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Japanese Politics Updates – May 19, 2024

Play Video about Japanese politics updates #171, Japanese Politics One-on-One

Welcome to the 171st episode of Japanese Politics One-on-One, delivered to you by Langley Esquire and Japan Expert Insights.

We are one month away from the end of the current Diet session. As a result, we’ve been hearing a lot within the halls of the parliament this week. For instance, recently the Upper House passed the Joint Custody Bill, which will go into effect next year. We will report more afterwards: there is a lot of interest in this revision. Other Bills under consideration are being rushed through and new ones are being interjected in a last-minute rush at the same time. This is crowding the parliamentary schedule considerably. In this rush, and with political tensions also complicating things, consider what transpired this last week:

PM’s Approval Rating Improves

JiJi Press conducted a survey two weeks ago reporting that Prime Minister Kishida’s approval-rating increased by 2.1% to 18.7%. This rise may be attributed to his recent trips abroad as well as his attempt at handling the Kickback Scandal and Ethics Committee issues. Although the approval rating remains very low at under 20%, any indications of upward momentum are a relief as the Prime Minister is currently struggling to keep his position.

As we attempt to cover significant developments in Japanese politics, indicators (such as a blip in approval) suggest that something else is about to happen. It is crucial to pay attention to these indicators to anticipate future events, as Japanese politics is more complex than what is typically reported in newspapers or in news broadcasts. You already noticed that Japan fell to 70th place in the annual international press-freedom ranking (announced May 5th by Reporters Without Borders).

The Kickback Scandal & the Impact on the Ethics Committee

Prime Minister Kishida may have thought that he had resolved everything regarding the kickback scandal before his visit to the US in April. However, the by-election results reset balance of power within the Lower House and now the LDP realizes that not everything was said-and-done. The Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP, Kenta Izumi: Leader) won all three seats which altered the distribution of seats in all Lower House parliamentary committees. The CDP demand that 44 LDP Members, each personally and admittedly involved in the scandal, testify was accepted by all 27 Members. 

Political Funds Control Law

Meanwhile, there was a different kind of debate in the PM’s office: the ruling LDP and Komeito were hammering-out how to revise the political-funds control law in light of the public outcry: if in agreement, the two alone can railroad through the parliament anything (because together they possess 50%+ of the Lower House seats). Komeito proposed tighter, stricter regulations to be formally proposed to revise the Law. The LDP, however, rejected this on Friday and proposed unilaterally (“ummm, thanks for the discussion, meeting over…”) a far-more watered-down LDP-centric version. This created a rift between the two… not a good thing. Now with battlelines defined, everyone can clearly see the LDP is allergic to distancing themselves from the money-politics game they have mastered (to the detriment of everyone else… including Komeito).  

With this as backdrop, the Ethics Committee investigation has gone into higher-gear. Demands for several of the more-guilty individuals, including former Prime Minister Mori, to testify… and they must respond to this summons tomorrow… are going to end-up painting the LDP into a corner. If any of the guilty respond and testify, the newspapers and the opposition will have a field day. If none of them agree to testify, the media will draw a more negative inference and, once again, the newspapers and the opposition will have a field day: Heads, you lose / Tails, I win. Disaster is brewing.

Mr. Ishiba’s Dinner with Koizumi et.al.

Wednesday night former LDP Secretary General, previous candidate for PM, Lower House Member Shigeru Ishiba hosted a dinner with influential LDP members. The invitees included former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, former Secretary-General Taku Yamazaki, and other heavy-hitters. Reporters have revealed, that Koizumi’s younger son will not run in the next party presidential election in September. Ishiba was encouraged to run for Prime Minister “when the time comes”. This kind of dinner, at this particular time, is significant. Shifts in the political landscape are happening. 

