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Archive for the ‘japan’ Category

Trump is no gift for Abe and the LDP

As Japan’s establishment and observers start to come to grips with the implications of a Trump administration for the country, one comment I’ve heard a lot is that this is a gift for Shinzo Abe and his inner circle. It clears the way for them to enact their long dreamed-of reforms, which would upend the post-war national order and return the country to a normalised military posture. Certainly, the almost certain cancellation of TPP is a blow to Abenomics, but in this view of events, Trump’s foreign policy stance is a huge boost for Abe’s militaristic agenda.

In one respect, that’s right. Trump’s election and the huge question mark it places over the stability and reliability of the 64 year old US-Japan security alliance does make Japan’s military normalisation vastly more probable. Even if the Trump administration does not, as seems very likely, demand an enormous increase in Japan’s financial contribution to the US military presence here (notably, Japan already pays a very large proportion of the US’ base costs) and talk down the nature of its commitment to the alliance, the unprecedented uncertainty his presidency introduces to the alliance will sway opinon among Japan’s political establishment and public alike. More significant military budget increases (not the small, conservative increases seen thus far) are almost inevitable; reform of Article 9 of the constitution, which looked all but impossible last week, may now be within the LDP’s grasp.

To call this a “gift” to the Abe administration, however, is a misreading of the reality. The Japanese government is not acting like the recipient of a long-desired gift; rather, it’s scrambling desperately to shore up and guarantee a continuation of the status quo. Abe was among the first leaders to speak to President-Elect Trump after his victory, not because he likes Trump’s positions but rather because Trump’s statements on Japan imply an uncertain and hence dangerous future for the East Asian order. Abe will also be one of the first world leaders to visit Trump and speak face to face with him in New York. In short, Abe and his officials are pulling out every stop and calling in every favour to ensure that this “gift” doesn’t actually materialise.

Why? Simply put, the LDP’s pursuit of remilitarisation and Article 9 reform has been the political equivalent of a dog chasing cars. It’s very fun and you get to make a whole lot of noise, but what on earth is a dog to do if one day it actually catches a car? It’s big, scary, hard and intimidating; the dog hasn’t the faintest idea what to do with it, and for all its chasing and barking, has never actually sat back on its hindquarters to come up with a plan of action for after the car is caught.

The LDP is a dog that just caught a car. Remilitarisation and the upending of the postwar order in Japan has been an issue that the LDP, and especially its more regressive wing (including Abe and much of his inner circle) has enjoyed harping on about for decades. Seriously, for all the talk of Japan’s right-wing shift or Abe’s nationalism, there’s nothing new under the rising sun; LDP leaders as far back as Nakasone in the early 1980s constantly banged on the same populist drum, and it was Koizumi back in 2001, not Abe, who reignited the whole mess around Yasukuni Shrine. Talking up military normalisation, making small, gradual changes (a peacekeeping operation here, a reinterpretation of legal advice there) to the existing order and muttering loudly about “masochistic” accounts of history or “correcting” other countries’ viewpoints is red meat for a certain portion of the LDP base. It’s a strand of populist rhetoric that has been a part of the LDP’s messaging since Nakasone, but in a relatively low-key way; the LDP knows that most of the Japanese electorate supports the constitution, dislikes the idea of overseas military engagements, rather likes the postwar order and will only tolerate this kind of populist rhetoric as long as it’s seen, broadly, as harmless letting off of steam by slightly daft nationalists.

The result is that for all the talk, all the noise and the chest-beating, there is no plan in place for Japan to take independent control of its national security. There is no plan for full normalisation of the Japan Self-Defence Forces into an actual national military. There is no roadmap for any of this. There isn’t even a coherent plan for reforming the constitution; the much-vaunted “ideal constitution” drafted by LDP right-wingers and posted online some years ago is a fever-dream of return to a dimly imagined glorious past that none of its authors ever imagined actually putting into practice. As for the JSDF, it is an impressive military force in its own right – extremely well-trained, well-organised and by far the most technologically advanced military force in Asia – but it’s designed to function in concert with the US military, fulfiling very specific roles alongside the much more capable and flexible US forces. Upgrading, repurposing and realigning the JSDF into a military capable of independent operation is an enormous undertaking – expensive, difficult and time-consuming.

That’s the car the LDP has been chasing, and has just caught. The most extreme (and thankfully unlikely) version of what happens next sees President Trump fulfil his most hardline electoral promise – vacating the US’ bases in Japan and pulling back US forces from East Asia generally. While the JSDF is a competent and well-equipped force, it is in no position to fill that vacuum; even on something as simple and vital as missile defence, Japan’s advanced AEGIS destroyer fleet relies upon the presence of US vessels to fill gaps in the shield through which a North Korean missile might slip, and the timescale for achieving operational independence in that regard alone is on the order of many years. A less extreme (and arguably the most likely) version sees the US remaining in Japan, but demanding more financial support for its presence, and appearing less robust in its commitment to defend Japan’s extremities – including sort-of contested (in a “China making up flat-out nonsense” sense that has become wearily familiar across Asia of late) territories like the Senkaku Islands. While that would reduce some pressure, ensuring that the US military would remain involved in Japan’s security, it will still demand essentially the same long-term response from the Japanese Govermment. If there is even the slightest doubt in the US’ willingness to defend Japan from attack, Japan has an absolute requirement to shift the posture of the JSDF – constitutionally, legally, technologically and strategically – to that of a normalised military capable of independent functioning.

Abe and his inner circle don’t want to do that. Sure, they’d like that to happen, but the passive voice is important here; it’d be great if someone else just went and did it overnight with a sprinkling of magical fairy dust, but the daunting, years-long project of turning around Japan’s strongly opposed public opinon, its constitution and legal system, its military stance and its governing institutions to allow such a change is a minefield the LDP never really planned on actually walking into.

That’s why Abe was so quick to lift the phone to President-Elect Trump, and why he’s been so quick to arrange to meet him in New York. The opportunity to reform Article 9 has never been greater, but that’s a distant second in Japan’s priorities right now; its most pressing and urgent priority is to head off the disaster that would be the US backing off even slightly from its commitment to the US-Japan alliance. Constitutional reform and military realignment is on the table, but it’s no gift; nobody in the LDP with any clarity of outlook is smiling at the prospect right now. Maintaining the status quo as much as possible will be the number one priority of Abe, his administation and any of his possible successors for the duration of the Trump presidency.

What President Trump means for Japan

Donald Trump is, failing an electoral college miracle, going to be the next president of the United States of America. Countless words will be written about what that means for America, but as a resident of Japan and a scholar of Japanese politics, I’d like to talk a little about what a Trump presidency means for Japan.

This is a question whose implications extend far beyond Japan itself. While the UK (and Australia) make much of their “Special Relationship” with the USA, Japan has in many ways been America’s most steadfast and important ally in the postwar era. The security treaty between the two countries is a cornerstone of the geopolitical order and stability of East Asia; Japan’s development as an economic powerhouse, aided and abetted by the United States, created a bulwark against communism in Asia; its embrace of democratic values made it a template of Asian democracy in a century when that was often a rare commodity.

While Japan has generally viewed Republican administrations in the US as being more amenable to this relationship, the reality is that the US-Japan alliance – both the formal security alliance and the more complex mesh of economic and political arrangements that bonds the nations – has been supported and developed by both Republican and Democrat administrations since its origins in the late 1950s.

Donald Trump’s stated positions on foreign policy are a significant threat to that relationship. Trump’s statements throughout his campaign paint Japan not as a partner but as a global rival of the United States. He suspects Japan of currency manipulation to the detriment of the US, and explicitly opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal of which the US and Japan are the key players. He has also repeatedly railed against what he views as the United States being short-changed in its security arrangements with Japan, and has gone far beyond the US establishment – which has long pressured Japan to take a more proactive role in conflicts and peacekeeping efforts – by suggesting that Japan should arm itself with nuclear weapons to ensure its own security.

That platform blindsided the Japanese political establishment; it’s a blast from the almost-forgotten past of the 1980s, when Japan’s rapid development and aggressive overseas acquisitions spurred fears that it would overtake US economic dominance. However, it’s hard to say how much of the platform will actually make its way into US policy. TPP is almost certainly dead in the water, but what line the US will take on Japan’s supposed currency manipulation and on broader trade issues is unknown. The security alliance, meanwhile, is based upon a ratified international treaty which will limit the actions of even a US President with the House, Senate and Supreme Court all lined up behind him – but its implementation, and the scope of the security cooperation between Japan and the US, could certainly be influenced if the Trump administration takes the insular, isolationist approach to foreign affairs that seems most likely.

No matter what policy or structural changes ultimately result, however, a degree of damage has already been done. Alliances are not just built upon legal treaties; they also rely on relationships of trust and assurance – upon both parties believing, long-term, in the commitments made by the other. Moreover, in the case of security alliances in particular, it’s not just the parties to the alliance who have to believe in it; outside actors, looking on at the alliance, also need to believe that its commitments are firm and will be upheld if tested. If an outside actor feels that the alliance is a paper tiger – that its commitments would not be upheld under testing conditions, for whatever reason – it creates a flashpoint for conflict and a weakness in the structure that upholds regional or even global stability.

