Which Party Will Sit Out 2013?

It is generally accepted that we are moving closer to an election, but that is all we know. In fact, we may not even know that. Noda has been at his evasive best saying one thing (yes, yes, election soon), but intimating another – at the recent APEC he said to Putin that he was keen to visit to discuss issues of “historic” importance. My rational side says nothing much will come of it, but sounds like as good a reason as any to put off an election. Who knows – maybe Noda has a “Nixon goes to China” card up his sleeve.

Nevertheless the punditry has begun, mainly because we now know that Hashimoto Toru’s party (Japan Restoration Association (Party) or JRA) will be competing in the next lower house election, and has secured seven current MPs, thereby allowing the JRA to run candidates in the regional PR blocks as well as the Single Member Districts. We also have a fair idea of what his policies will be (another post).

So it is about time I put in my almost certainly overvalued two cents.

Jun Okumura says that incentive is for Hashimoto’s JRA to stay out of any post-election coalition – to let the DPJ-LDP-Komeito marriage of ill-repute come together with extremely low expectations, and to fail to even meet those. All the while the JRA will be ready to pounce,  having acquired for itself some basic party funding, in the 2013 House of Councillors election and the likely snap election that would probably take place soon after. A recent Asahi Shimbun poll (日) supports such a view – even before discussions about a grand coalition 43% are against the idea of three-way cooperation versus 38% for a grand coalition. Such numbers will only drop once “deals” are done and the sausage factory is opened to the public. The same poll also asked people who were well disposed to the JRA having influence after the election which party the JRA should cooperate with after this election. 54% of those people said there was no necessity for the JRA to collaborate with any of the existing parties, corroborating Okumura’s view.

Michael Cucek suggests on the other hand that the incentive is actually for the DPJ to stay out of any post-election coalition, utilizing an ‘excuse’ of having essentially “lost” the faith of the people, to take advantage of a likely LDP-Komeito-JRA train wreck. If there is a formal or semi-formal arrangement – perhaps the LDP-Komeito forming a minority government, with the JRA providing confidence – Cucek predicts that such an arrangement falls apart due to countless skeletons coming out of the JRA amateurs’ (in the non-critical sense of the word) closets and various other iniquities and incompetencies. Even if the arrangement is very loose, it is hard to see collaboration surviving beyond the first budget – the LDP has promised to essentially bring back the “construction state” while the JRA’s continued existence will depend on it not being seen to support such an outcome. The DPJ will, with new leadership and after a period of reflection, be able to make up some ground in the snap election that would come from this,  and will ultimately be in a better position to finally implement, along with the JRA, some of the administrative reforms it originally wanted to.

Where do I stand on this?

I say it depends on how who is left standing in the DPJ after the next election. My issue with Cucek’s scenario is a simple one – I can see his logic, but is the collective leadership of the DPJ that smart…or more so, that brave?

Cucek is correct when he states that Ozawa, and the DPJ in general, had brought in good talent to man, and importantly, woman its middle and junior ranks. The greatest tragedy would be that such talents would go to waste while the ancien regime of the Cold War left and the now compromised senior leadership squeak on by. The party has over time brought in many centrists with real world experience outside of politics, and with a genuine interest in policy. If these talents are wiped out completely then the DPJ will have nothing to rehabilitate and may as well join in on the grand coalition. If the party can affect true “generational change,” perhaps under a humble but young leader like Hosono (who tactically and symbolically did the right thing by not running for the DPJ leadership), then Cucek’s strategy may be plausible. So can a decent size rump of the “next generation” survive 2012?

Depending on who the LDP selects as its leader, the DPJ will probably as the polls show finish second or third in the PR – they will be lucky to get much more than 20%. This will likely rehabilitate the current leadership through PR lists but not much more. So it will come down to   the 300 (or 295) SMDs whether the DPJ can find any salvation. The DPJ “kanban” is certainly not of any help. However much of Ozawa’s recruited talent have been squirreling away and paying attention to their constituencies and their stakeholders over the last 3 years. Those in urban areas should do better than the DPJ’s PR vote. It is likely Rengo, as well as some of the other stakeholder organizations that crossed over to the DPJ in 2009, will still get out significant votes for the DPJ. At least, the LDP has not really given them any reason to go rushing back. Should the JRA eat into the swing against the DPJ, thus depriving the LDP of the former DPJ votes they would have been expecting, then it is possible that the DPJ might do ok in some urban SMDs in a three or four way race. Nevertheless, you would expect some tactical deals to be struck between the JRA, Komeito, the LDP in particular. Already the JRA and Komeito have struck a deal in the Kansai region to lend each other support, but what deals are going to be struck in the rest of the country? Can the DPJ get in on any of these deals?

