The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has been Japan’s most prominent political party since the end of the Second World War. In this episode of Tokyo on Fire, Host Timothy Langley and Advisor Michael Cucek explore the whys, hows, and whats, of what supports the LDP’s grip on power, and how – even when faced with increasingly virulent public opposition – they’re still the end-all-be-all of the Japanese political scene.
Full Transcript below:
Timothy: Good afternoon, everyone! Welcome back to Tokyo On Fire! Today is July 17th 2015. Our burning issue today is the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan. The Liberal Democratic Party is the political party that’s been in power since 1955: it’s had a couple of hiatus out of power. We’re going to be delving into why the Liberal Democratic Party is so powerful and what its influence is on Japanese politics. Today I’m joined once again with my co-host Michael Cucek. Michael Cucek is the author of the foremost blog on Japanese politics in English, it is entitled Shisaku. He is an Adjunct Professor at Sofia University, where he is teaching budding bright minds on Japanese and US politics. Michael, welcome to the show again.
Michael: Well, it’s great to be back.
Timothy: Thank you very much. We’re talking about the LDP and their dominance in Japanese politics. They lost a little bit of a gap there: the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came back roin and he has reestablished his position; he’s really kind of melding things to kind of bend to his ways, there’s been a lot going on here.
Michael: Well, the Prime Minister is riding on a wave of the LDP’s return to power. The return to power was not guaranteed and in fact most people called them out in 2009, when they lost to the Democratic Party of Japan, the DPJ. They can’t come back, but in a rather different form than the way they went out. Mr. Abe has been helping build up the party, but at what might be a cost that he’ll have to bear down the line.
Timothy: Let’s talk a little bit about the LDP: how it was formed, where it came from and perhaps why it can so legitimately weld such political power in Japanese politics.
Michael: It’s been around since 1955 when two conservative parties called the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party merged. The merger was forced upon them by the merger of two of the (other) socialist parties. The concept that Japan needed to be under conservative rule was not something that the Japanese people necessarily have held as a unified whole, but nevertheless is the basic line that is both acceptable to the United States, Japan’s major ally, and also to the Japan’s business community. These two forces, along with politicians, have been basically deciding how Japan has been run since 1945.
Timothy: It’s not incorrect to say that the United States had a heavy hand in melding this kind of formation of the Liberal Party and the Democratic Party, so that the the economy could get on its feet, so that Japanese politics could settle down, so that the constitutional framework could begin to operate for the benefit of the Japanese constituency.
Michael: Japanese conservatives, of course, had a big burden in that they were first associated with the march toward the war that took place in the 1930s and 1940s and one would think that the United States would really want to cause their power to crumble away, but then the Cold War intervened, which made their anti-communism far more important than their historical legacy. So, the United States actually helped fund, through the Central Intelligence Agency, the early years of the unified party.
Timothy: Well, that’s not too different than what happened in Germany too.
Michael: Now that we have open archives from the time, now that the 30 or 40 year gap has ended, we’ve seen that the United States had a very strong influence, if not a controlling hand, in the arrangement of the conservative parties, at least in their first years. Later on, in the 1960s, they took off on their own: the LDP did because it was able to take credit for the huge economic boom, when there were 10% per annum growth rates and person’s income would actually double it over a ten-year span. They could take credit for that and they were at the time, at least given the benefit of the doubt. What has to be known though is that the LDP has not been a popular party: during its first 30 years of existence, it rarely went above 35% in terms of the total number of votes or at least a total number of persons saying that they were supporters of the party. Right now, we have that exact same number 35 percent, so that it has never been a party of the majority of Japanese citizens. It has always been about the the party of about a third of the electorate, at best, and in its dark days, it was down into the 20s, into the low 20s, in terms of percentages of supporters. Now, how did it stay in power? That’s a completely different story. It’s not and it has many different parts, and we’ll just be getting into it.
Timothy: One of the great things about our session, our videos on Tokyo On Fire, is that we can dive into some of these issues and explain them. Perhaps a lot of the people who are watching this video have a good knowledge of the background and the implications, but it’s always nice to kind of wrap these things together. It can be said that the LDP is basically the party for big business, it’s a business favorable political party and I think they address and and respond to the needs of big business, Keidanren and that sort of thing, but going back into the past, it’s really interesting to note that the leader of the Democratic Party and the leader of the Liberal Party have sons and grandsons who have continued to be in Japanese politics and our leaders, even today.
