Striking while the Iron is (Very) Hot

In the very quickly put together post-Cabinet reshuffle surveys, both the Nikkei and Yomiuri (日) Shimbun have found 10 percent plus increases in support for Abe. Much of this appears to have to do with the appointment of five women in the cabinet roughly in line with Abe’s goal of having 30 percent of executive positions being occupied by women by 2020, and Abe leaving in place senior politicians such as Aso (consumption tax), Amari (TPP), Suga (everything) and Kishida (diplomacy, getting an APEC date with Xi) with jobs to do in the upcoming 13 months until the 2015 September LDP election.

Kyodo found slightly less dramatic results, but still recorded an increase (日) from 49.8% to 54.9% in cabinet support, and a healthier reduction in disapproval (日) of 10 percent. Mainichi bucked (日) the trend and recorded no change in support rate (47%) and a not particularly significant 2% decrease in disapproval.

Nevertheless, with the Yomiuri finding 64 percent support, and the Nikkei finding 60 percent support for the Cabinet, and 46% and 44% support for the LDP respectively, this will not put the rumours of a snap election to rest. Two surveys taken just prior to the cabinet reshuffle suggest, after all, that both Abe and the LDP will likely never look so good.

When survey organizations in Japan inquire into cabinet support, the follow-up question is usually about why the public supports (or does not) the cabinet. Party support is usually left as it is – a problem when more than 50% of the electorate across surveys is generally undecided about the party that they support. This can give general insights into whether it is policy, party, or personality that is driving up or down support, but is otherwise unhelpful. The Nikkei and the Asahi Shimbun decided to do things a little differently in August. I hope they continue. The Nikkei followed up the usual question on party support by asking the 61 percent of unaffiliated voters who they leaned towards in terms of preferences. Here are the results:

Currently, which political party do you support? (N=1039)

Party support

 

For those who don’t support a party or can’t say/don’t know, if you had to choose one party that you feel some affinity for, please indicate below (n=633)

Party Affinity

Total of party supported/affinity (n=1039)

Combined Affinity Support for Party

With the exception of the 2005 postal reform snap election, the 37 percent is not too far from what the LDP has usually achieved in the proportional representation vote component at election time over the last decade, whether it has done well or not in terms of receiving parliamentary seats. For the LDP to score in the mid-40s in line with the Nikkei and Yomiuri polls is an aberration in many ways if truly indicative. More importantly, there is practically no support, explicit or implicit, for any of the opposition parties. The DPJ seems close to dead as a political brand. They have only identified 131 candidates for the next election to stand in the 295 single member districts. The Unity Party and the JRP still have not settled on a way to work with each other, let alone proceeded on to figuring out an accommodation with the DPJ for contesting the single member districts; settling on an anti-LDP candidate for each of the single member districts is the fundamental priority for the opposition if it wishes to contest an election with the LDP, even an unpopular one, in any meaningful way.

The Asahi just a week before the cabinet change inquired into support for the cabinet. They found only 42% support (n=1581). They went further and essentially asked respondents whether they would be likely to shift their views on supporting/not supporting the cabinet.

For the 42% who support the Abe Cabinet:

I will support the Abe Cabinet from now on

42% (18% of total respondents)

My support for the Abe Cabinet is not guaranteed

52% (22% of total respondents)

For the 35% who do not support the Abe Cabinet:

I will not support the Abe Cabinet from now on

60% (21% of total respondents)

It is possible that I will support the Abe Cabinet 

34% (12% of total respondents)

This would suggest that while 52 percent of respondents either support Abe or would be willing to support him, only 18 percent of the electorate are “hard core” Abe supporters.

If we factor in that on average the Asahi usually finds around 5% less support for the LDP government than other surveys (without passing judgement on which is the “true” figure), then, all other things being equal and normal, a support rate of 55 percent plus should be seen as the maximal, high watermark support rate for Abe at this point in time.

If they are going to go for a snap election, they may as well do it now – notwithstanding it’d probably be seen as too clever by half.

Abe Arrests Deteriorating Support Rate: Still Has Promises to Keep

Please see my introduction to this series. Very Brief “Methodology” Note Here

Find below a brief run down of cabinet support rate data tracked since April 2014 (when the first increment of the consumption tax rise was implemented). Where necessary for the sake of readability, I have split the data from individual polls into two categories – data coming from television organizations in Japan, and those coming from “traditional” print media organizations.

As we can see from the charts below, both television and print organizations recorded an overall downward trend in cabinet approval over the last 5 months, with significant drops from May until and including July being discernible.