In terms of the calculus, Hashimoto is losing a little of his shine. Recent opinion polls have asked the question of whether people would want to see Hashimoto having influence in the next government. Previously the numbers had been closer to 2 to 1. Now they are evening up – I recall one recent poll having it at 50% in favour of post-election Hashimoto influence vs 43 % against . A recent NHK poll (日) has 54% as having expectations for Hashimoto’s party, while 42% not having these expectations. In the aforementioned Asahi poll, with the more exact question of “would you like to see Hashimoto’s party take enough seats in the election to have influence,” the number is 50% for the proposition versus 36% against, meaning that the JRA’s ability to take out a large number of SMDs on its own may be compromised if these numbers head further south. Indeed if the above Asahi poll is anything to go by, where only 5 percent said at this point they would vote for the “Osaka Ishin no Kai” then it seems the public’s support of the Hashimoto zeitgeist is not automatic – they may like many of his policies but that is not going to automatically translate into votes. I am not sure I buy the 5% as being representative, but nevertheless the party will still have some work to do and who it puts out as candidates, and what they say will be important. Perhaps Noda’s desire, having now lured Hashimoto to reveal his strategy, is to lengthen the time until the election precisely to allow for as much time for mistakes and disclosures, as Cucek has predicted, to take place.

In any respect the DPJ, if it is concerned with its own long-term survival, should be doubling their efforts to put a wedge between the LDP and Komeito on any issue possible, particularly electoral reform. The DPJ will still likely lose big, and even some notable party names may be knocked off, but if the party is smart or lucky then in the urban centers a number of the younger, centrist Diet members can survive the next election.

However I have my doubts if the senior leadership of the DPJ is that focused, or that considerate of those that they are leading. We can see this is in party elder Sengoku Yoshito’s recent statement that the DPJ would likely, if it had to, settle for the simplest solution to the unconstitutionality of the vote disparity in the House of Representatives of only reducing the number of SMDs by five seats. The rank and file of the DPJ should be under no illusions – if Sengoku represents the party leadership’s feelings, then Sengoku essentially wants to hasten the transition to the grand coalition as soon as possible, but on the most favourable terms for traditional LDP interests, something unforgivable from both an emotional partisan and a rational actor’s point of view.

Meanwhile, a little to the South of Dokdo…

We may get to find out how committed to its new “don’t rock the boat” approach to the Senkaku Islands issue the CCP is – the Hong Kong activists who set out to land on the Senkaku Islands were, somehow, successful and 5 of them have now been taken into custody by the JCG and are being transferred to Naha. Noda has indicated that they will be dealt with resolutely, likely to be prosecuted under Japan’s immigration laws. This is the first successful landing in 8 years.

How will the PRC react to this seeming Japanese exercise of sovereign administration over the islands?

Why Taking a Shot at the Emperor is Worse than You May Think

If we start with the single positive, then I could not have been any more correct in my prediction. When I wrote a month or so ago to expect relations in Northeast Asia to get worse, I left some room for improvement in the new year as a hedge. However, President Lee’s recent comments about the Japanese emperor are probably going to ensure relations between the ROK and Japan will remain a little chilly for a while yet, suggesting that I should have gone with my better instincts.

Lee’s recent visit to Dokdo rubbed people up the wrong way mainly because Lee at one stage was seen to be someone who could help the two countries come together in practical ways through “quiet diplomacy.” However in the last year President Lee has authorized the building of an expensive naval pier near Dokdo capable of harbouring the ROKN’s powerful KDX-III Aegis-equipped destroyers, ostensibly to fend off a Japanese attack (Because they oh so have the DPRK under control compared to Japan with its zero marines?!), agreed to push forward with a military agreement that would benefit South Korea more than Japan, suspended it, turned around to promote a military pact instead with China, pushed forward again on the aforementioned pact with the Japanese, and then cancelled it 20 minutes before the signing, citing history issues with Japan all the way. Now he has in the space of one week become the first South Korean president to land on Dokdo, played political football with the Japanese emperor, and then authorized the ROK Marines to take part in a regular defensive exercise designed to simulate an attack on Dokdo by a “hypothetical enemy,” an extremely rare if not unprecedented action.  To put this last development into perspective, the ROK does not always exercise in response to real and deadly provocations by the DPRK. This is all in the background of the president’s Saenuri governing party stating that Japan’s ongoing assertion of sovereignty over Dokdo can be interpreted as Japan not having given up its colonial intentions and desire for invasion of the Korean peninsula.

