Archive for the ‘japan’ Category

Takaichi Waves a Dagger in the Media’s Face

The tension between Japan’s ruling LDP and the country’s broadcasters and media has taken a lurch into the public eye, with widespread reporting of comments in the Diet’s Lower House Budget Committee by Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Takaichi Sanae to the effect that broadcasting companies which fail to demonstrate impartiality could be taken off the air by the government. The notion of “impartiality” in this context is something of a dog-whistle; it’s the concept commonly used by right-wing conservatives to criticise TV anchors and journalists they percieve as being left-wing or insufficiently nationalist, a context of which Minister Takaichi, no stranger to the right wing of politics, will be keenly aware.

Takaichi’s statement is the first time that a government minister has spelled out in public what the LDP’s ultimate sanction against broadcasters which attract their ire might be, and it has attracted plenty of condemnation, including calls for restraint from within the ruling coalition itself. It’s true though that on the face of it, Takaichi is only stating the facts with regard to Japan’s law – Article 4 of the Broadcast Law demands that broadcasts be “politically fair”, “not distort the facts” and (even more vaguely) “not harm public safety or good morals”, and Article 76 of the Radio Act allows a Minister to temporarily shut down, restrict the broadcast hours or entirely revoke the license of a broadcaster who violates a provision of the Broadcast Law. These aren’t new laws, either; both bills date back to 1950, and while they have been amended more recently, the clauses Takaichi refers to have been in place for almost 66 years.

What’s the problem, then, with a minister simply reminding broadcasters of the powers that technically rest with her office? It’s not like the LDP has just pushed through legislation to restrict or censor broadcasting and is waving that around like a big stick; it’s just pointing out the existence of powers that have been available to every government in the post-war era. Minister Takaichi was even nice enough to say that she didn’t think she’d ever shut down a broadcaster personally, though of course she couldn’t say what any of her successors might do, and that she was simply helping to uphold the rule of law by restating the content of the law. Where’s the issue?

The problem, really, is that Japanese law is often – for quite deliberate and cynical reasons – a tremendous mess. Article 4 of the Broadcast Law is a legal disaster, binding the country’s entire broadcast media to rules that are so vague and ill-defined as to border on being infantile. What is the definition of “public safety”, which broadcasts may not harm? How about “good morals”; what’s the legal definition of a “good moral”? Who decides what’s “politically fair”? In contested situations, who gets to decide that is a “fact”, and what is a “distortion”? These terms, which the legislation makes no further effort to define or explain, are utterly vague and subjective – as is, I would argue, entirely inevitable for any rules designed to chase the daft pipe-dream of “objectivity” in news broadcasting.

It’s unsurprising then that Takaichi’s explanation of the rules in the Diet was equally vague and open to interpretation. The example she gave was a case where, “on a political topic where public opinion is divided, [a broadcaster] ignores one political opinion and deliberately adopts only the other political opinion, broadcasting programming which repeatedly exceeds proportional time for content supporting that view.” Just like the law itself, vast tracts of Takaichi’s explanation are open to interpretation. How much public opinion must support a point of view before it is “entitled” to broadcast time? How is proportionality decided? Should all points of view receive the same coverage – risking, to paraphrase Irish comedian Dara O’Briain, the situation where a broadcast reporting a successful satellite launch must give equal time to a prominent JAXA scientist who worked on the launch, and some bloke called Taro who claims the satellite launch must be a hoax because the sky is a carpet painted by God; how many Twitter followers must Taro have before he’s entitled to his three minutes on NHK’s evening news? Should coverage be divided up proportionally to public opinion polls – in which case, the LDP should brace for some pretty harsh coverage of its core policies, most of which are disliked by a plurality of the Japanese public? What, in fact, has public opinion – which is not mentioned anywhere in the Broadcast Law – got to do with this at all, and why should any broadcaster be forced to spend time serenely nodding along with views he or she firmly believes to be utterly wrong just because an opinion poll said some people agree with it?

Here’s the crux; the Japanese Broadcast Law, just like a large number of other Japanese laws, is quite deliberately vague and open to interpretation, because that’s just how the extremely powerful Japanese political bureaucracy and the LDP itself like it. Because the law is vague, the decision of how to implement it (and even whether to implement it at all) essentially lies at the discretion of ministry bureaucrats. Broad, sweeping concepts like “good morals” or “politically fair” give ministries enormous leeway in deciding what’s acceptable and what’s not at any given point in time. The LDP doesn’t need to pass harsh new legislation giving itself new powers to clamp down on the media, because Japanese legislation is designed to be so vague that ministries (whose bureaucrats drafted the laws in the first place) can, at some point down the line, exert quite extraordinary powers by edict, rather than having to go through the legislative process again.

This isn’t unique to the Broadcast Law. One of the (many) things that initially shocked me while conducting research into Japan’s capital punishment system a few years ago was that between the late 1950s and the 1990s, an open, transparent and humane (in as much as a capital punishment system ever can be) system had been transformed into an extraordinarily brutal, secretive and abusive system – entirely as a result of edicts from Ministry of Justice bureaucrats. Sweeping changes such as pushing all condemned inmates into perpetual solitary confinement, restricting visitor access to prisoners and not informing prisoners of their pending execution until literally minutes before it is carried out (or informing their families and legal representatives until after the execution) were implemented without so much as a single trip to the Diet floor for new legislation to authorise the changes. On a similar if slightly different note, consider the much-publicised crackdown on dancing after midnight, which saw police (especially in Osaka, but also in Tokyo and elsewhere) arresting staff and shutting down venues for the heinous crime of shuffling their feet after Cinderella’s carriage had turned back into a pumpkin; again, this sudden crackdown did not rely on any draconian new legislation, but on the dusting off and sudden implementation of excessively broad rules that had been lying around on the statutes since the late 1940s.

(Nor, it should be stated, is this particular wheeze of sneaky legislators unique to Japan; many governments around the world, including the UK and US governments, have attempted to pass legislation which included deliberately vague sections that could be reinterpreted to grant sweeping powers, only to fall back on pearl-clutching and wailing of “how could you accuse us of such underhanded intentions, we would never use these powers in such a manner” when astute legal scholars or journalists have drawn attention to their attempts to mount a legislative Chekov’s Gun on the mantelpiece of the state. Fast forward a few years and you end up with grotesque absurdities like UK local governments using counter-terrorism legislation to snoop on people and ensure compliance with rubbish collection rules. It is an important but sadly often disregarded fundamental rule of democracy that the people should never, ever grant broad powers to their government on the basis of a solemn but entirely non-binding promise that those powers will not be used, or will not be used outside a specific context; the mission always, always creeps.)

It’s in this context that we must consider the statements of Minister Takaichi – who probably has something of a personal axe to grind with the broadcasters her ministry regulates, given that they greeted her appointment to Abe’s cabinet by dredging up her enthusiastic endorsement of a book praising Adolf Hitler’s electoral politics, along with pictures of her posing alongside the Holocaust-denying head of Japan’s neo-Nazi party. The law she is citing is an old one; the interpretation she is citing, and the threat implicit, is a new one. The Broadcast Law itself is deliberately vague to the point of meaningless in order to permit this kind of interpretation and reinterpretation to suit the whims of the administration; the whim of this administration, as expressed in Takaichi’s statement, clearly leans towards control of, and heavy pressure upon, the nation’s media. Her statement is not a mere point of law – it is a threat, and the age of the law upon which that rests is inconsequential. Just because a dagger has been sitting harmlessly on the shelf for years doesn’t make it any less threatening when it’s picked up and waved in your face.

 

In Reality, All News is “Editorialised”

I turned off the news last night. This isn’t entirely uncommon; news programmes in Japan often devote an interminable amount of time to something terribly dull, so I switch off, but last night I turned off the news because my partner and I looked at each other and agreed that this just wasn’t something we wanted to watch any more.

Here’s why. The trial began yesterday of an 18 year old (now 19) and two 17 year old accomplices who, almost exactly a year ago, murdered a 13 year old boy by stabbing him and throwing him naked into a freezing river in Kawasaki. It’s a horrific and disturbing case, and while there are key details that most audiences probably want to know (what the context to the killing was, what kind of previous contact the victim had with his killers, and so on), the sentence I just wrote is probably all you need or want to know about the physical details of the actual killing.