Michael: All the countries in the world, including the United States: now we have Hillary Clinton who’s going to maybe be running against yet another Bush. All these countries have these dynastic families that are somehow in meritocratic democratic states somehow are still dominant, but Japan is right off the scale. East Asia is pretty bad in terms of dynastic politics. In fact, if you look around the region almost everyone is a dynast’s son or grandson. The Philippines, China, North Korea, South Korea…
Timothy: It makes a certain amount of sense: if my father, my grandfather, my great great grandfather, were pioneers who were heroes…
Michael: Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore, his son is now the Prime Minister ( Lee Hsien Loong). There are heroes and founders all around yes that’s true, but nevertheless it’s an oppressive system and in Japan it’s particularly bad. It is very hard for newcomers to break in and it’s particularly hard for newcomers in the LDP, except as we had in 2009 when they got wiped out. One of the new things about the LDP in 2015, is that the crowd that is supporting the Prime Minister is particularly young and they have very few elections: maybe one maybe two elections to the diet. This group is ahistorical both in its youth and often in the numbers, its numbers and its loyalty to the Prime Minister. Previously, loyalties have been split up in the factions, by factions which are informal (there’s nothing in the LDP charter that talks anything about factions, but you cannot talk about the LDP without talking about them), were the vehicles by which LDP leaders were able to jostle amongst each other and to come to a some kind of decision to who would lead and who would serve.
Timothy: Essentially, factional cliques that are cobbled together or that circle around a central person who has charisma, power, money, a legacy of some sort…
Michael: And, who is aiming for the Prime Minister’s chair. There was for decades and decades an alternation between these individuals and competition between them. In order to give them ground forces, they coalesced around themselves using money, using charisma, using mostly the ability to get into the formal administrative structure a way of getting your team together, so you could take on other teams inside the LDP. So about the LDP: you may talk about it as a party, but it’s actually an entire political system. It’s as if a single party is the political system that you normally have in acombative, an extremely competitive system that you normally see in a country. The LDP is its own country in
essence and it has political forces that are fighting it out.
Timothy: I think the country analogy is really a good one because some of the factions inside the LDP in fact are bigger than some of the opposition parties.
Michael: That is true: they are much more important than opposition parties and the views of their leaders. Now, that’s not so true in 2015 as it was, let’s say even ten years ago, when the factions in fact, when there would be a cabinet reshuffle or a new prime minister, would go to this person who was supposedly in charge and say “you’re going to pick this person, this person, this person, because he has six elections to the Diet and he’s never been in the cabinet; this person is five and is a specialist in medical equipment, so you’re gonna put him as the Minister of Health”. They would dictate to this newly elected leader what exactly he would be doing before. We would think the most important act which is picking his own cabinet…
Timothy: Well, there’s been a shift in the power balance and I think we have noticed that, even more remarkably, since this last election, currently the LDP now is really the center of gravity for defining political bills, for parceling out positions of authority and power, even within the cabinet. Even when you’re doing your lobbying activities or going to members of the Diet, they can give comments and you can facilitate certain movement, but the real powers is now centered in the LDP very securely.
Michael: The LDP is so powerful that it doesn’t even have to try anymore, that’s the real story behind what’s going on in the Diet right now. There actually doesn’t have to be a single day’s debate of any piece of legislation: they have the votes, they could go up down and say “okay, we want this particular bill to become law”. Bang! They can do it. They are so confident though that they go through the motions of having a debate in order to make it look nice, in order to not make waves and say “look, we’ve had this debate; we’ve had so many hours of people yelling about this particular bill and then they vote for it”. They can extend the debate entirely for political purposes, just to make it look as though there is an actual functioning democratic process.
Timothy: That might have worked in the past. I think the voters seem to be a little bit more sophisticated and certainly the press and the public vehicles for decimating information are a little bit more active in digging these things out. For example, when Kantei criticizes the media for writing pieces, or making observations, or giving a negative comment, and that hammer comes down, that’s really caused them a problem.
Michael: Well, that’s true. There’s this inside, either Mr. Abe or the Chief Cabinet Secretary, war going on in terms of you “don’t have to press, you don’t have to push, because you have all the votes you need. You really don’t have to bring the hammer down”. Nevertheless, they’ve been doing it. They have really taken sledgehammers to butterflies, especially in terms of press coverage, commenting, suggesting… They sent out a letter, the party members send out a letter before the December election saying “we expect you to be fair and balanced in your reporting” to all of the major news agencies. It was supposedly a secret message, which the news agencies all leaked it and said “look at these people with the iron fist, no glove at all. What are they doing?” That’s a really peculiar aspect of the current administration and it might even just be psychological.
Timothy: Well, I think that helps make the LDP the party to hate because once they have power, then they wield it unfairly or they wield it without regard for competing forces or the other opposition parties.
Michael: Well, it might actually go to their advantage that, in a weird kind of way, as Machiavelli says “it’s better to be feared than to be loved”, and if you can throw your weight around and intimidate, not necessarily do these things, but intimidate that you’re going to, at some point if whatever social force be at the press, be it academics, whatever suddenly rises up, they can be squashed. Instead of actually doing it, just being able to hint that you can do it might be in their interest.
Timothy: Well, once again we’re talking about the LDP and why the LDP has been in power for so long, and I think we’ve seen this time, and time again, even when the LDP was out of power, the party that came in didn’t know how to rule; they didn’t know how to use these tools and these tactics, to intimate what they were going to do or project what they might do in order to get to what they wanted.
