Winter of discontent?

December has brought little but bad news for the Hatoyama government, which has now been in office for just over three months.

The economy continues to struggle (and deflationary pressure continues to grow), US officials are displeased over the government’s decision to delay on Futenma, and polls show the public souring on the new government.

Two recent polls show that the Hatoyama government’s approval rating has fallen below 50%. Asahi‘s poll recorded a fourteen-point drop in the government’s approval rating, from 62% to 48%, with its disapproval rating rising from 21% to 34%. The biggest blow to the government’s approval came from independents. The poll found disenchantment with Hatoyama Yukio’s leadership — and 60% disapproved of the government’s handling of the Futenma dispute. The Asahi poll is not all bad news: the DPJ continues to enjoy considerable support, 42% of respondents to the LDP’s 18% (the DPJ’s support fell four, the LDP’s rose four).

Jiji’s poll found the government’s approval rating fell more than seven points to 47%, with respondents similarly voicing their disenchantment at the prime minister’s leadership. In Mainichi‘s poll, the government is still above fifty percent approval, but its support fell nine points to 55% — and nearly 70% of respondents said that they were “worried” about the government’s approach to the US. The DPJ continued to hold a wide advantage over the LDP in the Mainichi poll.

One more poll number is worth mentioning: the Jiji poll asked respondents who they think is the most influential actor in the government. 71% said Ozawa Ichiro. Hatoyama was second, with 10%.

Back in September, the day before the Hatoyama government took power, I listed what I thought were the strengths and vulnerabilities of the Hatoyama government. In the latter category, I listed Hatoyama, Ozawa, and the media. I anticipated that the combination of these vulnerabilities could produce a vicious cycle that could unravel the government. In these figures I wonder whether that is exactly what we are seeing. I do not think that Ozawa is actually the most important figure in the government. What the 71% figure tells us is that the media has succeeded in constructing a narrative that shows Ozawa as the most influential figure in the government. After all, a poll question on who respondents think is the most influential figure in the government is asking respondents not what they think of some policy question that has some bearing on their lives but what they’ve heard on TV or read in newspapers. Naturally with articles like this one from Sankei — “Mr. Ozawa’s leadership gaining strength — ‘Government Unification’ becoming a dead letter” (referring to unifying cabinet and ruling party) — the Japanese public might get the idea that Ozawa is considerably more significant than the prime minister.

The latest concerns about Ozawa are the result of a dispute between Ozawa and the prime minister over the 2010 budget. Aware of the need to control spending, especially with this year’s tax revenues falling below 40 trillion yen for the first time since 1985 even as debt issuances increased to 53.5 trillion yen, the government and the DPJ are debating how to modify the party’s election promises. The government will try to limit new debt issuances to 44 trillion yen next year, which, barring a massive and unlikely increase of tax revenue, means that the party will have to scale back its spending plans. Naturally Ozawa and the government have different opinions on what should be scaled back.

The DPJ — i.e. Ozawa — has submitted a proposal to the government for what the budget should look like. On the spending side, the plan calls for, among other things, introducing a 13,000 yen/month child allowance in the first fiscal year of the program, ending fees for public high schools, introducing income support for farmers, and paying out new subsidies for local governments. On the revenue side, it includes proposals to increase fees for medical services, retain the temporary gasoline surcharge but cut the automobile weight tax, change the highway toll system gradually, and begin investigating an environment tax. Combined with Ozawa’s intervention with the Imperial Household Agency to secure a meeting between the Emperor and Xi Jinping, the Chinese vice president reputed to be Hu Jintao’s likely successor, Ozawa appears to be inordinately powerful as a policymaker.

But his influence has, I think, been overstated, in part because the media has wanted to treat Ozawa as the government’s “shadow shogun” from the moment Ozawa passed the reins to Hatoyama, in part because the media’s expectations concerning the unification of cabinet and ruling party are unrealistic.

Regarding the former, Ozawa simply overshadows every other DPJ politician, Hatoyama included — although when I say overshadow, I do not mean overshadow in terms of influence. Rather everything Ozawa says or does is dissected by the media. He is charismatic in his way, has interesting things to say when asked, and is always good for headlines, very different from Hatoyama in these respects. Hatoyama is a bit professorial, and, well, boring. And now that he is prime minister, he has to be careful with his words in a way that Ozawa, not holding a cabinet post, does not have to be.

As a result, Ozawa looks and sounds influential. But that does not make it so. There was never going to be a way to completely silence Ozawa or to entirely subordinate the ruling party to the cabinet. Ozawa, guardian of the party’s majority and therefore its electoral prospects, was never going to be completely silent on policy, at least insofar as the government’s policy decisions affect the party’s political outlook. The question is whether political considerations are considered as one concern among several in cabinet deliberations or whether they are the dominant concern. It is at this point that I part ways with the press. I do not think that Ozawa is issuing marching orders to the government. In fact, I think the reports of mutual displeasure may be signs of the limits of Ozawa’s influence. Ozawa has suggested some ways of trimming the party’s manifesto that he thinks maximizes the party’s chances in the next year’s upper house election. Others will disagree. Ozawa himself has said that the final decision belongs to the government. Will he accept that decision without complaint?