If you watched the news last night, you got so much more. Using a 3D recreation of the courtroom, 3D models of the various parties to the trial and voice actors dubbing the recorded statements of the accused, the news chose to repeat pretty much the entire cross-examination of the accused killers regarding how, exactly, they carried out the murder. In a segment which probably lasted around ten minutes (and felt far longer, though we switched off before the end), we got multiple accounts of precisely how the attackers beat and cut their victim – how many stab wounds, in what parts of his body, and which parts they cut first; how they held the knife as they slashed his throat; how parts of the box-cutter they were using broke off in his body; how they decided to throw him in the river when they were done; all played out over shots of the desolate riverbank where the killing took place, pictures of an artist’s rendering of the murder weapon (complete with blood and gore, in case your imagination was failing you) and, in case you hadn’t been punched hard enough in the gut by all this, pictures of the 13-year-old victim smiling in the sunshine. I’ve got a strong stomach for this kind of thing – I’m fascinated by true crime stories, unfazed by horror movies, and spent the best part of two years conducting research into Japan’s death penalty system and its death row inmates – but I turned off the TV midway, because the extent to which this mid-evening news show was wallowing in detail little short of pornographic of the savage brutalising of a child was genuinely, deeply upsetting.

This was “just the facts”. Everything the TV news chose to show was “fact”; the statements of the accused are facts, what they did to the boy is a fact, what the murder weapon looks like is a fact, what the victim looked like when he was happily smiling for the camera the previous summer is a fact. Yet how those facts are presented – the choice of whether to present them, in what order, with what emphasis – is intrinsically a subjective, editorial decision. Contrast the way in which this case is presented with, for example, the reporting of teenagers stabbed in knife crimes in London; “a 13 year old was stabbed to death by a gang of older youths and his body thrown into a river” – absolutely horrific, but shorn of the lingering, stomach-churning descriptions of where he was stabbed, and how they held the knife, and what it looked like when they cut him, and so much other detail that’s purely “fact”, but that makes a huge, powerful impact on how you perceive and think about the case.

Allow me to put this in a little context. In the past few months, Japan has seen a spate of high-profile news broadcasters being removed or shuffled away from their positions. Two of the mainstays of evening news broadcasting, TV Asahi’s Hodo Station and TBS’ News 23, are losing their well-known hosts (Ichiro Furutachi and Shigetada Kishii, respectively), while NHK’s current affairs show Close-Up Gendai has declined to renew the contract of long-standing anchorwoman Hiroko Kuniya. The circumstances and factors contributing to each change differ, but it’s hard to ignore the common thread between them; each of these presenters has been critical of the Abe administration’s policies, especially around the deeply controversial Security Bill which passed late last year. There are other factors in play as well, of course – Kuniya, for example, is almost certainly as much a victim of Japanese TV’s discomfort with allowing older women to front shows, especially shows seen as being aimed at a male audience – but for three such high-profile and long-standing broadcasters, all critical of the Abe administration, to be removed in such a short space of time is quite obviously no coincidence.

To be clear, the removal of these broadcasters is extremely unlikely to have been demanded or ordered by the government. Rather, it is largely a consequence of a chilling effect on press freedom that has come about due to a perception (accurate or not) of the Abe administration being more willing to take reprisals upon its critics – a sense that broadcasters are expected to “play ball” with the administration to a greater extent than before, enforced not by overt censorious action but by expressions of displeasure, criticism and – rather often – by sudden attacks from right-wingers not associated with the government, but willing to make life hell for its media critics. The environment this creates is not quite the authoritarian one Abe’s critics in the foreign press and elsewhere would claim, but neither is it an ideal one for press freedom – it bears a strong similarity to the media environment in countries like the United Kingdom at the moment, for example.

One common defence of this effective narrowing of the media’s broadcasting remit from supporters of the Abe administration is to refer back to Japan’s Broadcast Law, which includes a demand that news broadcasts should be “politically impartial”. Anchors like Furutachi and Kishii, in expressing dislike of the Security Bill or other government policies, are argued to have violated this law by “editorialising” the news they were presenting.

This concept of “editorialising” is profoundly ignorant of how news and current affairs broadcasting actually works, for a number of reasons. Firstly, shows like News 23 and Hodo Station make a distinction between the segments in which they present the news, and the segments in which they comment upon it; if the Broadcast Law is to be interpreted as strictly as conservatives would like, it would appear to be illegal for anyone to ever present an opinion regarding current affairs on Japanese television. “Yes,” say the conservatives, “news and current affairs should be just about facts!” – which is the second reason for this being nonsense, because “facts” themselves are, by their very nature, subject to editorialisation. “Today, the Yen fell against the Dollar” is a fact, of course; but the decision of whether to broadcast that fact, how much prominence to give it and what imagery to accompany it with is intrinsically a subjective, editorial decision, and Japanese TV news, in presenting the “facts”, makes extremely powerful editorial statements without having to directly state any view. That’s exactly what happened with the Kawasaki murder case on last night’s TV; the choice of which facts to present, the level of detail in which to present them and their contextualisation with background images and video added up to a strong editorial approach with a very different impact from, say, the standard reporting of a teenage stabbing in London.

Why report on the Kawasaki case in such grotesque detail? I’d argue that it’s an editorial decision, conscious or otherwise, designed to support the status quo. Japan has an extremely low crime rate but retains a high level of support for the death penalty (one of the only developed countries to do so), a high degree of trust for its justice system despite multiple revelations of abuse and corruption, and an extremely high tolerance of aggressive, authoritarian tactics from its police force. This status quo makes perfect sense if you recognise the essential disconnection between “actual crime” and “fear of crime”; Japanese people are vanishingly unlikely to be the victim of a violent crime, yet their fear of violent crime is, in study after study, higher than the fear of people living in other, far more violent, nations. How do you maintain that? You linger almost lovingly on the gruesome, shocking details of what crime you actually have; you focus on every murder so intently that when people think about crime, it’s not the everyday safety of Japanese life that comes to mind, it’s the one-in-ten-million psychopaths whose crimes are etched onto the nation’s collective imagination.

Japan’s not the only place that happens, of course – and I’m not arguing for a second that this is some grand conspiracy to keep the population in fear, as there’s really no conspiracy needed; gruesome dramatisation of tragic crimes sells newspapers and boosts TV ratings, and supporting the status quo for the authorities is just a side benefit. What I am arguing is that “just the facts” is not a solution to the supposed problem of “editorialising”; it’s merely moving the editorial decisions to a different, more subtle and arguably more insidious level. A news anchor saying “I don’t like this legislation” is a statement you can challenge or disagree with; a news show presenting “just the facts” in a way designed to nudge your thinking in a clear direction is a much tougher thing for most viewers to challenge or even perceive. Next time someone complains about news being “editorialised”, ask them what they really mean by that; because in reality, there’s no such thing as “just the facts”, and the demands of conservatives that news broadcasters stop “editorialising” the news are actually just demands for a different kind of editorialisation – one that supports the conservative status quo.

 

 

Don’t look to Japan’s Supreme Court for Social Change

Supreme Court of Japan

Japan’s Supreme Court today announced a pair of decisions that are attracting significant media and public attention. The one dominating most of the headlines, it seems, is the ruling that a law forbidding married couples from keeping their original names (rather than one party changing their name) is perfectly constitutional, a decision which is already attracting a degree of scorn from commentators. The other, arguably much more interesting from a political and legal standpoint, is a ruling that a law demanding that divorced women wait six months before remarrying is unconstitutional.

