2007: The Year That Was In Japanese Politics

A recent article in the Yomiuri Shimbun surveying the Japanese political situation as 2007 gives way to 2008 included a sidebar that compared the present day with the bakumatsu, the last days of the Tokugawa.

Looking back over the events in political Japan over 2007, that comparison does not seem inappropriate. The picture that emerges is one of naiyu gaikan, a phrase from the bakamatsu referring to troubles at home and abroad that ultimately consumed the bakufu and served as the crucible for creation of the modern Japanese state. Rather than standing on the brink of a new restoration — as many Japanese politicians seem to think — Japan may be at the very nadir of this latest bakumatsu, with institutions in all areas of Japanese life breaking down under the stress of adjusting to new conditions. (Oddly enough, my first post of 2007 addressed Alvin Toffler’s idea of future shock as applied to Japan.)

Consider the events of the past year. Every month brought reports of corruption, fraud, and mismanagement in some area of Japanese life. I will focus, of course, on politics, but it is important to remember that 2007 saw major scandals and cover-ups in the food industry, professional baseball, sumo wrestling, and finance, the eikaiwa “industry” (specifically NOVA), and others that I have probably forgotten. Perhaps there is no better symbol than the Defense Ministry, which was hailed in January as a sign of the newly assertive Japan; by December it was widely criticized for corruption and had become the subject of a high-level reform panel. There was an unmistakable whiff of decay in the air, suggesting that the foundation of Mr. Abe’s “beautiful Japan” was rotten.

2007 may be remembered as the year that demolished the “Japan is back” meme.

Recall the confidence with which former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo headed into the New Year and the first regular Diet session of what many observers (and presumably Mr. Abe himself) assumed would be many. In early January the Japan Defense Agency became a full ministry, the result of a bill passed in the autumn 2006 extraordinary session of the Diet. Throughout January, Mr. Abe confidently declared that the 2007 would be the year of advancing the cause of constitutional revision — by passing a law establishing a national referendum system for constitution revision — and “leaving behind the postwar regime.” In his maiden speech to the Diet on 26 January, Mr. Abe spoke of remaking Japan to deal with twenty-first-century challenges.

His eyes fixed firmly on the distant horizon and his focus firmly on his obsessive pursuit of some ill-defined “beautiful country, Japan,” Mr. Abe walked straight into quicksand, which consumed his government and exposed the fragility of Japan’s recovery from its “lost decade” and the flimsiness of Japan’s pretensions to wield greater power regionally and globally.

As 2008 approaches, Fukuda Yasuo, Mr. Abe’s successor as prime minister and LDP president, is left to cope with problems inherited from Mr. Abe: a broken pensions system; an LDP torn between the reformist legacy of former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro and the older legacy of generous state assistance to farmers, small businessmen, and other traditional LDP supporters scattered throughout Japan’s regions; and a “twisted” political system, in which the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, under the leadership of the mercurial Ozawa Ichiro, holds sway in the House of Councillors thanks to electoral gains in July’s election at the expense of Mr. Abe and the LDP.

He has also inherited international difficulties, not least turbulence in Japan’s relationship with the United States. Indeed, 2007 might also be remembered as the year of the slow-motion crisis in US-Japan relations, despite the presence of Mr. Abe, a favorite of Washington Japan hands, in the Kantei. After Christopher Hill, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, secured an agreement with North Korea at a meeting in Berlin in February to restart the stalled six-party talks a mere four months after North Korea’s putative nuclear test, disagreement between the US and Japan became inevitable. Under Mr. Abe, Japan took the lead in pressuring North Korea following the nuclear test, and its bargaining position in the six-party talks became decidedly inflexible on account of Mr. Abe’s special interest in the resolution of the dispute over North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the repeated assurances of US officials — from George W. Bush down — that the US would not forget Japan and its abductees in negotiations with North Korea, as the US committed more time and energy to reaching an agreement, a rift appeared increasingly inevitable. North Korea, whether by design or accidentally, scored a major diplomatic coup by appearing amenable to an agreement on its nuclear program, effectively isolating Japan in the six-party talks as the US shifted from Japan’s side to join with China, South Korea, and Russia to move negotiations forward. It is unclear whether Mr. Fukuda will be able to deemphasize the abductees and bring Japan’s negotiating position into line with the US, considering that doing so will likely require a bruising fight with conservatives in his own party.