As you know, the Prime Minister has limited opportunities to call a General Election. The first good chance is before the end of the current Diet session (June 23rd). The second good-chance is after the Diet closes and before the election of LDP president (late September). However, don’t forget that the Prime Minister term as prime minister is not directly tied to his term as LDP president. Also, in order to close-down the House and initiate a General Election (w/in 30 days), not only does the Parliament need to be in-session, but also by the very fact, the Parliament must thereafter elect (or re-elect) a Prime Minister.  

Thus, there are only brief, specific times when it makes sense for the Prime Minister to call an election. The sword cuts two ways. Distinctly, opinion polls indicate that the best bet to stay PM for Kishida is to wait. The worse outcome for the LDP is to fail to act with conviction (and swiftly before it gets worse). Different forces are at play here: two bears wrestling under a carpet.

Elections for the Shizuoka and Tokyo Governor

The LDP lost three by-elections just now: it does not want another. In fact, the LDP is so afraid of losing again, it has not even fielded a candidate in the upcoming 5/26 Shizuoka gubernatorial election. Maybe this is wise. In the last 4 years, THREE LDP Lower House Members in Shizuoka have left the Diet for money or sex scandals… Ouch.  So instead of promoting an LDP candidate who might lose, the LDP is backing an independent candidate. This independent is a former Kasumigaseki-bureaucrat and later Vice Governor of Shizuoka. Meanwhile, election-day for Tokyo Governor is scheduled for July 7th. AGAIN, the LDP is gun-shy and needs to avoid a loss. As a consequence, they will NOT run a candidate against incumbent Governor Koike. (Gov. Koike is expected to run for a third term).

However, Koike’s backed candidate lost in the Tokyo 15 By-Election where (again) the LDP did not field a candidate. Clearly, some candidates have declined to run under the LDP banner. This is due to the negative political climate and potential damage to their careers. Finally, tension between Governor Koike and the LDP increased due to LDP’s lack of support for her candidate in the previous election. In short: an all-over mess.

Japan’s GDP Shrinks by 0.5%

Japan’s GDP fell another 0.5% in the first quarter of 2024, raising concerns about a possible recession. Consumption by consumers and businesses declined for the ninth consecutive quarter(!). The yen closed at $/¥155.68 on Friday. This of course generates both positive and negative effects depending on who you are. Inflation has eroded all salary increases, leading to a decrease in real income for workers. The government needs to take quick action to address these economic issues before the next general election. Something is definitely cooking in this area… watch the market at the end of the month.

Korea’s Opposition Leader on Disputed Island

South Korean opposition party leaders visited Takeshima. It is an uninhabited island claimed by both South Korea and Japan, re-creating tension between the two countries. This move comes as South Korea, China and Japan are in the stages of considering a trilateral summit this month. However, rising tensions may prevent it from happening. Planned before this month is out in Seoul.

Rahm Emanuel Visits Yonaguni and Ishigaki

US Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, visited Yonaguni and Ishigaki, the two southernmost islands in the Ryukyu Island chain. These islands are closest to Taiwan. They will inevitably suffer the effects if there is a conflict between China and Taiwan. In anticipation of / preparation for a potential conflict, the United States and Japan are strengthening their military presence in the region by bolstering particularly these outposts. Additionally, Japan and the United States just yesterday signed a deal to build hypersonic attack missiles to shoot down missiles from North Korea. The situation in the region is delicate due to the island visits by the South Korean opposition party and by the US ambassador, as well as the ongoing trilateral tensions between China, South Korea, and Japan. 

Taipei Mayor to Tokyo

Taipei’s Mayor visited Tokyo this week for two days, marking his first visit as Mayor. Hosted by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso (back from his recent visit with Donald Trump). This important delegation-visit is in conjunction with the inauguration of the new president of Taiwan, Lai Ching-te, tomorrow! Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party has won three presidential elections in a row, building significant political momentum. China detests Lai Ching-te and views him with suspicion. 30 to 40 LDP members are today in Taipei for the inauguration. Everyone is keen on his speech and his signals to China.