The ruling on “waiting periods” for divorced women is a blindingly obvious piece of law – Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees “no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin”, and the six-month rule applied only to women. The law pre-dated the 1947 Constitution – it was introduced in the late 1800s as an attempt to ensure clear parentage for children born after a divorce, and aside from being discriminatory, is clearly outdated in the modern era of DNA testing (edit: I should note that the court hasn’t demanded that the law be entirely removed, only that it be dropped to a 100-day period, but this is because that’s what the plaintiff in the case asked for, and to the best of my knowledge the Court isn’t empowered to demand that the Government go beyond that in its legal revision. There’s still no waiting period for men who wish to remarry, so the law remains unequal. Hat tip to @anjin_miura on Twitter for pointing this out.). Despite being the sort of ruling on constitutional law that a reasonably bright five year old could manage given sufficient candy incentives, this is still a landmark ruling for the simple reason that it’s incredibly, vanishingly rare for Japan’s Supreme Court to declare a law unconstitutional. Since it was first convened in 1947, the Court has only struck down laws on ten occasions. By comparison, the US Supreme Court (which is, in theory, the model for Japan’s Supreme Court) has struck down over 165 Acts of Congress and almost 1000 state laws on the basis of unconstitutionality in its 226-year history, with the vast majority of those occurring in the 20th century. This underlines the importance of any occasion on which the Japanese Supreme Court actually chooses to rule against a law – no matter how past its sell-by date the law may be.

It also explains, in broad, contextual terms, why the challenge against demanding the adoption of a partner’s surname failed. Even the non-Americans among us are very used to seeing extensive reporting of the US Supreme Court, which regularly turns the tiller of American society with sweeping rulings on social issues, from civil rights to equal marriage. There’s an expectation, perhaps, that the Japanese Supreme Court should be willing and empowered to do the same thing, and a degree of disappointment and even disbelief when they turn out to be far more tame and conservative than their US counterparts.

There are, however, solid legal and political reasons why the Japanese Supreme Court is how it is – and they’re mostly grounded in the 1946 Constitution itself, a document which is revered by Japanese liberals for its pacifist stance but which, in many regards, was flawed from the outset and is now really starting to show its age. The 1946 Constitution established both the Diet and the Supreme Court, and unwittingly created an ill-defined relationship between them, in which the powers and responsibilities of each body are problematically vague. Article 41, establishing the Diet, states that “the Diet shall be the highest organ of state power, and shall be the sole law-making organ of the State”; Article 81, establishing the Supreme Court, says that it “is the court of last resort with power to determine the constitutionality of any law, order, regulation or official act”. So which of them, then, is the highest organ of state power? Does the Supreme Court have the power to command the Diet? Does the Diet have the capacity to disagree with Supreme Court rulings and plough ahead regardless? The language of the Constitution leaves that frustratingly vague, and in a forehead-slap inducing Catch-22, the only bodies with the power to interpret the Constitution’s meaning in this regard are the very bodies whose roles are uncertain in this instance.

The compromise that’s been in effect since 1947 is very straightforward and typically Japanese; the Supreme Court doesn’t rock the boat. When a law is utterly, blatantly in violation of the Constitution, it strikes it down (these are often laws predating the constitution’s promulgation). When a law is in a gray area, in which clauses of the constitution seem to conflict with one another or where there’s a simple lack of clarity, the Supremes shrug their berobed shoulders and toss it back to the Diet, bowing to parliament’s role as the “highest organ of state power” and requesting that they draft legislation to clear things up one way or another. This compromise is made altogether easier by a peculiarity of the Japanese legal system by which it’s impossible to simply request a judicial review of the constitutionality of a law; individuals wishing to challenge a law have to prove that they have standing (i.e. demonstrate that they have suffered damages due to the unconstitutional legislation they’re challenging) in order for their case to be heard. As a consequence, some attempts to challenge laws in the Japanese courts fail not because the law is found to be constitutional, but because nobody can prove to the court’s satisfaction that they’ve personally suffered damages on account of the law; the arguments over constitutionality aren’t even broached before the case is thrown out.

What’s happened in the case of the surnames issue, then, is that the Court has decided that the Constitution doesn’t have anything direct or blunt enough to say on the matter, and thrown it back to the Diet for a legislative solution. Could the court have ruled otherwise? Sure; the plaintiffs argued under Article 13 of the Constitution (“All of the people shall be respected as individuals. Their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness shall, to the extent that it does not interfere with the public welfare, be the supreme consideration in legislation and in other governmental affairs.”) that demanding that one partner give up their family name was an undue interference in people’s lives, and a more activist-minded court could absolutely have agreed with that position. It would, however, have risked a run-in with the government, which takes a conservative stance on family issues, and that would have sailed the ship of state far too close to the awkward questions over the roles of Diet and Supreme Court that nobody wants to ask or answer. The safe ruling, which is on rock-solid legal ground, is to say that the Constitution doesn’t really say anything one way or the other on this issue, giving the Diet free rein to implement whatever legislative solution it likes (in this instance, most likely a continuation of the status quo).

Incidentally, this is a somewhat gloomy preview of what’s going to happen if and when legal challenges on equal marriage work their way through Japan’s courts. Article 14, as cited above, does not offer protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and Article 24 defines marriage as being “based only on the mutual consent of both sexes… maintained through mutual cooperation with equal rights of husband and wife as a basis.” An activist or progressive court could happily rule that Article 14’s list of protections is non-exhaustive and that its protection from discrimination on the grounds of gender directly implies protection for sexual minorities, which takes legal precedence over Article 24’s mention of both sexes since equal marriage would extend, rather than curtailing, the protections Article 24 is designed to provide. Japan’s Supreme Court is not an activist or progressive court; it will rule that the present marriage rules are constitutional, and throw the whole issue back to the Diet (where the Abe Cabinet, deeply socially conservative, will bat them it of the field).

There’s no point being angry or disappointed in the Supreme Court over these rulings; it is what it is. The Court is operating from a far weaker and less well-defined position than its US counterpart, its capacity to carry out judicial review is hobbled by legal restrictions, and the Constitution on which it must base its rulings is riddled with contradictions and anachronisms. The Court’s long-standing habit of passing responsibility for decision-making on most issues back to the Diet is pretty much the only option open to it – and simply means that, for those who decry slow progress on social change in Japan, the buck stops with the democratically elected government, not with the Supreme Court or, for the most part, the Constitution. It also, incidentally, means that for significant progress to be made on an issue like equal marriage, a constitutional amendment would be required – meaning that perhaps some liberals could find common ground with conservatives who are determined to change the (extremely high) bar for constitutional amendment.

Cries of “Misandry!” didn’t sink Himozairu

Acclaimed manga author Akiko Higashimura (famous for Kuragehime, or Jellyfish Princess, a series about female otaku) this week cancelled her latest series, Himozairu, after just two chapters, following an online outcry. The publisher, Kodansha (it was being serialised in their Morning magazine) announced the author’s decision on their website, noting that it was in response to various feedback received over social media.

There was some discussion over what had happened in the Japanese language press – here’s the Asahi Shimbun, Jiji Press, Mainichi Shimbun (all traditional news providers), Blogos and NicoNicoNews (portal news sites), and Joshi-Spa and Cyzo Woman (online women’s magazines). Some TV news sites devoted short segments to getting talking heads to give their views on the manga and its cancellation. It was all fairly civil, low-level stuff – there’s certainly no indication in these accounts or on Higashimura’s own Twitter account to suggest that she was facing some awful, GamerGate-esque campaign of hatred (though don’t get me wrong, those things do happen in Japan and they’re spectacularly horrible).

Then the Asahi Shimbun translated its story into English, and it spread from there to fansites (here’s AnimeNewsNetwork’s take) and eventually to the mainstream media (here’s the Washington Post). The narrative as it’s reached the Washington Post, and hence a wider audience, is that Kodansha and/or Higashimura have been forced to pull the series due to a “torrent of criticism” from people who think the comic is “demeaning to men” because it shows them “doing laundry, cooking and washing dishes” – and that suggesting that men should learn domestic skills in Japan is “close to sacreligious”. The Post concludes that in Japan, “there’s no room for women to even dream about a world where men might whip up dinner and pick up their own socks.”

Those of you who read Japanese might now find it interesting to flick through the links provided above and contrast the tone and content of the Japanese articles with that of the Washington Post piece. The Post’s narrative is that this is a backlash from the patriarchy to the mere suggestion of men doing housework; Post writer Anna Fifield links the manga’s message to the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter and accuses the manga’s critics of rallying to a call of “misandry!”. It’s a strong message, not least because it fits so neatly with the established narrative; we know that Japan is a sexist place that’s far behind other developed countries in its treatment of women and in the workplace opportunities which they are offered. We know that career women in Japan are criticised for failing to have babies and stay at home to look after them, and that women who do have babies are forced out of their workplaces. Fifield’s account in the Post fits that narrative neatly and gives us something straightforward to feel outraged about for a few minutes of our coffee break.

