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.

 

 

Japan’s Regional Security Environment and Possibilities for Conflict

The next 5 months could be one of high drama and tension in East Asia geopolitics due to various leadership transitions and elections. In South Korea we have already seen election year sensitivities coming to have real life policy consequences with the last-minute cancellation of the ACSA/GSOMIA military accords between Japan and the ROK. With the presidential election due to be held in December 2012 this might just be the first in a series of tensions between Japan and South Korea, or even between the ROK and the US. North Korean leaders are also the masters of milking the US presidential season for concessions by simultaneously escalating tensions and negotiating for their deescalation.

The US presidential and congressional elections take place in November this year, which will constrain President Barack Obama on issues such as North Korea, Iran, and the TPP, and will likely push him to take tougher positions on China-related issues such as human rights, currency manipulation and adherence to WTO rules. China will also undergo a leadership change around November this year, and although the top two positions of CCP General Secretary (and eventually PRC president) and Party Secretary (and eventually Premier) of the State Council appear to be relatively safe for Xi Jinping and Le Keqiang, the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee could well change depending on internal CCP politics around internal and external events. It is important to bear in mind that the slowdown in the Chinese economy that is currently taking place could make this a more sensitive time than normal for the PRC. This sensitivity could be exacerbated by Sino-American relations. Every president since Nixon has essentially found it useful to take a tougher line on China in their first term. Some have speculated this is because of the lack of a working relationship and distrust between Chinese leaders and a new US administration, and the general demands of reelection politics. Human rights, trade, and Taiwan/North Korea issues generally tend to pop up as critical issues around US election time and the administration in power cannot be seen to be taking a soft line towards China. Of course this is simply not just about the US. When the PRC undergoes its sensitive 10-yearly leadership transition analysts have pointed out that actors other than the core CCP leadership tend to have their influence augmented and reflected more in PRC foreign policy and diplomacy. The PLA and the SOE sector of the economy for example tend to have greater influence during this period. With these two pivotal events for Sino-American relations taking place in exactly the same month tensions are sure to rise, and the possibility for diplomatic conflict or worse cannot be ruled out. Recent tensions over the South China Sea may well have set the tone for the next 5 months or more.

Then there is Japan. While Japan’s House of Representatives election does not have to be held until the middle of next year there has been some talk about a November date, after the ruling DPJ and the opposition LDP’s internal party elections. Given the various inter- and intra-party interests this seems quite plausible, although far from determined. From the foreign policy view this could add to diplomatic tensions in East Asia. For Noda Yoshihiko the main goal before then will be for him to suck as much oxygen out of his opponents’ likely election platforms by either appealing to his opponents to work together on these platforms in the interim, or taking them on as his own.

Indeed there are signs of such a strategy being implemented. Noda is continuing to support the Osaka-mayor backed development of legislation to turn the Osaka region into a Metropolitan administrative district similar to Tokyo. While Noda is unlikely to decisively agree to Japan’s joining TPP negotiations, he will continue to fly the TPP flag – another policy interest of Mayor Hashimoto Toru and his reformist One Osaka (Ishin no Kai) party. Both the One Osaka party and the LDP have identified in their policy statements a desire to change Japan’s disposition towards defense and collective self-defense in particular – the LDP through the dubious mechanism of “constitutional reinterpretation” and Hashimoto through a constitutional amendment to Article 9. Noda has in the last week identified discussion on the interpretation of collective self-defense as something he wants to push forward in the current parliamentary session, particularly as it pertains to defense of US ships on the high seas and Japan’s use of its BMD system to  defend the US from ballistic missile attack. Finally, Noda has also pushed forward on the previously identified proposal of ‘nationalizing’ the Senkaku Islands, where the government takes over ownership from the current private owner. This is clearly focused on taking a little wind out of Tokyo Governor Ishihara Shintaro’s sails – something that Ishihara furiously alluded to in public. It is also a reasonably popular policy which will do no harm to Noda assuming he acts in a more decisive way than Kan Naoto’s administration did when faced with Chinese pressure over the islands.

The Noda administration’s other objective will be to relieve itself of as much pressure as possible from external sources as well. US-Japan relations could become a source of tension due to a number of issues. First there is the ongoing issue over the Futenma Replacement Facility. Second there is the continuing controversy and diplomatic friction over the deployment of the unpopular Ospreys to both Okinawa and Japan’s mainland. Third, there is the TPP, where arguments for Japan to enter negotiations have become weaker giving recent US demands. Noda is in an impossible situation in regards to all of these issues, given how politically vulnerable he now is in terms of both the upper and lower house numbers (as any subsequent prime minister will be without a solid majority in the Diet). In the short-term the best that Noda can do is state that he is committed to pushing forward with the policies, and hope that US election politics mercifully distracts Washington DC.

Noda’s plan to discuss collective self-defense may also have an external facing dimension. Given Noda’s political acumen, it would not be a surprise to find out that he is using such discussions as a hedge against Chinese escalation of the Senkaku Islands dispute that is likely to come about should Noda’s “nationalization” plan come to fruition in the next few months. While the CCP can be unpredictable in terms of how they react to certain sensitive diplomatic issues, the party leadership, and likely the PLA, will be united in not wanting to see Japan take on a more proactive military stance. The CCP at least still takes a realist approach to its foreign policy thinking, and the one thing they will not want to see, now that the strategic “distraction” of Taiwan has been somewhat dampened in the interim, is Japan rising to become a full strategic competitor in the East Asia region. A change in Japan’s collective self-defense doctrine would portend such a development for the Chinese leadership. The Chinese will be all the more wary given Japan’s recent activities in strengthening relations with its ASEAN partners. Not wanting to give the Japanese government a good excuse to go forward with changes in Japan’s security doctrine, the CCP may well tone down its ‘outrage’ over the nationalization of the Senkakus, assuming that the more hardline policies such as the stationing of the SDF of the islands, as proposed by Ishihara Shintaro, are not entertained. If more hard-line ‘nationalist’ elements in the CCP, or in the PLA in particular, take advantage of the more permissive pre-leadership transition political environment and move to escalate the issue then Noda possibly figures that he can make some political capital out of that as well, depending on the nature of the escalation.