Between the gap in US and Japanese bargaining positions on North Korea and the still-unresolved battle between the LDP and the DPJ over Japan’s refueling mission in support of coalition activities in Afghanistan, 2007 may be the year in which the US-Japan alliance began to consider structural reforms necessary to ensure the alliance’s continuing relevance. In November, both Robert Gates, US secretary of defense, and Mr. Fukuda acknowledged the existence of structural deficiencies and argued for the need to answer fundamental questions about the alliance.

In politics, the biggest story of the year was, of course, the rapid decay of the Abe government, which prompted a near-civil war within the LDP before and after the House of Councillors election.

In January, there was the Yanagisawa indiscretion, in which Yanagisawa Hakuo, the minister of health, labor, and welfare, referred to women as “birth-giving machines”; this was but the most egregious in a series of inappropriate remarks by Mr. Abe’s cabinet ministers and advisers that seriously undermined public confidence in the government by making the government seem insensitive to the public (months before the pensions scandal demolished whatever illusions remained about the Abe cabinet’s concern for the Japanese people).

From February we witnessed the saga of Matsuoka Toshikatsu, Mr. Abe’s minister for agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, who stood accused of gross violations of laws regulating the use of political funds. Mr. Matsuoka spent most of the Diet session obfuscating, spinning a convoluted web of explanations that was laughable right up until the moment that Mr. Matsuoka hanged himself in late May. (Of course, the presence of Mr. Matsuoka in the cabinet was — or should have been — a scandal in its own right, given Mr. Matsuoka’s history of corruption, bribery, and use of his office to interfere with the policymaking process to the benefit of his supporters, his constituents, and, of course, himself. Mr. Matsuoka’s case was but the most prominent example of the corruption epidemic that hit Japanese politics in 2007. “Money and politics” was one of the year’s political leitmotifs, right up until the end of the year, with the LDP finally giving in to demands from opposition parties and its coalition partner Komeito to revise the political funds control law to require reporting for all expenses over one yen. Corruption brought down both of Mr. Matsuoka’s successors as agriculture minister, and became a major issue in the formation of Mr. Abe’s second cabinet during August, as the LDP struggled in vain to assemble a lineup that would be free of the accusations that dogged the first Abe cabinet. We should not forget, however, that allegations of corruption crossed party lines, with Mr. Ozawa as the most notable target for allegedly using his political support groups to purchase real estate, a forbidden practice.

The Matsuoka fiasco hit just as the Abe government took an ultimately fatal blow when a DPJ member of the House of Representatives questioned the government about missing pensions records, ultimately revealed to be on the order of more than 50 million missing records. Those affected were the most vulnerable members of Japanese society, those without a history of lifelong employment with a single company who therefore depended on the inadequate state pensions system. The revelations prompted widespread insecurity among the Japanese people, which was bad enough for the Abe government, but Mr. Abe made the situation worse in his tone-deaf and dilatory response to the situation: his first instinct was to defend the bureaucrats, who, it has since been revealed, were responsible for shoddy, careless work that exhibited a wanton disregard for the people they ostensibly served. The result was that Mr. Abe’s public support was fatally undermined; the election campaign, which Mr. Abe had wanted to focus on his issues of constitution revision, education reform, and national defense, instead focused on the pensions issue and associated “lifestyle” issues, those issues that Mr. Abe spent his time in office largely avoiding. The public did not necessarily reject his ideological program outright: the Japanese people simply decided to stop indulging the prime minister and punish him and his party for their misguided priorities.