Michael: Well, they didn’t scare anyone. The DPJ campaigned on being decent and honest and fair. They tried to rule that way, it turns this is a very difficult country to rule if you play fair and play nice. You do have to have a certain degree of intimidation in order to get things done. And, the electorate lost faith in the DPJ and in fact in all opposition parties due to the 2009-2012 experience, where it turned out that the establishment, the business establishment, the agricultural establishment, the bureaucracy, could all shut down a duly elected government and make it impossible for them to do their job. It is not necessarily malicious or entirely evil, but nevertheless make it extremely difficult for this party which had come in with a great deal of popular confidence, with very high levels of support in terms of the cabinet, at least, to be just absolutely shut down. The United States did not help. In the case of the first Prime Minister for the DPJ, Hatoyama, he tried to reverse all at one go 30-40 years of the United States forces being based in Okinawa and at the same time the very fraught relationship with China. He tried to do both at the same time. The United States Government looked at that and said “this guy is trying to undermine the Japan-US alliance and we have nothing to do with him”. At that point, he froze himself out. But getting back to the LDP, we really have to say first of all that the LDP is a party whose sole purpose nowadays is to represent power and to creep power to itself.
Timothy: To be number one, to be reelected, to have your members reelected, but also to dominate to not rely on a coalition party, to get your bills through the Diet.
Michael: That’s their dreamt: they have to rely on coalition since the 1994 when the joined with the Socialists, their archenemies, to get back in power. They were out of power for a brief period in 93 and they were willing to reach across the aisle to their deadliest foe, the Socialists, to bring in a coalition. They’ve been in coalition ever since and that’s a reflection. The fundamental paradox of this party is that it’s not a popular party, it actually has to have at least one ally to stay in power. Mr. Abe is trying to change that dynamic and make it an absolute big tent party, but a big tent party that is nevertheless not one that brings lots of citizens, lots of the people who are not involved in politics. It’s a big tent party of exclusion, which is why it should blow people’s minds.
Timothy: Well, it’s very much like the Press Club scenario too, where unless you’re a member you’re not going to get in and you’re not gonna be able to write the stories, you’re not gonna have the inside track.
Michael: Yeah and Abe has been consolidating the parties in many ways. It has its roots in rural areas and supporting the farmers, but with farmers being now very old and soon to be very few in Japan, he’s really moved the party back to its real roots, which is the business group.It’s naked ,it’s blatant, people talk about it all the time and they say “everything you’ve done: your Abenomics, your Womenomics, all it is is to facilitate the activities as a big business, for the Keidanren and for other organizations. He never has to say “yes, you’re right!” Basically, that is what he does. He says “I’m here for you, I’m here to help Japan’s recovery. Which is code. No one, maybe outside of Japan, is understood as “oh, he’s working to reform the economy”. It’s really code for “I’m going to facilitate life for Japanese corporation”.
Timothy: I think that the people who belong to his party, or maybe the independents who might join his party because there’s a real chance there in upcoming elections, and it’s a big surprise to Japan.
Michael: And, the Innovation Party explodes again for the umpteenth time: there will be recruits that are available to further beef up what is already an immense party.
Timothy: The funny thing is that although the Prime Minister is not really known as a charismatic, he has very little charisma, but he has been able to
successfully gather the forces that cobbled together to make something that is justifiable and representative power base for the LDP.
Michael: Doing it while wiping out all rivals. Normally, when you put together a coalition, you have to bring in a lot of big enchilada z’ and big cheese’s and bring them in and you have to deal with them: he brings them in and then he cuts off their heads. If you go through all the people who have tried to, in some way, compete with him in terms of power in over the last three years, they’re all in the wilderness: they are either in extremely minor party positions or very minor ministries. Poor Mr. Ishiba in his rural renovation ministry work which is going nowhere. But all of the major persons who could have possibly been centers of opposition, the traditional factional centers of opposition, we don’t talk about the heads of factions: they’re there, but they’re not seen in any way as rivals or potential new prime ministers.
Timothy: Well, I think their strategy is let’s just wait and bide our time. I mean, they’re trying to gather their forces too.
Michael: That’s what the Chinese we’re thinking too but they’ve given that up. They’re willing to meet Abe now. Xi Jingping is finally saying “yeah, it might not be a bad idea. He somehow is still in power”.
Timothy: It is true, he is the longest-serving Prime Minister.
Michael: Since Koizumi and he’s going to be well on up there on the total number of days as a prime minister list. He’s already in fifth place in the post-war era and he’ll be shooting past a lot of folks including Ikeda. He’s not gonna get up to the level of his great uncle or his uncle, great uncle, Sato, who has the longest tenure, but he’s definitely going to do very well in historical terms.
Timothy: You mentioned just a little while ago Prime Minister Hatoyama and it reminds me again of this hereditary nature of Japanese politics. And yes, although it is represented in politics throughout the world, in Japan it’s a little bit heavy on that and in particular with the LDP. The LDP has about 50% of the sitting members of the Diet either have a father or a grandfather or some close relationship that has helped guide them into Japanese politics.