Nevertheless it will be the comments about the emperor and not Lee’s Dokdo landing and posturing that will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many Japanese, irrespective of whether they were expressed for cynical electoral gain or not.  On Tuesday President Lee essentially told the Japanese emperor in rather coarse language to not bother visiting Korea unless he was willing to come with a heartfelt apology, and not just “deep regret” (To get down and grovel?). In 1990 at a palace dinner the emperor expressed “deep regret” at Japan’s colonization of Korea to the ROK president. Essentially Lee was belittling this initial expression of goodwill. It may be that semantically speaking such a statement is “insufficient” from the Korean point of view. However one does not usually bring about greater ‘reflection’ in a person or a nation (if that is your true aim) by belittling the intermediate steps along the way. If Noda was disinterested in revisiting historical issues in December of last year, he is certainly going to be less so now, as will his successors, irrespective of their political and ideological persuasion.

The problem is that the Japanese emperor himself is no right-wing bigot requiring further “reflection.” As demonstrated by his 2002 comments that his family had Korean blood, the emperor has in the past been quite sensitive and interested in the two countries mending relations. He has always cultivated a refined and peaceful image and has tried to stay out of politics believing that that is a matter for politicians (as per the spirit of the post-war constitutional system – technically he is not even the Japanese head of the state, thus a full-throated apology would be of no ‘legal’ importance). The emperor, along with the rest of the imperial family, was one of the few institutions/people to come out of 3.11 last year looking good, along with the SDF and the guy who ignored TEPCO orders to stop pumping seawater into the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. His majesty is, unfortunately, old and ailing and unable to fulfill all of his normal responsibilities.

President Lee himself invited the emperor on at least one, if not two, occasions to come visit South Korea during his presidency, including on the 100 year commemoration of Japan’s annexation of Korea. Despite there being absolutely no request by the Japanese side to permit the emperor to visit South Korea, Lee has with his statement unilaterally and unceremoniously withdrawn his initial offer. The irony is that the emperor may well have had more than “deep regret” to express had he been able to visit without conditions being applied. The prospects for such a visit, by the current or the future emperor, have worsened considerably due to Lee’s unnecessary politicization of both the role and the person.

If it was just this statement a number of people in Japan would be left bewildered and annoyed. But given everything else that has happened in the last year with ROK-Japan relations, this could leave as much of a lingering stain on relations as Jiang Zemin in 1998 essentially dressing down the Japanese emperor over historical issues at a state dinner meant to celebrate the first ever visit by a Chinese head of state. The disappointment will be all the more palpable because much was expected of Lee in 2008, and Japan since the end of the Abe administration has generally been (more) careful to not provoke anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea. While the Noda administration has not been blameless in terms of the management of these issues, the wounds of the last year of cynical and unnecessary provocations by Lee will be deeper than just the brittle and vain pride of Japan’s conservative politicians.

* If one was to offer some contrary evidence to my initial prediction that things would get worse you could point to the end of the month negotiations between the DPRK and Japan as a potential positive, especially as Kim III seems to be taking more after his grandfather than his father. It also seems that at the CCP “summer camp” at the Beidaihe seaside resort there seems to have been a definitive decision by the Chinese side to avoid any military confrontation over the Senkaku Islands given the potential internal instability during a crucial leadership transition period any escalation could lead to. Let’s see if the PLA obliges in terms of rhetoric and action.

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.

Noda Still on Track for a June 21 Vote on the Consumption Tax?

To follow up on yesterday’s post, the DPJ joint session has come and gone and needless to say there was some reaction towards the concessions that DPJ leaders made to the LDP and Komeito. These concessions made all the more painful by members of the Komeito and LDP crowing to the media about how they have been successful in their aim of getting the DPJ to ‘withdraw their manifesto.’ Needless to say that rubs some of the reform minded DPJ members up the wrong way – but they need and probably do understand that this is part of the LDP and Komeito strategy to sow internal discord in the DPJ, something likely to be intense (日) over the next few days. As mentioned yesterday, the LDP will put pressure on the DPJ by threatening to bring a no-confidence measure against Noda if they delay the tax bill. If this pressure forces the DPJ to submit it on time without having got all of its ducks in a row, the LDP/Komeito hope is that a number of DPJ members will outright vote against it,  leading to an irreconcilable split in the party. The ideal for the LDP/Komeito would be to have 49 lower house members or more of the DPJ vote against the bill and subsequently expelled from the party. The legislation would likely still pass but this would endanger the DPJ’s current lower house majority of 289, likely forcing Noda to declare an election (notwithstanding the unconstitutionality of holding an election under the current legislation). Since the LDP/Komeito have declared that they will not form a “grand coalition” before an election then we can see clearly that their desire is to establish such a coalition only after an election where the two parties expect to have an upper hand. The Yomiuri reports (日) that indeed 50 members of Ozawa’s group are likely to vote against the legislation, giving the impression that a party meltdown is inevitable.

