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.

 

 

Perspectives on Japan from the US

MTC has already identified and said what needs to be said about the most recent example of a questionable commentary from an apparent “friend” of Japan in Washington D.C.

Perhaps the only commentaries that oversimplify Japan more than the “rising nationalist” commentary are the “Japan declining” and “Young people turning inward” commentaries. Thankfully to balance Joseph Nye’s Financial Times op-ed we have Gerald Curtis, through Shelia Smith over at the Council for Foreign Relations, who has produced one of the more succinct disposals of both oversimplifications.

To be sure, Japan’s debate on national identity is in flux, its political system is pushed to a potential breaking/transition point, and the societal narrative about how to deal with a rising China has radicalized to some degree. But the issue is a far more complex one than of “rising nationalism.”* Likewise with the issue of Japan’s decline – as with the rest of the developed world this is a complex discussion, although Curtis should not need to point out the obvious that the reducing influence of the West need not be seen as an inherently bad thing. There are of course some obvious areas where Japan can clearly do much better. As do we all.

However the one narrative that particularly bothers me is the oft-repeated mantra that Japan’s youth in particular are turning inward. There is no actual evidence for this other than poor anecdotes, although it seems some (including Nye) have mistaken a decreased tendency to worship everything American for turning inwards. My own experience is that, in the cities at least, Japanese of the younger generations are considerably less, er, unusual, than the older generation when they have a conversation with my foreign self.** While there are less Japanese going to the US for work assignments and transfers and professional/graduate training (such as MBAs, although frankly that need not be a bad thing!) a careful look at the emigration statistics show that there are still plenty of Japanese PhDs and researchers going overseas (at one end of the spectrum) and a considerably higher number of “normal” Japanese travelling overseas; and usually to places less comfortable than Guam and Hawaii that the older Japanese generation are very fond of. Curtis is exactly right when he says:

Some people talk of Japan’s increasing inward lookingness, especially among young people, suggesting that there has been a decline in cosmopolitan attitudes. For someone who has been around Japan for as long as I have this is an especially puzzling observation. Has the number of Japanese who are fluent in English declined? No, quite to the contrary, there are more people comfortable in English and comfortable in non-Japanese settings today than ever before. Are young people becoming more inward looking? There is little evidence to support such a supposition. The number of Japanese who go abroad to study has not declined as a percentage of their age group. What gives the impression of inward lookingness is that the total number of people, including especially young people, has declined and that fewer of those who do venture abroad come to the United States. They are going to China and South Korea and to English speaking countries where tuition and living costs are lower than in the United States and where the competition to get into university is not as intense. Japan’s problem is that too many people in the older generations remain inward looking, robbing young people of the incentives to take risks and do unconventional things.

I have nothing else to add.

* I came across an article in my research dated 1980 which seems to be predicting more or less the same thing as many are today re: rising nationalism – I am sure this narrative stems far further back to 1945.

** To compare apples with apples.

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.

And then there were 12

At risk of sounding like a broken record one of the under-appreciated aspects of the TPP is the fact it is a multilateral negotiation that sits somewhere between the seemingly hopeless WTO negotiations and the more familiar bilateral negotiation. That is, not a Japan-US bilateral despite domestic Japanese rhetoric suggesting otherwise. This insight is of great strategic importance both for the negotiators who will go into battle, but it should also be of great importance for the domestic debate, wishful as that might be.

In this sense today’s news (ja) that Canada and Mexico want to join the TPP should be viewed positively by the Noda administration. We now have 12 potential members: Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, and Brunei (the P4 ie the actual TPP), but also as the interested parties we have Vietnam, Peru, United States, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and Malaysia. Not only does it raise the stakes of missing out for Japan, if the Noda government and its allies on this issue had more influence over the TPP narrative, it also brings on potential “allies” in the negotiation. Canada certainly is not going to compromise too much on its public medical system, and Canada also has a number of minor agricultural protectionist issues of its own. Mexico may be one of the “cheap produce” threats agriculturally speaking, but someone in Japan needs to aggressively attack the almost absurd idea that the price elasticity of Japanese produce is anything but extraordinarily inelastic, ESPECIALLY rice. In fact this could almost be argued by a creative negotiator as a non-tariff barrier to trade, along with the Japanese language.