Michael: And, Hatoyama even though he was a DPJ Prime Minister, his family were LDP members and he started out in the LDP and that’s another aspect. We talked about the Opposition in Japan, but the major centrist opposition is really just pieces of the LDP that fell off at some point in the past. So the DPJ is really, it’s half of what was the Takeshita faction that split off in the 1990s. It’s the main opposition, but it’s really just a flavor of the LDP.
Timothy: Well, it’s a lot like Japanese society. There are strata of economic groups in Japan, but it’s not wide like in the United States it’s very narrow and even though you might have deviations from the standard norm, those deviations are not that great. Even between the Communists and the Socialists, and the Socialists and the LDP…
Michael: Between the Communists and the LDP, the differences in terms of policy are not black and white.
Timothy: Which make this discussion about the LDP so interesting and so intriguing. How and why could the LDP glom on to political power and be able to hold on to it for so long?
Michael: You could call it very seriously the most successful political party in the world! It’s only rival in terms of longevity is Mexico’s PRI and even they’ve had times out of power, at least more recently have been out of power more often than the LDP has. The LDP is simply an institution within Japanese society and you would want, in terms of the electoral system that Japan took on in 1993 which is what’s called the first-past-the-post. Basically, it’s like the House of Representatives in the United States: a small area of a certain geographical area with one person representing that particular space. That’s the way the new Japanese system of 1993 was and you would want, in order for that to be a vital policy generating system, to have at least two competing candidates. Two would be nice. Three would be really interesting. But, at least have two. Basically in the system that has evolved what we have is one and that one is the LDP candidate. We have to go back one step in and point out that in all the political maneuvering that has happened in regards to the legislation that is up to for debate, which has been a big fight over whether the legislation is constitutional or not, you have to go back one step and say that the Diet that’s trying to determine: is that constitutional? Because, according to the Supreme Court. The point of the Supreme Court, the people who are sitting in these seats are actually there in violation of the Constitution, because the district boundaries are overly pushed and pulled in a way so as to favor the LDP. And, overly favorable toward rural votes.
Timothy: It’s not exactly gerrymandering, right? Gerrymandering is is completely different, this is the dynamics of electing a leader and having somebody come in as a candidate to represent a thought, or a theory, or a position, a political issue, and usually it’s just a political party which sends in a candidate and will be their candidate in this district.
Michael: Not drawing really bizarre shapes and long twisted shapes like that gerrymander: often they’re just quite compact and very reasonable looking. But, the problem is that inside them there can be very small populations: there’s no regulation that says what the correct population should be. So, an urban district of a certain size in a rural district can have very different populations in them. The Supreme Court has had two over the last few decades, continuously suggest to the LDP: it’s time to give urban voters more votes and they’ve had been giving them suggestions “okay, it should be that an urban voters vote should be at least worth one third of a rural vote”. Then, he said “okay, let’s try to make it so that there would be twice as many people in an urban district as in a rural district, let’s at least try to get that kind of balance”. Which is no balance at all and that’s the current level. Even the LDP has not been able to engineer, except under the most bizarre counting systems of citizens, so that if you live in the city in Japan you are a half citizen, vote-wise, as compared to someone who lives in a rural district: you have half as much of rights, you have half of the claims on the government’s goodies and the things that they can hand out. That’s the system that the LDP likes, it’s the system that has kept them in power. And, until somebody comes in and says this has got to stop, one would suppose it would be the Supreme Court but when given the chance they’ve always stepped back. Most recently, they’ve said “no, this is not an unconstitutional system, it’s a system in a state of unconstitutionality”. Which is not the same thing, it’s not the same thing because if it was unconstitutional as we just pointed out, then the only group that can fix the system is the Diet members who are themselves unconstitutional. It’s a little bit of a logic game, but nevertheless that’s what judicial procedure is and they’re thinking all the time: “okay, these folks, they’re the system that elects them, which is incredibly illegitimate, it really degrades and absolutely demoralizes urban voters, saying : “you’re half people”. That’s always been in the LDP’s interest. The Supreme Court has suggested it’s time to stop doing that, but the LDP, of course, for its own interests, for its own electability, has not ever been proactive.
Timothy: I think it’s actually a little bit more stark than that. For example, of a hundred and twenty of a population, national population, of about a hundred and twenty million people, most people say about twelve million live in Tokyo and in the environs of Tokyo.
Michael: 13 million, living in Tokyo metropolitan.
Timothy: So, if you extrapolate that just a little bit, within a two-hour drive of Tokyo, it’s probably twenty million people.
Michael: You can say thirty five.
Timothy: That portion, that’s a big metropolitan area: it dominates economy, politics, everything about Japan. You come to Japan and you visit Tokyo, it’s not really Japan but it is a good representation. 30 out of 120 million
Michael: Yeah, it’s basically a quarter of the population, a third of the GDP, and yet in terms of representation in the Diet, they are a minor force.