Trump’s election, after more than a year of anti-Japanese campaign rhetoric, will weaken both internal and external perceptions of the Japan-US alliance regardless of what actual policy changes result under his administration. The view of the USA as being an increasingly unwilling participant in the affairs of East Asia will only be enhanced by Trump’s similar reticence regarding America’s role in NATO in Eastern Europe; a narrative of US isolationism will take hold among geopolitical rivals who chafe at the existing order, including Russia and China.

That is a tremendously dangerous position for Japan to find itself in. From economic rivalry to unresolved wartime history issues, the country’s relationships with several of its neighbours are fractious – most notably with China, a burgeoning superpower with thinly veiled imperial ambitions that stokes anti-Japanese sentiment as a release valve for discontent among its populace, and with North Korea, a nuclear-armed failed state. This not a hypothetically dangerous position; in absolutely practical terms, Japanese planes and ships tangle with Chinese incursions into the country’s airspace and territorial waters on a daily basis, while North Korean missile launches become increasingly sophisticated and deadly with each passing month. The importance of the US in maintaining Japanese security in these regards is paramount. The US commitment to the defence of Japan deters China from escalating its confrontations into what it would expect to be a brief, glory-seeking conflict and seizure of Japanese islands. In an even more practical, nuts-and-bolts sense, the US’ AEGIS destroyers are an essential part of Japan’s missile shield, with the country’s own fleet, although more advanced than any comparable navy in East Asia, presently incapable of dealing with the latest generations of North Korea’s missiles without US support.

If China or North Korea view America’s commitment to Japan’s security as negotiable or softening, either party may attempt to test the waters in a way that could lead to a much broader and bloodier armed conflict. In anticipation of that, and reflecting Japan’s own dawning unease regarding America’s commitment to the alliance, it’s almost certain that the US establishment will now get its long-held wish, albeit in a way it never wanted or expected – with Japan pushing harder than ever to normalise and expand its military prowess in order to make up for perceived US weakness (or non-commitment) in the Asia-Pacific region.

Quite a few commentators on Japanese politics and policy would argue that this is a process which has already started, but as I’ve observed before on this blog, Japan’s military budget increases have actually been extremely limited in recent years, with the country continuing to treat the US alliance as the beating heart of its security arrangements. The possibility of a revision to the pacifist Article 9 of the postwar constitution, though desired by Prime Minister Abe and his inner circle, had looked very remote indeed – until Trump’s election. Now, it is guaranteed that America’s relationship with Japan and the depth of its commitment to Japan’s security would be a fiercely debated topic for the coming four years. Many moderates in Japan will likely conclude that while Japanese pacifism was wonderful while the country remained safe behind America’s shield, if that shield can no longer be fully relied upon (and if China and North Korea suspect that the shield is less impervious than it used to be) then Japan has an urgent, pragmatic need to arm itself, and to remove the legal restraints that might prevent its military from effectively defending the country.

It’s not just Japan’s security position and the likelihood of normalising its military role that will be heavily impacted by the Trump presidency. The Japanese government, assuming a Clinton victory, had sought to pressure the US on TPP by ratifying the deal this month, well ahead of the inauguration of any new president. With Trump taking the office, TPP is likely off the table, and with it goes one of the core pillars of Abenomics. How Japan will react is unknown, but it seems likely that the country will feel compelled to seek out alternative trade arrangements – a Plan B to shore up its troubled economic reform programme. A version of TPP negotiated between Japan and the other non-US signatories is one possibility. Closer ties with Russia are another, although Russia’s economy is something of a disaster and Japan’s bureaucrats may be worried about hitching their cart to that particular horse. A long-discussed Japan-EU deal might even be expanded, though for a full-spectrum deal, the EU wants Japan to look at things including abolishing its (grossly abusive and cruel) death penalty system, which would be a sticking point. None of these, though, would match the sheer volume of trade that would have been affected by the TPP’s liberalisation of the cross-Pacific trade between Japan and the US. Regardless of your view on TPP itself (personally, I think it’s a mess, with far too many self-interested parties involved in opaque negotiations that have ultimately yielded an over-complicated, ill-considered, under-researched and worryingly anti-democratic treaty – but it’s still probably better than the existing situation), this is a huge stumbling block for the plans for economic reform and recovery in Japan.

This is where we stand now, only hours after Trump was elected. We don’t know who his key appointments are, what his policies will be, or any other concrete detail – but when the USA sneezes, Japan catches a cold. Trump being President-Elect already has clear, powerful impacts on Japanese domestic and foreign policy. The country’s economic programme is facing a deep crisis. Meanwhile, the likelihood of “remilitarisation” (really, just a normalisation of Japan’s military to the same status as that of any other developed nation, but likely to stoke tensions in East Asia nonetheless) and constitutional reform just took a powerful shot in the arm. With Trump preparing to enter the Oval Office in January, Japan is for the first time since the 1950s being forced to consider that its future might not include a close US relationship – and that is, of necessity, going to yield a very different Japan.

Restraint, not Aggression, in Japan’s Military Budget Increase

JSDF troops with their flag

The remilitarisation of Japan is a popular theme for the international media. It gives a clear, dramatic narrative to international news coverage that might otherwise bore readers. In this narrative Japan’s leadership seek to cast off the shackles of the post-1945 world order, to rewrite the pacifist constitution, rebuild their military forces, inculcate hatred of their Asian neighbours, and adopt an aggressive, warlike stance towards Asia. Leading the charge is prime minister Shinzo Abe, with fellow members of the shadowy conservative/revisionist Nippon Kaigi organisation being given senior government positions from which to realise their militaristic goals.

Not all journalists or publications buy this narrative in its entirety – but either in full-blown “Abe is a Fascist!” form or in a more diluted manner, it has become the master narrative of Japanese politics in the international press. That narrative frame can be seen in coverage this week of the request by Japan’s Ministry of Defence for a 2.8% budget increase. “Japanese Government Urges Another Increase in Military Spending” reports the New York Times; “Japan Defence Ministry seeks Record Budget to Counter Chinese Threat” says The Guardian. Both stories, in common with most coverage of the budget request, emphasise that this is part of an ongoing process of (re)militarisation.

I don’t wish to single out the NYT or the Guardian, nor the writers of these articles (Mokoto Rich and Justin McCurry respectively) – my intention isn’t to bash their coverage, which is actually more even-handed and well-researched than a lot of other articles on this topic. Rather, I’m linking to those articles to demonstrate that even the better news outlets continue to support a narrative about Japan which deserves to be questioned more closely.

There are lots of questions to be asked about this narrative. We might ask why Nippon Kaigi, for all that some of its policy positions are unpleasant or ill-informed, is considered any more shady than other political lobbying groups. We might ask why an organisation portrayed in the media as a shadowy background powerbroker would have an extensive and informative website setting out its aims and policies, or media briefings with its leaders – including one fairly recently at the FCCJ, Tokyo’s foreign correspondents club. We might also ask why, following the recent House of Councillors’ election, media outlets almost universally reported that Abe’s government now had the votes necessary to reform the constitution, ignoring the fact that many of those who support constitutional reform (including the LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito) support entirely different proposed reforms to the LDP – not to mention that any reform would need to pass a referendum, too.

This week’s conversation is about military budget, though, so let’s look at military budget.

Graph of Military Budget in US$

Military Budget in 2014 US$

This graph shows the military budget of Japan and some of its neighbours over the past 20 years – from 1995 to 2015 – in millions of US$. For ease of comparison, all figures are normalised to 2014 US Dollars. Two things are immediately apparent.

First, Japan’s expenditure hasn’t changed much in 20 years. There were some large rises towards the end of the 1980s, not least because the United States demanded that Japan should pay more towards the cost of US bases on its soil, but since the mid-nineties Japanese expenditure has stayed fairly solid in US$ terms. In fact, its military budget is almost identical to that of Germany, and significantly lower than the United Kingdom – a smaller island nation in a significantly less turbulent part of the world.

Second, Japan’s neighbours are spending huge amounts on military expansion. China’s budget, three to four times greater than Japan’s and growing at 7 to 8% each year, is now second only to the United States (the US isn’t on this graph because it’s ridiculous – the scale required to show the US’ military spending, more than 10 times that of Japan’s, squashes all other countries into a multicoloured line bouncing along the bottom of the graph). Russia now spends double Japan’s budget. South Korea, with less than half the population but a more precarious defence situation, spends a comparable amount to Japan.

We have no data for North Korea, whose aggressive nuclear weapon and missile programs are one of the main reasons for Japan’s budget increases, much of which will be spent on improving missile defences.

Here’s a second way to look at the data.