This has two potential and interrelated strategic consequences. First if the domestic situation really does become too difficult the added complexity will likely slow down the negotiating process, giving breathing room to the Noda government, and time to mollify key stakeholders. This in turn will give the Japanese government more time to present a convincing strategy to reform the agricultural sector which is in its current incarnation a threat to itself and Japan’s long-term food security.

Secondly, should certain changes really be a bridge too far then Japan does have allies to lean on to make only the minimal necessary changes. This will be particularly important for negotiations over pharmaceutical procurement within Japan and others’ medical systems.

The general dilution of US “influence” should be of great rhetorical advantage in the domestic debate over the TPP for its proponents. I’m skeptical that the US influence would be all that bad if countries negotiated with a firm and clear understanding of their national interests in mind. But there is in Japan a sense that Japan’s bureaucrats will somehow relent under sustained US pressure in any negotiations, in addition to looking out for their own in domestic turf battles. However the enemy this time isn’t other Japanese but overseas interests.

In any respect I believe this worry, while not unreasonable given public disillusionment with the bureaucracy in Japan, confuses two quite different strands of the US-Japan diplomatic relationship, if we must really simplify the TPP down to this dynamic. On security issues and the alliance the MOFA may well from time to time be willing to relent on issues of national importance for the sake of diplomatic cordiality, ie Futenma. However those with long memories will remember that Japanese trade negotiators are a completely different breed – tactically aware and extraordinarily familiar with the details. As we all know Japan bureaucratic institutional memory is strong – sometimes to Japan’s detriment – but in this case the pool of knowledge from the 80s still remains and successors have been cultivated.

Nevertheless, bringing more countries into the TPP should be viewed positively, not negatively in terms of the political messages that can be leveraged from such developments. And ultimately if Japan does have to make an diplomatically undignified withdrawal as some are worrying (insincerely I believe), then it is all the more likely it will not be alone.

So what can one lame duck do?

Michael Cucek’s analysis strikes me as spot on in regards to the dynamics of what remains of the Kan Cabinet’s time.

All I have to add is that there are some interesting developments worthy of watching on the other side of the house, which may be enabling for the Kan administration’s short-term agenda.

The first is increased potential for New Kōmeitō-DPJ cooperation. Kōmeitō broke ranks with the LDP recently in regards to the extension of the current diet session, and stated it was in favour of extending the session – not exactly a love bubble for the DPJ but one suspects that the “threat” of a LDP-DPJ grand coalition might have reminded the Kōmeitō that it has it’s own political interests to look out for, rather than obsessing about what Kan and co. may or may not be doing at a given time. Kōmeitō executives, along with those from Your Party and Shinto Kaikaku, have openly criticized the idea of such a coalition and suggested that parliament is the appropriate place for policy making. I’m sure the DPJ was pleased to hear of this novel idea. These groups have also been much more restrained in terms of discussions around immediately submitting a non-binding Upper House censure motion, and also more restrained around the, frankly ludicrous, idea of breaking precedent and  submitting a second no-confidence motion, something that the LDP has not yet ruled out.

Second, as suggested in the previous post, there have been rumblings within the LDP. These rumblings would probably have developed into something more ominous had it not been for Hatoyama’s very public expression of naivety in regards to the issue of when PM Kan was going to step down, as it distracted attention from the LDP’s embarrassment. Nevertheless, it seems that some of the younger and more reform-orientated members of the LDP have been making themselves heard. The likes of Ishiba and Koikevery publicly nixed the grand coalition idea some elder party members were salivating over (the so called “大臣病患者”).2

