestry, after which he began work as a specialist at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Being a specialist and not a generalist, there was a limit to how high he could rise in the ministry.

When he quit the ministry to enter politics, he had to struggle to acquire the three “bans” necessary for a Japanese politician: the jiban (local support base), kanban (name recognition), and kaban (money). Elected in 1990 under the old medium-sized electoral district system, he ran without LDP endorsement against four LDP incumbents in a five-seat district.

In short, whatever limits he encountered, Matsuoka strived to overcome them. The shame is that once he acquired power, power became an end in itself. (All of this is discussed in Aurelia George Mulgan’s excellent — and timely — Power and Pork, discussed in this post.)

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