Graph of Military Budget as a Percentage of GDP

Military Budget as a % of GDP

This graph shows the military budget of Japan, its neighbours and some other countries as a percentage of their GDP over the past 20 years. In some ways it’s a misleading chart – while China looks fairly flat on this graph, its GDP has boomed so the cash it spends on the military has grown enormously even without using a larger proportion of GDP. Japan, meanwhile, has had mostly stagnant GDP figures for the past couple of decades. With those caveats in mind, though, we can pick out some interesting things from this data.

We can see that Japan spends far, far less on defence as a percentage of GDP than pretty much any other major nation. Russia’s expenditure is off the chart (literally), while the USA, South Korea, the UK and China all spend over 2% of their entire GDP on the military. Japan doesn’t belong to the same category of nation at all; in fact, its GDP percentage spend is lower than Germany. The closest nation in the data set to Japan, by this measure, is the notoriously militaristic, sabre-rattling, neighbour-terrifying, aggressively warlike… Canada.

Incidentally, out of every single country in Asia and Oceania, only three spend less of their GDP on defence than Japan – Indonesia (0.9%), Mongolia (0.8%) and Papua New Guinea (0.6%). (If you’re interested, the lowest military budget as a percentage of GDP of any nation in the world was the 0.4% spent by Ireland, Guatemala and Nigeria. Famously neutral Switzerland spent 0.7%.)


None of this is to say that there aren’t some problematic things about Japan’s political trajectory. Abe and his close associates have troubling views on history, and there are valid fears that those views will drive his government towards policies which promote nationalism and xenophobia and erode international ties in East Asia. Much more worrying than anything about Nippon Kaigi is the extent to which his unprecedented dominance of the LDP has shut down intra-party competition and debate; the LDP used to be its own best opposition thanks to healthy competition between factions, which is now all but moribund. And yes, certainly, criticism is due of politicians (in all countries!) who can’t seem to control their childish urges to provoke their neighbours over historical or territorial disagreements.

The master narrative of Japan’s slide towards remilitarisation, nationalism and even fascism, however, just isn’t supported by the facts. Take constitutional revision; while being more seriously considered than at any point since the 1950s, it still has to clear many tall hurdles. More aggressive ideas for changing the constitution are not even supported unanimously by Abe’s LDP colleagues, let alone by the other parties whose support would be needed or the Japanese public who would vote in an eventual referendum.

The increases in the military budget, meanwhile, are eye-opening not as proof of militarism, but as proof of extraordinary restraint. Faced with enormous military build-ups in neighbouring nations – two of whom, North Korea and China, have carried out minor but overtly hostile actions towards Japan in recent years – Japan’s military spend remains modest. It has the third-largest economy in the world but spends less on its military than France or the UK – neither of whom experience either regular military / paramilitary incursions into their waters, as Japan does from China, or the testing of ballistic missiles aimed across their territory, as Japan does from North Korea. (Neither do the neighbours of France and the UK promote educational policies which distort historical fact to demonise France or the UK, tolerate rioters attacking outlets of French or British businesses, or broadcast endless TV shows dramatising often exaggerated accounts of French or British war crimes.)

In the face of these threats, and against a background of increasing pressure on the Japanese Self-Defence Forces to participate fully in international peacekeeping and reconstruction missions (Japan has been bashed for decades in the international community for sending cheques rather than physical assistance to stricken areas), the modest increases to Japan’s defence budgets suggest caution and restraint. Japan remains Asia’s most successful democracy and it relies for much of its security not on enormous military expenditure but on the strength of its diplomatic and economic ties around the region and the world. In the face of real concerns over regional stability in Asia, it would be helpful if the international press desisted from attempting to undermine that position for the sake of more dramatic headlines.

Yasukuni and the Politics of Remembrance

Yasukuni Shrine

Yasukuni Shrine is a place and a political controversy that features in a number of posts on this site. Many of the views you’ll read about the shrine are shrill and one-sided; I thought it might be useful, as a reference piece, to write up something more balanced about the shrine’s history and its present role in politics and society.

August 15th marks the anniversary of Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War. It’s an important and emotive date for many Japanese people. Many still alive today recall the events of 71 years ago. Countless others have memories of parents, siblings or friends lost to the war. The anniversary, by coincidence, falls during Japan’s Obon festival, during which the souls of one’s ancestors are worshipped, and graves and shrines visited.

In recent years, August 15th has taken on large and unfortunate significance for observers of Japanese politics and East Asian geopolitics. It’s become a barometer for the strength of Japan’s right-wing, revisionist political lobby, who argue for an end to the nation’s post-war order and to “masochistic” views of wartime history. Related to this, it is a barometer for the state of the relationships between Japan and its nearest neighbours, South Korea and China.

At the heart of that significance sits Yasukuni Shrine. Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro lit a match under the shrine’s political role when, in 2002, he pledged to make official visits to the shrine each year. The power of that pledge within certain nationalist circles points to the significance of Yasukuni beyond being a war memorial. While for the vast majority of its visitors it is a site at which to pray for ancestors who died in the service of Japan, for others it has become a way to deliberately provoke and strike out at China, at South Korea and at Japan’s own pacifist majority.

This is not how Yasukuni Shrine was envisioned at the outset. Originally established by the order of the Meiji Emperor in 1869 to commemorate the war dead of the conflicts which ended the Shogunate and created modern Japan, its role has expanded to cover the commemoration of almost 2.5 million named soldiers who died during various wars (at the main shrine), all of those who have died in the service of Japan, including non-Japanese nationals (at the Honden building), and all victims of the Second World War, regardless of affiliation or nationality (at the Chinreisha building).

In that regard, Yasukuni is not dissimilar to a national war memorial like Arlington Cemetery in Washington. The vast majority of Japanese people who visit Yasukuni do so for the same reason that Americans visit Arlington; they come to pay their respects to family members who died in the service of their country (however misguided their country’s aims may have been at that time).

Yasukuni’s contested political role arises from its crucial differences from Arlington. The post-war Constitution of Japan created a fairly strict separation of Church and State – or in this case, Shrine and State – which meant that Yasukuni Shrine could no longer be a state war memorial. The occupation authorities originally planned to raze the shrine entirely, but were persuaded to keep it by the intervention of the Roman Catholic Church, so it was handed a private religious corporation. This has led to a complex situation wherein neither the government nor the Emperor can exercise control over the nation’s most important and internationally recognised war memorial.

The lack of official state control was largely unimportant until the late 1970s, when one Matsudaira Nagayoshi took over as chief priest of the shrine. Matsudaira was a historical revisionist who rejected the verdict of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and took it upon himself to add (“enshrine”) the names of all 14 convicted class-A war criminals at the shrine in a secret ceremony in 1978.

Matsudaira retired in 1992 and died in 2005, but his influence on Yasukuni remains powerful and damaging. The Showa Emperor refused to visit the shrine in the wake of Matsudaira’s appointment and the secret enshrinement of the war criminals. His son, the present Emperor, has taken the same stance, and no member of the Imperial Family has visited the shrine – which lies only minutes away from the palace – since 1975. Many Prime Ministers have also chosen to avoid Yasukuni, especially in the wake of harsh criticism from China when Prime Minister Nakasone visited in 1985. Given the legal separation of state from religion, Japan’s symbolic and actual leaders are powerless to intervene in affairs at the shrine or demand the removal of the war criminals from the shrine’s registers (which its religious authorities insist is impossible). For the past thirty years, most leaders have taken the only option remaining to them – snubbing Yasukuni entirely.

The influence of Matsudaira and of the revisionists whose reign at Yasukuni he ushered in is also felt in physical form. The shrine’s grounds house controversial memorials that directly challenge the established historical narrative of the war and the guilt of Japan’s convicted war criminals. Chief among them is the Yushukan – a war museum which is an exercise in dichotomy, with genuinely powerful exhibits from the war being grotesquely undermined by accompanying text and interpretation that has one foot in fantasy and the other in farce.

Given this, it’s not hard to see how official visits from government ministers inflame tensions with Japan’s neighbours, whose people were the victims of the war criminals enshrined there and whose suffering is deliberately questioned and erased by the childishly fantastical reimagining of history in the Yushukan. Cognisant of that, and either wiser or more capable of listening to good advice than he’s often given credit for, current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has steered clear of Yasukuni Shrine since 2013. Other cabinet ministers and members of the Diet have been less circumspect; this year, Olympics Minister Marukawa Tamayo and Communications Minister Takaichi Sanae (previously noted on this blog for her threats to shut down broadcasters who don’t toe the government line) visited, as did former Defense Minister Nakatani Gen. It’s not only LDP ministers who visit Yasukuni; there is a cross-party group of MPs who lobby for politicians to make official trips to the shrine, and among this year’s August 15th visitors was Democratic Party leadership hopeful Nagashima Akihisa.