Timothy: I want to talk about what that translates into the situation that we have going on today, but before I do, just for the sake of completeness, let’s talk a little bit about the difference between the LDP as a political force and the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is supposed to be separate from politics, it’s not supposed to be involved, or influenced, or touched by politics, but in fact it is. But of the pillars of Japanese society that support this whole nation, the bureaucratic pillar is one that’s very strong, very deep, and it’s been in existence far longer than the democratic Constitution has been in Japan.
Michael: The bureaucracy in Japan deserves a great deal of credit for the Japan that we have today. In other countries where a democratization, rapid democratization, took place, there were frequently breakdowns and civil war terrorism such things. In Japan however, in the post 1945 era, they were able to take up the mantle of a completely democratic society from a totalitarian one like that. What made that possible was the organization of the bureaucracy from the very top levels all the way down to the village-level. They were able to just: “okay, we’ve got a new boss. Fine, there are new rules, we know. We’ll just fill out our forms and we’ll stamp things and arrange how the government works”. They were able to switch on a dime, just zip over. They deserve a tremendous amount of credit and the importance of the bureaucracy should be a part of any kind of analysis of politics and democracy. In the case of the LDP however, the idea that the bureaucracy could stay outside politics is naive. We’ve talked about the factions which are informal, they’re not a part of the formal structure, also are the tribes (the zoku) which are industry tribes, technical tribes, which are groups, not the same thing as the faction: the factions are aligned with a single leader and a competition for the leadership position. The tribes can be cross factional groups of LDP members who are interested in a particular industry, or most often, they are a complete reflection of a ministry. So that there is the health tribe, there is the construction tribe. Each one reflects a ministry and they become policy experts in the policies of the ministry. The ministries’ bureaucrats become familiar with these particular politicians, and together with the business interests that are represented, form what’s called the “Iron Triangle”, where business talks to the bureaucracy, talks to the politicians, the politicians talk to the businessmen, talk to the ministry through their tribal organization and the three work together to create policies that benefit all three of them. So that the bureaucracy is supposed to be a meritocracy and supposed to be beyond politics, nevertheless under the system designed by the LDP, or fostered by the LDP, is deeply embedded.
Timothy: This is not a revolving door, though is it?
Michael: Oh no, it’s not the same thing. Though there is of course a large number of high-level bureaucrats who do make the jump into politics at a later date, but they normally become governors and that’s where they make their jump, or they become local or municipal or prefecture officials. Only recently, the number of bureaucrats who actually make the jump into national politics is relatively small.
Timothy: Because in order to accumulate power, you have to be successful in an election ,you have to have three or four elections under your belt. To even qualify for a position on the cabinet, you’re probably well into your 80s, if you’ve had a career as a bureaucrat.
Michael: Well, that’s right. If you would be starting out as a 50 year old freshmen at best and you’re gonna be competing in the case of people like Abe against persons who started out near the legal limit: starting at 26-27 years of age and have all these decades of seniority on you. So that’s not really an attractive career choice as it once was. It was attractive particularly for people who wanted to join the DPJ, because then you could actually become somebody important in that party. But coming into the LDP nowadays is no longer very attractive; it was for a while, but is no longer a major force.
Timothy: Well, just to kind of complete that discussion. I think the reason for that is because typically when Japanese people enter the workforce it is with the mind “I want to be successful, I want to be good at the skill that I have decided I’m going to anchor my career on”, but in Japan it’s a little bit more heightened: “I’m going to do this, I’m going to join the bureaucracy and I’m going to be in the bureaucracy until my career ends”. Similarly with a lawyer or with any sort of technician, or an industry specialist, there really isn’t that circulation, This kind of revolving door at the political level is not represented even at the lower levels.
Michael: Well, there’s certainly no revolving door that you can have a kind of career that reflects the three-year or four-year cycle in terms of House of Representatives elections. You can jump in when an election takes place; serve a particular politician or a particular party, and then jump back out again when the next election cycle happens, as is the case in many other countries. Here, if you jump out, you’re jumping out for good. That was indeed for a long time a great attraction for bureaucrats, it’s not so much anymore. So that in the general sense, the bureaucratic triangle with industry and the politicians is perhaps not as important as it was. The tribes, certainly due to reforms in the 1990s, their complete domination of policymaking within the LDP, has diminished. The Prime Minister and his staff, and the people that are loyal to him, especially starting with the Koizumi era around the turn of the millennium, that’s when the Prime Minister suddenly became a force in Japanese society. The Iron Triangle is pretty much a lip service issue as compared to what it was in the eighties and nineties.
Timothy: Huge focus of complaint and criticism from Japanese trading partners.
Michael: And also from the Japanese people themselves, which was why the LDP even bothered to reform the ministries. They sensed that if they kept trying to do things the way they had been… They always talked about increasing efficiency, to be more responsive, but basically they saw it as an electoral issue right.