Yet in the original Japanese news coverage, the story is quite different. Sure, the Asahi piece notes that critics disliked the manga for “putting down her male assistants” (“mocking” or “looking down on” might also be reasonable translations), though I note that the “and other men” part added to the English translation of the piece is not in the Japanese original. Other stories give lots more context to the criticism, though. Jiji Press cites a critic saying that the manga “doesn’t show consideration for house husbands” (literally, men engaged in work in the home). The Blogos piece notes, alongside a sense that the manga ungently mocks its subjects, criticism of the manga’s conflation of “himo” (parasitical men who live off their spouse’s earnings) and “house husbands”. The Joshi-Spa piece accuses the manga of looking down on unmarried women and house-husbands alike. Only the Cyzo Woman piece implies that the gender-related nature of the manga earned it unwarranted bashing, suggesting that Kodansha’s staff should have realised it wasn’t suitable for free publication online (make what you will of that – I think it’s rather condescending, personally).

So which is it? Did Himozairu fall to a hate campaign by thin-skinned men horrified at this assault on traditional gender roles? Or, on the contrary, did critics who disliked its very support for traditional gender roles and mocking of men who fall outside those roles derail it by convincing the author she had made an error in her depiction?

Though it’ll be hard to say for sure until such time as Higashimura makes a further statement on her decision to suspend publication, I lean towards the latter interpretation. Firstly, because the former interpretation seems to have crept in when a (dubiously translated) Asahi Shimbun article was picked up and spun into quite a different narrative by the Washington Post, seemingly without reference to any other original sources (seriously, the WaPost story cites the translated Asahi story and the AnimeNewsNetwork story, which itself solely cites the translated Asahi story, and not a single other source – I found the seven articles above in under five minutes on Google!). Secondly, because the content of the manga itself is genuinely uncomfortable not from a weird Men’s Rights Activist perspective but from a progressive perspective. Its essential contention is that “loser” men who are no good at getting ahead in “proper” careers should learn household skills in order to attract a career woman who’ll marry them as a “kept man”. This is incredibly problematic; it implies, all at once, that only “loser” men should do household work; that house husbands are men who have failed at other things; and that the relationship between a career woman and a house-husband is an unequal, “kept man” situation. Looked at from another angle, it’s also not saying anything progressive or praiseworthy about women who become housewives and their relationships with their husbands.

Honestly, the problems with this manga start from the word “himo” itself, which the Washington Post gently translates as “string”, implying that it refers to a man who lives off his wife’s purse strings. It’s got far more negative connotations than that; it also means “leash”, for a start (and the manga refers to women who marry “himo” men as their “owner”), and more troublingly means “pimp”, in the sense of a man who lives off a woman’s (immoral) earnings. It’s a term utterly steeped in regressive, traditional and unpleasant gender connotations. Perhaps Higashimura intended to challenge those connotations and reclaim the term; if so, she went about it entirely the wrong way, starting from the very moment when she described (in the pitch line for the manga!) her “training” for housework and chores as being aimed at “men who have dreams, but have no money, no job, no popularity and no style”.

Japan has huge problems with gender; roles are traditionally constructed and strongly socially enforced, which contributes to a lack of opportunity for women (slowly but surely being overturned by a combination of policy and economic reality) and a relentlessly sexist media environment, not to mention being a major factor, I believe, in both the low birth rate and the high suicide rate (especially among men). There is, however, progress occurring, both on a policy level (criticise Shinzo Abe’s motivation for Womenomics all you like; the policies are real and they’re slowly, all too slowly, starting to move previously intractable business culture in a good direction) and on a cultural level (the outcry over sexist heckling in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly about a year ago would probably never have happened in the recent past, because nobody would have thought it untoward). It’s important that we don’t try to pigeonhole gender issue related news events into our own pre-selected narrative for convenience, because doing so risks missing the important detail of the picture. In the case of Himozairu, my sense of what has happened is not that the patriarchy has lashed out and silenced a woman’s voice, but that a very talented young author has reconsidered her stance on an issue of gender following progressive criticism. If so, it’s a good thing – and I for one would love to see Higashimura return to the issue in future with a more thoughtful approach.

Abe’s Reshuffle Gun is Firing Blanks

Cabinet reshuffles are a big deal in Japanese politics. Where in other nations a reshuffle is generally of interest only to those with skin in the game and those desperately afflicted with a fascination with politics (it’s no way for a person to live, I assure you), in Japan reshuffles are given enormous attention and seen as key milestones in a government’s tenure. This is understandable when you look at the history of Japanese democracy in the post-war era; the Liberal Democratic Party has ruled, with or without the support of a minor coalition party, for around 56 of the past 60 years. When every election returns the same party to government, merely expanding or reducing its majority, the only real vehicle for reform lies in cabinet reshuffles – whose outcome has traditionally been determined by the jockeying for position between the LDP’s various internal factions. The hegemony of the LDP has made reshuffles more politically important than the majority of elections.

This makes reshuffles into a powerful tool for a prime minister; as well as providing a means to placate, reward or punish party factions for their support (or lack of same), the reshuffle has also traditionally been a magic bullet for the all-important cabinet approval rating. Cabinet approval is the public opinion figure which every prime minister must watch with anxious eyes; when it drops below a certain level, conventional wisdom suggests that the prime minister is now an electoral liability to the LDP and should be replaced, making him vulnerable to challenges from within the party. A reshuffle is a shot in the arm for cabinet approval – voters generally seem willing to give a new cabinet time to prove itself, so the approval rating shoots up after a reshuffle.

Abe Shinzo, the current prime minister, has lived a charmed life in terms of his cabinet approval ratings thus far. Indeed, his approval rating is a conundrum that puzles many commentators on Japan. Abe’s rule has boiled down to a succession of deeply unpopular measures – last year’s 秘密保護法 (Official Secrets Bill) and this year’s 安保法 (Security Bill) provoked major ongoing demonstrations around the country, while the slow-but-sure restarting of nuclear power plants continues to be opposed by a significant majority of voters and provokes headline-grabbing local protest with each restart. Meanwhile the much-vaunted “Abenomics” economic programme has had a mixed reaction from economists (it’s largely only managed to crank the levers of monetary stimulus, and has failed miserably to provide the kind of economic reform originally promised), and definitely a failing grade from voters, many of whom have seen their real incomes drop precipitously in recent years and almost none of whom say they have felt any benefit from Abenomics. In poll after poll, the Japanese people hate the Abe cabinet’s policies – they don’t like the bills it passes, don’t support its broad agenda on security and energy, and don’t feel any benefit from its economic policy. Yet in the same polls, they continue to support the cabinet, and the LDP, at a remarkably high rate.

This is only a puzzle if you consider the government in isolation; look at it in the context of Japan’s opposition parties, and it makes perfect sense. To describe the opposition as a disaster would be far too kind; the opposition is a miserable, useless catastrophe. The Democratic Party of Japan, the main party of opposition, has no coherent policy platform and almost zero visibility on key issues; other parties such as the Japan Innovation Party are consumed with in-fighting, and opposition parties split, merge and split again with a weary regularity that makes it perfectly apparent that their membership are far more concerned with shuffling for position and status in a tiresome game of musical chairs for avaricious old men, than in actually representing a constituency or, god forbid, a coherent ideology. Even as the government faced widespread resistance from the populace in passing legislation like the Security Bill, the main opposition parties were distracted with the side-show, the cat-herding pipe-dream, of assembling a broad opposition alliance. It was once said (by one of his own backbenchers, no less) of the well-meaning but slightly hapless Irish opposition leader Alan Dukes, “if it was raining soup, the man would be out in the street with a fork”; it rained miso soup for Japan’s opposition in recent months, and they all ran out into the streets holding chopsticks. If the Japanese electorate dislike Abe Shinzo’s policy platform, they despise the opposition, and have supported the Abe cabinet largely on the basis that any alternative to the LDP is, at the moment, nigh-on unthinkable.