Other Diet members and ministers made private visits earlier, or will do so later. Criticism of those private visits is somewhat distasteful; whatever else Yasukuni has come to symbolise, it remains a place at which countless Japanese people, including Diet members, pray for departed ancestors and to give thanks to millions of people who gave their lives for the nation. It is important to draw a line between those who visit for private moments of worship and those who arrive with pomp, insist that their visit is official rather than personal, and make certain the cameras are waiting. Michael Cucek rightly describes this contrast as being between those who visit out of reverence, and those who visit out of a desire to transgress. If it seems to be in terribly bad taste to use a shrine commemorating a nation’s war dead and enshrining the relatives of millions of Japanese people simply as a way to jam one’s thumb in the eye of neighbours with whom you don’t get along, well, that’s because it absolutely is.

This is not to say that China and South Korea are blameless in how this dispute has developed. Both countries are guilty of stirring up national anger over Japan and wartime history in order to deflect attention from various failures of their own governments. There’s a long, long tradition of this in the post-war era. The Communist Party in China has always emphasised and on occasion enhanced Japanese wartime brutality not least in order to draw attention from its own brutality in the years after the war. South Korea’s post-war military dictatorship quietly took reparation money from Japan without informing its populace or distributing it to victims for whom it was intended, instead teaching its citizens that Japan had never apologised or paid reparations. In the case of both nations, matters of wartime history are made even more murky by the promotion of versions of history that, while closer to the truth than those of Japan’s historical revisionists, remain problematic and one-sided.

This all points to the fundamental problem with Yasukuni, with August 15th and with the whole question of how the war and its remembrance feeds into East Asian geopolitics. The problem is that almost none of this is actually about the war, or about history. It’s about contemporary issues; it’s about the fear, in Japan, of a declining nation thrown into sharp relief by the rise of China. It’s about the fear in both South Korea and China of an end to decades of rapid economic growth, and the prospect of a future not unlike Japan’s lost decades. It’s about concerns about political stability and national identity, and the utility of an external foe to focus attention away from stagnation and social problems at home. Each of the three governments shares some unequal portion of the blame for using history not as a way to establish fact, and remembrance not as a way to learn from the past and avoid its mistakes, instead using both as tools to achieve cynical, short-term political ends.

Yasukuni itself, however, remains an internal Japanese problem. The duality of its nature, simultaneously a legitimate place of worship and commemoration and a site for transgression and right-wing peacocking, makes it a thornier problem than many observers admit. Suggestions that the nearby Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, a state-operated and much less controversial memorial, should replace Yasukuni as the focus for remembrance are simplistic and slightly naive. They misunderstand the differing roles of the memorials; the secular Chidorigafuchi is a “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, honouring some 350,000 soldiers whose remains could not be identified. The religious Yasukuni is a much more broad-ranging memorial and, crucially, enshrines the specifically named souls of some 2.5 million people. Removing Yasukuni from the nation’s rituals of war memory is an unreasonable demand. Expecting neighbouring countries to smile and nod at the deliberate provocation of politicians acting in an official capacity is equally unreasonable.

The “solution”, if any such thing can be achieved, will be a fudged, unofficial compromise – a return to a status quo in which nothing has actually been solved, but Japanese governments put their senior officials on shorter leashes, while Chinese and Korean authorities mute the tone of their statements. There’s some evidence of movement in that direction over the past couple of years, of a slow de-escalation of rhetoric and provocation around Yasukuni. Given time to bed in, perhaps such a compromise will allow Japanese people to commemorate their lost relatives at Yasukuni without rude interference from their own nation’s right-wing fringe.

 

Koike Grasps Tokyo’s Poisoned Chalice

Koike Yuriko

Koike Yuriko last night became the first ever female governor of Tokyo, elected in an emphatic victory with a margin of well over a million votes more than her closest competitor. All other considerations aside, Koike’s election is worthy of celebration simply for smashing through a glass ceiling. The Tokyo Governor’s office has not only been exclusively occupied by men since its inception, it was for many years occupied by outspoken misogynist and bigot Ishihara Shintaro, who – true to form – made some grossly misogynistic comments about Koike during this election campaign. Her election in spite of that to one of the nation’s most high profile political offices is a historic step forward in Japan’s steady but agonisingly slow progress on womens’ representation in politics.

Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with the nomination of Hillary Clinton last week in the United States. While winning a gubernatorial race is not quite on the same scale as becoming a major party’s presidential nominee, the comparisons are apt. Both Clinton and Koike are to be celebrated for breaking down barriers for women, but both are also problematic figures. The parallels between them are striking. While both of them have quite progressive or moderate views on domestic, economic and environmental policy (Koike having previously served as a very effective Environment Minister in the cabinet of Koizumi Junichiro), both are aggressive and hawkish in terms of foreign and defence policy. Just as Clinton was noted for her hawkish stances as Secretary of State – reportedly being talked down from even more aggressive uses of force by Obama and others on several occasions – Koike’s position on defence issues is also aggressive. Though her service as Minister of Defence was very short-lived, her career has been marked by statements and actions of a hawkish nature. She is strongly supportive of changing the pacifist Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, takes a hardline stance on the country’s territorial disputes with Russia, China and South Korea, and supports the rewriting of Japanese history textbooks to downplay war crimes and reinterpret Japan’s wartime actions.

In light of this, it’s understandable that many of those who want to celebrate the election of a woman to a traditionally male-dominated high office find themselves conflicted. Especially in the foreign press, which is often obsessed with Japan’s historical revisionist factions to the exclusion of all other concerns, Koike’s election has been met with mixed feelings. Her hardline foreign policy views, although by no means particularly extreme or outside the mainstream of Japanese politics, have overshadowed the positive qualities that voters saw in her. Whatever her ideas on history or defence, she has proved to be an effective, competent and canny politician in a number of demanding roles. Her three-year tenure as Environment Minister saw the successful roll-out of a number of initiatives, most notably the “Cool Biz” and “Warm Biz” efforts to convince companies to relax dress codes in order to allow employees to dress appropriately for the season and cut down on the use of heating and air conditioning. Like many successful policies, Cool Biz has become so widely accepted that it now seems like straightforward common sense, but Koike’s success in convincing the deeply conservative Japanese business establishment to change their attitudes and policies was the result of skilful implementation of a policy that required the bringing together of many different stakeholders.

Koike’s achievements in office are suggestive of her potential as Tokyo Governor. In theory, this job should allow Koike to effectively use her strengths while keeping her hawkish, problematic side in check. On paper, the governor of the metropolis has minimal involvement in foreign and defence policy; the Tokyo Governor needs to maintain the relationship with US bases within the Tokyo Metropolitan District (most notably the Yokota Air Base), but the primary responsibilities of the job are domestic and managerial. This did not, however, stop the aforementioned Ishihara from causing a significant deterioration in Japan-China relations during his tenure. He attempted to purchase the disputed Senkaku Islands from their private owner on behalf of Tokyo, forcing the national government to step in and buy the islands instead and thus upsetting a delicate status quo that had lasted for decades for no other purpose than self-aggrandisement and his insatiable urge to remain the centre of attention through provocation. Koike, for all her hawkishness, is a far more stable and measured figure than Ishihara, who was Japan’s Trump long before America even had a Trump. She should be able to avoid any repeats of her predecessor’s idiocy and get on with the demanding job of governing the world’s largest metropolis without getting caught up in foreign policy distractions.

It’s not foreign policy distractions, though, that are the biggest risk to a Tokyo Governor. Having forced the resignation of its past two incumbents in high-profile financial scandals, the Tokyo Governor’s seat has come to be seen as a poisoned chalice that’s more likely to end a career than boost it. As a consequence, Koike ran against a rather unimpressive field of rivals. The joint opposition candidate, Torigoe Shuntaro, is an ageing, cantankerous journalist with no public office experience who seemingly didn’t understand the first thing about the role he was running for – and spent much of his campaign talking about political issues far beyond the purview of a governor. The LDP candidate, former Iwate Governor Masuda Hiroya, is a reasonably competent but deeply unexciting politician whose high profile blaming of Tokyo for population decline in other parts of the country may be largely true, but does not exactly inspire confidence in his ability or will to run the metropolis effectively. Koike, a senior LDP figure herself, ran as an independent against the wishes of Tokyo’s LDP chapter – whose president, incidentally, is former governor Ishihara’s utterly hapless son – and handily defeated Masuda at the ballot box.

Only two other candidates managed to score over 1% in the election – progressive former journalist Uesugi Takashi, who polled about 2.7%, and the ultra-right-wing former leader of the overtly racist Zaitokukai group, Sakurai Makoto, who managed about 1.7%. The 115,000 votes cast for Sakurai, while depressing, represent a massive decline in the ultra-right vote from just two years ago, when ultra-right candidate Tamogami Toshio (currently facing a police investigation for campaign finance irregularities; how is it that candidates who bang the drum for law and order never seem to realise that laws apply to them too?) took over 600,000 votes on much lower overall turnout. That Koike’s more moderate hawkishness was good enough for right-wing voters who might otherwise have transitioned from Tamogami to Sakurai actually seems like a positive to me, suggesting that the majority of those voters were significantly more moderate than their chosen candidate in 2014.