Television Organizations – Cabinet Approval

CabsupportTVAugust

 

 Print Media Organizations – Cabinet Support

CabsupportNewspaperAugust

 

 Combined Average Support

CombinedAvesupportaugust

 

Cabinet approval appears to have stabilized or increased between July and August, however. The exact cause of this is hard to discern as no particular issue or event stood out during August. Perhaps the perception of “safe-driving” after Abe de-emphasized the urgency of security changes subsequent to reading the July polls has been a factor.

The overall average trend, nevertheless, reveals an average drop off in cabinet support of six percentage points from 54 percent to 48 percent during the April-August period.

Of interest is that that in July, after the “collective self-defense” cabinet decision, we saw an average of a 5.15 percentage points drop in cabinet support across all polls in a single month, with that month seeing net support for the cabinet drop by 11.14 percentage points across all polls. The average net support (approval minus disapproval) is tracked by month below. We find a general deterioration in the Abe administration’s “support buffer” from April onwards, with the July results suggesting that it might only be a matter of time until disapproval outweighed approval for Abe Cabinet 2.0. August however, was a relatively good month with all but two polls showing an increase in support and net support, and a stabilising of disapproval (also below). Critical to the Abe administration, particularly after the today’s reveal of Abe Cabinet 2.1, will be whether this August trend can be sustained, or at least net approval maintained at around the current rate. Given the perilous state of the opposition, maintaining the current levels of support will deliver to Abe and the LDP victory in any election, thus ensuring Abe remains safe in his role as LDP president. This could be even more important if the long-standing rumours of a snap election in the coming months come true (see Shisaku here for the most recent incarnation).

Combined Net Support

Combined Average Net Support

Combined Average Disapproval

Combined Average Disapproval August

The Perils of Making and Fulfilling Promises

There are still a number of variables than could collude to  upset or even unseat Abe, despite appearing to have arrested the slow decline of his premiership. Abe and his cabinet have been masterful at putting off these issues and thus not antagonizing the public or important stakeholders and constituencies too much over the last 1.75 years.

There are the issues connected to the nuclear power plant restarts, especially with the Fukushima gubernatorial election coming up. Without the restarts, Abe’s goals of stimulating the economy and/or sustaining the (still unconvincing) initial gains from Abenomics will remain subject to the ever present drag of higher cost energy imports, irrespective of what happens with the promised “third arrow” reforms that are supposed to be forthcoming. Okinawa and Futenma relocation facility tensions loom on the horizon.

The decision over the promised, but very unpopular rise in the consumption tax from 8% to 10% will also need to be negotiated (possibly in the ostensible form of making concessions to Komeito taking the tax off necessities and fresh foods – a bureaucrat’s dream come true of little policy sense).

Abe has also raised the stakes around the Sino-Japanese relationship. Can Abe, by foregoing a Yasukuni visit in August, convince Xi Jinping to meet with him at APEC in November? Is Xi waiting to see what Abe’s domestic position is like around November before deciding one way or another? There would, after all, be no point in meeting with Abe if it looks like the PRC can wait him out. Also important to factor in is that Xi not meeting with Abe could, or I would argue is likely to, precipitate another visit to the Yasukuni shrine in December, with unpredictable political consequences for most, except for the CCP and Xi who will look wise and not unreasonable.

2015

The new year will then bring a final agreement on the re-revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines. This will require the Abe government to implement the promises made to the United States as well as fulfil the expectations raised by the July 1 Cabinet decision. This could still be a fraught process (see forthcoming CPI article. Up now).

The new year will likely also bring the TPP back onto the agenda – if Obama somehow manages to acquire “fast-track” authority from Congress, then it is likely a final deal will be done. The implementation will require another promise to be fulfilled to the US (the credibility of the pivot will be greatly enhanced or undermined by having Japan sign off or not on a TPP agreement, even a “compromised” one) as well as to Abe’s most vigorous domestic backers in the form of the Keidanren and corporate Japan.

Throw in Abe’s most long-standing promise – yes, the one that basically launched his career – to bring home or establish the whereabouts of the remaining DPRK abductees. Success of any substantive kind could be a massive coup for Abe, and may even bolster the Abe administration even if the economy worsens or governing becomes distinctly more difficult as described above. Of course, just writing the words “North Korea” and “Kim Jong-un“, and “strained DPRK-PRC relationship”, should be enough to demonstrate why this is a pretty dubious expectation to rely on for Abe to demonstrate leadership and independent diplomatic strength.

So far the Abe administration has been generally masterful in avoiding the big decisions and not alienating itself too much from its supporters and public sentiment. The question is, how long will they be able to get away with this?