All told, the pensions issue became what Columbia University’s Gerald Curtis has called Mr. Abe’s “Hurricane Katrina” moment. There was nothing Mr. Abe could do to escape from his predicament, which was largely of his own making. Extending the regular session of the Diet to pass a few more token laws, pushing the date of the July election back a week, apologizing profusely for the pensions scandal: none of it mattered. By 29 July, the only questions left were how big the LDP’s defeat would be and whether Mr. Abe would somehow be able to weather a landslide and cling to power. Thanks in part to Mr. Ozawa’s inspired campaigning, in which he sojourned in rural Japan in the hopes of taking advantage of rural discontent with both Mr. Abe’s rule and the negative consequences of Mr. Koizumi’s reforms, the DPJ won a victory of historic proportions, winning overwhelmingly in single-seat constituencies across Japan and making an exceptionally strong showing in Tokyo and the densely populated three-seat constituencies surrounding the capital.

The precipitous decline of Mr. Abe sparked a battle for the future of the LDP that remains unresolved and could very well intensify in 2008. Even before the election LDP members were publicly criticizing Mr. Abe for his disastrous leadership and speculating about the timing of his departure from office. The electoral defeat simply intensified the battle.

Mr. Abe managed to hold on for August, despite worsening health and appeals from party elders — including former Prime Minister Mori — to resign. By holding on, waiting a month before reshuffling his cabinet, and delaying the start of the extraordinary Diet session, Mr. Abe may have encouraged disarray within his party. The post-election vacuum likely prompted more jockeying for power among LDP leaders, not least by Aso Taro, his foreign minister and presumptive heir. (Mr. Aso’s maneuverings in the aftermath of the election led to questions in the media following Mr. Abe’s resignation about a possible Aso “coup” against the prime minister in the hopes of easing his path to power.) Even before Mr. Abe resigned, the party’s fault lines were apparent: the conservative ideologues grouped around Mr. Abe, who wanted the campaign to cast off the postwar regime to press on despite the election returns, were increasingly opposed to the party’s cautious elders, who, whatever their ideological leanings, feared that the election was a signal to the LDP to change its ways, to be more sensitive to the concerns of the people and more willing to work with the ascendant DPJ. Not surprisingly, it was in August that the Yomiuri Shimbun, the newspaper of the conservative establishment, began calling for a grand coalition for the DPJ. The underlying issue was the party’s post-Koizumi identity. If there’s one thing that the two camps could agree upon, it was the need to distance the LDP from Mr. Koizumi. Mr. Abe spent most of his year in office trying to differentiate himself from his charismatic predecessor, and in the post-election struggles, Mr. Koizumi’s followers remained marginal.

Mr. Abe finally resigned on 12 September, although not before a surprisingly defiant maiden speech at the opening of the Diet two days earlier and an intensification of his rhetoric on the extension of the anti-terror law, which had emerged as the defining issue of the post-election political environment due mainly to the DPJ leadership’s announcement in the immediate aftermath of the election that it opposed extension of the law. While the precise timing of Mr. Abe’s announcement was surprising — at least to everyone but Mr. Aso — his departure was not. The already-in-progress battle within the LDP simply manifested itself openly in the LDP’s presidential election campaign, with the party elders quickly deciding to back Mr. Fukuda (eight of nine factions, or, perhaps more accurately, faction leaders endorsed his candidacy), and the conservative ideologues rallying behind Mr. Aso.

Mr. Fukuda’s victory at the end of September was widely reported as a landslide, but a look at the voting in the LDP’s prefectural chapters suggests that were it not for the LDP’s quirky election laws, the party election could have been considerably closer. The margin of victory in prefectures where Mr. Aso lost to Mr. Fukuda was in many cases considerably narrower than in prefectures won by Mr. Aso. (And as it turned out, Mr. Aso received higher support in voting among Diet members than he would have had members followed the endorsements of their faction heads.) The party united behind Mr. Fukuda after his victory, although Mr. Aso made a point of not joining the Fukuda cabinet, but the unity that followed the election should be regarded as a truce, not a peace treaty. The December formation of a “true conservative” study group under Nakagawa Shoichi, chairman of the LDP’s Policy Affairs Research Council under Mr. Abe, suggests that in 2008 the truce could come to an end should Mr. Fukuda’s difficulties continue.