In fact, this debate over Ozawa’s influence obscures the fact that we are talking about one man. Under the LDP we could not have this debate because it was not just one man in the LDP who wielded a veto but a vast network of committees and subcommittees in PARC, faction leaders, the election strategists, and the party elders in the general council. As troublesome as Ozawa can be, is he more meddlesome than the LDP’s policymaking system, when a debate of this nature would mean input from every committee chair or subcommittee chair with the slightest interest in the forthcoming budget (i.e., everyone)? A single veto player can be overruled or coaxed into cooperation. The same could not be said for the LDP’s policymaking system. Any discussion of Ozawa’s role must keep sight of the alternatives.

Ultimately these developments reinforce the idea that there was no way to completely neutralize Ozawa’s negative influence on the Hatoyama government. And the bigger problem — as the opinion polls suggest — may be Hatoyama and not Ozawa. As in the case of Kamei Shizuka in the early days of the Hatoyama cabinet, Hatoyama has allowed a political vacuum to form and allowed someone else to fill it, in this case Ozawa. Hatoyama has won a small victory, with the Tokyo prosecutor’s office announcing that it will not seek to indict the prime minister, but he has bigger problems. Can he show enough backbone to dispel the impression that he cannot lead his own government?

The public has not abandoned the DPJ yet. But it needs some sign that the prime minister is actually in control of his own government. Disagreements and discussion among cabinet ministers — and between Ozawa and the government — are acceptable, as long as Hatoyama is able to make clear that the final word truly is his. He needs to inject his voice into the debate more. We need to hear more of what he thinks. Otherwise Ozawa’s outsized personality will continue to dominate the public image of the government, the media will continue to feast on the disorder, and the Hatoyama government’s approval rating will continue to fall. The Hatoyama government is perilously close to the vicious cycle that I feared would endanger the government from the start.

15 thoughts on “Winter of discontent?

  1. Anonymous

    Dear Tobias, It seems a classical case in which the Japanese media focuses on analyzing processes instead of the policies. They have done so for decades with the Jiminto (therefore contributing to a delay in shifting powers to other parties). Now, their attention simply shifts from Kamei to Ozawa. It's easy reporting without having to look behind the facade and delve into what's really happening with the reforms and new policy proposals. The stir around the emperial visit by the Chinese delegation might have negatively affected the polling. Regardless, the Minshuto needs time to make policy from scratch.


  2. Dear Anonymous,Very much in agreement. I do think that the Japanese people are more patient than the media — I just don't think people are mistaken to question whether Hatoyama can control his own government.But yeah, Ozawa makes for great copy, even if it distorts reality.


  3. Anonymous

    Dear Tobias, It just illustrates problems surrounding the Japanese press. The extensive reporting on Ozawa, Kamei, Fukushima and other power struggles surrounding the cabinet might actually be one very sound reason why Hatoyama is seen as a \”weak leader\”. As an example, look at how he has dealt so far with the Futenma issue – it shows him as a strong leader. We do not know how it will work out but so far he has been sticking consequently to his campaign pledges.


  4. Pine

    Dear Tobias,it is quite frustrating to read that a \”PhD candidate\” and \”Japanese politics specialist\” relies only on newspapers and other blogs for his \”analyses\”. Collecting couple of opinions from the Japanese politics scholars on a particular subject is the first, the easiest, step you can do. Not to mention the possibility to give a ring to couple of bureaucrats or something similar to hear their side, too. Media reviews are not analyses. They are a morning TV show featureI hope your dissertation at least will be written more scientifically.Regards,Pine


  5. Dear Pine,I noticed that you didn't bother to disagree with a single thing I wrote.Why is quoting other people any more \”scientific\” than gleaning information from the press, while commenting on the role that the media appears to be playing in the current political environment?If my work is so unsatisfactory to you, feel free to go elsewhere.


  6. Anonymous

    Hi, Tobias,I think you have a point that the current political image is created by media (re: Ozawa Ichiro). There is one point that you cannot miss.In my opinion, the weak leader image also comes from the betrayal of open media policy (abolishing Kisha Kurabu) by Hirano. DPJ, including Ozawa, has been keeping open media policy. Okada and Kamei opened their respective ministries to all media. That is why Hatoyama has become more vulnerable to old mass media, which has been eager to analyze political process/situation but not policies. Under long long long LDP regimes, old media have been doing nothing but commenting on inner party (LDP) political struggles. Another thing I noticed was Sankei-gullible blogosphere-LDP noise machine. It gives me an impression of Fox News- gullible blogsphere-Tea Party in US. For example, as to the Great Wall Project the other day, Ozawa told to the press that he told to Hu Jintao that \”I am working hard for the victory as a field commander, if one uses a metapher of People's Liberation Army. (人民解放軍でいえば野戦軍の司令官として勝利に向けてがんばっているところだ)\”., Sankei reported that Ozawa is confessing that he is \”a field commander of People's Liberation Army (人民解放軍の野戦軍司令官).\” This is resonated and expanded by blogosphere and LDP. You can simply google with 野戦軍, to know what is going on.Nakagawa (could be his secretary, but on his official blog none the less) wrote this. type of noise machine is a new phenomena.


