Yesterday, Prime Minister Kan Naoto apologized, twice, to a joint assembly of Diet members of the Democratic Party of Japan. He expressed his profound regret for having talked about raising the consumption tax when his party had only just clambered out of the abyss in popularity it had fallen into under the leadership of former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio and Party Secretary General Ozawa Ichiro -- an ace which set the party's popularity plummeting again just in time for the House of Councillors election. That the party's popularity even had an ability to take a dive from any height was due to Kan's having been elected the party's leader, lifting the party from out of the lethal miasma that his predecessor and Ozawa had sunk it, has been opportunistically forgotten in some quarters.
The PM was not the only one to apologize for speaking about matters of important without thinking of the consequences. Party Secretary General Edano Yukio also apologized for talking about the rise of the consumption tax and about the rival Your Party (Minna no To).
The floor of the assembly was then opened up to any and all who have a problem with the way the current leadership group wants to deal the party's having lost 10 seats on July 11: say they are sorry for having uttered inconvenient truths about Japan's fiscal policy and the party's political position, bow deeply and then get on with the business of governing without coalition control of the House of Councillors.
There was no dearth of those willing to take potshots at the core leadership, given the presence of a battalion of TV cameras and an open microphone.
Member of the House of Representatives for Hokkaido District #12 Matsuki Kenko (whose homepage seems to follow the Billy Idol rule of "Too Much is Never Enough") insisted that "What is important, if anything, is that somebody takes responsibility with firmness. The executive council is the body responsible for taking responsibility." One should note that Matsuki is on record as saying, admiringly, if absurdly, "The only one who has not wavered since the results of the last election is Ozawa Ichiro." Kawakami Yoshihiro, member of the House of Councillors for Tottori Prefecture (and yes, the yellow banner ad under Kawakami's face on his home page shouts out exactly where his allegiance lies) claimed that, "Is it not true that the supreme high command is that which creates a defeat in a war? How will responsibility be taken? It is obvious that responsibility must be taken. This Cabinet will be considered a dead body (shinitai) otherwise."
The key phrase in all the complaints was "taking responsibility" (sekinin o toru).
While sekinin o toru is one of the favorite set phrases of the political classes and the commentariat, there has never ever been a cross-party consensus on what the phrase means. "Taking responsibility" could be admitting something came about as the result of one's own mistake and vowing to make amends for what one has done. It could be forcing everyone to look at a heretofore hidden or ignored problem and saying, "I-We have to fix this problem."
In most political contexts, however, "taking responsibility" means someone says "Sorry" for whatever bad thing that may have happened, whether he or she had anything to do with what happened, then ostentatiously resigning, without there be any clear indication how in the future the unfortunate occurrence will be prevented from happening again -- a definition of "taking responsibility" that seems to be closest to running away from taking responsibility. "Taking responsibility" is, in fact, a relinquishing of responsibility, a cop out, a way of disappearing into undisturbed retirement without anyone, anywhere, feeling truly sorry or responsible about anything.
Unfortunately for all those opining yesterday at the party's joint assembly of lawmakers, an assembly that Ozawa Ichiro, as is his wont, did not attend -- is that no one had the gumption, the smarts or the quirky self-confidence to point out that the act of "taking responsibility" had already taken place, in June, when Ozawa and former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio resigned, taking responsibility for leading the DPJ on a wild and harrowing ride from a position of overwhelming strength and power in September 2009 to feeble begging for votes in all the wrong places.
That none of the current crop of leaders feels the least need to take responsibility in the classical sense, even in the face of harangues from Ozawa surrogates, is a tribute both to their own self-confidence and their own sense of what responsibility really is--which is taking the bull by the tail and facing the situation, to use the vernacular.
The next hurdle for the current leadership is not today's opening of an extraordinary session of the Diet -- where the strutting Liberal Democratic Party and the smirking Your Party will set out to score political points based upon the results of the House of Councillors elections -- but the DPJ leadership election, the first normal election for a DPJ party leader in eight years. Due to the populist election system, a determined and unscrupulous candidate has a chance to do an end run around the main body of legislators in the Diet, this through the mobilization of long-cultivated local support groups and by promising the impossible to the members of local municipal and prefectural assemblies -- which is exactly what Ozawa Ichiro has been doing for, oh, let us say the last three or four years.
Anyone with any skills in organizing write-in campaigns might want to apply for a position with Kan & Co. right now. There are 300 floating party member and party supporter points in the DPJ's September leaderhisp election, a goodly chunk of the 1224 total points up for grabs. These party member and supporter points are ready to fall into the hands of the person who can convince enough folks to join the DPJ on short notice and send in a postcard to their House of Representative district chapter, or seduce existing party members and supporters into writing a particular candidate's name on that postcard.
That is where the action moves to now -- despite all the panting reporting last night on all the various DPJ parliamentary groups having dinner together in this, that or the other restaurant. Shaping how the local party members and local assemblypersons understand "taking responsibility" -- this will become the crucial battleground.
Later - Many thanks to reader MP for catching the typos in the first version of this post.