The above is perhaps a somewhat cynical reading of the current geopolitical environment and internal politics of various regional actors. There are promising developments such as the potential (日) restarting of trade talks between Japan and the ROK, and Japan’s likely participation in three-way talks on a NE Asia trade bloc with China and the ROK. There may even be some coming together over North Korea and a restart of the six-party talks given China’s increasing displeasure with the DPRK. These will all have great long-term significance if they come to fruition. However in the short-term one should expect tension to be the norm rather than the exception. This coming together of domestic politics and external developments in putting pressure on various governments, which will need to be mediated through sensitive East Asian publics, means that avoidance of such tensions will likely require skillful behind-the-scenes diplomacy until at least early 2013.

D-Day for the Consumption Tax?

Having hammered out a tentative deal with the Komeito and the LDP in regards to the rise in the consumption tax, and an overarching framework for the reform of social security spending, Party Secretary-General and the DPJ’s policy chief Seiji Maehara today go into today’s crucial session (日) of the DPJ’s Party Research Council to ask for agreement on the 3-party deal.

Noda is currently on his way to the G-20, but despite having managed to acquire Komeito and LDP agreement on tax reform, he will not be resting easy. Noda has been working on the assumption that if need be he could go ahead with the deal and submit it to the Diet in the current parliamentary session even if the Ozawa group opposed. As long as he made appropriate looking overtures, he could handle Ozawa group opposition as long as he had LDP and Komeito support. Indeed success in passing it under such adverse circumstances would demonstrate Noda’s “political leadership” and with Ozawa’s star even further on the wane than usual due to some (as yet unverified – Shukan Bunshun after all) accusations (E) about what he was doing around the time of the Fukushima incident’s escalation, then he probably figured that he may be able to live – and may even benefit- from an Ozawa internal party insurrection in this context. This is of course as long as any disciplinary measures (such as expulsion) did not reduce the party’s lower house numbers below the magic 240 mark.

However in negotiating with the LDP and Komeito, Noda has had to make a number of concessions that seem to eliminate for once and for all the DPJ’s original 2009 election manifesto as a salient policy document guiding the DPJ. Up until now the DPJ has time after time had to make concessions on the big policy promises it made in its manifesto, but some of these were seen to be excessive promises in the first place. Some, such as the guaranteed minimum pension policy, however, were seen as one of the few remaining policies they DPJ could point to in terms of responsible election promises.  However the Komeito and the LDP have used their leverage in current negotiations to expunge from the legislative record any hint that the DPJ is a principled party, with an eye to any upcoming election.

Again, if this was to anger only Ozawa and co. then Noda probably calculated that he could get away with it. However, the “middle-roaders” in the DPJ are starting to express misgivings about what this means for the viability of the DPJ as a party. It may in the short to medium term give a boost to Noda’s individual fortunes, but it will probably put the final nail in the coffin for the DPJ’s attempt to portray itself as a party of reform. The opinion of the “middle-roaders” will become the focus of today’s negotiations and debate within the DPJ and it is by no means a forgone conclusion that they will agree to the negotiated deal.

Depending on the outcome of today’s joint session, which is predicted to go into the evening, a number of things will be of interest.

In the best case scenario for Noda, if he is able to get all but the Ozawa’s group sign-off, he may then be able to submit the legislation to parliament on June 21st as promised (or thereabouts now that the session will definitely be extended (日)) . This would be seen as a big victory for Noda – something the LDP and Komeito may ‘perversely’ be quietly hoping against.  Attention will then turn to the electoral reform bill, with the latest incarnation (if you care about the details ask me in the comments) having very mild Komeito support. The LDP has said it will not support this bill but it seems that the DPJ might go ahead and put it to a straight up and down vote anyway. The Komeito and ultimately the LDP may come around and vote for this as, ultimately, their ostensible motivation for negotiating with Noda on the social security and tax bills is to extract an early election from Noda, technically constitutionally problematic as of this moment. Without this legislation Noda can put off an election indefinitely.

However Noda may try and ride out calls for an election as long as possible. Passage of the tax bill will strengthen Noda in the near term, and this is even without having to promise an election which at one point looked like an absolutely essential compromise for the DPJ to make in order to gain LDP/Komeito support. The reason for this is of course the Hashimoto dynamic, and fear of what the Ishin no kai might do to the LDP’s support base in an election, pushed the LDP/Komeito towards engaging with Noda and the DPJ mainstream. As long as Noda can minimize the impact of an internal revolt, and survive the September DPJ presidential election, he may even be able to last until 2013 and the “double election.” While he will not be able to appeal to the ‘reformist’ narrative, if he can keep cabinet misdeeds and scandals to a minimum he may be able to appeal to the Japanese public as an example of gritty “leadership” and “responsibility.” The focus thus will be on whether the LDP or Komeito can maneuver Noda into calling an election before the end of 2013, and before he builds too much of a “success” portfolio in the interim.

If Hashimoto et al can be placated with the legislation he wants for the “Osaka-to” concept, and thus refrains from making an entrance into the national political scene, as he has suggested he may, then the LDP and Komeito may become much bolder in pushing the DPJ towards an election. Thus expect the LDP and Komeito to focus on this particular piece of legislation if Noda is able to get his way with the consumption tax rise. In this scenario, the DPJ party leadership, made up of the “mainstream” faction (Noda, Okada, Maehara, Sengoku etc), and the LDP/Komeito combination may well be in a post-election situation of (having to) forming a grand coalition. Or so the LDP in particular seems to hope (日). For the LDP and Komeito, they will likely be strengthened in any election that does not feature Hashimoto or other reformist elements, although it is unlikely that they will acquire a majority. However the LDP from their point of view may likely get hold of the PM position in any grand coalition and other cabinet goodies that they are currently denied. This will be, in my calculations, despite Noda and the DPJ faring better in any election from having his “leadership” credentials burnished, even if the policy and ideological content of the DPJ vanishes.

My bet is on Noda putting off an election for a period of time. We also need to factor in the LDP’s own internal party unity that may become an issue if the consumption tax bill is passed, which may limit their own influence and capacity to call for an election. There is also the fact that many in the LDP would likely want to wait until after the LDP’s own September election to push for a general election, as that might, in their calculation, give whoever is victorious a shot at the party leadership (Tanigaki will have to step down if he is unable to secure a DPJ promise for an early general election by September), and as identified above, and also put them in pole position to attain the prime ministership.

However if the “middle-roaders” reject the current negotiated deal today and are unable to be brought around by June 21 when Noda gets back, or at the very least this Diet session, then things will remain murky.

What we do know is that this will require Noda putting off a vote on the tax bill and going back to negotiations with both the LDP/Komeito and DPJ recalcitrants.