The tasks facing Mr. Fukuda upon taking office were daunting. Beyond ending the LDP’s internal disorder, he had to assuage Komeito, which had also taken a blow in the July election and whose support had been taken for granted under Mr. Abe. More importantly, he had to begin the process of devising new rules of the game under a divided Diet. Mr. Fukuda gained a temporary political victory when it emerged that Mr. Fukuda and Mr. Ozawa had purportedly discussed an LDP-DPJ grand coalition in private meetings, as the DPJ rank-and-file reacted in horror, leading to the fiasco surrounding Mr. Ozawa’s aborted resignation — but that episode did not necessarily bring the two parties any closer to determining whether and how the two parties and (two chambers) would cooperate on legislation.

Beyond these challenges, there was the struggle over policy. Thanks to Mr. Abe’s escalation on the refueling mission — his “international promise” — Mr. Fukuda had little choice but to maintain Mr. Abe’s policy, going so far as to extend the Diet session into January and (presumably) use the government’s supermajority in the House of Representatives to pass the new enabling law over objections from the DPJ and the House of Councillors. Regardless of what the new year brings, the DPJ has effectively “won” on this issue. The MSDF ships returned home following the expiration of the previous law on 1 November, but more importantly, the Fukuda government was forced to focus on the anti-terror law, a low-priority issue for the Japanese people, instead of devoting its energy to the pensions issue and other social issues. The cost of falling into the DPJ’s trap became apparent in December when the pensions scandal re-erupted, prompting the first substantial drop in Mr. Fukuda’s public support.

The events of 2007 have left a number of unanswered questions about Japan’s future. Will the LDP be able to heal the rift that has emerged since Mr. Koizumi left office? Will Mr. Fukuda be forced into calling a snap election, and will the LDP emerge victorious? Are the DPJ — and Mr. Ozawa — ready to govern? Will the divided Diet be able to produce legislation that strikes a balance between advancing structural reform and protecting those citizens hurt by structural reform? What role will Japan play in the region and the world, and how will the US-Japan alliance change to reflect Japan’s new role?

In addressing these questions, I hope that Japanese politicians draw the right lessons from the bakumatsu and the Meiji Restoration. Mr. Abe seemed to think that if he spoke in more grandiose terms about Japan’s role, visited the troops, and modified Japan’s national security institutions, Japan would magically wield more power and influence globally. But there is no shortcut to playing a greater role internationally. In the twenty-first century especially, national power depends as much on the strength and durability of domestic institutions (and a country’s openness to flows of goods, people, money, and ideas) as it does on more traditional metrics. Without reform in how Japan educates its children, provides for its elderly, interacts with the global economy, uses its workforce, and conducts its politics, Japan’s influence will shrink. Future governments need to be more concerned about these aspects of Japanese life — the lasting foundation for national power in the twenty-first century — than about the outward manifestations of national power. Architects of the modern Japanese state understood that national power depended on the quality of domestic institutions. Do their successors?

The answer to that question will determine where Japan will go from 2007. Was it a turning point on the road to a new system that will reinvigorate Japan? Or will the Japanese people and their elected representatives be unable to undertake structural reform that overcomes the sclerosis?

3 thoughts on “2007: The Year That Was In Japanese Politics

  1. I agree with mtc. I would only add, please get it translated to Japanese and published here…A scandal you might want to add to the list was the defence debacle where an MSDF lieutenant commander was arrested on suspicion of leaking confidential defense information about Aegis destroyers. That didn\’t help relations with the U.S. at all.


  2. It was obsurd that Japan was ever allowed to \”hold-up\” the nuke talks with NK. Why this one nation would block progress on this for an insignificant issue. Yes, the abductions is an insignificant issue when compared to nuke proliferation.Duh, nukes in NK should have been a bigger worry for Japan than 30 year old abductions since the NK nukes are only a few hundred miles away from Japan.Japan needs a strong national leader or executive. One that can remain in office for more than a few years. Even Koizumi\’s 6 years is not enough time to really move and lead a country.Why is it that England, which also has a parliamentary system, can have a strong Prime Minister lead a nation for 10 years or more and not Japan?


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