In an uninspiring field of candidates, Koike was absolutely the most impressive. It would have been fascinating to see her run against the Democratic Party’s Tokyo councillor, Renho, who is probably the country’s most popular female politician; but Renho still has ambition to lead her party and perhaps the country, and likely views the Tokyo job as a dead-end rather than a stepping stone. Koike was once considered a likely future prime minister, but her career has stagnated under Abe’s leadership; for her, the high-profile Tokyo position is a consolation prize of sorts.

Crucially, Koike has also done a good job of keeping her nose clean in her political career thus far, and has a temperament suited to high office (brushing off Ishihara’s sexist comments about her with an airy “I’m used to it”). This may allow her to do something that no governor of Tokyo has done this decade – actually finish her term in office without being forced to resign under a cloud of scandal. Tokyo local politics chews up and spits out governors; Koike, should she restrain her hawkish side and keep her nose out of places a governor’s nose does not belong, may be the first governor in years to survive the ordeal.

(Update: I had forgotten that the national government ultimately felt forced to step in to prevent Ishihara’s purchase of the Senkaku Islands, which still had the effect of destabilising the relationship with China but didn’t leave these remote islands inexplicably in Tokyo-to’s ownership. Kasumigaseki will no doubt be hoping never to have to step in to curb Shinjuku’s madness ever again. Cheers to @jjcappa on Twitter for pointing out my omission.)

Abe’s Uphill Struggle for Constitutional Revision

Could Yamaguchi side with Abe on constitutional revision?

In 2003, when US president George W. Bush and his advisors were preparing the case for invading Iraq, they announced to the world that they had assembled a “coalition of the willing” who backed military action against Saddam Hussein. The term has become widely reviled, as many of the countries in this supposed “coalition” had no skin in the game (some didn’t even have standing armies), and many were major recipients of US overseas aid. It was a rhetorical flourish, a salad garnish of modesty flimsily covering the dubious status of the invasion under actual international law.

Today, as Japan processes the results from yesterday’s House of Councillors election, there’s a similar phrase that’s doing the rounds; “like-minded parties”. The emerging narrative is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has assembled a “coalition of the like-minded” – that through stitching together parties and independents in favour of revising Japan’s post-war constitution, he has finally found the two-thirds majorities he needs in both houses of parliament to proceed with that goal.

Abe, in common with many of the more hawkish members of the LDP, doesn’t like the post-war constitution much. He views it, not entirely unfairly, as a document written by Americans and imposed upon Japan. Its restrictions chafe at him, especially in terms of Japan’s ability to assert itself internationally, which is strictly limited by the pacifist Article 9. None of this is secret or hidden. The agenda of Abe and the LDP for constitutional reform is openly discussed. The party’s website even hosts a draft of the reformed constitution it would like to put in place.

Who else is in favour of constitutional revision? According to news agencies running with the “coalition of the like-minded” narrative, the parties in favour are the LDP, their coalition partners Komeito, Initiatives from Osaka (the latest incarnation of the burgeoning but chaotic Kansai-based political movement) and The Party for Japanese Kokoro (a mid-implosion right-wing fringe group founded by the now-retired Shintaro Ishihara). Added to a small number of LDP-leaning independents, this gives a two-thirds majority in both houses. This means that constitutional revision is supposedly on the table. Abe himself has already called for a debate on revision to commence.

The problem with this narrative is that it’s over-simplified to the point of dishonesty. Just as the Iraq War’s “coalition of the willing” included several countries whose “willingness” didn’t extend to any actual participation in conflict, Abe’s “coalition of the like-minded” includes some major groups whose thinking on constitutional revision is markedly different from his own. Primary among those is Komeito, whose inclusion in these lists of “pro-revision” parties is deeply questionable.

Komeito, the political offshoot of lay Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai, is a socially conservative party whose domestic policies are a relatively comfortable fit for the LDP. The party’s views on international policy and military policy, however, depart radically from the LDP’s. Komeito inherits from Soka Gakkai a strong central pillar of pacifism. While it has been willing to bend its principles to some degree to maintain its mutually beneficial relationship with the LDP, Komeito’s leaders are conscious that its existence depends on the votes of Soka members. Straying too far from the organisation’s philosophy, to the extent of breaking its umbilical link with Soka, would result in the loss of the religious support base that is the party’s primary asset.

Komeito is, officially, in favour of constitutional revision – but there is an enormous gulf between the broad concept of “constitutional revision” and the rather narrower concept of “the constitutional revision which Shinzo Abe wants”. At a speech in Iwakura city in Aichi prefecture earlier this month, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi made perfectly clear, not for the first time, that his party has “fundamentally different thinking” to the LDP on areas of constitutional revision (「公明と自民で基本的に憲法改正に対する考え方が違っているところがある」). Yamaguchi also pointed out that the situation is more complex than “pro-revision” and “anti-revision”; Komeito is “pro-revision” but has its own agenda about what it would like to revise, while the Democratic Party, officially “anti-revision”, actually has members who strongly favour specific constitutional revisions. (Asahi Shimbun, 2016-07-05, 4総合、p.4)

“Constitutional revision”, in itself, is not necessarily a right-wing, conservative or militaristic objective. The Japanese constitution is a problematic document from many standpoints, and contains many contradictions. The question is what you’d like to revise. Plenty of progressives would like to revise Article 24, which defines marriage as between “both sexes” and seemingly prevents equal marriage from being adopted. Some legal scholars approve of changing Article 41 – which was intended to assert the primacy of the Diet over the Emperor, but has in practice been used to assert its primacy over the Supreme Court. Yet others suggest adding or amending articles to create rights and obligations related to environmental protection.

Including supporters of those changes -such as Komeito, which has hinted at approving of an environmental protection amendment – in the “coalition of the like-minded” is stretching the definition of “like-minded” past breaking point. The problem is that constitutional amendment, as a concept, is wielded by the media as a blunt object. NHK conducted an exit poll yesterday which asked whether voters thought that constitutional revision was necessary, concluding that 33% said “necessary”, 32% disagreed and 35% didn’t know – a major swing against “necessary” compared with the same exit poll in 2013’s election. The devil is in the lack of detail; NHK did not ask voters which part of the constitution they thought needed to be changed. Shorn of detail, the question is ridiculous. Walk into the street in any country with a clipboard and ask the question, “should we change the law”, declining to clarify which law you mean or how it would be changed, and you’ll collect lots of data to which precisely no meaning can be assigned.

The existence of this hypothetical “coalition of the like-minded”, then, is a fantasy. Until its members can agree on what to change and how, there is no coalition, and there are no “like minds”. Abe’s announcement that he wishes to start a discussion to that end is only the beginning of a long, difficult negotiation process whose outcome is far from certain – and Article 9, at least, is probably off the table entirely. Abe knows that Komeito remains a stumbling block to his constitutional ambitions. In TV interviews last night he alluded to the same point Yamaguchi made last week – that there are Democratic Party members in favour of reform. This implies that he knows he may have to lean on unlikely support in order to stitch together a two-thirds majority on any revision, and even then, it’s not going to be the sweeping revision he actually wants.

And all of that, of course, is just to pass the legislation required to hold a referendum – which will require the assent of the majority of the country’s voters to pass, and whose failure would likely cost Abe his political career. This election outcome is little more than a small, shuffling step on a long, steep road towards constitutional revision – and for all the talk of “like-minded parties”, it’s a road that Abe and his right-wing allies are still largely walking alone.

Japan’s Boring, Inconsequential Election

Politics is boring, according to many of my friends and acquaintances. They will acknowledge that it is important and worthy of attention – if only to head off the impending argument implied by my skyrocketing eyebrows – but it’s boring. All that debate over minutiae, all that light and heat generated in passionate promotion or furious condemnation of subtle variations on essentially the same policies; all that time and effort, and so little, they say, truly changes in the end. It’s boring.

Ordinarily, I’m willing to argue against this point of view to its bitter end – and would point to the rise of demagogues like Donald Trump or the economic and social shocks currently wracking the United Kingdom as proof that politics not only matters, it’s also vital, interesting and capable of bringing about great change, not all of it positive. In the case of this weekend’s election in Japan, though, I’m willing to concede the point; this may well be the most genuinely boring election in a generation.

On Sunday, Japanese voters will go to the polls to elect half of the House of Councillors, the upper house of Japan’s bicameral system. 121 seats are up for grabs – 76 of them in First-Past-The-Post races in 45 constituencies around the country, and the remainder in a nationwide proportional election based on the party list system.

The posters are up, the candidates are busy making speeches outside supermarkets and bothering local residents by sending vans around to drone their names for 12 hours a day, and newspapers are printing their (deeply unreliable) polling forecasts – but there’s absolutely no excitement or interest around this election. Even TV news broadcasts are confining the upcoming election to the tail end of their reporting. The reason for that is simple; this House of Councillors election is almost entirely inconsequential for Japanese politics, and as a result it will almost certainly have the lowest turnout in Japanese postwar history.