Noda will then likely also have to face a no-confidence vote as the LDP and Komeito have promised to submit one if Noda is unable to bring his party into line and deliver the votes for the passing of the tax and related legislation on 21 June or thereabouts. The LDP/Komeito will likely not tolerate internal bickering in the DPJ for very long. Then the focus will be on whether the DPJ still pushes forward on the electoral reform bill that is required before any constitutionally valid lower house election can be held. In their heart of hearts the LDP and Komeito will be hoping that Noda fails with the DPJ intra-party negotiations and has to either call an election in response to a no-confidence motion passing, or quit the party leadership due to his failure to honor his pledge to raise the consumption tax in the current parliamentary session, or both. In this scenario the DPJ will be dead in the water as a vehicle for electoral success. The DPJ mainstream will be discredited as both a ‘pragmatic’ leadership as well as a policy reform voice in Japanese politics, while Ozawa and anyone associated with an Ozawa breakaway group will also have a hard time making a case for election.

However the LDP with the support of Komeito in single member districts may even be able to acquire something close to a lower house majority as any legislation passed to reform the system will likely reduce the number of proportional representation seats, which will undermine the influence of the minor parties.

The wild cards are still Hashimoto and the Ishin no kai, and in particular what the middle roaders in the DPJ will do in reaction to whatever outcome arises from today’s joint session. The Ozawa and middle wings of the Ozawa will be cognizant of the LDP/Komeito’s strategy around these negotiations. The middle-roaders may end up going along with the tax rise as the lesser of two evils in terms of their likely electoral fate, although it may well be bad either which way. They may perceive that they have a fighting chance with Noda if they think he can last until 2013.

Or  they may take a risk, in which case it will come down to whether they will breakaway but also distance themselves from Ozawa, and possibly hook up with other reformist political actors in the system, including the likes of Hashimoto and the Ishin no kai. Ozawa has recently come out and suggested that, much like Tanaka Kakuei did when he was going down in the 1970s, his people could use him as a punching bag for electoral gain, although one wonders whether Ozawa would be so generous as to both fund such a group and at the same time shelve his pride.

My own prediction is that the middle-roaders and even some in the Ozawa group will go along (or possibly abstain) with the Noda bill simply because it allows them to live to see another day, assuming Noda is not pushed into declaring an election any time soon. If they calculate that Noda can put back an election they may then start to think about how to cultivate an alternative vision for the DPJ or any spin-off party that could help them fight against an effective grand coalition ‘bogeyman’ in 2013 of the LDP, Komeito, and the ‘DPJ mainstream.’

What will be of interest is which policy issue will the Noda cabinet pursue next? The tax rise will be a temporary victory only – Noda surely understands that he will need more achievements before facing the electorate later this year or in 2013. The TPP 6 months ago would have been odds-on, but now seems an outside bet as it appears that it the TPP is being hamstrung both by opponents at home as well as by US commercial interests who as time goes on are making joining the TPP even more unappealing for Japan . Perhaps a new energy strategy or energy sector reform based on reduced but not eliminated nuclear reliance?

Is Hashimoto Toru a ‘nationalist’?

The short answer to this is: probably.

Of course, in modern parlance the world ‘nationalist’ tends to mean nothing more than a person who talks about the nation/national interest, and things you don’t ideologically like very much, at the same time. Which is a shame really, because for those like myself who were brought up intellectually on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities then this is rather a depressing view.1

And when it is Japan that is the focus of journalism, all bets are off – hell, you can even be a Japanese “nationalist” if you care about the recovery of your nation after a once in the lifetime catastrophic event.2

However, now that talk about Hashimoto is making its way into the English media, there will inevitably be people wondering what kind of foreign policy a Hashimoto-backed party might pursue.

There are two problems with this speculation so far.

First of all documentation on Hashimoto’s thoughts on foreign policy is woefully inadequate.  Some have pointed to previous statements on the acquisition of nuclear weapons and conscription as pointing to a conservative agenda lurking below the pleasant schoolboy exterior. His battles with Osaka school teachers over standing in observance of kimi ga yo when he came to power as governor also seemed to confirm this point of view. There have also been statements about immigrants, the emperor system and the North Korean kidnappings that have rubbed people up the wrong way.

However it is very doubtful that Hashimoto has anything resembling a structured world view about foreign policy, which is why we ultimately should care about “nationalism,” in any of political figure. He has backed away from his statements on conscription and nuclear weapons claiming that they were due to the pressure applied to him to “say something interesting on television” – knowing what we know about TV in the modern world this is something that is very likely. Hashimoto has since shied away from saying too much on foreign policy other than on the kidnapping issue (jp), and that Japan should pursue a stronger and more specific conception of its own national interest. Those accusing him of conservative nationalism and revisionism also need to explain why Hashimoto is also committed to a lot of causes, both inside Osaka and on the national level, which any liberal internationalist would fully endorse (jp).3

In terms of the second problem, even if we take at face value that Hashimoto is this thing called a “nationalist,” how important is this to him compared to his domestic policy goals? Will the latent nationalist anger take over when he approaches the seat of power, or will he keep his head down and bite his tongue to ensure his main domestic goals are implemented without rocking the boat? Perhaps he just needs a frank discussion with a modern version of Katsu Kaishu when making an entrance into national politics to calm him down.

That said stopping there would be a cop-out.

Clearly Hashimoto is not a dove, and as “The Point” argues here, he is a very different “nationalist” from Ishihara Shintaro – ie he is more populist. True. But despite his theatrical use of the word “fascism” when talking about war against entrenched political interests, he is not exactly a paid-up member of the Kodoha.

By his own account, Hashimoto’s own “model” for a politician is actually Koizumi Junichiro. He possibly has sprinklings of Nakasone Yasuhiro, and, as trite as it will sound, some Sakamoto Ryoma in him as well. All three were nationalists, although they varied in terms of where they sat on the appropriate mix of internationalism and national interest in foreign policy. And they also varied in terms of whether the domestic relations of power of the day were appropriate or not for the type of society that they envisioned was needed to deal with a changing international order. Like MTC my sense is that Hashimoto is more revolutionary – and much more so than Koizumi.4 But I also suspect he harbors some of the self-confidence that Japan can and should be an international power, and should be an active participate in the international  order, much like Nakasone expressed before his plans were undermined by the more conservative, and then much more powerful, bureaucrats in the 1980s.  As it is, Japan’s foreign policy seems to already be evolving that way over time anyhow.  Much like for the pre-Meiji shogunate, the question perhaps now is whether the slow plodding moves by the entrenched domestic political order to renew foreign policy and reform domestic political relations will be in time to head off more revolutionary and dramatic change.