Timothy: I think you know that I’m afraid to be criticized for navel-gazing, which we sometimes tumble into, but the election system here in Japan is rather unique, it’s complex and it could stand to be a burning issue at some point in time for Tokyo On Fire. I think it might be a little bit early now, we’ve got an election coming up in the upper-house next year, maybe as we approach that, it would be a good time to talk about that and to delve into that.
Michael: It’s currently an issue in the Diet because they’re trying to reform the House of Councillors. Now, the Supreme Court has declared not just the House of Representatives but the House of Councillors as being in a state of unconstitutionality: the electoral system has districts that are radically geared against urban voters and that’s unfair, or at least it’s unconstitutional, or in a state of unconstitutionality as regards the part of the Constitution that declares that everyone is equal under the law.
Timothy: We will say that, but we won’t say in fact it is unconstitutional, because that just depends on what the definition of “is” is.
Michael: In this case, the current Diet is trying to find a way to rectify the House of Councillors. Now, the House of Representatives would actually be super easy: all you have to do is draw the boundaries so that every district has the same number of folks in it.
Timothy: It would be great if it was a rather stable population base.
Michael: Populations change all over the world: that’s the reason why you have census, it is to find out where people have moved to or where they’ve disappeared from. Sure, okay, we’re in a dynamic flux right now, so that it actually quite rapidly changes, you’re right. They should be redrawing these boundaries, even faster. But, basically just getting them equal will be a good start and it’s doable. However, in the House of Councillors it is based upon, not boundaries that they draw, but the boundaries that exist within the structure of the the government which are the prefectures. Just in the same way in the
United States states you have Wyoming which is worth as much as California, even though the population of Wyoming is in the hundreds of thousands and in California it’s near forty million, they’re equal. The same is true in Japanese prefectures: you have prefectures like Totori or Shimane which have a few hundred thousand people in them and then ¡n the prefecture of Tokyo which has 13 million. There are some aspects of adjustment, but for the most part you’re going to have vast disparities just because they’re based on the prefecture. They’re trying to work out a system to equalize it. It’s not going anywhere unfortunately for the administration, because it has spent so much political capital and so much of its popularity on the security legislation. It’s actually finding itself in a position where it actually has to deal with this House of Councillors issue which they’d really rather bury, but they’re so down they have to start looking like reformists somewhere. Of course, what you and I would want is get back on economic reform: if you want to be a reformist get that train going, but that trains going nowhere.
Timothy: Which kind of justifies or explains why the governorship of the prefecture is so popular, so powerful and so hotly contested nowadays.
Michael: Well, it’s certainly that it’s a lot of fun too. It’s one of those jobs where you get to go and do all kinds of fun things but the responsibilities are relatively small, because there has not yet been enough devolution of power and especially taxation power to the prefectures- and the municipal-levels. There is constant lip service to that, there is constant reform that’s supposedly gone going, but at the end of the day they are basically either sinecures or they’re basically training areas for people who want to get into national politics.
Timothy: Which is not a bad gamble either. Talking about the Governor of Osaka, who just recently threw in the towel and what’s going to become of him.
Michael: Well, there are so many governors nowadays that actually have interesting policy implications and who actually do stuff, but again they took on the position usually because they were able to win not due to the LDP strength, which is the way you work in national politics, but due to personal attractiveness or a certain kind of private political base. So that the governorships of the prefectures are really a different kettle of fish and it’s really difficult to talk about them in terms of the LDP.
Timothy: Let’s segway into how the LDP dynamic reveals itself in what we’ve got today: we’re in the middle of a Diet session that has been extended far into
into September, longest extension ever, and the LDP was able to successfully do that without too much of a bump in the road. Now, things are really starting to happen: bills have been put into the lower-house, they’ve been passed; they’re now in the upper-house under deliberation and if they’re passed, they become law. But, there’s a lot going on: the protests happening in Kasumigaseki, just less than five kilometers from here, we can hear them in the evenings shouting about the revision of the constitution. It’s a really hot summer.
Michael: Luckily, the constitution is not being revised, there would be an extremely hot summer and we would be talking about possibly the government falling. But, Abe and company have kept their¡ their ambitions in check and are going for small-scale bills at the present time. Nevertheless, they are passing bills using the majority that they have and it shows that they have this particular group that the leadership around Abe have a very clear sense of both personal confidence and a sense of how a show should be put on. You really need to have long long periods of debate, even if they’re pointless and meaningless. You have to go through the motions and they have. What they’re going to do in September when they lock up the last pieces of legislations in a rapid series of railroaded votes after the other, they’ll say “look, we extended the session all the way across the summer, it’s the longest session ever, you can’t say to us that we didn’t properly discuss these things. You can’t say it because we’ve given you all this time”. That the discussions themselves were not pertinent, denied or that the LTP simply stonewalled when it was confronted with issues that it didn’t want to talk about, with the Diet testimony being not only contradictory, but just inane, they say: “look, we’ve gone through the proper democratic procedures, you cannot criticize us: it’s time to vote these things, and bang, they do it. You’ve got to give them credit, they don’t necessarily have to do this, they can really run this as a tyrannical system.
