Posts Tagged ‘LDP’

Trump is no gift for Abe and the LDP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Abe’s Reshuffle Gun is Firing Blanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Security bill passes; what next for Japanese politics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh! What a Lovely War Bill

JSDF troops with their flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan in 2012: Anger, Apathy and the Ballot Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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