Maehara quits, will be back.

This story sure developed fast! (Details here). Maybe this post will reveal more about my cynical way of thinking rather than sophisticated analysis but bear with me. While I am sure Foreign Minister Maehara was not looking for a way to quit (although Maehara was very quick to pursue the option), how bad will this be for Maehara himself long-term?

First we have to note the political situation that he is leaving behind – while many have said that Maehara is likely to be the next in line in the DPJ, and in relative terms he is one of the more popular political figures right now, one wonders how meaningful such a position is in the current political situation.  First, Kan is unlikely to quit without calling a general election – in the last few days he has made more allusions to such a course of action in order to keep his DPJ enemies in line – it would hurt Kan deeply and he would almost definitely not be PM, but it would hurt his detractors, on both sides of the house, more.

Furthermore, if Kan was to quit over an inability to proceed with the budget-related bills it is highly unlikely that the political situation would improve. In fact the opposition parties have said as much. Even if a deal was worked out along the lines of  Kan quitting in return for the budget-related bills being passed, it would still be very likely that Maehara would be leading a government into an election sometime within the year which would likely make him one of the shortest lived prime ministers in recent history. In terms of his own personal appeal he would be burdened with the DPJ’s reputation as their lead man. Now, he has temporarily removed himself from an extremely poisonous political situation. Better to be one of the shortest tenured foreign ministers than prime ministers perhaps?

In fact Maehara in the last year or so has always had a knack for staying on the right side of political issues, and has generally been perceived to have done a competent job. Given that he only last week instructed his people within the DPJ to be prepared for an election, Maehara and his group now have plenty of flexibility which may come in handy in any post-election manoeuvring.1

Then there is the atmospherics of the resignation. The decisiveness of the decision looks positively noble in comparison with the other resignations (Sengoku et al) and other ongoing money “scandals” (Ozawa) plaguing the political world and the DPJ. Maehara, saying:

But regardless of the amount of the donations or the fact that I was unaware (of them), I must seriously accept the fact that a politician who was (appointed) foreign minister accepted donations from a foreigner

looks rather calm and reasonable. He, in a clear manner admitted (j) that his actions “hurt the national interest.” And given that he likely was unaware of the donation, that this does not appear to part of a systematic funds scandal, and the amount of money is pitiful anyhow, Maehara looks rather stoic, maybe even pitiably so. As Joe Jones points out, the nature of the foreign donation itself is about as non-threatening as they come.

The following quote does not do him any harm either:

But the prime minister ultimately understood after I explained that the budget for fiscal 2011 (was in the midst of deliberations) and that there shouldn’t be a diplomatic vacuum

Maehara seems confident enough in his long-term political prospects that he will have another chance, likely a much better one, at becoming PM. Maehara may also be privy to knowledge that, with a decision on the TPP coming up in June it is less than clear that Kan will be able to sign Japan on to negotiations given dissent in the DPJ – this will make all of those in the cabinet who supported the TPP look extremely impotent given this was and continues to be the Kan government’s main ongoing political theme.

The picture painted by the media of the ‘foreigner’ having “influence” is also not particularly harmful – the lady in question has talked to the media, corroborated Maehara’s explanation, and has expressed remorse for her actions. Accompanied by tears for a kid from a poor family who she treated like her own child and just wanted to help however she could, (j) her pain is clear. However, she also intimated her hope that Maehara would be strong enough to be back again, calling his decision to take decisive action in resigning “manly.”

The image of Maehara vis-a-vis the opposition in this case is one of a hard-working, sincere and stand-up politician yet again undermined by his “weak flank,“(j) while the opposition looks, on the back of continued intransigence, petty by comparison, especially since it looks as if they may push for his resignation from the Diet as well. The fact that the Chinese also seem (j) happy with his resignation and more keen than usual to learn of his replacement probably does not hurt the atmospherics.

How this in reality will play out in the media is unknown – I have offered one possibility above. I want to be clear that I am not saying that this was premeditated or that Maehara or the “foreigner” in question’s pain is somehow less than sincere. I am sure it is genuine. Rather, given the specifics of the incident in question, the general attitude of the opposition camp, and the political situation, the decision to quit in the way Maehara has is strategically robust.