So essentially I have spent a lot of time arguing that Hashimoto is probably, after all that, a nationalist of some kind, but we need to be careful. And if it was not for the following claim on a well read DC website I would probably not have bothered trying to describe the above nuances.

At The Point, which to be sure has many good and informative pieces, this was written in a recent post:

“Much of Hashimoto’s celebrity results from his revisionist historical views and social conservatism.”

Which was then followed up by a statement which seems to link Hashimoto with General Tamogami.

The first statement is, frankly, simply wrong. Hashimoto’s initial celebrity among everyday Japanese derives very clearly from his appearances on a famous Japanese television program where he discussed the application of law to everyday situations (行列のできる法律相談所). Aside from the celebrity that comes along with being simply on TV, many people enjoyed him for his straightforward, comical, and sometimes combative view on such situations. In fact I would go so far as to say that among the average Japanese citizen his celebrity in no way results from any knowledge about his views on history and conservative social mores, to the degree that they exist in the first place. Hashimoto’s transition from television to politics was not motivated by a conviction about the need for an explicitly conservative voice in Japan, and much more about domestic relations of power and the need to reform them. As a lawyer, that is ultimately what he understood best. In terms of his politics, the by far more overriding image in the Japanese media of Hashimoto is very simply what he is doing now – pursuing local autonomy for Japan’s regions and reform to governance and administration.

And this is where the almost seamless linking with General Tamogami agenda is quite problematic. The implication here is that if Hashimoto is thrust into any role of national importance then it will be due to populist “rightist” anger, in which case we should expect to see radical changes in Japan’s foreign policy.  The fact that Hashimoto has a very young support base only conveniently feeds into this narrative, because after all, we all know that younger Japanese are savagely militant nationalists (who just happen to not volunteer for the armed forces in any significant numbers). 5

Whatever the appropriate description of Hashimoto’s ideological beliefs on foreign policy, he won’t have electoral success because of them. He will surely get some votes from the “populist right” in Japan but he will get many many more votes from people who know him almost exclusively as “that young guy who talks out of place but takes it to the establishment.” Hashimoto may yet due to overeagerness crash and burn, so this may all be a moot point. But if he does go on to have success then a proper and calm understanding of what makes the man tick, and the reasons for why he is popular, is only going to be a positive.

1 Don’t get me started on the idea that “Patriotism” is “Nationalism’s” more gentle younger brother.

2 Not that everyone (including Dr Hornung) who uses the word nationalist necessarily means it in the old WWII sense. However in the case of Japan the narrative is so strong and reflexive, perhaps due to this history, that people seem to append it anything slightly ‘focused’-looking in Japan, which they would not do in other cases. China is also starting to become a victim of this in Western commentary. The problem with this is that we reserve the term nationalists for nasty people, like the BNP in the UK, Le Pen etc, but talk of those ‘nationalists’ we are familiar with as ‘patriots’.

The best academic version of this is Brian McVeigh’s book on Japanese nationalism. Actually there are parts of the book which I thoroughly agreed with, but the categorization of every aspect of Japanese life into an aspect of “nationalism” ultimately undermined its ability to explain anything. http://books.google.co.nz/books/about/Nationalisms_of_Japan.html?id=2vS3zjt6yTQC&redir_esc=y

3Also see support for TPP as only but one example. Regionally, Hashimoto has been behind some more innovative projects in the education sector based on his experiences overseas where he was very eager to learn from Korea and China in particular. As the link describes above, Hashimoto has very explicitly tried to encourage “friendly” relationships (友好関係) with China as Osaka governor/mayor. The irony is that a lot of Hashimoto’s policy program would probably ultimately undermine the power of the state, which is not something most nationalists promote.

4 MTC calls me out on describing Hashimoto as a pragmatist, claiming he is instead a revolutionary. I agree. I don’t necessarily think the two in opposition, but having a second bite at the cherry I think perhaps “Machiavellian” is a more appropriate description than pragmatist, if ones’ image of a pragmatist is reserved for calm, perhaps value-less operators.

5 Full disclosure – I had the pleasure of meeting with some of Hashimoto’s youth support group while I was there around election time. Very pleasant, thoughtful, and educated, and perhaps most importantly of all, energetic. Everything Japanese youth are not supposed to be.

A little bit of this, a little of that

The opposition LDP’s dream of a March election is starting to look all the more unlikely, however there have been some worthwhile movements/developments in the Japanese political world worthy of commentary.

The first is the ongoing saga of the new Defense Minister, Tanaka Naoki, who seems to be doing his best to bring about an early election through even more bizarre behaviour than his predecessor. I wrote a post over at Japan Security Watch titled “Meet the new Japanese defense minister, probably worse than the old one.” It now seems that such a title was far too generous and it should have read: “definitely worse than the old one.” Consult Michael Cucek’s recent post for why the latter would have indeed been more apt.

Second, while many expected it to happen at some point, Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru and co. have brought local politics on to the national stage in a big way, assisted of course, by a media that has nothing better to do now that Ozawa is in limbo. This has lead to a lot of manoeuvring, some of it very craven.

The best place to start is with Ozawa. But since opportunism and Ozawa are synonymous, it is probably not worthwhile discussing Ozawa’s overtures towards Hashimoto. So, the second best place to start is with the ever-present and increasingly desperate Kamei Shizuka. The postal “reform of the reform” bill has been looking incredibly unlikely ever since the 2010 Upper House elections but Kamei has been alternating between hopelessly trying to convince his coalition partners in the government to pass the bill and hunting around for a new political Raison d’être ahead of the next election. At first he moved on from postal reform to the increasingly popular local political autonomy cause, but no one took him seriously – mainly because everything Kamei has stood up for up until now goes against the causes championed by Hashimoto, Osaka governor Matsui, Aichi governor Omura, and Nagoya mayor Kawamura. Kamei decided instead that there was a sudden desperate need for “conservative” third pole in Japanese politics and decided to enrol the help of tachiagare nippon leader Hiranuma Takeo and Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro. And so “jii-santou was born.”1 The plan here it would seem is that in order to capitalize on Hashimoto’s current popularity, the combination of old school conservatives with one credible local autonomy champion (Ishihara) would lead to this new party being seen by Hashimoto et al as the natural vehicle for their entrance on to the national political stage.