Even so, the Abe cabinet’s approval rating sank to a low (albeit still far higher than justified by support for its policies) ebb when the Security Bill was passed, so; quick! Pull the reshuffle lever! Out with the old, in with the new, and back in with some of the old. There are new faces in some quite prominent positions (I plan to write a little later this week about former pro wrestler Hase Hiroshi’s appointment as Education Minister, which is already shaping up to be very interesting), some hints about which factions are in Abe’s good books, and lots of speculation about what it all means for the theory that he’s going to anoint fanatical right-winger and historical revisionist Inada Tomomi as his successor; she would be Japan’s first female prime minister, marking a real “two steps forward, three steps back” for the progressive cause. The conclusion of most commentators, incidentally, is that leaving her in charge of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, rather than promoting her to a more public cabinet position, suggests that she’s not the shoo-in for the succession many had assumed.

The lever duly pulled, the new Abe Cabinet (“Abe 2.2”, perhaps, as it’s the second cabinet of his second run at the prime minister’s job) sat back and waited for the approval bump… Which never came. Approval did rebound slightly from the level it hit after the security bill passed, but even in the most optimistic of polls, this looked like a dead cat bounce – the natural rebound when even the most moribund of objects hits a hard floor – rather than a boost from the reshuffle. In approval terms, at least, the reshuffle has been a total write-off; perhaps reflecting the increasingly presidential style of Japanese prime ministers since Koizumi Junichiro in the early 2000s, public attention seems focused on Abe himself, and cabinet approval rating is inexorably tied to his person, regardless of the cabinet with which he surrounds himself.

This is troubling for Abe, who has managed – largely off the back of the weakness and disarray both of the opposition and of the much-diminished LDP internal factions – to stay in power for almost three years, far longer than most Japanese Prime Ministers of recent decades. It seemingly removes from him one of the key weapons in the Prime Minister’s arsenal, rendering the reshuffle useless for juicing public opinion numbers – though of course, it may simply be that this reshuffle was handled incompetently, being carried out while the public was still angry over the passage of the Security Bill, and thus burdening the new cabinet with that anger rather than giving them a fresh start. On the other hand, it also reinforces the importance of Abe Shinzo himself, suggesting that while Prime Ministers may still fall victim to weak cabinet support ratings, the era of the disposable and nigh-on faceless Japanese Prime Minister (honestly, even political science academics here struggle to recall some of the nobodies who have held the office in recent decades) is over. Abe will be toppled only when someone within the LDP is strong, prominent and supported enough to topple him; the old system, in which a Prime Minister could be deposed by a broad group of plotting factions without a figurehead, and replaced with whatever doddering codger they felt well-disposed towards that week, is no longer viable. This will make it easier for the PM to see threats coming, the most obvious of them at the moment being Ishiba Shigeru, the hugely ambitious if questionably competent Regional Revitalisation Minister who recently launched his own LDP faction, seemingly with a view to challenging Abe for party leadership in the future. If Abe’s approval slides heavily again (the next big challenge is next year’s double header of House of Councillors elections and TPP ratification), it’s from Ishiba that the only truly credible attack on his position would come – and until the opposition parties get their house in order and start providing a believable alternative, that internal LDP drama is, once again, the only way that Japan’s government is going to see change or reform.

Security bill passes; what next for Japanese politics?

Japan’s controversial and widely disliked new security bill was passed into law early on Saturday morning, as the LDP, their coalition partner Komeito, and a handful of smaller parties pushed the bill through the Upper House following weeks of protests both outside and inside the Diet. It’s been a messy passage for the bill, with the vote delayed on multiple occasions and finally taking place, following widely publicised and rather embarrassing scuffles on the Diet floor, in the small hours of the morning of the 19th.

This bill is arguably the most significant step towards the normalisation of Japan’s military since the formation of the JSDF (Japan Self-Defense Forces, the country’s don’t-call-it-an-army which despite being not-an-army has the world’s sixth largest military budget) in the 1950s. Many pacifists and some left-wing politicians maintain that the very existence of the JSDF is in contradiction of Article 9 of the nation’s constitution, which renounces war and the use of force in international disputes, and states rather clearly: “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” (「陸海空軍その他の戦力は、これを保持しない」). Maintaining the legality of the JSDF is a complex dance whose steps have become well-practiced over the past few decades; the nature of the equipment the forces use (largely speaking defensive and short-range, nothing overtly capable of attacking other nations), the operations on which they are deployed (most often disaster relief operations within Japan, though non-combat roles in peacekeeping missions overseas have, with much controversy, been introduced in the past couple of decades) and even the training they undertake is all calculated to reinforce the not-an-army nature of the JSDF. The dance works; the JSDF is an established, accepted and popular organisation, and opposition to its existence on constitutional grounds is a moot point.

The constitutionality of this latest security bill, on the other hand, is far from moot. Constitutional scholars have lined up to condemn the bill; those supporting it are so thin on the ground that even the expert (Waseda University professor Hasebe Yasuo) called by the LDP to testify at Diet hearings turned out to think the bill was unconstitutional. The bill opens up the possibility of Japanese troops being permitted to engage in combat in overseas operations – up until now, Japanese troops could not even return fire when fired upon, and thus had to be protected by troops from other countries when they engaged in reconstruction or peacekeeping missions. It also enables “mutual self-defence” (集団的自衛権), meaning that Japan may, in some limited circumstances (though just how limited remains worryingly unclear) come to the defence of an allied nation that is under attack. Both of these changes required the alteration of the government’s official, legal interpretation of the constitution; this reinterpretation is, according to practically every eminent legal scholar or practitioner in the land, a step too far, breaking rather than bending the constitution.

The consequence is that protestors against the security legislation come from two major schools of thought. The first is the anti-war group, which includes the recently very high-profile youth group SEALDs – a group who have been at the front-line of the regular public demonstrations against the bill and who are presented, not entirely honestly, as being a spontaneous upwelling of youth activism against remilitarisation and (if you’re talking to one of those given to more extreme rhetoric) fascism. In truth, SEALDs is at least partially a very successful rebranding exercise by the same aging protest veterans who have been shouting down the Abe government over remilitarisation, the state secrets bill and nuclear power for several years; with media attention for their protests fading, they cleverly pushed younger faces to the fore, creating a compelling narrative of Japan’s youth being awoken to political participation in defence of their nation’s pacifism. This is not to doubt or pour scorn upon the genuine and heartfelt nature of the protests voiced by the young people who have become SEALDs’ public faces; merely to suggest that we shouldn’t get too excited about the political awakening of Japan’s youth, as there’s little evidence that it yet extends beyond the handful of bright youngsters at the demos.

The second group protesting the bills, generally far more quietly and with far fewer signs equating Prime Minister Abe with Hitler or Stalin, disagree on the basis of constitutionality, as outlined above. There are plenty of people who, I think, are relatively comfortable with the moderate changes being proposed to Japan’s security position but deeply uncomfortable with the government’s decision to ignore or bypass the constitution in order to achieve these changes. Others are concerned that the government’s deaf ear to public opinion represents a disdain for democratic process, although the Abe government would no doubt point out (with some justification) that it was resoundingly returned to power in a general election last December, when the security bill was already firmly on the agenda.

In theory, if the security bill is unconstitutional, there is a safety mechanism within Japan’s model of democracy – the Supreme Court, which is empowered to make rulings on the constitutionality of legislation. Despite the near-unanimous judgement of legal scholars (and even of some Supreme Court alumni) that the legislation fails to pass the constitutional test, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who truly expects the Supreme Court to strike down the bill. Unlike the US Supreme Court, which has many failings but does largely manage to act as a counterbalance to the power of the government, Japan’s Supreme Court is noted for its unwillingness to rock the boat and has only issued judgements going against government legislation on a handful of occasions since the 1950s. For it to strike down a bill which is so high-profile, so essential to an LDP programme of government and to a prime minister’s career, and so central to the future structure of US-Japan relations, would be one of the most extraordinary upsets in postwar Japanese politics; it is almost unthinkable. The most likely outcome of a Supreme Court hearing is a mild expression of legal discomfort that falls far short of actually declaring the legislation unconstitutional, a formula which the court has also preferred in its rulings on the legality of recent Japanese elections (which have consistently violated rules on the discrepancy of population and hence vote values between rural and urban constituencies).