 

Abe’s CSD Report and the Political Agenda

The Advisory Panel on the Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security (安全保障の法的基盤の再構築に関する懇談会; hereafter the “Panel” or kondankai) has delivered its report to Prime Minister Abe and the NSC. The main focus of the report relates to whether the Japanese government can and should allow itself to exercise the right to collective self-defense currently considered by the Japanese government to be a prohibited form of the use of force to settle an international dispute. I have outlined the general approach that might be used to reconfigure the current constitutional interpretation here.

The key thing to remember is that the kondankai’s recommendations do not carry any legal weight as they are essentially a private advisory body to the Prime Minister. Abe himself has said the report will point to the general policy direction that he intends to take, although the final decision on CSD and constitutional reinterpretation will be taken later. The report will serve, however, as a maximal point of reference for where Japan’s security policy and SDF activities might go in the near future.
For now, it seems Abe will use the report to assert that Japan cannot defend itself adequately or contribute to stabilizing the regional security environment without making certain changes to its security policy and current interpretations of Article 9. He will argue that such changes will be essential for Japan to continue to enjoy a stable regional environment, as this will help strengthen the US-Japan alliance and allow Japan to play a greater role in regional deterrence.
While indicating his support for many of the positions taken by the kondankai, the language used by Abe in the press conference after the report was released suggested that the changes proposed by the Panel were not a foregone conclusion. This was likely out of consideration for coalition partner Komeito. Abe also attempted to head off wide-ranging concerns among the public and many political elites about how far the changes would go by ruling out the proposal of the kondankai to allow unlimited Japanese participation in United Nations Security Council-sanctioned collective security actions undertaken by multinational forces seeking to restore international order. Abe also suggested that he would only pursue legislation to enable a partial or limited exercise of Japan’s collective self-defense rights. This is opposed to a reinterpretation that would allow the full embrace of the right to exercise collective self-defense, which could allow Japan to use collective self-defense rationales to justify military interventions such as those that took place in Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Even as he tries to present his reinterpretation plans in a moderate light, there are a few different “veto” points Abe will have to negotiate, however – both political and institutional – before this becomes full government policy.
Politically, Abe is to the right even for this rather right-leaning LDP. There are factions and groups within the LDP, including many in the House of Councillors, that are skeptical of the change, either on procedural and legal grounds (ie can political leaders really just “reinterpret” the constitution without Cabinet Legislative Bureau and/or Supreme Court direction?), or in terms of worries about public opinion and electoral backlash. Many less hawkish LDP members are closer to the Japanese public’s attitude in that they support the expansion of activities that the SDF can undertake, particularly in regards to regional security, but are reluctant for the SDF to be proactively engaged in combat overseas, particularly within another country’s sovereign territory.
This is very similar to attitudes within the New Komeito. In addition to a strong reluctance to see the SDF engage in overseas combat, the added complication with Komeito is that the party has symbolically been opposed to CSD since the party’s inception some 50 years ago. The Komeito’s core political support group, Souka Gakkai, is in particular against the change to this core identity for the party, and the organization has already made an official statement asserting that constitutional revision is required rather than reinterpretation. New Komeito MPs themselves are more pragmatic in the sense that they generally support the US-Japan alliance, and are not necessarily against all of the changes that Abe and the kondankai will propose. But the party really does not want to call whatever these changes will be “collective self-defense,” especially if it means they will run afoul of Souka Gakkai. Abe and his supporters, on the other hand, are highly invested in the historical and strategic symbolism around “collective self-defense,” so a lot of the tension between Abe and the Komeito will be focused as much on the language used in any collective cabinet decision, rather than simply being about what the SDF should be able to do.
Within this political context, two institutional checkpoints are important.
First, Abe is trying to rally Cabinet to sign-off as a whole on a new interpretation. This is harder than it might seem as every member of the cabinet needs to sign-off. Former Komeito leader Ota Akihiro is currently Minister of Transport in the Abe Cabinet. If Ota refuses to put his name to any Cabinet decision and Diet bills, Abe cannot proceed and would be basically forced to expel Ota (this would be similar to what happened between the DPJ and Fukushima Mizuho from the SDP over the Futenma relocation plan). That would obviously have significant implications for the coalition relationship which Abe currently relies upon for a majority in the House of Councillors. While they would be unlikely to oppose Abe directly, senior and influential cabinet ministers such as former LDP leader and Minister of Justice Tanigaki Sadakazu, and Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio, head of the less hawkish Kouchikai (宏池会) faction, are skeptical of Abe’s collective security agenda and may wield some influence inside cabinet.