  7. Bryce

    Koizumi's support rate hovered below 50 percent for around half of his term. Sure, this is sudden, but roughly half of the electorate still supports the cabinet. Who else are they gonna vote for in July? I suspect most people don't even know who Tanigaki is.


  8. Delta

    So Tokyo prosecutors decided not to go after Hatoyama Yukio, presumably so as not to interfere with his job of running the country. They would IMO still go after Kunio who after all is just another ex-minister. Imagine what the media would make of that.Speaking of which, January's edition of _Bungei Shunju_ has an article about Yukio calling it quits coming January. Hopefully it is not too hard to get hold of Japanese periodicals Stateside. If the print reportage is to be believed, Mr. Ozawa would have Mr. Haraguchi or Mr. Kamei (less likely IMO, not being in the DPJ) take over (depending on which weekly you read) as PM should Mr. Hatoyama step down.If only Mishima Yukio were PM .


  9. LDP cabinet ministers/party officials disagreed with each other in public as well, but it seems to me they were usually careful to use the most boring and dense language possible to make it harder for the general public to sit up and take interest. With the DPJ, these differences seem all the more pronounced and well-articulated. Could this not be part of why the media sees Hatoyama as weak? I agree Hatoyama needs to look more involved. We seem to go days and days without a significant statement from the guy.


  10. Bryce

    \”Speaking of which, January's edition of _Bungei Shunju_ has an article about Yukio calling it quits coming January.\”Shukan Diamond had this too. But you can pretty much take any speculation in the Japanese media with a grain of salt. It is amazing what they will print as predictions informed by inside knowledge. I'm sure Ambassador Nye and Prime Minister Okada know what I'm talking about. The mags are good for assessing the views of politicians and bureaucrats, and the newspapers are good for, well, news, but apart from that I wouldn't go believing in any predictions.Now that I've said that, it will probably happen, of course.BTW, Kamei as PM? Do you think the DPJ has a death wish?


  11. Anonymous

    Adamu seems to claim that the lack of significant statement from PM is the cause of the weak image.In a way, I disagree.The lack of coherent statement, in other words, too much of incoherent statement is the cause. Hatoyama should quit 10 min BURASAGARI press conference. Instead he should do 30 min statement to the press once a week AFTER he decided things.For example, Zantei Zeiritsu (temporary tax on gasoline). Hatoyama frankly talked about different opinions at BURASAGARI. But after he decided, all other view points become moot. However, his various considerations are resonated in media to be interpreted in numerous ways, thereby creating a weak, indecisive PM. That is why he should not talk before his decision.10 min BURASAGARI is podcasted everyday (鳩山首相 今日の一言).Re: BryceAnother thing, Hatoyama quits only when he wants to do so. My impression is that the political analysis of old (mass) media, as in LDP era, is becoming obsolete and dysfunctional. That is why Aoyama Shigeharu sounds very odd these days. With 302 seats in the lower house, there is no reason he has to quit. He can simply say no.We will see who is correct within several months.In April, there is reassignment of positions in CHIKEN-TOKUSOU東京地方検察庁特別捜査本部. I wonder how long they can resist DPJ. If I were a dictator, I would create internal affairs bureau at CHIKEN-TOKUSOU to investigate embezzlement of CHIKEN or other Police. At least the current situation – no oversight, congressional or otherwise on CHIKEN- should be changed.


  12. Pine

    Dear Tobias,Please accept my deepest respect for your work. I was trying to make a constructive critic and merely hinting at how you should better substantiate your writings. Because there is no difference between what average Souichirou shouts at the TV set and your blog writings, I insisted. You need to level them up, in my humble opinion. And that was a personal opinion on the blog as a whole not on this particular entry. You see, it happens so that I read this analysis too do not say whether I like it or not or doubt the author's writings. But, you as a clever young man, will see immediately that combining journalistic articles with official documents of City Councils and alike you might have a better analyses. Wish u a lot of luck and happy holidays to you and all of your readers,Pine


  13. PaxAmericana

    The real Winter of Discontent may come when the bills come due for the massive quantitative easing the world has seen over the last year or so. That could overwhelm the current issues.It would be interesting to hear your view of the issue brought up above about whether the US military intends to move to Guam in toto, and that a big part of the to-do about Okinawa is the bureaucracy's desire to use the US card for its own power purposes. It seems totally logical that a centralized location is what the US would want, and would thus oppose moving troops to, say, one of the almost unused airports in Honshu.And, in the Christmas spirit, thanks for your blog. There aren't many resources regarding Japan in English with this level of discussion.


  14. Delta

    Correction: The issue of _Bungei Shunju_ with the article about PM Hatoyama resigning was the December 2009, not January 2010, issue. My apologies.As for what, if anything, of the speculation comes about, it would all depend on public reactions to a) Mr. Hatoyama's explanation of how his (mother's) money was transferred to his personal office and b) the 2010 budget.Coming summer's House of Counsellors elections, for which the JCP and New Komeito have already started putting up posters with Mr. Koike and Mr. Yamaguchi respectively, should prove interesting.


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