SEALDs and other protest groups have vowed to fight on – but in reality, if the Supreme Court does not strike down the legislation (a remote possibility at best), the chances of it being repealed are vanishingly remote. No future LDP government will reverse this legislation, and realistically, barring some extraordinary change in the political environment which places the Japan Communist Party or the Social Democratic Party in power, no other government will either. The DPJ, still hugely diminished since its crippling electoral defeat in 2012 but still the best chance of a non-LDP government at any time in the foreseeable future, has taken the side of the protestors; but by the time it comes to power again in any imaginable scenario, the security alliance between the US and Japan will already be operating on the basis of the new rules enabled by this legislation. It’s one thing to refuse US requests to engage in certain kinds of operation and engagement for many years – as Japanese governments have done, to great US frustration, for decades – it’s entirely another to pull out from existing engagements and commitments, deliberately passing legislation to restrict operations and defy US wishes. As the DPJ discovered last time they came into power, when Prime Minister Hatoyama was forced to resign over his foolish unilateral pledge to defy the US’ plans for its military bases in Okinawa, drastic alterations to international agreements, especially those which would fly directly in the face of the US-Japan Security Treaty, make very poor campaign pledges. With the bills passed, the DPJ – if they have any sense – will likely dial down their rhetoric and start engaging with other issues (again, if they have any sense, they’ll focus on the economy and the utter disappointment of Abenomics).

The bill, in short, is now a fait accompli, failing a deus ex machina appearance from a Supreme Court that suddenly finds itself in possession of a functioning spine. The mainsteam political parties will likely recognise it as such and withdraw from campaigning on this issue, leaving groups such as SEALDs looking increasingly fringe and isolated. Yet there’s still value to their continued campaign, because much of the fear of this bill comes from a slippery-slope argument; a belief that for Abe, this bill is only another step on a path that will push Japan back to its pre-war imperialism, hardline nationalism and fascist militarism. The bill would be controversial no matter who proposed it, but it’s all the more hated because it’s Abe at the helm; and while the bill itself is now in a very solid position, continued protests against Abe and his policies may spread discomfort with his leadership and embolden his rivals within and without the LDP. History could come full circle; just as Abe’s grandfather, the “Showa monster” Kishi Nobusuke, managed to pass the 1960 revision to the US-Japan Security Treaty but was forced to resign in the aftermath, so too may Abe’s security bill pass safely while simultaneously igniting the flame that will eventually smoke him out of office.

There’s just one problem; there’s really nobody convincing on the stage who might step forward to challenge and replace him. Until he’s actually got a rival, does it even matter how little the people trust Shinzo Abe’s motives and policies?

Oh! What a Lovely War Bill

JSDF troops with their flag

Today, Japan’s lower house of government, the House of Representatives (broadly equivalent to the House of Commons in the UK, and rather less equivalent to the US Congress), has passed bills permitting Japanese military forces to participate in action against nations which are not directly attacking Japan. This will be the first time since the end of the Second World War almost exactly 70 years ago that Japan has permitted itself this right, and represents one of the largest changes to the nation’s security policy since its independence was restored by the Allied occupation in 1952.

It’s not a popular change. Opinion polls suggest that fewer than 30% of Japanese people support the bill, opposition parties have protested that the bill is being railroaded through parliament, and tens of thousands of people have gathered at rallies in Tokyo over the past few weeks to protest the legislation. It’s not popular with constitutional scholars, either; Japan’s post-war constitution, authored by Americans but supported by a majority of the Japanese people, renounces war and the use of force in international disputes, and forbids the maintenance of “war potential”. Last year, the government sought and achieved the latest in a series of revisions to the legal interpretation of that article (Article 9), which would allow the Japan Self-Defence Forces to participate not only in direct self-defence of the Japanese nation, but in “collective self-defence” – the right to assist Japan’s treaty allies should one of them be attacked, even if that attack is not directly on Japan itself. Today’s bill is the next step in pushing that change into law, but constitutional scholars remain convinced that the reinterpretation has stretched Article 9 past breaking point; a large majority of them have come out against the bill.

The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, knows it’s not a popular bill. After it passed the committee stage yesterday, he commented that the government has failed to explain the bill adequately to the public and will need to work on that in future; it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at such a statement, but this sort of cart-before-horse, father-knows-best approach is pretty much de rigeur for politicians all over the world when matters of national security or international relations are being discussed. It doesn’t excuse such behaviour, but it’s nonetheless worth pointing out that this doesn’t make Abe a fascist or evil; it just means that he’s a politician.

Besides, popularity barely matters. Though it’s taking its toll on the government’s approval rating, the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, could pass the bill through the Diet by themselves, having secured a large majority in the hastily called general election last December. Opposition politicians have resorted to frankly bizarre measures to register their displeasure, holding aloft placards during committee sessions and physically mobbing rival politicians in scenes bordering on fist-fights. The refrain, over and over, is that a bill with such low public support cannot be passed through the Diet in this manner.

This is, for better or worse, utter nonsense. The public does not support this legislation, but it hasn’t been sprung upon them as a surprise; changing the basis on which Japan’s military participates in international security is one of Shinzo Abe’s most long-held and clearly expressed desires, and the constitutional re-interpretation enabling this new law was passed before the general election last December. That election returned Abe’s LDP and their Komeito partners with a slightly larger majority than they had before. Any government, anywhere in the world, would look at that situation and conclude that whatever the public’s misgivings about this specific legislation, the LDP’s mandate to pass it is unarguable. Opposition parties were unable to turn the public’s dislike of Abe’s military ambitions into votes last December, so what aspect of democracy (as distinct from constitutionalism), exactly, is Abe riding roughshod over by passing a bill he’s openly been promoting since 2012?

It’s not that I don’t understand the anger and fear surrounding the bill, much of it focused on Abe himself. For all that he has learned to shut up about his own revisionist views of Japan’s Imperial history and decidedly neo-conservative ideas about how to make Japan’s society “beautiful” again (much of which is, as with neo-conservatism in general, little more than Fascism Lite with far less snazzy uniforms), he has been altogether less successful at getting other members of the LDP to do likewise. A great deal of the protest around the bill seems to be based not so much on fear of what collective self-defence will mean for Japan, but on a broader fear that Abe and his party want to move Japan away from the post-war pacifist consensus; to promote an ultra-nationalist agenda through schools and universities, to construct and impose rigid concepts of morality and “traditional” notions of societal duty, to adopt a more aggressive stance on the world stage and generally to return Japan to its more oppressive pre-war status quo. Opponents, who have dubbed the security legislation as Abe’s “War Bill” (which I use entirely facetiously in the title of this post), see that bill as being a huge step along the way to that objective.

They’re not wrong about Abe’s objective; you only need to read the man’s own words, in his book “Towards a Beautiful Country“, or look at the wish-list of constitutional change he and his LDP colleagues came up with before he came back to power in 2012. A man’s personal ideas and the policies he pursues in government may not always align, but it’s not unreasonable to fear the objectives of a man who has clearly laid out intentions to change his nation’s society in dangerous and worrying ways, and whose rule in government is effectively unopposed due to chaos within the ranks of opposition parties.

This broad unease only lends itself to making the protests and opposition to today’s bills seem fractured, discordant and uncoordinated. Part of the problem is that taken on its own merits, the bill is entirely reasonable. One may argue for or against the need for Japan to change the terms on which it engages with its security partners, but there are a great many logical and reasonable grounds for the claim that collective self-defence is required by the present international environment. For Japan to continue to exist securely under the US defence umbrella, even as the global influence of the US is increasingly challenged and the broad security environment of Asia remains unstable, seems untenable. A more even relationship in which Japan’s substantial military prowess forms part of the deterrent to conflict across Asia, and in which Japanese troops play a normalised part in activities such as UN Peace-Keeping Operations (as those of other militarily neutral countries, such as Ireland, do without difficulty), has much to recommend it. Ranked against that, protests claiming that this “War Bill” represents a rise of militarism – despite the fact that even with its implementation, Japan’s military engagement will remain pretty much the most restricted of any developed nation – are all too easy to dismiss.