Also, as much as he might want to, Abe can’t just turf out Komeito in favour of pro-CSD opposition parties with sufficient parliamentary strength to give the LDP a House of Councillors majority, even though this is a mathematical possibility. This is because Komeito essentially gives over their votes to the LDP at election time in Japan’s sometimes very close winner-take-all single member electoral districts, especially in urban areas. This is usually in exchange for the LDP not running LDP members in other seats, thereby allowing the Komeito to increase their seat total over and above what they would otherwise get through proportional representation. This relationship is essential for the maintenance of LDP rule, and LDP elders will be very reluctant to allow Abe to single out other parties in the opposition to replace the Komeito in order to  simply have the words “collective self-defense” emblazoned on the new policy. As it is, with the self-destruction of both Watanabe Yoshimi (Your Party) and Hashimoto Toru (Japan Restoration Party), the LDP now has no long-term prospects for collaboration, and in any respect, neither party can deliver votes in the disciplined and consistent way that the Komeito can. Komeito, itself, of course, will be very reluctant to break up the coalition for the same opportunistic reasons, and Komeito’s leader Yamaguchi Natsuo has already said that he has no intention of doing so. Abe and the LDP, however, would like a collective cabinet decision in the books before the end of the year as the US-Japan Revised Guidelines will be revised again.
Second, even if Abe manages to convince Komeito and Minister of Transport Ota to to sign off on collective self-defense and other proposals put forward by the kondankai, Abe still has to go to through parliament and attempt to make changes to anywhere between 10 and 18 laws, including the SDF Law, the UNPKO Law, the “Areas Around Japan” Law, and the Armed Attack Response Law. The two parties will undoubtedly have to make it through some pretty tough questions from the opposition. The opposition will also likely call in experts beyond those who sat on the Panel, and perhaps even former Cabinet Legislative Bureau officials, to contest the kondankai’s arguments. This might hold the legislative process up, especially if already skeptical public sentiment hardens against the proposed changes (with the electoral consequences that might have down the track). It isn’t impossible that some inside the LDP and Komeito get cold feet at some point, especially if the economy starts to stall, or the TPP or some other policy issue rises to trouble the current administration.
 In terms of the whole process of legislation surrounding the Panel’s recommendations, it could take up to 1 to 2 years more. The 1999 “Areas Around Japan” legislation took about two years to negotiate into legislation after the revised guidelines. Ishiba recently told a Washington audience something very similar could happen in this case. From Abe’s point of view, the longer he leaves things up for debate, though, the more politically tense things will become. This is because any controversy and delay will push the changes closer to elections, potentially leading to added caution within the ruling parties. This year is the sweet spot in the electoral cycle in terms of Abe probably not being penalized too much for unpopular policies. Currently, Abe is still in a politically strong position, and has arguably recovered a bit of lost ground since the Designated Secrets Bill and Yasukuni visit at the end of last year. His popularity does not seem to have been greatly harmed by the consumption tax increase last month, and he may be willing to spend political capital on this issue.
Komeito, on the other hand, wants to delay things as long as possible, as that will enhance its ability to extract concessions and compromises from the Abe government, and, they hope, help them avoid compromising on the more controversial elements related to the exercise of collective self-defense. In 2015, we have unified local elections in the spring, and then the LDP presidential elections later in the year. Then in 2016 we have both Lower and Upper House elections, unless current rumours prove true.
The controversy will be kept under wraps for a while longer yet, however. A meeting between the top executives of both the LDP and Komeito will take place on the 20th to discuss how to proceed on “gray zone” issues, relaxing some restrictions on SDF participation and the use of weapons to protect other countries’ militaries and citizens in UNPKOs and other joint operations, and perhaps legislation allowing the SDF to undertake operations to remove Japanese citizens from dangerous areas, as raised by the kondankai.  Discussions behind the scenes on the most controversial live issue of collective self-defense will also be started. What the Panel has to say about the exercise of collective self-defense, and its relation to the debate over its implementation, will be covered here as it becomes more salient over the next few months. For now, below is a brief discussion of the two broader issues of gray zone contingencies and the use of weapons in non-international conflict situations that the LDP and Komeito have already agreed to prioritize in order to essentially keep the political peace for the time being.
Gray Zone Contingencies 
Up until now the SDF has been highly restricted legally in regards to its ability to apply pressure through the threat of, or the use of weapons, even within Japan’s own territory, unless there is a direct and imminent “armed attack” on Japan underway and there is a government mobilization order (such as Defense Mobilization, Maritime Security Operations, or Public Security Operations Orders). There are no provisions that allow the SDF to immediately react to situations which may sit within the “gray zone” between peace and an “armed attack,” currently defined as an “organised and planned use of force against Japan.” The panel in particular has identified illegal and non-innocent submarine incursions into Japan’s territory, attacks on nuclear power facilities, as well as surreptitious paramilitary or guerrilla “invasion” of the remote islands (ie the Senkakus) for the purposes of exerting control over the islands, as three particular issues of concern. The argument is that such aggressive infringements, which could have implications for the security of Japan in addition to being infringements of domestic law, or could represent preludes to an organised armed attack, could best be handled through SDF deployment, rather than relying on the Japan Coast Guard and police through “law enforcement powers,” as has been the legal requirement up until now.
The political debate over better addressing such gray zone contingencies is generally uncontroversial. It was first mentioned in the 2010 NDPG released by the DPJ government as requiring addressing, and both the LDP and the Komeito appear to support adjustments to legislation.