LDP members of the minji-ren, most prominently Kōno Tarō, have been kicking around ideas of what the LDP’s energy policy should be and party reform in general. While LDP Secretary-General Ishihara Nobuteru 3 was busy making friends by insulting anyone who ever had any concerns over nuclear safety, Kōno Tarō(jp) has been very publicly demanding a reorientation in the LDP’s nuclear energy friendly position, and has set up an internal group to look at this issue.4 This has dovetailed with PM Kan’s position that his work will not be done until all of the relevant bond and budget bills are passed and also, as recently ventured, comprehensive feed-in-tariff legislation is  passed. On the 14th Kan invited Kōno to the Kantei to discuss  (jp) cooperation in regards to pushing forward this legislation. To be sure Kōno Tarō is no fan of Kan, but his pragmatism, and increasing confidence within the party might lend itself to Kan being able to push this legislation further than it might have gone. It seems that not only Kan and Son Masayoshi are bullish on the idea – Mitsubishi is also pushing further forward on an alliance it has with Kumamoto Prefecture to build Japan’s first “mega-solar power station” (en) in anticipation of a more renewable energy friendly environment.

1 Although who knows if she has any reformist credentials left these days…but Koizumi senior and junior got into the game on this one by cautioning gainst a coalition, which surely helped.

2 大臣病患者 – The term was originally coined for current Minister  for Economic and Fiscal Policy Yosano Kaoru, it could be literally translated as “infirm/sick minister(s)” but since xx病患者 could be translated as “suffer/patient of x disease” then Masuzoe’s recent usage points to the desire or sickness of old politicians wanting to become cabinet ministers, assumedly before they fall victim to fate.

3 Ishihara called recent questioning of Japan’s nuclear policy, “collective hysteria” and “populism”

4 Although the response was not overwhelming – it appeared that many in the party were interested in the idea and attended Kōno’s meeting, but were not willing to “abandon” nuclear power, so to speak- although I doubt anyone is advocating that in the short term, so read into that what you will.

Good news for Japan’s Civil Society

In among all of the political manoeuvring and, for some like Masuzoe, (jp) the distasteful power grab by people on all sides of the “house,” there has been some good news. The DPJ, LDP and New Komeito, despite some disagreement over how to reform the tax system in general, are expediting (jp) through the Diet a bill that offers those donating to NPOs more favourable treatment in the tax system, as well as makes NPO certification for tax deduction purposes much easier than it has been.

In terms of the certification process there are two key changes. One is the transfer of responsibility for certifying NPOs for tax deduction purposes from the National Tax Agency (国税庁) to local municipalities. This will greatly speed up the certification process itself as municipalities will obviously be closer to the NPOs, more aware of their activities, and thus be in a better position to make a judgement without putting the NPO through a difficult and complex centralized process.

The second is that an additional criterion will be added. Currently an organization needs to receive more than 1/5th of its income in the form of donations for its donors to be considered for preferential tax treatment (the “public support test”). The additional criterion now being introduced is that an organization may be considered eligible for NPO tax deduction status if more than 100 people have donated more than 3000 yen to the organization. Either of these criteria may be used as the basis for certification. These changes alone are expected to help the estimated 43000 NPOs in Japan acquire this certification – the article estimates less than 215 of these NPOs have acquired this preferential treatment up until now.

There will also be changes to the way that income and tax liabilities are treated when one donates to an NPO. Currently the only way to reduce your tax burden through donations is through the “taxable income deduction” approach. With the new law you will be able to choose to receive a “tax credit” for 50% of donations up to 25% of your income (40% of the donation coming off your income tax bill, with 10% coming off your municipal tax bill). This is estimated to incentivize people from middle and lower income groups to donate to NPOs, as the previous system of income deduction favoured higher income earners (due to their paying higher taxes on the higher amounts of income and thus having an incentive to lower their taxable income). Both methods will now be available.

Japan for many, despite being a communitarian-orientated society, has a surprisingly weak civil society compared to other developed countries. Part of this has been due to the overbearing influence of the state in many areas of society including the economy, with the government having no incentive to promote “mediating” organizations between strong community (ie the “very local”) level organizations and the state itself. The Kobe earthquake and the rapid response of civil society organizations in comparison to the central government hastened the first round of changes to the NPO law. However it has only been considered to be partially effective. Prior to the 2011 triple disaster there was already cross-party discussion of the need for a new NPO law – this was a pet project of former Prime Minister Hatoyama. The passage of the law was looking touch and go due to the political divide leading up the earthquake and while that divide certainly still exists, given the role of NPOs in the response to the recent disasters all parties considered that waiting any longer would impact upon the ongoing recovery. From a longer-term perspective, this is a significant change and an up-tick in civil society activity can’t help but have an impact on Japan’s politics going forward, even if the impact will take a number of years to materialize.

