Trade unions and interest groups have a special role within public policy in Japan. Their substantial leverage on governing bodies is a force to be reckoned with. Abe has done much to hinder their influence, but who are the big players and what do they really represent?

Join Timothy Langley and Michael Cucek as they discuss the special role of trade unions and pressure groups in a brand new episode of Japanese Politics 101. If you’d like to make suggestions on future topics, you can do so by commenting below or on the Youtube comments.


(Transcript below)

Tim: Hi, everyone. Welcome back to Japanese Politics 101. In this series we talk about the hierarchy of components that make up Japanese politics. We started, for viewers that have been watching all along, with the Emperor and we’ve been going down to different pieces. Today, we’re gonna talk about special interest groups, in fact, interest groups that have some political weight and use that way in effecting change in Japanese politics, Michael.

Michael: There’s a need to talk about the ways that legislation and regulation get manipulated. And because they are manipulated, there are people who can work outside of what is normally seen as the citizen and representative framework. Those interest groups that are able to take their agenda and make it the government’s agenda, I mean, they come in various forms: some are real citizens groups that get together in civil society, organizations environmental groups, health welfare groups; but then, there are people who do it and are in it for as a business.

Tim: Right. It has a bit of a bad color. I mean, if you say lobbyists in this context people immediately think of the bad part about, you know, handcuffs and in bags of money, people in sunglasses and that sort of thing. But actually, these interest groups are an essential component of a regular normally operating democracy.

Michael: And in the case of Japan, the very largest organized interest groups are necessary for the actual production of much of the legislation and regulation that happens. Basically, very large interest groups, let’s start with the business lobbyists (Keidanren, Keizai Doyukai, JCCI.They have resources, they have people, they have branches all over Japan and all over the world, in the case of the JCCI, that are just absolute sponges for information about the country and all the wishes and the desires of Japan’s corporations. And the three different groups each has its own flavor: Keidanren is big business because it’s about 1,400 big business corporations as members. The Keizai Doyukai is sort of the reformist liberal lefty group because its executives who are interested in governance issues. And then, the JCCI is the grubby short end guy with over a million members organization that just pushes, you know, for lower taxes and the simple things. Each of them has its own desires and its own flavor of business lobby. So, Japan has a really well developed business lobbying situation. Now contrast that to what in most countries exists in terms of the workers. And so, the management is well represented but then there’s the workers and the story is different.

Tim: So, typically in a lot of countries, not just the United States or in in many European countries, when you have for example a trade union, that union broaches different industries for people who do a similar job, so they might be mechanics or there might be nurses or something like that, and in Japan the story is completely different.

Michael: Yeah and it’s very much a vertical situation: a single company, a single union enterprise unions.

Tim: Everybody’s thrown into the same the same union.

Michael: Since they’re in a single company, they really think about the company’s profits and losses- They’re the union representatives and are very much in tune with management because they don’t have these horizontal connections that trade unions have in most countries. What happens is they do get connected but it’s only at the very top. And that’s in an organization called Rengo. It’s the Confederation for trade unions but they’re very honest. If you go to their their webpage, they have a description of themselves and they’re extremely critical about their own diversity and their own membership. They say that we are not the people who represent the Japanese worker by any means and they have these wonderful pie charts and they show how we represent only a small slice of the workers.

Tim: Makes me want to join them.

Michael: But, there’s a really thrilling honesty in at least the labor lobbyists, Rengo, they’re completely honest about how few actual workers and how monochromatic their workers are. Mostly from companies that employ more than 300 people, mostly men, almost entirely full timers: they’re career people and the white color salary man and then the blue color salary men. And that’s only a small slice of the Japan working populace; they’re very honest about that. So you have on the business side a very wide-ranging multi-level multi-size set of lobbying organizations, each of them popping into the government with ideas. And we’ll go into how they do that.

Tim: But it’s not this rotating door that you have in some countries?