They underestimate Hashimoto’s political instincts. While a reform fundamentalist Hashimoto is ultimately a political pragmatist. In terms of “conservative” credentials, while he has supported the punishment of teachers who do not stand up for the national anthem, and makes occasional but inconsistent hawkish comments on national security, Hashimoto is unlikely to support a retro-conservative policy platform if it would undermine his overriding reform goals. As such Hashimoto and Osaka Governor Matsui have been more open to Watanabe Yoshimi’s Your Party’s similar attempt to capitalize on Hashimoto’s energy. They have been much more reluctant to extend the same warmth to Ishihara’s new party.2 Matsui has gone on record as saying that such discussions have not been held between the two groups, and Hashimoto himself has said that much will depend on Ishihara getting his own thoughts in order.

Your Party has also put out the welcome mat for Hashimoto, and has forcefully suggested that unlike with Ishihara’s party, there would be no policy discord between a Hashimoto focused party and Your Party. Together, so the hope goes, they could field enough candidates to perhaps even gain a majority in the next general election. While Your Party has made interesting progress in the Kanto region, both locally and nationally, the Ishin no Kai would be the natural extension southward of Your Party’s agenda; although the Ishin no Kai is probably more of a threat to Your Party’s goal to becoming a true national party.

Although Hashimoto has yet to put out a comprehensive platform for a new local autonomy party, (expected mid-February), there may be truth to Watanabe’s argument. However there are reasons for Hashimoto et al being somewhat cautious towards Your Party. First of all, in order to push through his intended reforms in Osaka, Hashimoto’s Ishin no Kai has formed an alliance with the local Komeito group in order to achieve what is his primary goal. It would be unusual, although not impossible, for him to work with YP on the national level, and Komeito on the local level. Secondly, Your Party has obviously gained itself a bit of reputation for being a do-nothing party that while not responsible for the “problem” of dysfunctional national politics, has certainly been involved in the maintenance of such dysfunction. Your Party’s popularity has only decreased since its good showing in last year’s Upper House election. Hashimoto et al might see at some point later on down the track allying with Your Party as a drag on his popularity rather than useful support. Hashimoto in particular  certainly has the opposite reputation and locally a lot of people supportive of his reforms in Kansai think he might have the tendency to get too carried away with his plans. Hashimoto’s positive response to PM Noda’s warning to Hashimoto to be careful of the “termites” in Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki is highly suggestive that Hashimoto is taking the cautious route for now.

The “termites” comment also brought out into the open what everyone always suspected Your Party was all about – they can dish it out, but they can’t take it in response. Noda has actually used the term before in reference to the recipients of bureaucratic amakudari, but in this context it was probably also directed towards the political manoeuvrings of Ishihara, Ozawa, and Watanabe. Noda hedged his bets in terms of exactly who he was directing the criticism towards, but Watanabe has since came out and said that if the comment was directed at him it would justify an upper house censure motion. Pathetic, considering everything that Watanabe has directed towards his opponents over the last few years. Part of the problem, indeed.

Interestingly the mainstream party most concerned with Hashimoto’s rising prominence and possible participation in the next election is not the governing DPJ, but the LDP. Once you get out of the muck of the DPJ senior leadership, who like all other political operators would like to capitalize on Hashimoto’s popularity, there are actually a number in the DPJ who are quite supportive of his overall policy platform, assuming it stays focused specifically on local autonomy and administrative reform. On the other hand, the LDP, who have come out recently and told everyone what everyone already knew – that their single-minded goal for this year would be to “recover the ruling mantle,” are particularly concerned about the implications of an alliance between Hashimoto’s Ishin no Kai and pretty much anyone else.3 It is not implausible that in an election featuring Hashimoto or agents of Hashimoto, the LDP might lose even more seats than they currently now have. Certainly the fantasy that they now labour under – of coming back into power in the same decisive way that they lost it in 2009 – would have zero chance of coming to fruition. The DPJ seems to have already accepted its fate, but the LDP still has not come to grips with its status as a party that is expendable to the Japanese public like every other party.4

Which has led to another interesting debate taking place within the LDP at the current time – over reform to the electoral system. What has transpired is that the DPJ’s has shelved more expansive plans to redesign the electoral system in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling of unconstitutionality, and has submitted to the LDP’s plan of only reducing by five the number of seats in prefectures most advantaged by the current system’s vote disproportionality. Of course, the LDP rejected their own proposition, for a reason I remember reading, but am ill-inclined to look up, mainly because it was lame. Not sitting back the DPJ has pushed forward and proposed a deal with all of the other parties, particularly the Komeito, to cut the number of Lower House members by 80 (thus, they believe,  giving the DPJ the minimal amount of “reformist” credentials) in exchange for a form of electoral system that advantages minor parties. Essentially the system would be one that looks like the current system in terms of overall structure, which could be described as a “Supplementary Member” (並立制) system, but in  but in the apportioning of votes from the PR lists has outcomes more closely resembling the New Zealand and German MMP systems (併用制), but without the “overhang.” This system does not have an English name (that I can find) but comes from a proposal put forward and considered in 1993 but ultimately not adopted by the non-LDP government of the time. For those keeping score in Japanese, the system is called 小選挙区比例代表連用制, and essentially instead of using the d’Hondt method for apportioning the PR seats,  a formula that privileges those who have less constituency seats than others is used in the calculations. Ask me in the comments if you are so inclined and sufficiently nerdy. But basically all of the smaller parties would have gotten more seats based on the last elections results, and the Komeito in particular would have increased their quota from 22 to 33, even with the 80 PR seats taken off from the 180 total there is now in the PR allotment. The knock on this system is that it would make it difficult for mainstream parties to achieve outright majorities. This may of course not be a) necessarily a bad thing, b) looks likely to persist under the current system anyway, and 3) those countries that have such systems don’t do that badly.

Well it seems that most of the parties were on board. Except for the LDP. First Tanigaki rejected it. Then another party member on national TV tentatively agreed to it, but only if about 30 of the PR seats were worked out by the proposed method, and 30 continue to be worked out by the current method. This would mean 100 seats would be taken off the PR quota of 180. There is also another LDP plan floating out there which only reduces the PR allotment by 30, and puts aside PR seats only for parties that earn under 20 percent of the vote.  All quite bizarre really – even Your Party is starting to wonder what on earth they are talking about. The Komeito must be very tempted to leave the LDP to their well deserved fate and abandon them on this point alone.5  The war of attrition in terms of party unity between the DPJ and the LDP continues.