In part that’s because House of Councillors elections are designed to be inconsequential. The House of Councillors itself is the less powerful of the two chambers (like the UK’s House of Lords, its main power is the ability to delay the adoption of legislation by forcing additional votes in the more powerful House of Representatives), and its elections are structured such that voters only get to vote in (or out) half of the chamber every three years. The councillors elected in 2013 are safe in their seats until 2019; those up for election this time around have been in office since 2010. This is a system explicitly designed to reduce voters’ ability to deliver a stinging mid-term rebuke to a government – the half of the chamber that’s not up for election effectively serves as a counterweight, preventing the balance of power from shifting too far in any given election.

Given the existence of that deliberate, structural effort to render House of Councillors elections somewhat irrelevant, what are the possible outcomes that voters might see from Sunday’s election? What’s the actual choice the Japanese electorate faces?

There are four scenarios that could result. The first is the most unlikely; the opposition parties could win 16 seats from the governing parties (the LDP and Komeito), recreating the “twisted Diet” scenario that hobbled the DPJ’s miserable last few years in government. In reality, they’d need significantly more than 16 seats, as some independents and smaller parties would likely vote with the government rather than with the motley alliance of the Democratic Party, the Communists and some smaller parties.

This scenario will not come to pass. Japanese election polling is not very reliable, but it’s all absolutely clear that the opposition will be losing, not gaining, seats in this election. If there’s been a huge polling miss – which is possible – then the opposition might pick up a small number of seats, but gaining enough to overturn the LDP’s hold on the upper house isn’t on the cards.

That brings us to the second scenario; the status quo. This would see the seat balance remaining much the same – the opposition might gain a few seats (but not as many as 16), or the LDP might gain a few (but not as many as 5, for reasons we’ll see in a moment), but essentially things would remain the same. The LDP would continue to hold the upper house with the support of Komeito. It would be a frustrating result for Prime Minister Abe in some regards, since he’d like to pursue a more aggressive policy approach that requires a larger single-party majority, but it would probably not lead to any major challenge to his leadership.

Scenario three is, in my view, by far the most likely; the LDP wins a number of seats, at least five, which gives them single-party control of the House of Councillors. The five seats which the LDP lacks in the House of Councillors is presently the only thing preventing them from governing the country as a single party (which they have not done since 1993); they have a large single-party majority in the House of Representatives already. In theory, a House of Councillors majority would allow them to dispense of their coalition with Komeito.

In practice, that’s unlikely to happen, because even if LDP politicians forget it sometimes, Komeito actually brings significantly more than votes in the House of Councillors to this relationship. Komeito supporters, largely drawn from the powerful lay Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai, also generally vote for the LDP candidates in districts where Komeito candidates are not running (in return for which the LDP allows Komeito candidates to run without LDP opposition in a handful of districts). That’s a not insignificant number of votes – breaking up the coalition just because Komeito’s seats in parliament are no longer required would put a lot of LDP marginal seats at risk in future elections, especially if the spurned Komeito were to strike a similar deal with the Democratic Party (or whatever form the main opposition ends up taking after this election).

This outcome would leave Abe in a secure position, but wouldn’t make very much difference to policy-making – the LDP would still need Komeito for future elections, if not for parliamentary votes, and that would put a brake on any desires to promote a more radical policy agenda free of Komeito’s pacifist, centrist influence.

Then there’s the fourth and final possible outcome – the possibility that the LDP, alone or in concert with a number of like-minded parties, could get a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors. That’s an important number, because in order to kick off the process of amending the Japanese Constitution (which has never been changed since it was adopted directly after the war), a two-thirds vote of both houses of parliament is required. In their attempts to make this election seem interesting, the media has focused on the possibility that a landslide for the LDP and for like-minded parties such Innovations From Osaka could give Abe the capacity to change Article 9 of the Constitution – the article in which Japan gives up the right to the use of military force.

For that to happen, the LDP and the minor parties which support such reform (which does not include Komeito) would need 162 seats in the House of Councillors. Right now, they’ve got perhaps 130 or 131, counting a handful of independents who’d probably swing in that direction. With insignificant parties like The Party For Japanese Kokoro (look, I don’t make up these names) unlikely to make any gains in this election, it would fall to the LDP and Initiatives from Osaka to make up 32 seats or more in this election.

Is that possible? Some of the polling says it’s actually probable, though that polling is somewhat suspect. The variable quality of Japanese election polling aside, this election has some specific aspects that are very hard to model – opposition parties are mostly running unified candidates in the single-member districts, for example, which will impact on voting in ways that are hard to forecast. Tactical voting on the split ballot is also tricky to account for. At best, I’d say that a two thirds “supermajority” of constitutional reform parties is not impossible, but it’s far from probable.

Even if it does happen, the outcome isn’t clear. It would clear one obstacle from the road to constitutional reform, but other barriers remain. For example, while Komeito and the LDP between them enjoy a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives, Komeito is unlikely to vote for constitutional reform. Cobbling together a coalition to replace those votes would be extremely tricky, and would involve trying to convince some Democratic Party members to vote against their party line and in favour of the LDP’s reform bill. Even if that were done, and the bill passed with two thirds of both houses, all any such bill actually does is authorise a referendum – and convincing the Japanese people of the need to amend a constitution which is strongly supported by the majority of them will be difficult, if not impossible.

Hence, yes, this is a boring election. Even its most dramatic outcomes would only be technical steps paving the way towards possible future changes, and all of its most likely outcomes are no different to the status quo.

It didn’t necessarily have to be this way. The Japanese people remain deeply unimpressed with Abenomics, worried about nuclear power (though the salience of this issue has faded rapidly) and opposed to any move towards more overseas military engagement. In essence, the Japanese people oppose every major plank of the Abe administration’s platform – which should set the stage for an interesting, dramatic election.

The problem, as ever, is that a dramatic election requires a valid opposition – and the main Japanese opposition party, the Democratic Party, has failed miserably to deliver that. Its policy positions are unclear, its differentiation from the LDP’s platform is minimal and its leadership is confused and unimpressive. Its members spend their time scoring technical, political points, and failing to actually reach out to the Japanese electorate and explain why they’re worthy of holding government office, or how they would represent the interests of the people. When the Japanese people – or at least, the minority of them who will bother to vote – go to the polls on Sunday, they will not deliver a rebuke to Abe’s government, because no matter how much they dislike Abe or disapprove of his policies, none of them can see any alternative right now.

 

Japan’s LGBT Tipping Point

Yesterday, Tokyo hosted the Rainbow Pride Parade – the city’s annual celebration of LGBT people and sexual minorities in Japan, now in its fifth year. The parade is the culmination of a week of Pride-related events, political, social and artistic, and is accompanied by a two-day festival at Yoyogi Park.

The speed with which Rainbow Pride has grown in the past five years is astonishing, and it continues to accelerate. When I first attended four years ago, Pride was a huddle of small booths that barely occupied half of the Yoyogi event space; now, it’s bursting at the seams, with more and more major companies, foreign embassies and retailers vying for space and attention. The parade itself is emblematic of the change; a few years ago, it was a small affair very heavily dominated by foreign faces, and many of the Japanese participants wore sunglasses and face masks to avoid being recognised or pictured. Yesterday, five thousand people marched through Shibuya and Harajuku – the vast majority of them Japanese. Five thousand appears to have been a limit set by some agreement with the authorities, because the numbers could easily have been higher; on Sunday morning, people were being turned away from signing up to march, as the parade was full.

It took almost two hours, standing in the hot sunshine, to see the whole parade pass by on its way back into Yoyogi Park – the marchers being applauded and high-fived by the spectators lining the path as they returned. There were no masks and sunglasses. There were foreigners, of course, but hugely outnumbered by local participants. There were families with children. Large groups of staff from major companies, including family brands like Johnson & Johnson, big banks and financial firms, and tech companies like Google and Netflix, all marched wearing company T-shirts and banners proclaiming the companies’ support for Pride.

None of this would be remarkable in many cities around the world, of course, and Tokyo Rainbow Pride is still a minor affair compared to Asia’s largest Pride event, in Taipei, let alone the huge Pride events in US and European cities. What is truly remarkable, though, is the speed of the growth and the rapid, yet almost unnoticed, change from a culture of anonymity and reluctant activism to genuine, open, “pride”.

In this, Rainbow Pride is merely a useful barometer of deeper, more important changes that are occurring within the fabric of Japanese society itself. More and more universities now have thriving LGBT circles – incidentally, my own university, Waseda, has what I believe is Japan’s oldest student LGBT society, GLOW – and several of them were represented at the Pride Festival, including one from the country’s most prestigious school, Tokyo University. There has been a slow but steady stream of Japanese companies stepping forward to say that they will offer the same benefits to LGBT staff and customers that they do to straight people. Several Japanese political parties now include references to LGBT rights in their manifestoes; the ruling LDP is not among them, but the party’s policy chief, Inada Tomomi, made an official visit to Rainbow Pride on Saturday, becoming the most senior Japanese politician to do so. (While Pride is a fun party, it’s also a serious political event; the address after the end of the parade yesterday was given by US ambassador Caroline Kennedy, who was joined on stage by the British and Irish ambassadors.)