Michael: Absolutely not, because there’s no rotating door, once you leave the bureaucracy, you stay out. Occasionally you can somehow be reappointed but that’s a microscopic number of people who actually once they leave the career bureaucracy. And it’s a career bureaucracy, it’s a pyramid of people marching up together. There’s little influence in terms of personnel. In terms of ideas though, each ministry has, and the Prime Minister has, Shingi-kai, the advisory councils, and that is where the rubber meets the road. Because in the old days in the LDP, there were all of the divisions in the Policy Research Council and the Policy Research Council was the kitchen in which the future legislation of Japan would get cooked and that’s where the lobbyists would go: they would meet the LDP representatives and those LDP representatives would then go and meet the ministry officials, of about their same age, and they’d form the Iron Triangle everyone is familiar with between bureaucrats, lobbyists and of the diet.

Tim: And that’s why this usurpation of power idea began.

Michael: That’s right. And all these people, all had this revisionist view that this is the way it’s always going to be. It’s not that way anymore. Now, the the Policy Research Council in the LDP is nearly moribund: it has a very little effect. Instead, it’s the shingi-kai in the ministries, the advisory councils that are attached to give advice to the ministries, and more importantly, Abe has been absolutely proliferating the councils that he has, left and right for every issue, he has all these advisers.

Tim: And normal people are sometimes invited to participate, you know, like me and you.

Michael: Even non-Japanese are on these advisory Councils as well and so there are non-Japanese, academics, sometimes, rarely journalists, and for labor issues, labor union people, and business lobbyists. And they become the little kitchens that cook up the legislation or the new regulations for a ministry and that’s fed into the system. That’s where the action is and that’s, you know, where the lobbyists are. If you want to talk about lobbyists in a positive way, that’s where they get their juice.

Tim: But getting back to the labor unions themselves, they’re in silos within companies, in fact, have their own trade union.

Michael: Every company has its labor union.

Tim: And the people who are running the Union are also employees of the company.

Michael: That’s right and they are not management but the senior members definitely are. Now, the labor unions, you know, first of all, politically, they have a death wish: they have always supported opposition parties. They have never come around and said “hey the LDP is going to be the next government. We better have some better say!” We have to vote for the losers. That happened, you know, when they were behind the Socialist Party: they were the people who put the posters up for that DPJ, no matter, you know, whether the DPJ was really happy to be so closely aligned with labor. We need ground troops, now they’re hanging around with the DPP, the breakup party that came out of the wreckage of the DPJ but that party is going to get slaughtered in July.

Tim: They’re looking for anything that will that will boost them, but they do have an offensive weapon that they use every year and that is Shinto. So every year they gather their forces and they onslaught.

Michael: Yeah and get raises of 1,500 to 3,000 yen per month.

Tim: Not very successful so far.

Michael: $12 to $28 a month more for the employees.

Tim: So what you’re saying is over the last couple of years the Shinto has produced maybe a 2% raise while the cost of living has gone up 4-6%.

Michael: It’s an insult, you know, here this is enough for, you know, 3

bento lunches. Enjoy, that’s your raise. What are you talking about?

Tim: In the meantime, the corporates are beginning to amass much more profit.

Michael. They have a mountain of money in the bank and, credit to the Abe administration, they have been from day one been saying that if we’re going to get abenomics, if we are going to have the positive perpetuating cycle, there is one step that has to happen and that is the profits. Originally, they came from the devaluation of the currency, I’m sorry, I didn’t use that word. The expansion of the monetary base from the devaluation, the corporates got a huge profit rise and they’ve been very profitable since. Those profits just gets stuck right in the corporate executive suite and this get siphoned off right into the banking system, where that’s not where they’re supposed to go. They’re supposed to go to the workers, to the wages ,and the Abe administration has been furious behind the scenes with Keidanren representatives, in particular, saying “when is it you people are gonna cough up the cash? When are you going to do it?” And sometimes it’s not even private. I always have a beef with Minister Seko of Economics, Trade and Industry but he has just been hammering away at the corporates saying “you people are the reason why it’s not working!”

Tim: Well there’s this unspoken promise though that we’re not going to tell you what to do, right? The government has pretty much stated, will complain and stuff like that, but we’re not going to tell you what to do.

Michael: Yeah, we’re not gonna force you: it’s a voluntary thing.

Tim: Which is funny because in other issues they do right but this is pretty important.

Michael: Yes. It’s extremely important for the Abenomics ideas to work at which it hasn’t, as it’s supposed to. It’s been jerry-rigged thanks to the work of the Bank of Japan. The BOJ’s constant expansion of its book is the reason why this whole thing has not fallen apart, but not even the government, it seems, has power over the lobbyists, has power over the corporations to say “look this was the deal: we make life better for you; you make life better for everybody else”. That’s not been an effective relationship.