Timothy: Kind of. I mean it is a coalition government and you can imagine that behind the scenes, in closed-door sessions, there’s a bit of a trading going on between the LDP and their coalition partner. Some of these divisions of power, or authority, or digging-up pork barrel projects have occurred and now they can move forward.
Michael: Well, as long as the Komeito has a ministry that it can derive some kind of benefit from, it used to be that they like to be in charge of Construction, now they’d like to be in charge of Healthcare, which means that one of their leaders is assigned as the Minister. As long as they have one of those things, they can go to their voters and say look we are apart, if we go into opposition, we’ll get nothing. So that when the pressure comes from the voters say “yeah, but you’re exceeding to everything that the LDP says” and they say “yeah, well that’s the trade-off, that’s politics”. So, yes there may be pressure from the Komeito, but at the end of the day the Komeito has on it a pair of handcuffs and that pair of handcuffs is they want to be in government.
Timothy: Speaking of handcuffs and just to kind of wrap this this discussion up, it’s a little bit of a segway, flared up big time this week the Olympic Stadium issue. That really snowballed just almost overnight.
Michael: You could see it coming. When Abe named Mr. Mori, his former faction leader, who’s in his 80s, who’s I think 83 now, in his 80s, his former faction leader, as the head of the committee and then, as his lieutenant person who was 79, Mr. Muto, a two-time failed candidate for the head of¡ the Bank of Japan. They nominated more of their superannuated ancient cronies to be part of this committee. You could see that this was going to go wrong, that there was no one that was going to take responsibility and that this was simply a glory trip. The glory trip is going to cost 2.2 billion in terms of the stadium. When the final numbers have come out about how much this new thing is going to cost, it’s going to be the most costly Stadium ever built. 2 billion dollars and the public, the people of Tokyo and particularly the Governor of Tokyo, have all gasped: “you can’t do this”. This committee of supreme senior citizens have said “no, no, this is the way it’s going to work”. Now, we have this week, the Prime Minister and also the Minister of Education, who was due to his bailiwick, he was actually in charge of the Olympics, until the new Olympics Ministry was created, all saying: “how would this happen? How did we get here? This is not good, what happened? We need to get down and find out who’s responsible”. Look in the mirrors, guys. You guys are responsible, you created this system and you created this situation, but buck-passing is a fine art in this country.
Timothy: Isn’t that a fine example of buck-passing? I mean, even in Japanese corporate society people are very reluctant to assume any responsibility. I mean…
Michael: We have a situation this week with Toshiba. Toshiba which for years was hiding billions of incorrect and false accounting losses, and all kinds of different funny and fiddles, after years of Investigation now they’re going to have their CEO resign. In most countries, all those people would be in jail.
Timothy: And the press reported today that earlier in the week he said “I don’t know how this has happened. I didn’t tell anybody to do that; I didn’t give them instructions”. The report today was that this was an organized fashion and it went under somebody’s leadership.
Michael: But it had been through many generations of Toshiba executives and they all knew that the books were funny.
Timothy: Well, isn’t this, I don’t know, it’s kind of a blanket statement and I don’t mean to be pejorative, but isn’t this somewhat representative of Japanese companies in general? The closed system of board memberships oversight how money is hoarded and capital funds are used. We hear this story all the time.
Michael: And wouldn’t it be weird if that had something to do with the LDP’s long time stay in power? Wouldn’t that have any relationship to them? Of course it does. There’s no oversight because there’s no oversight legislation. Look at the Consumer Affairs Agency. How long it took to have one in Japan, making Japan look like a laughingstock around the world where Consumer Affairs was something you dealt with in the 80s, it wasn’t until well into the Millennium that the first one was established here. Who do they go after right now? Makers of phony hair products and these little fly-by-night tiny companies, when there are serious consumer affairs issues having to do with some of the Japan’s big names.
Timothy: Getting back to the stadium issue, the reason why the Tokyo Governor and the population of Tokyo is so up in arms is because there is a cost sharing there. I mean, the government seems to be able to be in a position to dictate what the design is going to be like and who’s going to make it, but when it comes to paying for it: “we’ll pay our part and by the way you’re gonna pay your part too”. That was a bitter pill to swallow, wasn’t it?
Michael: Well and when you don’t have a viable opposition to vote for, so that you can throw these bums out you get to take it. yes
Timothy: But in fact, they are going to modify and change the design of the stadium.