Constitutional issues to be relooked at by the DPJ

I am making some connections between what are likely unconnected dynamics here, but there may be a future confluence of the strains of political and constitutional activity discussed below.

The first is that the DPJ is going to relook at the party’s policy on the constitution (jp). The party’s executive has convened the party’s investigative panel on the constitution – the first time it has done so in four years. While saying that the current policy on the constitution is still the party’s policy, given that many of the people involved with crafting the party’s constitutional policy in 2005 are no longer with the DPJ it is imperative that the party takes another look at its vision for Japan’s constitution. Crucially, former Foreign Minister Maehara has been made the panel’s chairman, which suggests that foreign policy may be the focus of the panel’s investigation.

That said, it should not be taken for granted that this will be the focus. There are certainly a range of other issues, mostly domestic ones, that should be considered by the panel. After all, as I argued in the previous post, the public is much more concerned with the relationship between the domestic political situation and the constitution than it is foreign policy at this point in time (and as it has arguably for quite a while). The previous DPJ constitutional proposal certainly did not only focus only on security affairs.1

Osaka Governor Hashimoto Toru is first up with his criticism (jp) of the current political situation and the need for a constitutional solution. Hashimoto addressed a conference dedicated to the anniversary of the implementation of the Japanese constitution by saying that there was a need for the public to take back from the parliament the right to elect the country’s leader through a constitutional revision. Claiming that this is the most important political concern for the country at this point in time, he argued that the public should be able to directly choose the Prime Minister. This is not quite a vote for a presidential system – according to the article Hashimoto has said in previous interviews that the popular candidate for Prime Minister should be limited to members of parliament. He has reservations about politicians having a “free-hand” in the election of the country’s ultimate leader. On its own the policy is not likely to get much traction but if Hashimoto can somehow connect the logic (and the details of how it would work electorally and institutionally) it to his decentralization campaign, it might well gain more discussion space than it otherwise would.

Not unpredictably the The Reconstruction Design Council (en) will likely give a boost to Hashimoto’s decentralization crusade at the end of June. They are looking to publish the initial recommendations from the first four meetings and subsequent observations of the disaster area, and their discussions with important stakeholders. The guiding principles have already been published (jp). The first official report back will focus on the regeneration of regional economies and regional communities, which will obviously have some impact on the debate about decentralization in Japan. From mid-May four working groups will be convened under the Council and will work on putting flesh on the bones of proposals related to disaster prevention and community development, local industries (mainly regeneration of farming and fishing industries), medium-term energy policy, and finally employment and social security.

It will be interesting to see if any political actor down the track makes any coherent connections between these discussions, hopefully with due consideration being given to the pressing electoral issues raised by the Japanese Supreme Court in recent times.

1 In general terms the DPJ’s constitutional proposal pointed to the need for Japan to consider its foreign policy more coherently and the constitution should reflect this need- in other words the current process of “ad-hoc” foreign policy making, proceeding through the process of constitutional reinterpretation by the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, was potentially hazardous. It argued that there was a need to better and clearly define the allowable extent of Japan’s use of force for defense, and in particular the use of force overseas. It promoted the concept of “limited” defense which would enable Japan to be more active overseas, and move from being a “peace-loving” country to a “peace-creating” country which would mean some allowances being made for the deployment of Japanese forces overseas. However ultimately the restrictions on the use of force would still be significantly stronger than those allowed in international law (and in a sense, argued for a weaker form of collective self-defense).

政党交代?LDP on the move

Finally some genuinely interesting news on the LDP reform front – it was announced today that a new study group, with approximately 30 “young” LDP members making up its core, has been set up. (keizai senryaku kenkyuu kai – 経済戦略研究会) Masuzoe Yoichi, a former Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare,  is none too surprisingly the chair given his rumblings over the lack of proper reform within the LDP since the severe losses in the Lower House elections last year.