The use of weapons in situations not considered the use of force

The kondankai identified two general situations, not considered to be the use of force in international law, within which the government has said it will consider relaxing restrictions on the use of weapons.

  1. 駆けつけ警護 (kaketsuke-keigo), removing obstructions to missions, protecting civilians

Currently the SDF is generally only allowed to use weapons in UNPKO missions to protect themselves and foreign civilian and military personnel under their direct supervision. 駆けつけ警護 (kaketsuke-keigo) missions, however, are emergency aid and protection operations that may involve the use of weapons to come to the aid of geographically distant unit under attack or personnel participating in the same UNPKO. Such personnel could include members of foreign militaries, members of NGOs or IOs or other cooperating civilians. The current constitutional interpretation regards such operations to possibly constitute a form of prohibited use of force overseas if the concerned personnel are being held or attacked by a quasi-national or state organization.

The Panel, however, argues that no other nation interprets the “use of weapons” within the context of the international standards set down for UNPKOs (which are generally post-conflict in nature) as being equivalent to the use of force, irrespective of whether the hostile party is a disorganized criminal group, a guerilla force, or a quasi-state organization. Furthermore, the panel argues that as UNPKOs are supposed to be carried out with impartiality, with the consent of the main parties to any conflict, and subsequent to a de facto ceasefire, any legal use of weapons within such missions to protect other civilian and military members of a UNPKO, or civilians in general in a sudden breakdown of peace, should not be considered the constitutionally prohibited “use of force to settle an international dispute.”

Based on similar logic, the panel also suggests that the SDF be allowed to, based on the rules of engagements and standards set down for UNPKOs, remove obstructions to UNPKO missions, and also to allow protection of civilians and the maintenance of security within the context of UNPKOs taking place in fragile states.

In addition to cooperation on gray zone contingencies, the Komeito appears in the last few days to have agreed to allow some relaxation of the use of weapons within UNPKOs might be justified since they believe public opinion is accepting of the use of weapons in such limited cases.

2. Protection and Rescue of Japanese Nationals Abroad

Citing the 2013 Algerian terrorist incident, the kondankai has also suggested the need to allow, within the limits prescribed by international law, for the SDF to come to the rescue and protect Japanese nationals abroad and, if necessary, use weapons to accomplish their missions beyond simple self-preservation. Until this incident the Japanese government had limited ability to dispatch the SDF to allow the protection of Japanese citizens abroad. The kondankai suggests that this is not sufficient and the SDF should be given greater powers. The panel argues that under international law the protection and rescue of nationals abroad is permitted if consent is given by the territorial state, therefore making them “efforts to supplement or substitute security activities of the territorial state.” They also argue that international norms, and previous statements by the Japanese government on these norms, allow the dispatch of military personnel to protect their nationals when another state does not have the will or capacity to protect them against severe attacks on foreign nationals, and could be considered the exercise of self-defense as the responsibility of the state.

The LDP and Komeito coalition will make these issues the top priority for collaboration in the new Diet session in the second half of 2014. It will be subsequent to this, likely in the autumn, that the debate over collective self-defense will heat up between the LDP and Komeito, although deliberations will start in the House of Councillors this month, as is the House of Councillors wont.

Pinning Down the LDP

What does the DPJ, and/or the opposition in general, need to do before the House of Councillors elections in the second half of the year to either have a chance of preventing the LDP gaining a majority in both houses, or, at least make it difficult for the LDP post-election to do as it wishes, potentially to the detriment of the nation?