Herein, perhaps, lies the core dichotomy and problem of Shinzo Abe’s leadership of Japan. His person suggests that he should be a disastrous leader – he is an unrepentant (if recently wisely silent) historical revisionist with barely-concealed fantasies of a return to the social and political order of Imperial Japan. His ultimate goal is a complete rewrite of Japan’s constitution which would dispense with its pacifist and human-rights oriented nature in favour of a stricter, more duty-focused constitution which he believes to better reflect “traditional” Japanese values. In some ways, this personality has indeed been disastrous; relations with China and South Korea, for example, deteriorated sharply under Abe’s leadership, though it’s unfair to lay the entire blame for that at his doorstep when the leadership of both of those countries demonstrated equal if not greater intransigence and historical dishonesty. In other ways, though, this personality and the stances it has created have been almost exactly what Japan needs; Abe’s policies have been pushed through with a force and vigour that has been sorely lacking in Japan for decades, and have seen kickstarts to employment, to inflation, to the role of women, to the broader economy, and to necessary adjustments to the nation’s international role. In each case, one can argue that Abe has pursued the right policy for the wrong reason – often horrifyingly wrong – but nonetheless, he’s achieved more in his years in power thus far than anyone since Junichiro Koizumi in the mid-2000s (and Koizumi, I’d argue, pursued the wrong policies for the right reasons, which is far worse).

Abe’s personality and his party’s regular gaffes colour everything they touch. Even as a supporter of its content, I will find it deeply uncomfortable to watch the “war bill” pass today, with the storm-in-a-teacup of protest making little or no odds to its progression through the various stages of government. I will find it even more uncomfortable if the Supreme Court, a far less aggressive and independent branch of government in Japan than in the USA, permits the bill to stand despite its extremely dubious constitutionality. I’d like to see Japan’s security position change, but I’d like to see it done right – with a constitutional amendment by popular vote, following a proper campaign of education and outreach about the reasons for its necessity. When a politician’s vigour and force extends to simply ignoring constitutional legalities, then no amount of democratic mandate (which, again, the LDP unquestionably possesses at present) can justify their actions. But perhaps that’s Abe in a nutshell; doing the right things for awful reasons, in awful ways, and making even those who support the actions uncomfortable along the way. He may be the most effective prime minister Japan has had in decades; he may simultaneously be the worst leader the nation has had in the post-war era.

Japan in 2012: Anger, Apathy and the Ballot Box

Tomorrow, Japan will hold a general election for the first time since 2009. A lot has changed since 2009. At home, the impact of the 2011 Touhoku Earthquake is still felt, especially in the area of nuclear power policy; abroad, Japan has ended up in unwelcome territorial disputes over a handful of rocky islands with South Korea and, more worryingly, China.

Tomorrow’s election won’t be about any of those things. Not really.

The 2009 election was momentous for a simple reason – it elected the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to office. This was the first time since 1955 that the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had not held power. The LDP was created in 1955 as a broad but tightly managed coalition of conservative political groups – including many whose wartime histories were murky, to say the least – and it held the reins of power throughout the remainder of the 20th century, becoming so deeply intertwined with Japan’s powerful bureaucracy that it could be hard to tell where the LDP ended and the civil service – the machinery of government itself – began. Yet in 2009 they were thrown out of office, losing to the DPJ in a landslide.

Tomorrow, it’s almost certain that the people of Japan will vote the LDP back into office. The most likely scenario is that they’ll have a majority (along with their perennial coalition partners, New Kōmeitō, which is effectively the political wing of the powerful Buddhist group Sōka Gakkai and as such commands a moderate but very reliable share of the vote from Sōka Gakkai followers), but will still need to work with other parties to get legislation through the Upper House. Some media outlets, though, are confidently predicting that the LDP, with New Komeito, will enjoy a “supermajority” – 320 seats in the Lower House (Japan uses the Westminster parliament system, so this is equivalent to the House of Commons in the UK), enough to force through almost any legislation it wants, regardless of how the Upper House may vote.

How might we interpret this? After less than three and a half years in office, Japan is throwing out its first non-LDP government in 54 years and inviting the LDP to return – what does it mean?

A few broad ideas have been thrown around by the press and a variety of commentators. One idea is that Japan is lurching to the right, politically – that the re-election of the conservative LDP, which includes factions with some worryingly revisionist views about World War 2 and a hawkish desire to “re-interpret” Japan’s pacifist constitution, means that the Japanese people are becoming more militaristic and hardline in their views. Another idea is that the election is a referendum on the DPJ’s handling of the Touhoku Earthquake, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and subsequent events. So; “it’s all about militarism”, say one group of talking heads; “it’s all about nuclear power”, say another.

Those are nice, convenient talking points. They’re also incredibly simple, which should ring warning bells. They betray a deep desire to find a simple narrative for this election, when none exists, and they speak more about the biases of their authors (who are personally obsessed with “Japan’s attitude to WW2” or “Japan’s attitude to nuclear power”) than they do about the feelings of the Japanese electorate. In less polite terms, they’re flat-out wrong.

This is not to say that issues like militarism and nuclear power haven’t featured in the election – but they have not been major issues. On militarism, many of the politicans involved have form, but have seemed to quite deliberately keep their mouths shut. The LDP is led by Abe Shinzo, a man who was previously prime minister for a fairly disastrous one-year term in 2006/7. He is well-known as a hawkish character with rather revisionistic views on Japan’s wartime history and a strong desire to “re-interpret” the constitution to allow the building up of Japanese military power, but during his period as Prime Minister, he reined in those impulses (although he never seemed happy doing so, and this may have contributed to his early exit from the job). He’s reined them in once again on the campaign trail this year – he’s been gaffe-prone as ever, but not over issues of national security or history. Other hawks are also to be found on the campaign trail; the newly created Japan Restoration Party (Nippon Ishin no Kai), for example, is led by Osaka mayor Hashimoto Toru, who wants a referendum on the pacifist clause of the constitution (Article 9) and picked a bizarre fight with teachers over the treatment of the Japanese national anthem in classrooms. His new political partner is former Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro, a loud-mouthed and vainglorious right-wing ideologue whose entire career has been spend picking bizarre fights with intellectuals, pacifists, foreigners, women or whichever minority group he could think of to insult on the spur of the moment. Yet even these two characters have kept squeaky-clean through the campaign, avoiding being tarred with the nationalist brush as much as possible. Hashimoto has even emerged as an extremely moderate voice on foreign policy, suggesting, for example, that Japan should share administration of the disputed Senkaku and Dokdo islands with China and South Korea respectively.

Why put firebrands in charge but then make them shut up? Because there’s no appetite in Japan for right-wing, nationalist firebrands. The “lurch to the right” narrative about Japan simply collapses when you look at ground truth – across every meaningful opinion poll, the Japanese people strongly support Article 9 of the Constitution (which renounces the nation’s right to wage war) and reject advancing militarism or nationalism. Having neighbours like North Korea or China is frightening, certainly – and recent events have made the region feel even less safe – but the last thing the Japanese electorate wants is a hawkish leadership who directly provoke their neighbours through such actions as military build-up. Moreover, in this election in particular, the opinion polls are clear – foreign policy as a whole is a long way down people’s lists of concerns.

What of nuclear power, then? As it turns out, that’s a long way down the list of concerns as well. Perhaps that’s because the status quo isn’t working out too badly – most of the nuclear reactors are still offline and Japan hasn’t experienced any power shortages (the impact of boosting imports of fossil fuels in order to cover up the shortfall may not have been felt yet – expert commentary on that differs greatly). Either way, it doesn’t seem to bother people greatly that none of the parties are committing to a rapid end to nuclear power, or that the LDP in particular doesn’t seem committed at all to winding down the nuclear power industry which it was so directly instrumental in creating. Only one party, the Tomorrow Party, focuses on nuclear issues; it’s led by Kada Yukiko, the likeable and sincere governor of Shiga Prefecture, but mostly made up of former DPJ politicians who bailed out of the party a few months ago, following their powerful faction leader (and DPJ co-founder) Ozawa Ichiro. Everyone knows that Ozawa is the real power behind the Tomorrow Party, and neither Kada’s role as a human shield nor the party’s strong anti-nuclear stance is likely to prevent it from being wiped out at the ballot box.