However despite this it would seem that DPJ executives are confident that they will get the numbers they need at potentially low cost. While there will be more meetings over the next two days Noda has declared that he wants to adhere to the June 21 plan for a vote on the tax reform legislation. It is likely that despite reservations expressed at yesterday’s meeting by “middle-roaders,” DPJ leaders probably expect, for reasons identified in yesterday’s post, that the middle-roaders will go along with the bill when push comes to shove. The current sense of financial and fiscal international crisis revolving around Europe, and the IMF’s ‘recommendation’ that Japan do its bit by raising its consumption tax to 15%, will probably help Noda push these members along. Noda and his troops can probably also eat into the 50 or so members over the next few days as well. Most estimates are that the diehard ‘Ozawa’-ites may not number much more than 30 to 40 within the party. Hatoyama has publicly suggested that anyone not going along with the bill should be treated lightly in terms of party discipline, perhaps leaving the way open for an unspoken agreement where an abstention, or perhaps better for Noda, a no show on the consumption tax vote, will only result in suspension of some party privileges rather than expulsion, thereby maintaining Noda’s lower house majority for the time being. This could be an option favoured by those vulnerable first-term Diet members with constituency seats who want to stay within the party without either ‘rejecting’ their loyalty to Ozawa et al or fatally undermining their reformist credentials, which could still play a small part in a close single member district (SMD) election race. We could well see a number of these candidates running in 2013 under the DPJ but with neither the DPJ or ‘Ozawa’ brands on their campaign posters – a trend that has apparently already been detected.

Perhaps also working in Noda’s favour is the backtrack in the last couple of days on the idea that the Ishin no kai (InK) may not field candidates in the next general election. Hashimoto earlier this week suggested if he got the bill he wanted through parliament then he might view his work as having been done and refrain from fielding candidates in the next national election. However it seems that he may have misread the objectives of his supporters and colleagues who ultimately see the reform of Osaka’s administrative structure as only one step in the goal of reforming Japan’s administrative structure, not the primary goal as such. Hashimoto is looking less and less sure footed as time goes on and he has had to walk this statement back recently as well. Osaka governor and partner in crime Matsui Ichiro has in an interview (日) with the Asahi declared that not only will InK field candidates in the next general election but they will look to secure a majority. InK executives have also declared Watanabe Yoshimi’s Your Party (who are looking to syphon off any DPJ members quitting the party over the tax legislation if they will commit to the party’s policies on administrative reform) is the closest in terms of policy to the InK, suggesting they may be getting over their concerns about YP. Either which way such movements are useful for Noda as it will be a tacit restraint on the LDP’s pushing the DPJ into an election.

Likewise with the election reform bill. The election bill1 is useful for the DPJ and Noda for two reasons. First it drives somewhat of a wedge between the Komeito and the LDP due to the characteristics of the bill which advantages the Komeito, but does not do enough in terms of eliminating the proportional representation components for the LDP.

Second, while the Komeito has not confirmed that it will vote for the DPJ electoral reform legislation, as it is in general it is opposed to any reduction in the PR seats, the DPJ’s determination to submit the bill within the current Diet session will complicate the LDP/Komeito’s thinking around a “no vote” for two reasons. One is that they would essentially be voting against the rectification of the constitutionality issue identified by the Japanese Supreme Court. This would not be fatal for these parties as such but since the bill is probably a ‘bare minimum’ solution to the issue, then the DPJ at the very least would be seen as the more pragmatic and non-obstructionist in this specific case.2

This would usefully enable Noda to continue putting off an election with little public backlash until all parties come around to a solution. And the second reason is precisely this – if the Komeito and the LDP want an election so bad, then the ball is in their court – will they really vote against it knowing that the issue will not be raised again until the next session of the Diet (whenever that might be – if Noda gets his tax and other bills passed he may try to do as little as possible until next year, especially if the current session is extended until September)?

As we can see Noda is a thorough and systematic political actor that has managed to travel quite a lot of political distance since his inauguration, despite essentially having nothing to work with at the start and having to deal with the usual political scandals and upsets around his cabinet selections. Whatever misgivings one may have about his policies, we can only speculate about how different things would have been for the DPJ had Noda been the first, and not the third, DPJ PM. If Noda is successful in passing the bill, manages to fend off calls for an election anytime soon, and maintains party unity of some recognizable kind, then the prospects are not too bad for the medium term. Not only will he have “got something done” in extremely difficult political circumstances (some would have initially said impossible circumstances!) he can also probably expect the mainstream Japanese media to praise him and fall in behind Noda for a period of time – a rare commodity for the DPJ. This will likely not propel him into the plus 50 percent support range, but could stabilize his support base enough that he would be able to survive the September DPJ election, and then make through to next year. There will still be considerable skepticism and a pro-reform floating vote that any DPJ breakaways, the InK, or YP et al can capitalize on in the next general election but Noda lasting until 2013 (getting ahead of myself here!) may turn out to be a pivotal moment in the evolution of the Japanese political system.