Abe is off to a good start in terms of managing the narrative about his second stint in the PM’s chair, without having really done all that much, domestically at least. At least for now it appears that he has reversed the recent (or is it?) trend of prime ministers careening downhill in support ratings from day one (with only minor recoveries) in charge, although that may be a function of very low expectations, pessimism, and psycho-political exhaustion on the part of the Japanese citizenry. From the DPJ’s point of view, despite being punished and chastened, it is doing even worse in public opinion polls, which will likely lead to another thrashing in the July House of Councillors elections. The DPJ will have to be rather careful about the particular fights it picks, and arguably will need to cooperate on certain policy and legislative programs to gain any visibility. Being seen to be obstructive while Abe is on the upswing is, after the last two experiences of both obstructionist DPJ and LDP oppositions is going to test the public’s patience. At the very least, from the public’s point of view, the DPJ could assist in implementing policy in opposition, something which it failed to do, for reasons for which it is equally culpable, while in government.

However, the DPJ and others will be very aware that the LDP will try and only deal with the easy and/or the “popular” policy issues, or issues that make it look like it is being constructive (in contrast to the Tanigaki era), while trying to keep internal peace within the party and within the LDP-Komeito coalition until at least after 2013 HoC elections, something that the DPJ failed to do in the lead up to the 2010 HoC elections in terms of its issue selection and party management. The opposition will need to complicate this picture as much as possible, even if to save the country from a potentially rather extreme agenda.

The Abe administration has been evasive on a number of issues. Abe himself has only been prominent in foreign policy and has tightly controlled information and is managing access to  his person so as to avoid as much controversy as possible. So far his cabinet appears to have been reasonably disciplined in terms of (not making) gaffes. While Abe and his conservative proxies have sent out a number of signals regarding the more nationalist aspects of the agenda, Abe and top government officials have been saying very little about what Abe may or may not exactly do in regards to issues like changing the constitution and/or revising the constitutional ban on collective-self defense, and relooking at some of the issues and statement regarding Japan’s wartime behaviour.

The goal for the DPJ in particular will thus be to pin the Abe administration down on a variety of issues and ensure that it actually has to at least make clear statements about what it is going to do post-HoC election in terms of:

1) The TPP.

The administration has indicated that they will put off a decision until after the HoC election. It may be that the LDP is expecting that there will be realization that the TPP is too optimistic and that, after all, some “exceptions” will become allowable. There is a general sense that  2013 will probably be the last year where the different sides attempt to negotiate the most aspirational/ideal form of the TPP. Even alliance managers in DC have noted that it is unlikely the US itself will strike a free trade deal with no exceptions. Japan and the LDP will likely be ready to join if this realization does indeed come about. From the opposition’s point of view, however, letting the LDP have its own way in this regard is far too easy, especially given how much agony the DPJ suffered even just talking about maybe, possibly, joining the talks.* Pro- and anti-TPP forces will attempt to push Abe on this issue closer to the House of Councillors elections, even if just to stir dissent within the LDP itself.

2) House of Representatives Electoral Reform.

Abe made a promise to Noda when Noda called the election late last year that more thorough electoral reform would be considered in the next Diet session. Much like with Noda’s promise to hold an election “soon” around negotiations with the LDP and Komeito on consumption tax, the opposition will need to make this an issue of honesty and probity of the new government. If Abe takes up this promise AFTER the House of Councillors election, and after a majority has been secured in both houses, then it hardly needs to be said that the outcome is going to be very bleak for opposition government for some time in Japan.

3) The Murayama and Kono Statements, and the Yasukuni Shrine visit.

This is a really important issue that the DPJ in particular just cannot let the administration get away from in terms of committing decisively one way or another. Arguably this is not just to complicate things within the LDP itself, and to make the issue difficult for the Abe administration by putting some much needed daylight between the general public and the noisy revisionist base, but should be addressed as an issue of vital national importance. Japan’s competition for various nations’ affections, both in and outside Asia is going remarkably well while China is starting to make people, even former moderates and sympathizers in the region and beyond, more uncomfortable. A replacement in any way of either of the two statements, the Murayama one in particular, will eliminate almost all gains almost instantly. My personal theory is that the current talk about the various statements represents a form of “dog whistle” politics purposefully undertaken while the public is distracted during new years and by talk over “Abenomics” and the economy, that will not end up coming to anything substantial. This, other things being equal, should be mainly because Abe surely (?!) knows how bad such acts would be for Japan’s relationships with the very countries that are critical to its national interests, including his own foreign policy agenda. It may be that, irrespective of how much Abe himself would like to give this group what it wants, he will string the revisionist base a long for the meantime and give them hope – after all, who else but Abe and this particular cabinet would help them realize their dreams of “restoring Japanese pride” or whatever it is that they believe is so vital.  The issue for Abe is that the public will likely give Abe some leeway to address other issues for a period of time, but this will not last. And it would be unforgivable for the opposition to let the issue of absolute commitment (or otherwise) to the two statements slide before the July election, especially if I am wrong in terms of my personal theory. As for making an issue of a potential Abe visit to Yasukuni Jinja after the July election, this may have to depend on future events. It is likely that the direct fallout either way in the current environment domestically will be negligible, unless Abe jeopardizes an improvement in relations with China by visiting the shrine. If relations are still tense, and Chinese boats in and around the Senkakus come August, then the public may be rather unaccommodating in terms of concerning themselves with Chinese criticism on this issue. The implications for foreign policy management will be somewhat more challenging, of course, and may indirectly hurt Abe both at home and abroad, although not as bad as revision of the Murayama and Kono statements would be.

