It’s really exciting that you somehow managed to turn the tide of sixty years of political opinion to bring your much-beleaguered party to power last year around this time, but the spectacular failure of Yukio Hatoyama this summer and former party leader Ichiro Ozawa’s epic flameout in March of last year really put a kink in those plans, huh?
Naoto Kan was a refreshing change–the administrations finance minister turned prime minister seemed to have his head on straight, or at the very least wasn’t going to run around trying to change everything from the party platform in a mere eight months. I liked him. He was–what’s the word?–stable, something Japan could really use considering the country has traded in for a new prime minister as soon as the new car smell faded from the previous one. (Five in four years. Five in four years. This from one of the “most stable” countries in the world.)
Top that all off with a loss in the Upper House in the Diet, forcing Prime Minister Kan to run effectively offensive measures in his majority-turned-minority government, and you’ve turned the wild success of your party into a sour disappointment in exactly a year. But wait. There’s more.
As of this morning, disgraced former party leader Ichiro Ozawa is back, baby, and those messy little corruption charges don’t seem to bother him at all. See, he’s going to make a bid for party leadership again, facing off against current Prime Minister Kan in the party election next month. Kan, of course, has only been in power for a scant three months. This looks great for your record. This, seriously, is my favorite line from the BBC article:
His bid for power is likely to destabilise the government, analysts said.
REALLY. This idiot is going to destabilise the government? You don’t say! And just to cap it off, Hatoyama is totally in Ozawa’s camp! Because nothing looks better than having the guy that simultaneously couldn’t deliver on his promises and foolishly messed with long-standing defence relationships on your side. Tobias Harris at the WSJ says “In short, the Japanese political system is in for another period of turmoil,” which is about as definitively obvious as you can get. So much for the hope of change with the DPJ. At this point, you might as well bring the LDP back; they may not have been able to get the country out of its long-standing recession, but at least they didn’t treat the Ministry like an air hockey table.
I’m still trying to get back into the swing of things post-vacation. Thanks to those who have commented on my “Harry Brown” posts, over at On Violence and here. It’s a fascinating film with a lot to say about criminal gangs, violence, martial training, and (a)morality, and I encourage you all to watch it.
I did note, in my plodding attempts to catch up with what the world is doing, that early projected results for the Japanese Diet election are out. The results–not too surprisingly–don’t look great for the DPJ. From AP:
Estimates in major newspapers Monday morning showed the progressive Democratic Party of Japan had lost its slim majority in the upper house, in stark contrast to its landslide victory in August of last year, which ended the conservative party’s nearly 50-year grip on power…The election won’t directly affect the Democrats’ grip on power because they control the more powerful lower house of parliament. But it does raise the serious prospect of gridlock.
This is clearly the result of many factors, culminating in the austerity measures PM Kan’s administration announced recently. Far from the robust majority the DPJ had held in the Diet over the last ten months, this new (projected) Diet will throw wrenches where it sees fit. I’m sure the LDP have been working around the clock to win back some of the ground they’ve lost.
Fiscal announcements are the fastest way to turn popular opinion away from yourself, not that Kan had much choice with the G20 so near to his election. You’d think the administration would have balanced the announcement more delicately, though.
Still, no one thought Kan was taking up an easy job.
TNR has a long piece on the transition of power in Japan, which covers a lot of ground between the LDP and the DPJ, and really gets to the heart of the matter, which is Japan’s yearn to grow into a fully developed actor with less dependence on the United States.
The United States has long complained that Japan seems incapable of acting like a serious country; that most of its people live in a never-never land of wishful thinking on security issues while its leadership cannot seem to act decisively—whether that be a matter of dealing with longstanding economic problems or equipping a military establishment with the actual means to deal with the threats Japan faces. But the political setup that produces this irresponsibility is of Washington’s doing—it’s the way a vassal state can be expected to behave. And while President Obama is not answerable for the stunted sovereignty that forms the most enduring legacy of the American occupation in Japan, he can be blamed for the complicity of his administration in blocking efforts to transform Japan into a politically mature democracy.
For the underlying subtext of last week’s events is that the United States may really after all prefer vassals to allies.
But I maintain that the issue remains a fundamentally internal one, whatever pressure and action the United States can apply to Japan’s turnkey administration. Until Japan can reconcile its fragile position in east Asia with its wariness of extensive and deadly weaponization, it cannot–as was shown by Hatoyama’s scuttling–claim the position of independent authority it rightly covets. The United States has as much control over Japan’s defense mechanisms as it ever has in the last six decades, and it will take a significant force of public opinion (still understandably hostile towards weaponization) combined with ruthless pursuit of policy change to truly grasp independence on the world stage.
This is not to discount Japan’s power, mind. Japan is the second-largest economy in the world, a well-placed democracy in its region with undeniable influence. But there are clear limits to that power, and they start right about where Futenma is.
Speaking of Okinawa, the US military has instituted a curfew for troops stationed there as of today, locking the doors on those winsome doves from midnight to five am. It is an obvious–but potentially effective–olive branch towards new Prime Minister Kan’s administration and the people of Okinawa. I will be watching attentively to see how it goes.
Lastly, PM Kan spoke today about Japan’s massive internal debt problems, comparing their future bleakly to Greece’s present. In the Guardian:
“We cannot sustain public finance that overly relies on issuing bonds. As we can see from the eurozone confusion that started in Greece, there is a risk of default if growing public debt is neglected and trust lost in the bond market.”
Japan’s public debt stood at 218% of gross domestic product last year, according to the International Monetary Fund – the highest in the industrialised world.
Kan said the debt problem could not be dealt with overnight. “That is why we need to have a drastic reform from now in order to obtain fiscal health.”