The basic features of the electoral reform bill are:

1) Elimination, as suggested by the Supreme Court of the system where SMD seats are decided first through the allocation of one seat to each prefecture, with the remaining (253) seats allocated on the basis of population (the so-called 「1人別枠方式」). If passed it would simply be distributed on the basis of population.

2) Reduction of SMD seats to 295 (from 300). With the elimination of the 1人別枠方式, based on the 2010 census results this would mean that Fukui, Yamanashi, Tokushima, Kouchi and Saga-kens would all lose one seat.

3)Proportional representation seats would be reduced by 40 from 180 to 140 seats. This would bring the total number of lower house seats down to approximately 435 (down from 180).

4) The regional PR ‘blocs’ (currently 11) would all be merged into a single national bloc for distribution.

5) Within the 140 PR seats, 105 will be decided by the current d’hondt method while 35 would be allotted by the additional member system (連用制) method which gives an advantage to smaller parties by essentially reversing the order of preference used to calculate seat apportionment.

6) Implementing a minimum 1 percent threshold for being eligible for receiving a PR seat.

7) For the election after the next one, cut the total number to 400 seats. In preparation for this election, a commission of enquiry will be set up to report back within one year on the best way to implement a reduced lower house size while also appropriately reflecting the will of the people.

2 And they may be able to make a little mileage out of the fact that they alone are willing to ostensibly “sacrifice” a part of the body politic given the difficult circumstances that have lead to the raising of the consumption tax. Along with the cutting of public servant salaries (temporarily) and other cost cutting moves then they may have a (IMHO) weak claim on being more responsible than either the LDP or Komeito given in their time in government (with the possible exception of Koizumi, although he did far less than is usually thought in terms of domestic reform given how much capital he expended on foreign policy initiatives of dubious outcomes) they were unable to do even this meager kind of cost cutting.

Hashism v Gomanism

“I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.”
― Franklin D. Roosevelt

Making sense of Hashimoto is becoming harder and harder as time goes on. On the one hand with his recent obsessions regarding tattooed Osaka city council workers he has started to make himself look like the dictatorial hypocrite that some claimed that he was, or at least fulfilled the expectation that he would be far too full of himself to walk back an obviously badly conceived policy.

It also made him look less like the politically astute operator many believed him to be. It is one thing for your opponents to use what you have done against you to paint you as something you may not be – but walking into a narrative trap (“fascist,” or “intemperate” or whatever) clearly laid out before you seemingly without hesitation is pretty boneheaded.

On the other hand the “defeat” that Hashimoto suffered at the hands of the DPJ government over the Oi nuclear reactor restart reflected upon Hashimoto in a different way: Hashimoto admitted his defeat in this war of the wills and even went as far as to “withdraw” the declaration of war on the DPJ government he had put forward earlier on in the debate about the restart of the reactor, arguing that he was indeed intemperate in making such an announcement – it should only be used as a once in a lifetime resort. I suppose this implies that he is going to break it out again if need be.

What to make of this? Is this a new “flexible” side of Hashimoto coming out? Are his advisors having an impact by counseling him over the types of battles he chooses? Did he realize that the DPJ was trying to drive him into a corner in order to take the wrath of a hot and bothered Osaka during the peak of a summer of brownouts? Or that he had been called on insincere populism? Time will tell I guess. Whatever the correct interpretation it was a rough last couple of weeks for the Osaka Mayor.

But if we are to judge one by their enemies, then the hatred of Hashimoto that fills the infamous cultural fascist, revisionist pseudo-historian, and Sino-Korean provocateur-supreme Kobayashi Yoshinori  (plenty more adjectives could apply) suggests that Hashimoto should rest a little easy. Let us list the ways that Kobayashi hates (日) Hashimoto so, according to the Shuukan Bunshun:

Kobayashi first starts off with the claim that in his 20 years of ‘commentating’ or ‘debating’ issues of apparent national importance (sarcasm should be noted) that he has never seen anyone as infantile as Hashimoto Toru.

He calls him a “fraudulent” patriot.

He is particularly concerned about his lack of reverence for the Japanese emperor. He criticizes him for his wanting Osaka to be considered a 都 (tou). This is not for any administrative or political reason –  Kobayashi argues that such a designation should only be reserved for the city in which the emperor resides, and to expect otherwise is churlish.  

He does have Hashimoto up about his over-eagerness in pursuing teachers who do not stand for the Japanese national anthem and pay appropriate respect for the flag.

Here however his critique is not motivated by some profound  respect for democracy. Nope again,  its about the emperor, particularly the current one who is one record as having said it would be nice if people showed patriotism without being coerced.