Inada’s public support for Pride is a really interesting thing to think about in the context of the future of LGBT rights in Japan. That’s partially because Inada remains a rising star in the LDP, and many consider her to be a future Prime Minister – a role for which current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo appears to be grooming her. More notable, though, is that Inada is, in general, an ultra-conservative figure. She is a hardline historical revisionist who disputes the accepted history regarding the Rape of Nanjing and WW2 comfort women; she approves of the remilitarisation of Japan, makes regular official visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and is, like many of her senior LDP peers, a member of the hard-right Nippon Kaigi organisation. You would fully expect someone with this background to be deeply conservative on the issue of LGBT rights; the experience of Western countries has been that conservative nationalists are generally extremely anti-LGBT in their stances. Yet Inada was right there at Rainbow Pride, and directly stated her support for human rights and diversity.

This highlights the key difference between Japan and western countries on the issue of LGBT rights; Japan is not, and has never been, a Christian country. It has no religious problem with homosexuality, though it has imported some negative attitudes from the west – prior to the Meiji Restoration in the late 1800s, at least among the upper classes, homosexuality was seen as an indulgent vice, at worst; even The Tale of Genji, written over a thousand years ago, reveals the eponymous prince’s bisexuality in an entirely matter-of-fact way. Human Rights Watch noted last week that homophobic bullying is a problem in schools, and that many teachers are ignorant of, or actively contributing to, the problem; but by and large, LGBT rights is not a hill that Japanese conservatives are willing to die on. Honestly, most of them don’t really care about it, or know very little about it; unlike conservatives in Western countries, those in Japan are, for the most part, generally disinterested in this whole field, and certainly not prepared to expend significant time or energy in fighting against change or progress.

That’s important, because Japan is at a tipping point for LGBT people. Five thousand smiling, waving people, their faces uncovered, marching through Shibuya’s scramble crossing and down a packed Omotesando on a Sunday afternoon is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a line in Japan’s demographic chart; above it, most LGBT people are in the closet, living double lives and keeping their sexuality, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Below the line, you have LGBT young people who, increasingly commonly, come out to their family, their friends, their classmates and even, sometimes, their employers. Hard data on this is impossible to source, but anecdotally, the proportion of LGBT people in their 20s who live openly is an order of magnitude higher than for those in their 40s. Each year, that demographic line rises up the chart, and more and more young people choose to come out.

That tipping point will be familiar to anyone who knows the history of LGBT rights in the west. It’s the point where coming out of the closet becomes the rule rather than the exception; where coming out becomes a rite of passage for young LGBT people, rather than a rare and often forced event some of them have to endure. It’s the point where society has to confront and seriously think about its attitudes to LGBT people and their needs, because they’re no longer an abstract – strange people who do peculiar things and dress oddly and sometimes make funny jokes on TV – but a concrete living reality; your son or daughter, your brother or sister, your cousin, your best friend, your neighbour, your colleague. The single most powerful weapon in the fight for LGBT rights is actually opening ordinary people’s eyes to the LGBT people around them, among their friends and loved ones. Reaching that point is slow, but once it’s reached, change happens very quickly; “gradually, then suddenly”, as Hemingway would have it.

In the West, that sudden burst of change was opposed bitterly by entrenched conservatives; in Japan, though, there’s no interest or appetite for that fight from the conservative camp. There are plenty of old men in political positions who are utterly ignorant of LGBT issues and say stupid, bigoted things – the world won’t run out of those any time soon – but the prospects for any organised conservative resistance to progress on LGBT rights, once that progress becomes a populist position, are very slim. Once Japan advances beyond the tipping point, change will happen very quickly indeed, and with minimal friction.

Viewed in this light, even the high instance of homophobic bullying in schools can be seen as growing pains; homophobia in schools has risen precisely because it is increasingly common for LGBT students to be open about their identities. This is enormously brave, and it’s heart-rending to hear of them being bullied or taunted for it; but they are of a generation who can’t imagine hiding their sexuality, who would prefer to be bullied than to lie to the world about themselves, and as a result they’re a generation that is going to change Japan profoundly.

Opposition Coordination is no Silver Bullet

Japan held two by-elections yesterday – one in Hokkaido 5th District, which has been without an MP since the death of veteran LDP lawmaker Machimura Nobutaka last summer, and one in Kyoto 3rd District, whose scandal-hit LDP MP Miyazaki Kensuke resigned in February. The LDP held the Hokkaido seat and lost the Kyoto seat – a net gain for the opposition, but not one from which the nascent Democratic Party can take much comfort, because the nature of the results raises tough questions about the much-vaunted “opposition coordination” approach.

First, let’s look at the seat the Democratic Party won – Kyoto 3. The DP candidate, Izumi Kenta, won with over 65% of the vote, gaining over 10,000 votes compared to his performance in the 2014 election. Turnout, however, was the lowest ever in the post-war era, at around 30%, not least because the LDP didn’t actually contest the seat. Miyazaki Kensuke’s scandal (he was caught in an adulterous affair only days after making a big deal of taking paternity leave to support his wife following the birth of his first child) was headline news for days and provoked a huge backlash; the LDP wrote off the seat and chose not to run a candidate. Second place in the race, then, went to the newly minted Initiatives From Osaka, whose candidate managed less than a third of the votes of the DP candidate. Incidentally, Izumi is already a member of the House of Representatives – he lost Kyoto 3 in the last general election but was elected on the DPJ’s proportional list for the Kinki region. The new DP lawmaker joining the house, then, will be Kitagami Keiro, who takes over Izumi’s proportional list seat.

Kyoto 3 doesn’t really tell us much useful about the shape of Japanese electoral politics, then. “DP candidates win seats which the LDP has pulled out of after hugely embarrassing scandals” isn’t headline news, and the low turnout makes it impossible to measure any possible influence which the tentative detente between the DP and the Japan Communist Party has had; the JCP didn’t run a candidate in the race, but whether that contributed to Izumi’s vote total and in what degree is impossible to calculate.

Hokkaido 5, then. Turnout here was a lot healthier than in Kyoto, at 57.6% (down less than a single percentage point from the 2014 general election), and the election presented a perfect laboratory for checking on the potential of opposition coordination to tackle narrow LDP leads. In 2014, the LDP candidate faced off against a DPJ candidate and a JCP candidate, winning 50.9% of the vote to the 49% won by the opposition parties (36.8% for the DPJ, 12.2% for the JCP). In this by-election, the DP and the JCP backed a single candidate (along with the People’s Life Party, the Greens and the Social Democratic Party), going up against a non-incumbent LDP candidate (with the backing, of course, of the LDP’s coalition partners Komeito, along with a couple of fringe conservative groups).

To my mind, there are three types of seats which opposition coordination can target. The first are “marginal seats” – places where the DPJ was within a few percentage points of the LDP in 2014, and where the support of just a small fraction of JCP supporters would swing the election. There are nine of these seats, and honestly, the DP should be aiming to win them in the next election without help from other parties – if it can’t reverse a few percentage points in marginal seats when competing against a government whose core policies are all disliked by voters, then the whole purpose of its existence as a party is in question. The second type of seat is “opposition majority seats” – places where a simple mathematical combination of votes for DP and JCP candidates in 2014 would have yielded a majority. There are 70 of those seats (67 in which the DP candidate could have won with JCP support, and 3 where the JCP candidate could have won with DP support) – enough to deliver a powerful blow to the LDP’s majority and probably end Shinzo Abe’s premiership, but not enough to reverse the LDP’s lower house majority.

The third type of seat is the “combined opposition marginal” – a seat where a combination of opposition votes in 2014 would have put them within a couple of percentage points of victory over the LDP (or Komeito) candidate. Hokkaido 5 is a perfect example of this kind of seat, requiring not just good coordination between opposition parties but also a few percentage points of support swing (or a boost in turn-out, breaking strongly for the opposition candidate) to shift control of the seat. If the DP (and other opposition parties) can start to make breakthroughs in this kind of seat in the next election, it blows Japan’s political landscape wide open for the first time in many years – perhaps not giving the DP another shot at government, but at least forcing the LDP to work with other parties to pass key legislation, and putting Abe’s more ambitious goals, like constitutional amendments, out of commission entirely.

Getting there, though, is going to be an uphill struggle. In Hokkaido 5 yesterday, the LDP won by over 12,000 votes. The combined DP and JCP candidate didn’t make up the gap between opposition and LDP at all; in fact, her vote total of 123,517 was around 3000 votes short of the combined vote totals of the two parties in 2014. The LDP’s Wada Yoshiaki, meanwhile, picked up 4,500 more votes than his veteran predecessor had commanded, despite the lower turnout.