4) Constitutional Change, Security Policy, and Emergency Response.

This is a potentially complicated one for the opposition. There are first of all, actually areas of overlap in terms of what the various political groups would like to see in terms of changes to Japan’s security policy – as the Algerian disaster unfolds with a very likely high number of Japanese fatalities, this may further push the various groups together. This is one area where striking an inherently antagonistic pose to the LDP and Abe’s agenda may backfire, especially if he builds political capital through a successful, even if short-term, economic recovery and/or the implementation of a coherent (even if mistaken) economic plan and growth strategy. In order to moderate perhaps some of the more unwise elements of the agenda, the opposition may have to commit to working with the government in a proactive way and attempt to build a consensus around security policy and a timetable for constitutional revision, by embracing a process that appeals to the public in terms of it being sufficiently deliberative and not rushed, and moderate (AKA legitimate, cf. “constitutional reinterpretation”). It may be wise for the DPJ to get out ahead of the LDP and the public, which has, and may even more so, become more hawkish (but not necessarily “militaristic”) in 2013 regarding regional security. This is of course notwithstanding an unlikely turnaround in the Chinese approach to East Asia in general, and the policy of challenging Japan’s effective control over the Senkaku Islands in particular. I suspect here the key is to restrain, not to obstruct. While the Diet already has its own process for looking at the constitution and revision, it appears that it is treading water. Perhaps the DPJ should take the initiative prior to the election but with sufficient time for the LDP to commit or reject, and propose a multi-partisan commission of some sort that will also solicit the views of the public and other stakeholders. The Komeito (who really actually doesn’t want the LDP to do too well in July, but can’t really say so out loud) may be sufficiently concerned with its LDP coalition partner and could be open to backing such a proposal. If Ishihara can be sidelined even further in favour of Hashimoto et al, then the JRP may also be amenable to such a proposal as it would likely give them more visibility and not let the LDP have its way in terms of making the running around security issues within that proportion of the public interested in a stronger security policy.

One of the advantages of Noda’s “early” call for the election is that 7 months is sufficient time to allow the public to get to know the Abe administration, 2.0. If the public is still not one hundred percent sure of what Abe might do on some very important and consequential issues come July, they may be very reluctant to turn over both the House of Representatives and the House of Councillors to the administration for potentially up to three years without a clear policy program. It is only fair to the public for the opposition to at some point start asking the right questions and to be relentless in doing so, but by also being constructive at the same time.

* One remembers that when Maehara Seiji, early on in the TPP talks during the DPJ era, came out and suggested that ultimately if the TPP was going to work against Japan’s national interests that Japan could, and should, withdraw from negotiations. Maehara was of course, 100 percent correct, even if saying so was very unwise. And indeed it was unwise – the DPJ and Maehara was assailed for being “naive” and “inappropriate” and all other manner of things. Perhaps fairly so. Nevertheless, fast forward two to three years and a top level LDP official said pretty much the same thing – to thunderous silence and a deafening lack of concern within the media.

Perspective on Japan from a Japanese Expert on the US

After an enforced holiday up in the Far North of New Zealand – a wonderful part of the world as I now know – and in the process of catching up on various events I want to point towards the second truly useful and insightful contribution (first being Professor Curtis’) from Shelia Smith’s overall excellent “Is Japan in Decline?”  series of articles at the CFR, this time from Toshihiro Nakayama. Again, in addition to reading the whole thing, two particular paragraphs are worthy of emphasis from this honest, and refreshingly neither reflexively defensive nor absurdly critical evaluation of what is happening in Japan at the moment in terms of the political discourse.

After describing the general sense of malaise in Japan of arguably the last twenty years (or if you like, the last 6 years and, frankly, the last 6 weeks respectively), Nakayama straightforwardly notes:

So, this is where we are in Japan at the moment. But is this sort of confusion a bad thing? Of course it is, if it continues forever. But democracy is also a system of managed confusion. We at least know we are confused. We may not have—or find—a single tidy answer, but if we can boil it down to several potential answers to the question of Japan’s identity as a nation, we may actually have a substantial debate. People are talking. The Twitterverse is filled with tweets on the issue. I believe that the implicit ban on nationalist discourse has disappeared, and that this is healthy. We are now free to choose who we as a nation want to be.