This new study group is not only a reaction to this lack of progress but also recognition that despite the DPJ fall in popularity, this has not translated into a rise for the LDP. The article goes on to mention that this could be a platform for Masuzoe to run for LDP president at some point, or to even form a new political party. The second is not quite as far fetched as might be thought – as suggested there is a significant amount of “vote” in play given the public’s disappointment with both parties, and Watanabe Yoshimi’s minna no tou (Your/Everyone’s Party depending on how you swing) has made some gains lately and looks to be recruiting.  And possibly most interestingly, this “party”/study group unlike the two major parties has a very clear policy and ideological platform. According to the article the group is committed to pushing forth with the postal privatisation agenda, and the general structural reforms that Koizumi pursued while in office. Given that “Koizumi’s children” were the big losers within the LDP  ranks at the last election (which probably had little to do with their policies, and more the LDP brand), it is a full challenge to the current LDP leadership/old guard to make nice, and offer a coherent agenda, rather than get overly precious about the “money and politics” narrative that seems to be (painfully ironically) occupying the LDP leadership currently. The main short term goal seems to be to offer some space for internal discussion, to influence the LDP’s HoC manifesto, and to help the LDP to clarify its point of difference from the DPJ.

Personally, I would like to see them split away – at first they could serve as a party, that the DPJ should work with if they fail to get the needed HoC votes later this year*, rather than the current odd lot, or in an awkward partnership with komeito as I have seen mentioned lately. Secondly, over time this party (or a thoroughly renewed LDP – lots of barriers to that since the current lot are locked in for four years and the old guard may prefer to retire than give the party away to the “youngsters”) may well offer a legitimate choice for the next Lower House election. This could make for some very interesting and genuine policy debates leading up to that now that the leadership of the DPJ has suggested that they will go to the public with any suggestion of a Sales Tax increase (ie not increase it before then) during the next Lower House election cycle.

Watch this space.

*(either to create a supermajority in the lower house, or preferably in a 2 or 3 headed coalition with Watanabe’s party within the HoC – trying to hunt down a list of those in attendance to see what the electoral implications could be.)

Update:

The main instigators appear to be:

Hiroshige Sekou (HoC), Kajiyama Hiroshi (HoR), Suga Yoshihide (HoR), Kawaguchi Yoriko (HoC), Shiozaki Yasuhisa (HoR) and Masuzoe Youichi (HoC)

A summary from Yamamoto Ichita here. From here it seems the Lower House members were most vocal.

I wonder…..

If the new Supreme court ruling is necessarily all that bad – I feel that in the long and just maybe in the short term it could shed even further light on the influence of money in politics and it could end up being quite positive for Democrats in particular – I can just imagine, given the purported populist anger that dominates US politics currently that campaigns could very easily turn into anti-corporate contests – on the one hand a candidate utilising social media and small donations (like the Obama campaign) versus a campaign that has a big black mark on their record saying “I took x million direct from x company”. With the current arrangement it can be quite easy to not so much hide but obscure sources of campaign $$ through PACs and so forth. In a way, as long as you can still transparently follow the money such a ruling might actually show just how beholden some candidates are. In a way, perhaps the legislation was outdated – it performed an essential democratic role during the times of newspapers and TV newscasts and other one to many information channels but in the many to one to many information world of the internet then perhaps it is far less useful.

Just some thoughts. At the end of the day, as a fan of John Stuart Mill, I like to think that democracy and freedom of speech are compatible and the reaction to this ruling very much suggests that it is not – for all the damage that money does to democracy now, it is still hard for me to deny that the Supreme Court ruling was actually from a constitutional point of view the right one (noting that I am partial to political philosophy and legal philosophy!).
This could well be a boon for Obama in particular – if he can somehow get a Health Bill through with less damage to his reputation and take on the banks then by focusing on the message he put out below, he may well burnish his populist credentials which is something he can no longer ignore even while he tries to move things to a rational centre. It could almost serve as a “see, I told you it was broken (politics)” wedge issue. The cascading constitutional effects may well be of great interest, whether it be an amendment to preclude spending, or perhaps, hoping against hope, a more rational electoral change.
“With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics,” Mr. Obama said. “It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”