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Japanese Politics Updates – March 3, 2024

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Thank you for your interest in our Japanese politics updates. Langley Esquire and Japan Expert Insights work in collaboration to deliver the latest events in Japanese politics at the end of every week.

Opening

Today is Girl’s Day, not quite a national holiday (though it should be). This is the festival where tiny dolls dressed-up in court regalia are displayed in a stairstep display; a very old tradition. Also, speaking of court regalia, baseball star Shohei Otani just announced his marriage this week on Wednesday, crushing many hearts in the process. His $700 million 20-year Dodgers contract caused heart palpitations.  The dollar closed the week at $/¥ 150.1, pleasing exporters and inbound travelers. And in other news, thank you very much: Langley Esquire’s YouTube channel now exceeds 8,000 subscribers!

Budget 2024

For any Budget to pass as-law, the Lower House and the Upper House must approve it by April 1 (the start of Japan’s fiscal year). In fact, one could say that the Primary Reason for the formal 150-day Diet Session set by the Constitution is precisely to set and pass the next-year’s annual budget. This year, due to the struggle of the Opposition Parties against the LDP, even by Friday (March 1st!), the Budget had not yet passed. As a result, for the first time in recent memory, the Diet met yesterday to again debate, beat-up the LDP just a tiny bit more, and then pass the Budget. 

Budget deliberations

And just for background for the true policy-enthusiasts, the Lower House must give the Upper House time to deliberate and bang around terms & conditions within the proposed Budget, too.  30 days, to be exact (April 1 is exactly 30 days after March 2, Saturday). So, if this 30-day requirement is met, and the Upper House does not accept the Lower House Budget as offered, the Lower House approval carries the day and the Budget becomes law. But everyone must wait for the 30 days to pass. However, it is a foregone conclusion.

The Budget finally passed the Lower House on Saturday. This means no matter what the Upper House decides, the Bill becomes Law. So, the tone within the Diet will now change markedly (though the Upper House will go through the motions of deliberating and using the opportunity to put the Prime Minister back in the hot-seat). This is the second-highest National Budget ever submitted (the largest being last year’s): ¥112t ($744 b). At the same time, the debt of the Government, far higher than any of the other G-20 governments, stands at ¥1.29q (that is ‘quadrillion’). This is 2.5 times larger than the SIZE of the entire Japanese economy! Fully ¼ of the entire budget is devoted to debt-servicing.

Lingering political funds scandal

This brinksmanship was caused all these last three weeks by the Prime Minister and by the LDP. They constantly slow-walked and whittled away at accommodations insisted upon by opposition party, i.e., demands on 51 LDP participants in the kickback scheme to testify in the Ethics Committee, Upper House on Tuesday, Lower House of Wednesday/Thursday, sworn Diet testimony vs voluntary “commentary”. They eventually only got 4 testimonies, including the Prime Minister suddenly and unexpectedly showing-up to be questioned, too!  But this too only threw more fuel to the fire: Kishida was dismissive, evasive, unrepentant and only mildly apologetic. Friday ended without a vote; an opposition leader filibustered by reading from the podium for almost 3 hours! So obviously there was furious horse-trading throughout the night and into the morning, with the announcement that the Diet would convene on Saturday. Saturday is where of course the Budget the LDP and Komeito passed the budget, and everyone else rejected it.

The Ethics Committee

The Upper House was supposed to hold hearings on Tuesday. It wanted testimony from the 31 Upper House Members who admitted guilt in the kickback scheme. This didn’t go as hoped for. As it turns out, only the Abe Faction (¥676m) ($4.5 m) kickbacks over 2.5 years and the Nikai Faction (¥265m) received the ire of the opposition parties. A total of 10 individuals were indicted (3 LDP Members, the rest Secretaries and Accountants). At the end of the day both Committees questioned only 4 Members under voluntary agreement. The Prime Minister decided to (not quite ‘testify’) appear to answer questions. Very anticlimactic. This is what you should expect when you dominate both Houses, as the LDP does.

Diplomacy

On the diplomatic front, Prime Minister Kishida will NOT, in fact, visit S. Korea on the 20th (18 days away). This is pretty huge news. Coming just 20 days before President Yoon stands for re-election, one wonders about the calculus here. Was it Japan’s internal political turmoil or the underlying bubbling sensitivities against the Japanese within the S. Korean electorate that cast the deciding vote to forego this important trip? Either way, an unfortunate development as it seemed that this bilateral relationship was beginning to mature.

Privacy policy

Questions poised during the 160th briefing

  • It sounds like Kishida-san, the Prime Minister, is not the smartest political operator. It looks like he lacks the ability to play the long game. It seems he has no strategy about how events could play out, and how to anticipate possible reactions and problems to head them off before they become major issues. In your opinion, who are the smart cookies currently in the LDP?
  • Mr. Suga has been out of the public eye for a while. Do you think that he might be one of the candidates in the election for LDP president?
  • May I have your view on parental kidnapping? My ex husband kidnapped my children and I have been suffering and experiencing severe damage. Is the Diet considering legislation that addresses this issue and the mounting complaints from the many foreign countries who have felt the impact of Japan’s heartless treatment?
  • The US will soon formally invite PM Kishida to deliver a speech to the joint Chamber of the US Congress. Any thoughts on what he might or should say?
  • Regarding the 16% Approval Rating of the Cabinet, is there a scenario in which the LDP is voted-out? If yes, how would the opposition look in terms of economic and foreign policy?