Michael: I would not be surprised if they can completely trash it they take the loss, whatever it is going to be with Ms. Hadid in terms of her design, and they do something completely different. Because this can really injure not just the party, but Mr Abe. He’s waking up to that, with the security legislation he may not really care, but the Olympics he actually cares, he’s really proud of it. That he went to Buenos Aires and he made his speech, he lied about Fukushima (“it’s under control, the nuclear problem is not there”), and he brought home the bacon: he brought home the Olympics. He’s so proud of that and if it’s a debacle…
Timothy: It is an opportunity. Everybody, you and I in particular, people who live here in Japan, foreigners who live here and who have invested their life here, we are looking for a repeat of what happened in this 64 Olympic: we want this to propel Japan forward and to do something really dynamic, along the lines of the Shinkansen or televisions in every house. That really crystallized the Japanese economic boom, it would be nice to see it again.
Michael: I don’t have that much hope in terms of economics, but certainly in terms of spirit and in terms of a national branding issue, if people come to Japan or see Japan through the Olympics and see the extraordinary levels of safety, extraordinary levels of technology, extraordinary levels of organization, and most importantly the fact that people here are extremely kind and extremely open, that’s worth it. Even though people are looking at the accounts say “oh, the Olympics cost as much money and it’s lost”, for Japan as a branding, as as a sales point in terms of an international competition for minds and for hearts, it’s worth it, at least, if they do it right. If it becomes a boondoggle of vast corporate projects where there’s very little in terms of input from the people, except as simply as consumers, then it’s going to be a shameful Olympics.
Timothy: Part of the projections predict that if there is a massive change of the design of the stadium, it won’t be ready in time for the World Cup of Rugby that is here, it’s a trial case of the Olympics. They’re going to be exercising in all the facilities, but the World Cup here in 2019 is a big deal too!
Michael: Yes, but the thing about that is that Japan co-hosted the Soccer World Cup in 2002 and all those stadiums are still around. None of them have been mothballed, they’re huge, they pose a huge cost, they certainly could be used in a pinch: reassigned. It doesn’t have to be a direct connection between the Olympic venues and the Rugby World Cup venues. They can handle the Rugby World Cup with the stadia that exist already, so if it’s really just focused on putting on the show in 2020, the city of the Metropolitan Government has a pretty good idea, but it’s the national group that is completely out of control. Maybe if Mr. Abe took direct control of the process… But, let’s face it: he appointed directly the people who are in charge of it, he’s already taken personal responsibility and he blew it. What his personal touch would do in addition to it, one can’t say.
Timothy: Well, I don’t want to end on a sour note. Let’s just kind of wrap this thing up. Our burning issue today is the LDP, its position of power, how it has stayed in power, how its managed to continue to lead the revitalization of the Japanese economy under what is called now Abenomics. So, what positive things can we say about the LDP and their position of power now, so that we can nicely wrap up this session of Tokyo On Fire.
Michael: Mr. Abe has given, and the LDP under him have, Japan something that they haven’t had for a decade, which is a leader that other world leaders can rely upon. After Koizumi, we had a simply a revolving door of prime ministers who lasted a year and then were out of power. So, when summits would occur, all of the other leaders would get together and they say “hi, who are you? Oh, he’s the Japanese Prime Minister. Won’t be seeing you next year”. That that was too deeply demoralizing and deeply corrosive to Japan’s influence around the world. With Mr. Abe and the the kind of LDP that he has now where there are no rivals and the factions are a minor force, he presents to the world a consistent phase. Stability is one thing that Japan has lacked, and with him right now we have a stable situation. It’s ticking off a lot of people at current point in time that we’re in, but nevertheless one can look forward to seeing interactions, for example what’s going on between Mr. Abe and Putin. The Russian leader would have no reason to talk to any Japanese Prime Minister for any period of time because that person’s going to be gone, with Abe interacting with Putin, and Putin will be coming to Japan, in defiance of what would seem to be a Western alliance against him, Japan will be accommodating toward a Putin visit. Without that image of continuity, Japan would not have much weight to throw around in the world.
Timothy: The Prime Minister is coming up for election now in September, isn’t that right?
Michael: But there’s almost no one else, of course.
Timothy: It is a hook that you can hang your head that maybe the Diet session was extended, so that he could ride on that as well close up the session successfully and paper over an election “you guys don’t want to run against me, do you?”
Michael: Specially during the middle of the Diet’s session! That works perfectly in that regard. He’ll be reelected and it’s for a three-year term. He doesn’t have to have national elections for that same three years: he’s safe, you’re safe and Japan has stability. It’s not a happy stability necessarily, but at least there is some measure of continuity and strength.
Timothy: Terrific. Thank you very much Michael, with that I’d like to tie up today’s episode of Tokyo On Fire. You’ve been watching Tokyo On Fire, our burning issue today that we’ve handled is the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan: the LDP, how it is stayed in power, where it came from, what kind of dynamics are at play currently as the diet is in session. You can send your comments to us at Twitter using hashtag #tokyoonfire. You can also add comments to us in the dialogue box of youtube. Our podcast is downloadable on itunes and you can provide comments to us directly at [email protected] Thank you very much for watching, please tell your friends about the podcast. Look forward to seeing you next week! Thank you very much!