1 I can’t take credit for coining this – recently Ishihara got into a scrap with one of the recent winners of the Akutagawa Book Prize, and in response to Ishihara’s describing his work as rubbish along with most other recent winners, the author went on television and suggested that Ishihara focus on his new party. Ishihara is 79, Hiranuma a young 72, and Kamei Shizuka is 75.

2 To be sure Hashimoto will work with them – but will discard them as is needed.

3 Indeed it has been reported that LDP general secretary Ishihara Nobuteru is quite concerned at dad’s recent prominence.

4 Recently Koizumi Jnr has come out and criticized the LDP for being nothing more than a party that “opposes things.”

5  Of course there are PR representatives within the DPJ, who are obviously concerned about any reduction in the PR seats, although their fate is probably sealed either which way.

Time for a “death pool” on the DPJ?

If you come here for the foreign policy content I have a post on the ‘Three Principles of Arms Exports’ over at Japan Security Watch. They have, for those that are interested, changed. Here is a summary of the statement from the Chief Cabinet Secretary. I will be writing a little more on the changes later in the week.

Anyway domestically, it will by now be obvious that there is a little, perhaps unexpected, tension in and around Nagata-cho heading into the new year. I share with Michael Cucek a large degree of exasperation around what it is exactly the Noda Cabinet is trying to achieve. Noda has completely lost control over the narrative about what his prime ministership stands for. Cucek also provides some pretty good reasons here as to why the overall political situation has very quickly come to a head at a time of year when everybody should be taking a step back and reflecting on the events of the year. Jun Okumura as always provides some solid and sensible reasons for commentators to not get ahead of themselves in speculating on whether Japanese politics is about to undergo the now seemingly mythical political realignment (政界再編) that many have been predicting for a while. Like ‘regime change’ (政権交代) this almost seems to have become a meaningless phase despite the perhaps misplaced hope placed in it.

Nevertheless I will ignore Jun’s caution somewhat as I feel there is something a little different this time around. The party is much closer to splitting now than any of the other times when, according to the Japanese media and many foreign commentators, Ozawa apparently was threatening to tear the party apart, but suspiciously never really got close.

The reason why I say unexpected is that given how clumsily recent events have been handled it could be argued that this latest round of tension has surprised a number of stakeholders, including the Noda and his cabinet. Tension was expected over the TPP given what was (as I have argued, falsely) believed to be at stake. However it seemed that the one thing the Noda Cabinet was supposed to do was to promote party unity by giving a little bit to everyone, something the Hatoyama and Kan Cabinets did not attempt. A little bit to the Ozawa camp, to the differing camps within the “mainstream” group of Sengoku, Noda and Maehara, and then to some of the other factions-that-aren’t-really factions. Noda’s seeming comprehensive election victory seemed to suggest to Japanese commentators and media analysts at least that the issue of whether the consumption tax should be raised had been settled within the DPJ. Ozawa would hopefully be quiet.

And for the most part Ozawa has. He has even gone as far as to publicly state that now is not the time for DPJ newbies to jump ship. So that can’t be it. With Ozawa not being the current cause of tension, and no elections for the foreseeable future, the mainstream media seems to have no possible way to understand what is happening. So it is going (jp) with the Ozawa factor anyway in grappling for explanations. And this is precisely why the Japanese media, with its focus on personal politics and policy symbolism over the politics of policy making (reinforced to be sure by the actions and statements of the senior leaderships of all parties, big and small), struggles at times like this. Ultimately if this was all about Ozawa a much bigger split would have happened a longer time ago – recent differences appear to be very much over policy than personality.

So over and above the obvious and persistent reasons for tension in Japanese politics, I feel there there is an under-discussed aspect of the DPJ that need to be understood to truly make sense of the current situation.

That the DPJ is a party with no broadly uniting policy or ideology is already well-understood, and now that its reason for existence has vanished (removing the LDP), it is no surprise that it is violently thrashing around for coherence. From this point of view the fact that the party is split between old school socialists, social progressives, foreign policy hardliners, and experts in the cynical politics of patronage led by the likes of Ozawa, suggests that we can understand policy outcomes by reference to the machinations of various intra-party factions. And I in point this out I am not suggesting I don’t do it, to be sure.

The power of the factions however in the DPJ is only relevant when it comes to intra-party elections however. A problem this surely is, to be sure, due to the fact that the political situation has necessitated the need for so many of these tortuous exercises, but not necessarily the overall explanation for all outcomes related to the DPJ’s time in government.

The DPJ’s factions clearly play a role in these elections and in doling out the baubles of office by structuring election and candidate choices, and providing a ready made rhetorical frame for the public to understand the outcomes – and thus ultimately forces those outside of the various factions to go along with the prevailing politics of compromise in the short-term.

However, it does not necessarily apply to policy making, which is perhaps the major difference of the factions between the DPJ and the LDP, where in the LDP era policy conflict would be managed in order to mutually prolong the power of all of the respective power nexus. The TPP debate I feel showed this quite well – there was little factional coherence in terms of who came out for and against the TPP, or was lukewarm one way or another. Rather stakeholder interests, and election prospects and local considerations usually directed individual decisions. Furthermore, it is often forgotten however that there are well over 400 DPJ Diet members, and no where near enough factions to ‘contain’ all of them. As it was it took the LDP years, some would say decades to perfect its system of factional patronage and compromise.

In short, there is a large number of, often younger, DPJ Diet members who care not for factions, tolerate them to ensure they don’t unnecessarily make enemies, and whose personal political ambitions was initially forged upon the desire to actually be involved in reform of some kind, even if the exact contours of that reform were not ideologically and rigidly predetermined. They did not leave successful non-political careers where their talents were being put to productive use to waste time away in a do nothing parliament, and their support for Noda at the last party election was not simply a vote of confidence for party unity and/or simply for the consumption tax increase.

As has very much come to the fore in this latest round of tension, is that a consumption tax increase without either at least a symbolic cut in the number of Diet members (and therefore one assumes without reform of the electoral system of both the upper and lower houses), and preferably some kind of a start in administrative reform is a political disaster. Raising taxes without dealing with the oversized budget through actually cutting some of the shiwake programs, and/or dealing with other pressing drains on the governments fiscal health, like amakudari, would be simply unacceptable for these members if they had to go into a general election sometime soon under the DPJ banner. In this sense their thoughts would seem to be precisely in line with the publics’ general line of thought. Many politicians throughout the political spectrum still struggle to realize that the public’s lukewarm support in general for the consumption tax increase is intimately connected to some genuine political sacrifice being offered up, and then appear genuinely surprised when the public then comes out strongly against specific tax rise policies.