He is against the TPP, which is something that Hashimoto has said Japan needs to consider if it wants to internationalize its economy. For Kobayashi the problem is essentially that the TPP would destroy the unique rice-producing nation that was a gift from the gods, and now ruled by an unbroken line of divine emperors. Add in some stuff about an economy being dependent on foreign consumption being bad and potentially turning Japan into Korea.

Kobayashi then makes some vague but more coherent points about neoliberal economic policies undermining the Japanese economy and driving societal inequality through promoting the survival of the fittest. He cites the current global financial crisis as proof of that.

[Essentially he is critical of Hashimoto’s fondness for some of the Koizumi administration’s policies, although to be fair to Hashimoto there are some areas where is actually pro-public investment so may differ from the Koizumi crowd in some crucial ways. Hashimoto, after all, has been rather reluctant to be too closely associated with Watanabe Yoshimi’s Your Party.]

Kobayashi hates Hashimoto’s populism in regards to anti-nuclear movements around the country. He thinks Hashimoto taking on academics and criticizing bureaucrats who criticize Hashimoto is nothing more than a child’s quarrel. He hates how he dismisses people like Kobayashi as precocious brats. And he thinks this kind of behaviour is putting a wall between politicians and the citizenry.

It is true that Hashimoto is somewhat immature in his dismissiveness of people who criticize him, and while good for entertainment probably does not endear him to people he may have to work with in the future. Nevertheless critical debate like this is for Kobayashi the antithesis of democracy (if directed against him anyway). The final paragraph is worth reproducing in full:

Experts and mass media journalists who praise Hashimoto, who is on par with childish dictators like Kim Jong-Eun, and his determination to break through entrenched interests by embracing a decisive politics (or more accurately, a politics that can make decisions), are all idiots. We may as well just give up on democracy and yell “banzai,” “comrade,” and “Hashimoto-shogun” (ie  military dictator) just like they do in North Korea!

Serious stuff as you can see.

Is a Hashimoto-Koizumi connection likely?

Speculation on my part to be honest, although not exactly speculation of the ‘wild’ sort. Hashimoto has already stated that his model for a politician is Koizumi Junichiro. Koizumi 2.0 (Shinjiro) has become increasingly disgruntled with his own party recently, stating that the LDP does nothing but “oppose.” In today’s news he has come out and gone against what is the LDP’s true feeling and said that the potential rise of new parties will be good (j) for both the LDP and the DPJ, as it might well force them to take reform more seriously. Anyhow something to keep in the back of the mind for a few months later when things will likely heat up if the mainstream parties fail to make progress on the various issues up for debate now.

And indeed Hashimoto is not holding back in pushing the mainstream parties to take this challenge seriously (j). following on the post a few days prior we now have a few more details about some of the broader issues and intentions of Hashimoto’s “party.” The first thing to point out is the tendency over the last few weeks for Hashimoto to talk about publishing a 船中八策 (senchuu hassakku). Senchuu hassaku is Sakamoto Ryoma’s reform treatise (literally “Eight Point Program Composed Abroad Ship”), which in the dying days of the bakufu in 1867 was presented as the ideal way of reforming the national administrative structure of Japan, in order to save it. While Sakamoto himself did not live to see the program come to fruition, most of what was in the document was taken forward by the other revolutionary elites. The significance of this is possibly not lost on Hashimoto – he has come out and said he would not become a MP in the next election so perhaps he is content to let others take it forward.

To take his place however he has received 2750 applications to join his juku, where he hopes to recruit 300 people to run in the next election. The successful members will pay (j) a sweet 120,000 yen a year for the privilege. Apparently he has managed to attract a number of former parliamentarians (no surprise here), but also a number of current bureaucrats.

So it has been clear that Hashimoto’s intentions are national, and in today’s news there is a rush of reporting about the soon to be published senchuu hassaku manifesto.

Following on from the previous post, I will start with a few details about foreign policy.

First of all, Hashimoto states his support in principle(j) for the TPP. He notes that in terms of overall economic growth Japan needs to start to think about how to benefit from the transnational nature of human, trade and financial resource flows across borders, by looking to add value. Here he notes a need for a change of awareness about the nature of Japan’s connection to the global economy. He addresses the issue about Japan’s agricultural sector and the TPP by saying that sometimes painful adjustments are necessary, but also in the long-term he expects that with reform, trade opening will be a big plus for the agricultural sector. I assume under this mantle he will pursue one of his favourite projects which is preparing young Japanese through education to adequately compete internationally by giving them the adequate skills.

In terms of national security, Hashimoto’s views do indeed seem to approximate the Koizumi line. He states the need in the short term for Japan to rely on the US security alliance give Japan’s lack of independent defense capabilities, and while he does not explicitly state the need for more autonomous defense capabilities the nuance seems to be very much along those lines. In reality this is not much of a game changer – the evolution of Japan’s defense policy seems very much one of “keep close to the US while you build yourself up so you have options later on.” He mentions (j) Australia also as a defense partner, very interestingly.