And then puts in straightforward terms what perhaps should already be obvious, but seldom is in the policy and academic echo chamber:

So my reply to my friends in America is, get used to our debate over who we are, and don’t overreact to it. Don’t pick up only one part of the noise in our debates and amplify it. This conversation will continue for some time. We know we don’t have much time to make our choices. We can come out strong from this state of confusion with a sense of purpose or not, but the choice is ours to make.

 

 

Japanese Elections: “Least-hated” rather than Popularity Contests

A lot of Japanese opinion polls tend to be of limited analytical value – either the questions are too general, too focused on “political” rather than policy issues, or are simply obscure and give no indication about priorities. However, the Asahi Shimbun has released (日) a poll a few days after the election that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Sunday’s election and what the public was thinking.

It is certain that LDP President Abe Shinzo will become the prime minister. Do you have expectations of Abe?

    Have 51%

 Don’t have 42%

This is actually quite low. It probably relates to Abe having already been PM. It is probably going to get lower if he appoints former PM Aso to the foreign minister position as is being rumoured- Aso’s perceived incompetence is one that only rivals Hatoyama, and in any respect such an appointment will raise the spectre of “Tomodachi Naikaku 2.0″ as Aso served as Abe’s FM first time around.

Together the LDP and Komeito have a super-majority of 325. Is this a good thing?

 Good thing 35%

 Not good 43%

Well…that is unfortunate isn’t it people…

In the last election we have returned to an LDP-centred government. Is this a good thing?

    Good 57%

 Not good 16%

So people wanted to get rid of the DPJ, but only vaguely wanted the LDP in, and certainly didn’t want them to have too much power…

Do you think the reason that the LDP was able to do so well was because the public supported its policies or because of disappointment realting to DPJ’s time in government?

 LDP policies 7%

 DPJ disappointment 81%

Wow. We already knew this, but this is about as decisive a result as you will see from the Japanese electorate on any issue. So very, very damning for both the LDP and the DPJ.

In the election the DPJ lost many seats and fell back into opposition. Do you want the DPJ to rejuvenate as a rival party to the LDP?

 Yes 53%

 No 38%

This is more than I would have expected. Maybe the two party system shouldn’t be written off just yet?

The JRP increased its parliamentary presence from 11 seats to 54 seats. Do you think this was a good outcome?

Good 56%

Not good 22%

This really suggests that the JRP is leaving a lot of “points on the field” so to speak. Consistently about half of the public before the election wanted to see the JRP have more influence. But relatively few could bring themselves to vote for them. Clearly Ishihara is part of that, but Hashimoto himself really needs to focus on the key issues that make him fleetingly popular.

The election resulted in the lowest postwar voting turnout. Why do you think this is so?

 No issues of interest to me 6%

 No party or candidates I wanted to vote for 29%

 Even if I vote nothing is going to change 51%

    The timing was inconvenient 8%

My interpretation: 80% alienation, and only 14% laziness.

What policy issues were of the most concern to you in the election?

 Economy and employment 35%

 Consumption tax and social security 30%

 Constitutional revision, diplomacy and security 12%

 Nuclear and energy issues 17%

S0 82% concerned with domestic issues – only 12% at most were interested in the “rightward” agenda of the LDP and JRP. No wonder the public was disappointed. We got a bit of talk on the economy, but most of the debate was taken up by foreign policy issues [not an issue for me personally of course] and pointless bickering regarding whose uninspiring energy/nuclear plan was more or less realistic.

In recent elections there has been a trend of parties gaining and losing significant amounts of seats. Do you think such large reversals are a good thing?

 Yes 27%

 No 57%

Interestingly, LDP SecGen Ishiba Shigeru has come out and suggested that the government look at this very issue in the context of electoral reform. But then again, Ishiba is known to speak sense from time to time.

Pendulum Districts 2012

From Asahi Shimbun

From Asahi Shimbun

According to the Asahi Shimbun (日), 145 SMDs went for the LDP/Komeito in 2005, DPJ in 2009, and then again for the LDP/Komeito in 2012 (what the Asahi terms the “pendulum phenomenon”). 71 one of them were in the urban metropolis of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama area. This is a very interesting bit of information that could prove useful for the next lower house general election if it is held under a similar system to the current one. If the LDP-Komeito relationship survives the Abe tenure, however long that may be, then in the next election there will be significant incentives for the JRP, a new centrist DPJ, and perhaps the YP to form alliances in these districts, particularly if the LDP disappoints in some way.