Tim: This conversation, Michael, wouldn’t be complete unless we talked about those special interest groups that also have a deleterious effect on the Japanese economy or society.

Michael: Are you talking about the labor unions internal management?

Tim: No, I’m not talking that. What I’m talking about are those interest groups that are unrepresented numerically, but whose impact on the culture, perhaps, or society or on politics is is too overblown. For example, J.A. Or for example…

Michael: Is there really anything else that you could do talking about Nokyo (Japan Agriculture). Japanese farmers are a sliver of employment maybe 1% 2% of all employment in Japan; definitely a sliver of GDP 1% 2% of GDP and yet Nokyo and it’s lobbying arm. Still even after it was supposedly decapitated by Abe, right when he says “we’re gonna; we’re going to take away many of their sources of power. It’s hard for the LDP to not love the agricultural vote. They have a lot of the same values, one of which is they like, the members of the LDP and Nokyo, both love the fact that there is disproportionality between rural and urban votes: they both are on the same page with that. They’re also both extremely conservative and they also like things the way they are. They really are not going for any huge break or any kind of transformation. Now, Mr. Abe, in talking about abenomics, has tried to transform agriculture from something, that is a negative in many people’s eyes. Seeing that most Japanese live in urban areas. They see Nokyo as basically a parasitic organism that doesn’t really represent the farmers: it basically represents itself and it basically represents the status quo at all times. They don’t see that as a future industry but Mr. Abe is constantly talking and even though the eventual impact of GDP will be unmeasurable, and we have to talk about that too, but unmeasurable in terms of the change that will happen if he talks always about modern agricultural techniques, modern marketing. “How delicious Japanese rice is. The world loves Japanese Shochu!” Yes, but who is that serving? It’s serving a very small slice of Japanese life.

Tim: Well people are knocking on the door. The EU and Japan have just signed a free trade agreement (EPA), President Trump is also hammering on

agriculture and I imagine he’s not going to give up until there is some movement.

Michael: Well, we should, before we leave, say a few things about how unrepresentative these interest groups are. Interest groups are often criticized for not being elected democracies themselves and yet portraying themselves as representing the people, you know. We are a loud voice, we have the PR departments, we have our issue which is more important than anybody else’s issues, and that these are actually tyrannical usually extremely narrowly based organizations that internally usually have terrible governance but they throw their weight around. And this is certainly, you know, that’s a reasonable criticism. Even in the Japanese case, even with large membership organizations, it really often comes down to the individual who’s in charge. The current head of the Keidanren is not nearly as tyrannical as the one before him. We’ll see how that’s going to work out in terms of internationalisation.

Tim: But he is young, isn’t he? Well, the funny thing is the whole board of Keidanren and to be elected to Keidanren at the board level, your company has had to have been in existence, I don’t think that’s a rule, but the standard is they’ve already been in existence for more than a hundred years.

Michael: Yeah, that’s in fact what happened in the last vice president’s nomination process. All of the companies that were represented were century-old tottering giants, whatever you want to call them. Yeah, it’s Japan Inc. in the Keidanren; that’s not the case in the Keizai Doyukai; it’s not the case in the JCCI.

Tim: So I think, Michael, what this highlights is that the current standard of lobbying for special interest groups is going through a bit of a transition: people are unsatisfied and unhappy without having their voices represented by these monoliths and perhaps it’s a new world of having lobbying and lobbying activities in a social society more set up. I mean, the number of NGOs and NPOs have proliferate throughout the country.

Michael: We’ll see how it goes. It’s a fluctuating mix; I don’t think that the NPOs and the NGOs are set up specifically for lobbying; that’s one of the things they can do, but I think they’ve been rather unsuccessful and I think the NPO NGO era globally is in decline. They’re simply not able to ratchet up their power and the whaling issue is one where it shows that the NGOs like Greenpeace were not able to embarrass Japan sufficiently to not withdraw from the IWC, the International Whaling Commission. So I’m sort of with you but I’m not entirely convinced.

Tim: The role of lobbying groups and special interest groups in the whole complex of Japanese politics is intensely interesting. We’re going to continue to develop this. Please stay tuned.

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