Okay. So it’s not the military, and it’s not nukes. What, then, are the people of Japan voting on? How have they made their decision to return to the embrace of the LDP?

That’s a trick question. They haven’t made that decision at all. The sad, dull reality of the 2012 General Election in Japan is that the populace isn’t returning to the LDP; they’re not actively choosing to elect Abe Shinzo as their next Prime Minister. They’re just getting the default option, because “None Of The Above” doesn’t feature on their ballot papers.

With only a handful of days left before the election, the LDP was sitting at around 23% support in the opinion polls. This is a party which is expected in some quarters to get a “supermajority”. Twenty-three per cent. A “supermajority”. To put that in context, that’s the same percentage of the vote as the Liberal Democrats in the UK got in 2010 – and in the 1997 UK general election, when the Tories were wiped out by a Labour landslide, they still got nearly 31% of the vote.

Still – the LDP are doing better than the DPJ, who languish at 11% to 14%, depending on which polls you read. The newbies in the Japan Restoration Party manage similar numbers – 8% in the lowball polls, 13% in the optimistic ones.

Who’s really winning this election, according to the polls? “Don’t know”. Only days before polling closes, “Don’t know” is in for a sweeping victory, with around 40% of the vote. After all the wrangling, the posturing, the temper tantrums for the cameras, the angry accusations, the manifestoes, the TV appearances and the endless shouting of slogans from the loudspeakers on top of cars in busy urban areas, nearly half of the people of Japan still don’t know who the hell they want to vote for.

Six months before an election, that’s understandable. Three months before an election, it’s understandable. A month in advance, you’d start to worry. Less than a week in advance, those figures no longer mean “Don’t Know”. What they actually mean is, “None of the Above”. What those voters are really saying is, “A plague on both your houses”.

Whether the LDP wins a supermajority or not; whether the DPJ is all but wiped out or manages to save some face; whatever happens in the election will come down to whether those 40% of voters decide to turn up, grit their teeth and vote for the least-worst option (which might well help the DPJ to save face, since Abe Shinzo’s right-wing tendencies do scare people a little, and his incompetent tenure and humiliating resignation in 2007 isn’t so long ago) – or whether they just stay at home, which would probably let the LDP romp home with a large majority but a deeply questionable mandate.

Why is this happening? If you want a neat, simplified narrative, here’s one. The LDP – and its conjoined twin, the Japanese bureaucracy – is in decline. A fragile coalition of otherwise competing interests and viewpoints was held together through the 60s, 70s and 80s by Japan’s economic miracle. Dissent was silenced by financial generosity, each special interest group or uppity politician bought off with gigantic amounts of public cash being spent on their pet infrastructure projects and local communities. Everyone got rich, so everyone stayed quiet. Nobody wanted to upset an applecart so brimming with rich harvest.

Since the financial crisis and the end of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s, things have been a lot more uncertain. The idea of the LDP and the bureaucracy managing Japan with stunning competence has been demolished by two decades of flatlining growth, declining levels of full-time professional employment and currency deflation. However, the impact of this has been delayed, for the simple reason that Japan is still a great place to live. It’s safe, it’s secure, it’s convenient – outside central Tokyo, it’s even fairly cheap. Healthcare and education are good. Poverty exists, but it’s hidden away on the margins. The applecart isn’t quite as full of ripe fruit as it once was, but it’s still not a good idea to upset it.

At the same time, dissatisfaction has set in – and it’s only grown as generations who finished university in the 1990s and 2000s realised that many of them would never have the kind of full-time employment their fathers had enjoyed. Few of them would be as wealthy as their parents had been. A large number, forced to take part-time or short-term contract jobs rather than full-time “salaryman” work, would never have enough money to buy a house or start a family. The covenant at the heart of Japanese society – “work hard, trust the government, and you’ll live well” was being broken. The LDP, authors of that covenant, seemed either not to understand what was happening, or not to know how to fix it – or perhaps both.

When the DPJ won the election in 2009, they promised a huge variety of things – their manifesto, in fact, read like a bit of a fantastical wishlist, and that quality has been used as a stick to beat the party with ever since. Their main promise, though, was unspoken; “we’re not the LDP”. Indeed, the party itself was a Frankenstein’s monster of a thing, composed of refugees, waifs and strays from across the political spectrum – including many politicians who had served time within the LDP itself. Their commonality was not anything that they were, but something that they were not. They were not the LDP. They won a landslide victory.

Tomorrow, they’ll collapse. Many of their Diet members, elected in 2009, will be unceremoniously dumped from office. The party has already fragmented; former DPJ members can be found in many of the new parties contesting tomorrow’s elections. Most will lose their seats regardless. They weren’t the LDP in name, but they reflected many of the things people hate most about the LDP in every other way – the factionalism, the in-fighting, the sheer ineffectiveness. Fukushima uncovered collusion with the nuclear industry; a humiliating cabinet resignation earlier this year came about because of connections with the Yakuza, Japan’s organised crime groups. Both incidents had a strong whiff of the old LDP around them. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

What the DPJ did offer, at least, was one place where people tired of the LDP’s misrule could place their ballots. This time around, there’s no such place. Some of the DPJ’s 2009 coalition of voters will drift back to the LDP – but few, I suspect. The LDP’s support figure of 23% is actually about the same as their polling figure in 2009. Last time, it earned them humiliating defeat; this time, it’ll win them a landslide. Most DPJ voters will have drifted elsewhere, fragmenting the anti-LDP vote. Some will go to Nippon Ishin no Kai, creating a third force in Japanese politics that could be fascinating to watch in years to come – assuming the tectonic stresses between the egos of Hashimoto and Ishihara don’t pull it to shreds first. A handful will go to the Tomorrow Party, or off to other marginals like the Japan Communist Party. Many, I suspect, will just stay at home. They took a gamble on believing in the DPJ, and lost. Politics has ceased to speak to them, or for them. That’s a volatile situation, even in a comfortable, modern nation like Japan. It leaves a void to be filled – perhaps by extremists, perhaps by non-party campaign groups, perhaps even by faith-based political movements. None of those are comfortable thoughts for the LDP – a party returning to power, but by no means back in the good books of its electorate.

 

one year later: remembering 3/11

March 11th, 2011. 12 months ago today. I’m at home in my room in the east of Nagoya, a huge but mostly unremarkable city in central Japan. It’s on the direct line from Tokyo to Osaka, but closer to the latter – you can be in Kyoto in 25 minutes, if you take the bullet train.

I’ve been living here for about six months. It’s not an alien place any more; it’s starting to feel like home. The past few weeks have been especially good, because spring is in the air. The sakura blossoms won’t appear for a while yet, but the days are getting warmer – and best of all, university holidays have started, and a ten-week break stretches out ahead of us, pregnant with possibility. My Japanese has got good enough to spend days or nights hanging out with new friends without needing to resort to English – I’m far more proud of this than any classroom grade, and delighted that it’s happened in time for the long, lazy spring holidays.

On this particular day, it’s balmy enough that the sliding doors to my balcony are open, letting the spring air blow through the room. I’ve got Skype open and I’m chatting to a friend, a classmate from university in London, who’s living in Tokyo. I can’t recall what we’re discussing – I know that I was wandering around the room, clearing stuff up while we talked.

It’s around quarter to three in the afternoon when everything moves – and actually, I don’t notice it at first. It’s an odd sensation, like vertigo. Your brain isn’t built to process the idea that everything around you, all those solid walls, are shuddering. Instead, it feels like the head-rush you get when you stand up quickly after lying down for too long. My first thought is to wonder if I forgot to eat lunch, and am getting a bit dizzy as a result. Then my friend’s voice pops out of the speakers. “Whoa. Earthquake here.”

Read On…