And thus many of the aforementioned DPJ members understood that Noda would push for the raising of the consumption tax and voted for him as the superior option over Kaieda Banri – if he would also take seriously the needed administrative reform, that incidentally Maehara Seiji discussed and recommended the party focus on in during the Noda era in his effective DPJ leadership  concession speech (well it was his appeal for votes but it more or less sounded like a concession speech).

Many of these aforementioned members have actually been deliberately been biding their time, knowing the current political situation is hopeless and not going to enhance their political ambitions or their policy agendas. Bold statements of symbolic value or on specific policies have not been in their self-interest, and ultimately in the interest of their policy aspirations. Many seemed resigned to venting their frustrations in private until the appropriate time.

However it seems that the restarting of the Yamba dam project, that was part a large symbolic part of the manifesto and seemingly a simple decision to make, and the pressure put on them to commit to a tax increase by the party leadership without making the necessary sacrifices, has really pushed the conflict to the core of the party.

There was already internal angst within the DPJ over the shiwake administrative review process. It yielded little by way of actual cuts to actual programs and more frustratingly, those programs that had been cut in this process arose in different ministries under different names. This was not lost within the party. A large number of DPJ members have become increasingly vocal at DPJ policy committees and combative towards what they see to be unresponsive bureaucratic advisers and party leadership, who appear to be ignoring their policy preferences and coming back to the committees with the same proposals with only cosmetic changes. It seems a lot of the rank and file of the DPJ which exist between the factional power nodes, have very little patience left.  It now appears obvious to them that Noda is not going to deliver.1

These members have been called “manifesto fundamentalists” by some, for example Watanabe Yoshimi, if they are not calling them Ozawa’s children. This view perpetuates the idea that Noda’s, or any PM’s deviation from the manifesto is the cause of intra-party tension. But this is not entirely accurate.  These members are realistic enough to understand that in a situation of political complexity stubborn devotion to a less than strategically coherent manifesto from a policy point of view was never going to be a winning strategy – and that the public would probably forgive some deviations if some other aspects of the manifesto, particularly the administrative ones, were executed.  But the Yamba Dam decision and the sacrifice-less tax increase proposal seems to have snuffed out any chance that these members, if they were to campaign as rank and file members of the DPJ at any future election,  would be able to appeal to the public’s sense of reasonableness. Now some will be asking, “what do we have left?”

So how is this different from previous intra-party eruptions? Aside from all fruitful avenues for burnishing one’s political and policy credentials being exhausted, I believe this time it is  unlike for example earlier this year when a group of strongly Ozawa affiliated DPJ members threatened to leave the party (sort of) around the time of the no-confidence vote against Kan. This eruption was easily understood – as the most loyal Ozawa-ites they were leverage for Ozawa in his battle with Kan at the time, and since all of them were elected on the PR system, and not particularly electorally attractive, (despite being described as “young politicians” when they were anything but) they had very little left to lose given that as Ozawa acolytes and PR Diet members they were doomed the moment Kan lost the Upper House election in 2010.

This time however the ones that are the cause of trouble for the Noda Cabinet were not solely elected through proportional representation. Saito Yasunori and Uchiyama Akira are leading this charge and are both representatives of their own constituencies. As I described of the pseudo-revolt earlier this year:

While they have at times, amusingly, been described as “young” by the Japanese press (若手 – only 3 of the 16 are under 45 ) they all are likely to suffer the most from an upcoming election under the DPJ banner, having not had even a local constituency to represent while trying to raise their personal profile in the last 2 years. A lot of the first-time candidates who were elected to local constituencies in 2009, under Ozawa’s direction took straight to using their new found status to raise their profile and have worked assiduously at a local level to consolidate their position, hardly touching 0n policy at all. These members in particular might find it most advantageous to distance themselves from the party at a later date – something they could well credibly do considering their lack of DPJ “institutionalization.”

For me, the movements of the likes of Ishizeki Takashi will be very instructive. Ishizeki recently came out in effective support of his Gunma counterpart (Nakajima Masaki), who perhaps initiated the recent round of defections (now reaching 9 members as I type – jp). Ishizeki said that he felt very much the same way about the party’s decision and wanting to break away. Ishizeki is young at 39 but has considerable political experience. A former government bureaucrat who graduated from Waseda and has spent time at the University of London,  he is very ambitious while at the same time has a strong belief in the need for reform in Japan in various forms. He is a ‘graduate’ of ‘Ozawa Juku’ and a part of the ‘Ozawa Group’ but has his own interests to look after as he was not elected on the PR block and represents Gunma constituency no.2. I would suggest that he, among many others dispersed throughout the party’s weak factional system,  is an appropriate weather vane of the mood of those I have described above within the DPJ. That he has echoed his displeasure but stayed within the party is suggestive. Noda et al will have to tread very carefully, which is exactly what he has done by putting off (ja) a decision on a specific percentage for the consumption tax increase, and a specific timetable for its implementation. But it may be close to all over for the party notwithstanding a miracle. It seems the issue is now really about the timing.

The rise of Osaka Mayor/self-appointed destroyer of vested interests in government (jp) Hashimoto Toru comes at a very interesting time for the DPJ members I have discussed in this post. Despite Kamei, Ozawa and other political opportunists’ nakedly transparent attempt to court Hashimoto, Hashimoto has kept his distance.2 And while I have all but given up on Watanabe Yoshimi and co. to contribute anything of value to the political process other than soundbites, there may be some chance for future cooperation. After all, there is almost no issue left for the government to address, even badly. That is, except for the growing unconstitutional affront to democracy that is the inter-regional vote disparity (一票の格差) that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reported (ja) had grown in overall numerical terms in both houses of parliament, and crucially included a big jump in the number of electoral districts in the House of Representatives that passed the constitutionally acceptable 2 to 1 ratio. Ultimately I believe it is unlikely that too many DPJ malcontents will want to leave the party before this little issue is resolved – as long as it is unresolved they likely won’t have to contest an election and not knowing the outcome of this reform won’t help the formulation of future electoral strategy – nor would diminishing one’s influence over the singular issue that is left that would affect one’s chances of re-election.

