Posts Tagged ‘japan’

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?