Now, the Japan and Greece aren’t quite apples-to-apples comparable–the sources of each country’s debt is quite different. But fiscal austerity measures may actually go down more easily in Japan than they have in Greece or Spain, owing to Kan’s fiscal knowledge and current approval ratings (near 70%). Consumer taxes, however, tend to roil public support, and that’s a potential mechanism that could be proposed. For a consumer-goods driven culture, taxes on goods are hateful. But they could prove necessary.
If Kan chooses to make fiduciary responsibility a cornerstone of his work in the next couple of months–as opposed to divisive and generally unsolvable issues such as Futenma and other culture rifts–he has a good chance of surviving. And to tell the truth, I really hope he does.
I really can’t do better than this NYT headline: Japan Elects a New Premier, Fifth in Four Years:
Naoto Kan, a plain-spoken finance minister with activist roots, was elected prime minister on Friday, making him the fifth Japanese leader in four years.
Mr. Kan, 63, won a vote in the lower house of Parliament and will now go through the formality of being appointed by Emperor Akihito.
Smart choice. Kan is a measured and stable guy, which means he might be able to weather the DPJ through the next couple of years.
Slate asks, Did Washington bring down the Japanese prime minister?, which is a pretty leading question. Hatoyama had political problems out of the gate (scandal, poor response, another scandal, and then Okinawa) that had to have been party to his decision to step down regardless of the futility of his glove-slap at Washington. This was the best graph out of Sneider’s article:
Americans harbored growing concerns about the new government’s desire to strike a more independent pose, along with Hatoyama’s gauzy vision of a new East Asia Community, modeled on the European Union. “The basic issue is that Hatoyama was determined to establish more strategic independence for Japan but did not understand that without Japan developing any alternative strategy for its own defense, this was a dead end,” a senior official told me this week. American officials lectured Japan about the strategic importance of the Marines in countering China’s rise without any sense of irony that the Obama administration is engaged in its own, largely unrequited, courtship of Beijing.
Yeah. That I can believe. When Hatoyama came into office, it was on the wave of being a more independent actor on the world stage. But it’s hard to shake sixty-plus years of close engagement on several levels. I don’t disagree that Japan could or should be a more independent actor, but I think it could have been handled more cleverly. Sheila Smith, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, talks of Japan’s Missed Opportunity:
The change in government last September made obvious Japan’s inability to reconcile itself to today’s proliferation dynamics. On the one hand, Tokyo relied on U.S. nuclear superiority while publicly rejecting the use of these weapons on Japan’s behalf. A recent Japanese government investigation into the existence of “secret agreements” between Tokyo and Washington on the transit of nuclear weaponry brought this deep postwar controversy back into the headlines. After months of government deliberation, Mr. Okada was confronted in Parliament by a fundamental question–what would the government do if Japan was threatened? He pointed out that Japan’s three nonnuclear principles–not to possess, manufacture or allow the introduction of nuclear weapons–were designed to keep its citizens safe from the threat of nuclear use. But he had to acknowledge that the government would have to make its best judgment should Japan be threatened based on the need to protect its citizens.
In this light, Mr Hatoyama’s struggle is reflective not so much of its deep and entangled relationship with the US, but of deep and contradictory motivations within its own nation.
Will Kan do better? There’s only so much a prime minister can do when a nation can’t unify around the question of its future defense.
This afternoon it was reported–with ne’er a ripple–that PM Hatoyama of Japan would adhere to the 2006 agreement made with the US and not pursue the more radical shift off Okinawa he had promised during his campaign.
In the campaign that swept the Democrats to power last year, Hatoyama had raised hopes the Marine base could be moved off Okinawa, host to about half the U.S. forces in Japan.
But Washington sought to stick to the 2006 deal to move the facility from the crowded central city of Ginowan to Nago.
Hatoyama later backtracked, saying some Marines had to stay to deter threats. During a visit to Beijing on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commended Hatoyama for making “the difficult but nevertheless correct decision.”
It was pretty unlikely Hatoyama would be able to pursue the issue to a resolution that would actually make the Okinawans happy, realistically; I don’t doubt that he and his administration probably wanted very much to bump the base from Futenma, but even if his party’s ruling secretary hadn’t been indited in a funding scandal and his finance minister Hirohisa Fujii hadn’t left within months of the DPJ’s ascension in the Diet, Hatoyama would have had a challenging time getting past the US’s stubbornness, the logistical nightmare of full-scale transference from the existing USMC infrastructure in the area, and the amount of political capital he would have to trade to accomplish what, in the register of Japan’s political goals, does not amount to a great deal.
Hatoyama, however, took an interesting route in defending his choice.
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said on Monday tension on the Korean peninsula underlined the importance of tight U.S.-Japan ties and was key to his decision to keep a controversial U.S. airbase on Okinawa.
While it’s certainly true that things are taking something of a nosedive on the Korean peninsula, and that when China, Japan, and South Korea meet for their trilateral talks later this year North Korea will likely be a foremost topic of conversation, North Korea’s aggression is hardly the straw that sent the camel to the chiropractor. The decision to adhere to the 2006 agreement was political expediency, even if it was regionally timely. But John McCreary has a good take on the situation:
The crisis over the sinking of the patrol ship Cheonan probably contributed to Hatoyama’s decision to not inject any more strain in the US security relationship. The North unwittingly gave Hatoyama an exit that saves face and is defensible on national security grounds, despite the disappointment of the Okinawans. Now is not the time to show North Korea any fractures among the Allies.
The last line is very true. North Korea is a wild card, and it looks like some kind of conflict is coming to a head the closer Kim Jong Il inches towards a fatal health problem.