Joint Custody Becomes Law

87% of single parents in current custody disputes oppose joint custody. Still, this Bill passed the Upper House this week, thus becoming Law. Implementation is for next fiscal year.Clearly, though, the law may not resolve many issues related to divorce and child custody. Given the cultural and historical underpinnings, it may take a long time to deviate from traditional concepts of divorce and child custody in Japan. However, Japan’s many trading partners breathed a sigh of relief. One reason for this is that foreign parents are completely blind-sighted when such an outrageous situation (parental kidnapping) erupts. Another reason is that foreign parents are almost universally at a disadvantage when a custody battle with their Japanese spouse starts. Unfortunately, we anticipate that the pain and destruction this quirk has caused to continue for more years to come.

Putin Goes to Beijing

Xi and Putin met on Thursday ~ Friday, publicly promoting a new era of relations between China and Russia. Putin as you know just last week took his 3rd consecutive term as President of Russia (his 5th in state leadership overall). That his first foreign visit is to China is a pretty significant item. This raises concerns as China’s economy is not stable and relies on trade with nations outside of Russia. The joint statement issued by the two leaders emphasizes increased protection and coordination to counter perceived destructive and hostile actions from Washington aimed at containing both countries. The meeting suggests a potential alliance between Russia and China in anticipation of future challenges. It is no wonder that the President (for life?) Putin had a bounce in his step. This does not bode well for the rest of the West. 

Political Group Boldly Bends Election Norms

Tsubasa-no-To (The Party of Wings) stirred controversy for employing super-aggressive campaign strategies and tactics during the Tokyo 15 by-election. Due to their outrageous campaign style, police raided the residences of the candidate, his general manager, and the driver of his campaign truck. Other contenders for the open Lower House seat condemned Tsubasa-no-To’s methods, in particular the Governor.  The outrage reached the highest levels of government. There is a wide agreement that parties need to follow certain protocols during election campaigns. And (here is the kicker) it might be necessary to revise laws as a consequence of Tsubasa-no-To’s actions. Many fear, however, that some will use it as a reason for just another move to box-in fringe players and muffle some voices.

3.4 Million Foreign Visitors/Month

Japan recorded 3.4 million visitors in April, slightly lower than the previous month’s 3.8 million (which was likely high due to the blooming of cherry trees throughout the nation). Despite this minor decrease, Japan will easily eclipse the 2019 record of 30.9 million visitors. Chinese visitors reached 500,000 for the first time since the pandemic but remained below pre-pandemic levels. France, Italy, and Middle Easterners showed the highest increase. Japan’s popularity as a tourist destination is growing, with many people wanting to visit and even live there. This is evident even to the casual observer: “wow, the streets are full with lots of foreigners!”

Questions & Comments

  • It is disappointing to me that Saudi Crown Prince MBL is implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi yet will enjoy a red-carpet welcome in Japan. What are your thoughts on this upcoming visit and his crime?
  • I have not seen a lot of Tsubasa no To antics in my Japanese news feed… do you think this has been purposefully limited?
  • Do you expect the CDP to make the mixed voting system similar to the ones being used in Germany and New Zealand a central part of their agenda?
  • With so many tourists visiting, why won’t the government bring back public trash cans? Why are we paying taxes if this basic civic responsibility is not met?
  • I think Japan has a problem with zero-yen tourism. Can you comment on this please?
  • In April, there was a strong earthquake in Taiwan. What aid was provided by the Japanese government, and what generally is GOJ policy when disaster strikes neighbors, allies or trading partners… do they send out teams with dogs and rescue equipment?
  • Last fall, you mentioned Japan would play a key role in the Middle East peace process. Why has there been a near blackout on your program about this since then… not a peep.
  • You talked about those Korean delegates visiting the disputed Takeshima Island. Why is this island so contentious? Why is Korea still insisting that this island belongs to them?

If you gain insight from these briefings, consider a tailored one for your Executive Team or for passing-through-Tokyo heavyweights.

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