On the Futenma issue he states that while he has his own views, it is indeed a delicate issue, and that he would consult more fully with members of his party executive on how to resolve it. My guess is that Futenma is such political poison that he is hoping in the next few months some progress will be made. Recent moves are bringing everything to a head, and it would be very wise for Hashimoto to say nothing very concrete in this regard.

There are few points of minor controversy here perhaps, but nothing that will greatly scare the general public.

In terms of administrative reform there are a few interesting nuggets.

In terms of education reform, Hashimoto’s pet project in Osaka, he has suggested pushing forward on to the national level with his plan to sack teachers who do not meet basic standards of competence.1 He has also suggested reforming education administrative structures by getting rid of the “Board of Education” (教育委員会) structure. Not surprisingly the Sankei was all over this (j) – anything that hurts those “lefty” teachers must be a good thing. Nevertheless, in my own personal experience the boards of education don’t appear to add much other than bureaucratic difficulty and really function more as place to distinguish (and perhaps, indoctrinate) those teachers who will go on to become elite administrators. The quality of teaching at the lower levels in Japan, especially among the older generation, is in many cases very poor and very few people will shed tears over some of these people being effectively retired early. Nevertheless Hashimoto will need to be careful in this area. While he has advocated for some interesting programs in Osaka, he could lose a lot of support among Japan’s notoriously demanding parents should he try to do too much too quickly in this area. This is perhaps why he has avoided touching on what is really the big problem with the Japanese education system – the all or nothing examination system, with all of the adverse incentives it drives.

In terms of broader governance changes, he has unsurprisingly come out in favour of introducing the 道州制 (doushuusei) which involves the rearrangement of Japan’s prefectures into larger sub-national units. This has been discussed in Japan for quite some time given the perilous fiscal situation of some prefectures, and the inability of some smaller prefectures to do much strategic planning, especially vis-a-vis the bigger political players. This will also be accompanied by a change to the way taxes are collected and distributed from central government to regional governments, likely giving these sub-national units more power of the purse.

One more surprising suggestion is the abolishment of the Upper House. Hashimoto correctly identifies (j) that the sangiin has become a shell of its former self and no longer performs much of a coherent political function. He has also questioned the practice of losers in lower house elections being revived in the subsequent upper house elections and merely reinforcing party partisanship. One wonders however how serious he is about this particular policy. It may be a starting position for the purposes of bargaining with the upper house itself for its own reform should his party have significant success in the lower house. There is also the small matter of the sangiin being specified in the Japanese constitution as, well, essential. To change this it will first of all require a 2/3 vote in favour in BOTH houses, not just the lower house. Already we can see the problem. And while the law is now in place to allow an amendment of the constitution through referendum, the second step in the amendment process, the fact that this step has not been taken before will give any constitutional revision quite a bit of salience and symbolism. If this is attempted then it is very likely that all sorts of “other” constitutional issues will arise and will “need” to be addressed, particularly ones related to Article 9. This will all be very interesting but one wonders if it is a massive distraction from Hashimoto’s overall plan. Reforming the upper house would seem to be a much more sensible, and probably publicly popular. Would the public, despite its desire to see a reduction in government “waste” and spending, really vote for outright abolishing the upper house? After all, in a country the size of Japan having just one house would be quite a political risk, unless any constitutional revision also included the articulation of increased “states rights” (or in this case, doshuu).

Overall, the manifesto is while quite bold, is not particularly controversial.2There will certainly be elements of the public that will be vigorously against some aspects, but a number of the provisions have actually been floating around for a while as topics of discussion for reform. Hashimoto seems to have so far neglected to touch some of the more controversial issue that would almost automatically derail his success. For example, raising the consumption tax or not (Hashimoto has slyly said that this is a topic for discussion after administrative reform), Futenma, and the role of nuclear energy in Japan’s power mix.

The same cannot be said for one of the other parties trying to occupy the “reformist” space in Japan’s politics. The other famous political mini-dynasty in Japan is not doing itself any favours at all. First of all Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro has come out and criticised the idea of having a citizen’s referendum on nuclear energy in Tokyo, dismissing it as “sentimentality.” While the public has been generally forgiving of Ishihara while his statements don’t touch on the issues he is directly responsible for, it will be interesting to see Ishihara dig himself further into a hole on this one in the next few days. For someone who has designs on being in a position of national responsibility, rather than making the trains run on time, this was a very ill-advised statement – being both tin-eared and undemocratic at the same time. He has also come out and stated (j) that his son Ishihara Nobuteru should quit his job as the Secretary General of the LDP given the party is good for nothing. Son will not be pleased with dad, and son’s party will be even less pleased with father and son than they were before. Anyway, we can see why Hashimoto has been keeping his distance from the new conservative party. Hashimoto, like probably many of the reformist members of all parties, including the LDP and DPJ, will let the senior leaderships of their parties, and the likes of Ishihara et al occupy as much of the controversial political space as possible until it becomes clear how things will go down in the lower house election, if and when it does come about.