1 Their existence also explains why Kamei Shizuka’s sought after reform to Post Office Privatization has not proceeded, even though all of the main factions aside from perhaps Maehara’s would gladly play political football with this issue.

2 Interestingly last Sunday Hashimoto and Maehara were on television together and were at great pains to not agree too warmly with each other – Hashimoto not wanting to be too close to anyone in the current government, and Maehara not wanting to be too closely associated with the maverick least he have his position of responsibility as DPJ policy chief undermined, which had already been called into question by his public explosion on the Yamba Dam decision.

Ad-hoc reflections on the meaning of the TPP

The one thing I’ve noticed since arriving in Japan and having reflected on the TV coverage of the TPP discussions and debate, is quite how earnest, and I would argue, over-earnest the debate really is in Japan, notwithstanding the potential future impact on an over-represented voting bloc in Japan.

The fact of the matter is, no one really knows what the TPP is going to be and (from the point of view of the Japanese at least it would seem) its main sponsor, the US itself, may well be the biggest spanner in the works of any eventual TPP deal that even half way meets the expectations originally articulated in regards to this “high quality” trade and investment agreement.

The one thing we have to remember is that while the US is committed to a certain kind of a liberal trade order, it has a pretty chequered history in regards to its commitment to the liberal political and trade order in general. There are a number of nations involved (including the one from which this author comes) that are extremely sceptical about any deal eventually negotiated by any American administration, and given that the 60 vote necessity in the Senate now almost appears semi-constitutional, these nations will be even more sceptical going forward.

The additional problem that some countries will have is that they will in trying to meet US requirements potentially risk aggravating some of their own key political constituencies while possibly getting nothing much in return. In New Zealand for example any proposed changes to the government procurement systems in health, and IP laws (which will only advantage US companies – something which came up pretty quickly in the debate in NZ) which the US is pushing for through the TPP, will be looked upon quite suspiciously. In fact the very popular government in New Zealand was not willing to risk even a little bit of political capital on this and ruled out any fundamental changes to the Pharmac model due to TPP negotiations, without a single bit of discussion. If a popular government is unlikely to give the US what it wants, it is going to be a considerably harder road for other nations – including Australia and Japan, whose domestic political situations are much more precarious.

There is also some suspicion arising among some fellow TPP travellers in regards to the US’ primary motives toward accession to the TPP. The original P4 countries (which involved New Zealand and hence why a pesky little non-important country genuinely committed to free trade like NZ cannot be brushed away in the discussions) that are at the “core” of the TPP, and not a few of the 5 negotiating to join are somewhat concerned about just how eager the US became toward the TPP in 2010 in particular. In fact top Australian and New Zealand political figures concerned at some of the external rhetoric floating around the TPP in Washington have had to communicate to key figures supporting the TPP  in no uncertain terms that the moment they (NZ and Australia – and likely Malaysia and Singapore wouldn’t be far behind in echoing the sentiment) smell a China containment policy, they are gone from the negotiations.

After all Australia had to sign a FTA with the US which did not go anywhere near as far in liberalizing the US agricultural market as hoped by the Australians, and due to the same range of interests and stakeholders a NZ-US FTA has not been a realistic consideration. Perhaps these comments are unfair and that the Obama administration in particular is more genuine. But in terms of US commitment to trade liberalization when it doesn’t suit them – well I guess many of these nations will believe it when they see it.

That is not to say that the TPP is a dead duck or negotiations are of  no value. In the short-term it could do good things in terms of clarifying rules of origins, procedures for trade remedies, and may even be a useful mitigating dynamic pushing back against tendencies towards protectionism that some are predicting will arise in the next year or two. However on the trade front – the most important front for most of the nations involved – this is likely to take a very long time and it is unlikely any deal – at least one as high in quality as initially desired – will be wrapped up in the space of a few years (unless some kind of security or economic jolt makes it more diplomatically and politically feasible).

What does this mean for Japan? Well first of all Peter Ennis gives a run down on the current inter-personal and diplomatic dynamics between Tokyo and Washington that I have no additional insights to add to. Essentially he argues that Tokyo and Washington, surprise surprise, might well be on different pages in regards to the symbolic and diplomatic dimensions of Japan’s agreeing to start negotiations.

However from my point of view it seems the Noda government’s signalling about the meaning of the TPP is somewhat curious overall. In one, simplistic sense, Japan has little to lose from joining negotiations as it is unlikely to be the only one with baggage coming into the negotiations. It is just more up front and earnest about them. The time scales here are in the order that Japanese agriculture and the government would have ample time to respond to any changes. After all, in the Australia-US FTA the US implementation of the limited amount of agricultural liberalization was somewhat tardy. These sort of dynamics do not appear to have been communicated very well in the Japanese media. In a sense, Kan’s concept of a “third opening” was somewhat of an over-exaggeration to the degree that Kan seemed to be focused solely on the TPP which took on more symbolism than it perhaps deserved.  The TPP could  be very big. But there is a long way to go. I thus found it quite interesting watching one Japanese TV program where it remarked how the production of certain agricultural goods had in the space of 25 years (or so) reduced a number of times over since liberalization. An economy can change quite a lot in 25 years and for the most part, it probably should. I don’t doubt that trade liberalization had something to do with these reductions but little mention was made of the redistribution of capital and labour resources that likely happened in the interim period.

Secondly, there is the question of whether the TPP as important as some of the other developments in global finance and trade. It may or may not have escaped the attention of some that a certain neighbourly competitor (South Korea) has already signed an FTA with Europe, and bilateral agreements with the US and Australia appear to be just around the corner. For the record, South Korea is only somewhat interested in the TPP.

Or perhaps all of the talk around the TPP, as Ennis in more polite terms suggests, a good way to placate the US diplomatically in order to relieve pressure over the Futenma issue? It may also be a valuable way to draw domestic fire away from Japan’s other more interesting trade projects, namely the already signed agreement with India, continued and redoubled efforts with the EU and Australia, and the start of China and South Korea trade discussions.

Japan also fundamentally likely shares concerns about the TPP turning into not just an economic hedge against China but also a full on “anti-Chinese” project. In this sense, the US should be secure enough in its relationship with Japan, and understanding enough of Japan’s own national interests, and recognise that the pursuit of simultaneous trade agreements with key Asian neighbours is actually a very good idea for Japan in terms of how it effects its long-term ability to manage diplomatic, economic and security tensions in East Asia.