What can we conclude from this? Well, the opposition coordination idea works, in nuts and bolts terms; with the DP and JCP supporting the same candidate, that candidate was able to pick up almost all of the votes that had previously gone to the two parties separately. This undermines the narrative from the DP’s centre-right figures, who claim that working with the JCP will cost the party scores of votes from centre-right voters; a claim which has always seemed dubious to me, since I’m not sure the DP really has many centre-right voters to begin with. It also assuages concerns that JCP voters, having stuck with the party through thick and (mostly) thin, would balk at casting a vote for a DP-backed candidate. Most voters dutifully turned out to cast for the coordinated candidate, which bodes well for the 60 to 70 seats that could be turned to the opposition simply by effective coordination strategies.

That’s the positive. The negative is that if the opposition can’t win Hokkaido 5, it’s dubious whether any of the “combined opposition marginals” are within its grasp at the moment. Essentially, the opposition has not increased its popularity since 2014; if anything, it may have slid backwards. In order for the opposition to win power, or even to seriously threaten the LDP’s majority, it needs to boost turnout, convincing disaffected voters to go to the polls and vote – many of them for the first time since 2009. Hokkaido 5’s result suggests that the DP is even further from that outcome today than it was two years ago.

There are of course local factors in play, and it’s unwise to project the political fortunes of a nation from a single by-election in a peripheral constituency; but this was the first real-world test of opposition coordination, and its results suggest a low ceiling on what the DP and its allies can achieve through this strategy alone. On a good day, opposition coordination might cost the LDP enough seats to put Abe’s future in doubt; but even on a very good day indeed for the opposition, it would take far more than coordination between parties to kick the LDP out of power. For that, the opposition needs to offer what it has failed to offer since 2012; an attractive, clear, direct and credible alternative to the LDP’s policy platform.


On a related note – if coordination within Japan’s political opposition interests you, I did an interview with Michael Penn of the Shingetsu News Agency a couple of weeks ago on this topic – I’ve embedded the video from their YouTube channel below.

 

The Irrelevance of the DPJ – JIP Merger

The biggest political news in Japan this week – apart, it seems, from a comment from Prime Minister Abe to the effect that he’d like a humanoid robot to replace him in Diet questioning sessions – is the merger of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (民主党), with another opposition group, the Japan Innovation Party (維新の党). The merger will add 21 seats to the DPJ in the House of Representatives, bringing their total to 80, along with five in the House of Councillors, bringing them to 76 seats. It comes as part of an attempt by Japan’s opposition parties to align themselves into some kind of united force against the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (自民党) ahead of elections later this year.

News of the merger hasn’t exactly set Japan’s electorate abuzz. Newspaper opinion polls suggest that a majority of voters don’t have high expectations of the merged party (which will change its name, logo and campaigning slogans in the coming week), by a factor of around two to one, and the announcement of this supposedly major new opposition force has done little to erode support for the Abe cabinet (despite polls consistently showing a lack of faith in the administration’s headline policies).

The lack of voter interest is unsurprising; Japanese voters are understandably fatigued by the endless game of musical chairs which Japan’s opposition has been playing since the DPJ was booted from power in late 2012. In the short few years since Abe took power, the opposition has fragmented and coalesced on multiple occasions. Centrist economic liberals Your Party fell apart, reappeared as the Unity Party and promptly merged into the populist right-wing Restoration Party movement, which emerged from regional politics in Osaka, became a national movement, then returned to Osaka regional politics – leaving a rump, the Japan Innovation Party, which is what is now merging with the DPJ. On the fringes, former political “big beasts” like Ozawa Ichiro and Ishihara Shintaro (now supposedly retired for good) have formed, dissolved and re-formed small political movements, all clearly calculated as potential merger vehicles that might give them access to the corridors of power at a major party once more. The DPJ itself, meanwhile, has spent far more time discussing its own future and failing to conceal signs of damaging internal strife than it has spent challenging the LDP’s policy platform.

Every developed nation, it seems, is presently harbouring a strong degree of resentment at the perceived disconnect between their political classes and the lived realities of the people they govern; look at the degree to which London’s “Westminister Bubble” or the concept of Washington’s “Beltway” have become epithets in the UK and USA respectively. Japanese voters, equally, dismiss the maneouvering, backstabbing and self-serving jockeying for power of their opposition parties as being something like a “Kasumigaseki Bubble”. Opposition mergers and rebrands may be of all-consuming interest to the political chattering classes who huddle around the moat of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, but the individual impact of such events on the electorate is minimal, while the impact of such a drawn-out series of events is merely to create an overriding sense of disorganisation and disarray that drives even Abe’s most stern critics to despair that his administration is the only real choice on offer.

Looking at the detail of the DPJ-JIP merger, supposedly the most important opposition realignment since 2012, it’s hard to argue with that position. What is the DPJ actually merging with? As mentioned above, the JIP is a rump party left over from the Osaka Ishin movement’s return to regional politics and identity. The Japan Restoration Party (日本維新の会), from which the JIP was birthed, was a pretty firmly right-wing, revisionist movement – the Abe administration flirted with the idea of working with them to propose amendments to the pacifist constitution – which is in itself enough to raise eyebrows; isn’t the DPJ supposedly a more centre-left, progressive crowd than the LDP? What are they doing merging with a party whose politics have often been to the right of the LDP?

While that’s a legitimate concern, and one that speaks to the barrenness of the idological landscape in Japanese politics (where political beliefs and ideology seem always to come a distant second to career ambition), it actually gives the JIP a little too much credit. The JIP is not a consistent, coherent party of the right; it is an ill-fitting band of political misfits, some of whom are experienced or worthy of respect in their own rights, but who as a group look little like a real political party.

The JIP contingent that will be absorbed by the DPJ in the coming weeks consists of 21 members of the House of Representatives and five members of the House of Councillors. Between them, they count membership of almost every minor political party of the past ten years or so, from the left-wing environmentalism of the Green Wind party (みどりの風) to the hard-line neoconservatism of the New Frontier Party (新進党) and the historical revisionism of the Japan Restoration Party. Quite a few (seven Representatives, and all five Councillors) are former members of the neo-liberal Your Party who left along with Eda Kenji to form the more “soft neo-liberal” Unity Party in 2013. Five are former members of the Liberal Democratic Party. By far the largest group, though, is those who will feel rather at home in the DPJ; of the 21 Representatives in the current JIP line-up, 15 are former DPJ members. Several of them departed the DPJ with its aforementioned “big beast”, Ozawa Ichiro, who has left a trail of shattered parties behind him throughout his political careeer; their colleagues in the party may be rather concerned to see Ozawa loyalists returning to the fold.

The point is that there’s really nothing to suggest that this group of 25 men and one woman (which will do little for the DPJ’s diversity targets) is going to bring fresh ideas to the DPJ’s successor. More than half of them have been in the DPJ before, and almost all of them have been political nomads throughout their careers; aside from the small group of Eda Kenji’s loyalists, they have veered wildly around the political spectrum, suggesting opportunism rather than consistency or integrity. Their addition to the DPJ’s roster just makes it even more confusing and difficult to gather what, exactly, the party is supposed to stand for, or who is supposed to vote for them. If you were a DPJ voter with centre-left, progressive preferences, which seems a not unreasonable profile of a typical DPJ voter, the absorption of right-wing hardliners and neo-liberals should be deeply concerning.

To make matters worse, it’s really not clear what this group is meant to bring the DPJ in terms of electoral benefit. Only four of its members are representatives for Single-Member Districts (that is to say, they won their districts outright and should have a reasonable chance of doing so again regardless of which party they stand for) – Eda Kenji in Kanagawa 8th District, Kakizawa Mito in Tokyo 15th District, Ide Yosei in Nagano 3rd District and Isaka Nobuhiko in Hyogo 1st District, all of whom are former Your Party / Unity Party members. The remaining 17 Representatives and 5 Councillors are all elected proportionally through the party list system, and thus do not bring a safe district seat with them. One could argue that removing the JIP from the proportional ballot and presumably taking some of its voters will favour the DPJ through reduced opposition competition; but much of the JIP’s electoral strength was derived from its leadership in the form of cantankerous former Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro and outspoken Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru. Voters fond of Ishihara seem unlikely to break for the DPJ in an election; Hashimoto’s support, concentrated around the Kansai region (especially in Osaka itself), will transfer to its new regional party, the Osaka Restoration Party.

It’s hard to see the DPJ-JIP merger as being much more than yet another round of musical chairs; just another of the seemingly endless pauses in the music that have seen the opposition politicians scrambling for seats since the 2012 election. While the opportunity to rebrand the DPJ is welcome in some regards (any party that reaches the point of printing posters telling voters that it’s okay to hate them, but you should vote for them anyway to protect the consititution, is a party that desperately needs a rebrand), but the JIP merger suggests a deepening crisis in the DPJ’s identity, policy platform and ideological position, not light at the end of the tunnel.