1 Basically his plan is to rank teachers into 5 groups, and if someone is persistently in the lowest rank then they will be penalized or potentially fired.

2 With the exception of his strange proposal to deny the rich access to pensions despite their paying premiums. This must be a very clumsy attempt to pave the way for discussions about a income-tested pay-as-you-go pension system, which has considerable support among the younger generation and according to my research younger MPs in particular.

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.

Noda stays patient and measured amongst the noise

Last evening the Japanese PM announced that Japan would start conversations with countries involved in the TPP with a view to joining the negotiations. There is a tiny bit of wiggle room there should the world, or domestic politics, fall over in the next few days, but despite all manner of dubious arguments for and against the TPP, Noda appears to have exercised rare leadership, at least over his cabinet. In yesterday’s budget committee meeting in the Diet we saw the interesting sight of the pro-JA Minister of Agriculture Kano sitting side by side with his Prime Minister and answering positively all manner of bizarre questions about the TPP, and how it will be the end of the world.

The “best” was saved for last when SDP leader Fukushima Mizuho spent all of her time haranguing the PM about why he wasn’t going to make his announcement in the Diet at that very minute. If I may paraphrase the conversation:

Fukushima: Is it not the case that since you are not announcing in the Diet your intention (ed: to start discussions about joining the negotiations for the TPP – remember all countries have to ok Japan even joining these negotiations!) that you are in fact neglecting the Diet as the voice of the people?

Noda: not really…we have processes to work through and a wide range of discussions still need to be had…

Fukushima: that’s not true, and is it also not true that by flying out to announce Japan’s participation in Honolulu that the PM cares more about foreign countries? Are you really Japan’s PM? (this last one was a real statement). You just want to avoid being yelled at by the Diet.

Noda: well, we (governments) do it all of the time…but anyway I will be announcing it in Japan tonight before I leave and trust me when I say that being yelled at by the Diet is the least scary part of any likely fallout from this.

Fukushima: that’s not true…we should be in the Diet having serious discussions about the merits of the TPP as something so important should be discussed in the Diet.

Noda: er, well that is exactly what we should be doing, I agree (ie are you kidding me! If only we could have a serious debate! Noda’s voice actually rose for the first time here – the man has patience!)

Fukushima: I hate you (well she called him ‘hidoi’ but that is how it sounded to me)

Noda: thanks for the questions guys, real helpful (but much more politely)

Then at the press conference a reporter thought he would try and be clever and catch the PM out by asking about the implication of “IDS” or investor-state dispute resolutions, for which individual entities such as companies can sue governments if their decisions get in the way of legal business practices. So now everyone wants to ask technical questions! Whether IDS will be a big feature of the TPP is anyone’s guess and it is not exactly front and centre. In fact some countries are moving away from including these mechanisms in trade agreements. Not exactly a point of great interest for a PM who is struggling to convince the electorate that his negotiators be allowed to even start talking about negotiating these issues. And that has been the essential problem with the discourse on the TPP. Unless negotiations proceed then no one really knows where the dice will fall. Despite looking like a typical trade negotiation, the key thing to remember about the TPP is that it is a multilateral negotiation where a country is bound to find allies on particular issues, who might in turn turn-out to be enemies on another. And ultimately the legislatures of the democratic countries will have the final say, something the likes of Fukushima Mizuho would do well to remember. Constitutionally, it is Noda’s decision (to start negotiations) and frankly it is pleasing to see Noda act as if as PM he does have this responsibility. Noda could, when the initial outpouring of misplaced, and in some cases insincere, grief, subsides, actually command respect by sticking to his guns and not weakling away from the hard questions.

Thisarticle while written from a NZ perspective very concisely summarizes most of the pressing issues about the TPP and exactly why it could turn into a long drawn out process. It also shows why the US being on the other side of the TPP fence, that is, looking in, is actually crucial. Should the US farm lobby and a number of politicians have their way, NZ would be turfed out of the TPP. As an original member that won’t happen to NZ but it was of absolutely no surprise yesterday when it was suggested that Japan be prevented from joining the TPP by high-ranking US politicians (who are clearly not particularly mindful of their own deeply embedded protectionist tendencies).

So in essence there is plenty of time for serious debate to take place on the issue of TPP. A good place to start might be to sort out why Japanese agriculture, and specifically land utilization and Japan’s self-sufficiency rate, have declined under the current, apparently pro-agriculture regime presided over by the agricultural cooperatives in Japan

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.