1 Of course another explanation for this is that there are more revelations to come and that indeed the law-breaking has been systematic. One could never rule this out but I would have thought a detractor if aware of these would have piled it on a little bit more at first.

Edit: This article quotes a family member of the Korean lady who made the donation who raises an interesting point:

A member of her family said the woman ‘‘paid money in good faith as she didn’t know (foreign people) are not allowed to politically back (Japanese lawmakers) even though South Korean residents of Japan can become public servants.’‘


10 thoughts on “Maehara quits, will be back.

  1. Whether it plays out the way you suggest or not, this is solid analysis. Maehara’s career is hardly over, and he may not be too disappointed, as you suggest, to have a good reason not to complete for the leadership post this year.

    • Many thanks Michael. It also occurs to me that even if the budget situation is sorted out it may not be a good time to be FM either – If Secretary of Defense Gates’ comments that they would like to see May as the date for Futenma to start proceeding then PM,FM,DM and Chief Cab sec. roles are going to be rather challenging/hopeless positions to be in.

  2. That was quite swift and unexpected, and for only what? Around 2000 bucks US? Looks like Kan is well and truly finished.

    As someone from outside looking in, Japanese politics does look like a crazy place for a first world country. (3rd world politicking is a whole different matter altogether) I’ve rarely seen a ruling party with an overwhelming majority look so fragmented and fragile, normally you would expect PMs with huge majorities to be pretty powerful, like a Thatcher or Blair.

    Perhaps it has something to do with the existence of the Upper House, which renders the ruling party into an ineffective minority government, no matter what it’s majority is in the Lower House.

    The turnover of prime ministers and cabinets is this country is just breathtakingly obscene, it’s almost reminiscent of the twilight years of the French Fourth Republic. Sometimes I do wonder if Japan is better off as a republic with a president instead of a monarch whose constitutional role is not even well defined.

    It’s not just Japanese that are annoyed with it, even their neighbours China and Korea are getting fed up at having to deal with a different guy every few months.

    • Kinny, thanks for the comment. The Upper House sort of served a noble purpose during the times of continuous LDP/LDP-centred coalition Lower House majorities, as a check on power. But since the 1994 electoral reforms with greater inter-party focused electoral competition the Upper House appears to have just become an extension of the Lower House and its rivalries. It is almost as if the the Upper House is no longer a check on the Lower House but a check on the executive and cabinet. The irony is that since 1997 the Japanese executive institutionally/legally has become stronger so in theory the possibility for stronger leaders is definitely there – it is just that we have this other trend sitting alongside it where the two houses are usually controlled by different parties at a given time. The lack of discussion about presidential systems or non-party focused systems in Japan is definitely conspicuous by its absence – I am guessing that cultural speaking it is just a non-starter. I guess if the Upper House could be reformed, and elected in a different way that minimizes radical turnover every 3 years, then we may start to see more strong executive leadership coming through. Otherwise, there is a movement in Japan rapidly building up for devolution of powers from central government to local governments – I wonder if that gets up a head of steam and some kind of constitutional or semi-constitutional concessions are extracted, whether the need for an Upper House at all would cease to exist – regional (but not “local”) politics could become an interesting check on the Lower House and the executive.

  3. Pingback: Nejibana on Japan’s New Foreign Minister

  4. Been checking up to see if you’ve updated your status here, but the fact that you’ve been tweeting about the tsunamis means you’re safe, glad to know that.

    Concerning the crisis with the nuclear plants in Fukushima, could the government have done all it can? Or would there any political repercussions with their handling with this situation?

    • Hi Kinny. Many thanks for the concern. I am actually in Auckland, NZ so I am personally all good. Family in Sendai and Fukushima are rattled but they are alive so I can only be appreciative.

      As for the government’s response to the nuclear plants, I think there needs to be some perspective. It is not a good situation but it is not as bad as some in the international media are making out – it doesn’t appear to me that things are spinning wildly out of control even if they are in a reactive mode – I think the TEPCO people are not making things easy as their PR is a little bit off but that is not necessarily the govts fault. In fact I now hear the govt has set up their own office within TEPCO perhaps in response to this. The media are doing their best to make it seem like there has been some kind of stuff up but I think the public is seeing through this for the time being. As for speculating on the political impact…..will have to see!

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