Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Push

Monday marked opening day of what promises to be a week of intense activity by the politico-media-entertainment complex in support of a theatrical ouster of Prime Minister Kan Naoto. I say theatrical as the no-confidence motion is neither desired by the public nor based upon any real need for an ouster. It is also unlikely to succeed.

The Liberal Democratic Party and the New Komeito have been threatening the Cabinet with a no-confidence motion for several weeks. During those weeks, they have tried to manufacture a reason for the toppling of the Kan government, with little success.

At first, the LDP honed in on the prime minister’s helicopter overflight of the nuclear complex on the second day of the disaster. According to the LDP’s claims, the overflight delayed crucial venting of gases from the reactors which could have prevented the hydrogen explosions that blasted apart two of the reactor buildings. That claim lost much of its value when it could not be reconciled with time what actually happened at the plants, with the No. 1 reactor in complete meltdown 16 hours after the earthquake and the release valves on the other reactor unwilling to stay open for the venting to take place.

The LDP then turned to accusing the prime minister of ordering the halting the injection of seawater into the reactor for 55 minutes on the first day in response to an opaque comment by his reactor safety advisor that the possibility of a chain reaction occurring following the injection of seawater “is not zero.” Hours and hours of Diet time were wasted on whether or not a stop was ordered, by whom it had been issued, and what indeed “is not zero” means (in a humorous exchange, the advisor complained, "what 'is not zero' means is that it is zero!").

In the end it turned that the whole exercise had been in vain, as the power plant manager had, in defiance of a direct order from his superiors to halt the injection of seawater, kept the injection going, thinking that preventing a meltdown was more important than trying to save the innards of the plant.

Unable to pinpoint a direct cause for removing Prime Minister Kan from power, the LDP and the New Komeito have nevertheless gone forward with their plans to submit a motion. First because they are a bit drunk on the media attention being lavished upon them for having the audacity (the sheer, bloody-mindedness?) of launching their attack on the Cabinet in the midst of Japan’s worst crisis in the postwar era. Second, because the news media, tired of presenting the everyday life struggles of common folk in the wake of the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and complete loss of four nuclear power plants (oh, the terror, poignancy and tragedy just gets so repetitive after a while…and it so upsets the advertisers…) is a willing co-participant in the generation of the news.

Monday’s front pages are a case in point. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan’s supposedly sober business newspaper, had as its front page headline, “It Has Risen to 74%, Those Do Not Value [the Actions of the Government]” and then in small print “The Response to the Nuclear Accident.” The Yomiuri Shimbun, not to be outdone, printed as its lead story, with a huge scary headline, “The Decision to Raise the Consumption Tax to 10% Could Come As Early as Next Month” with the subtitle, “The Prime Minister and Ruling Party Leadership Core Member Group Will Weigh The Options.”

That the 74% figure in the Nikkei poll was by far the worst figure for the government from a set of questions in a survey that found support for the Cabinet had risen and the number of those opposed to the Cabinet had fallen 5 points should be a source of shame for the paper’s editors.

No similar hope of shame can be expected from the Yomiuri, which is pathologically opposed to the present government and the ruling Democratic Party of Japan. It was up to The Asahi Shimbun to print as its lead story in this morning’s paper what amounts to a correction of the Yomiuri’s lead story on Monday, namely that what the prime minister and the core leadership of the DPJ will decide upon at the end of next month will be a plan for a gradual phase in of an increase in the consumption tax over several years – a rise that everyone knows has to happen in order to pay for Japan’s burgeoning social welfare and retirement costs – that will begin at the earliest in April of 2012 and will top out at at 10%, possibly as soon as Fiscal Year 2015.

The deceptive behavior continues on the inner pages. Today’s Sankei Shimbun has an article on page 2 entitled, “The Kan Cabinet: ‘at the limit’ of its powers,” (in J. – Kan naikaku: rikiryo ni ‘genkai’”) directly beneath a graph with the following data on the Cabinet’s approval rating.

November 21.6%
December 23.6%
January 28.3%
February (2nd week) 20.7%
February (4th week) 18.7%
April 21.8%
May 29.2%

November 59.8%
December 59.6%
January 53.5%
February (2nd week) 62.9%
February (4th week) 67.7%
April 62.7%
May 58.3%

If by “at the limit” the Sankei means “at the upper bound of its popularity,” the Sankei may be right. Having around 30% of the populace pleased with the government is probably about all that a modern Japanese cabinet can hope for, especially when that cabinet is led by a prime minister with as obvious contempt for flashy media showmanship as Kan Naoto has.

If, however, the paper wants us to believe that the Cabinet has run out its string, then the assertion is not held up by the data. Support for the Cabinet has been rising through the crisis, and is above where it was last November. There is no trend toward weakness; in fact, the trend is running in the opposite direction.

All is not well for the prime minister, of course. He is not an extremely popular figure, largely because unlike Koizumi Jun’ichiro – the last prime minister to participate in two G8 summits – he does not play to the gallery. A fifth of the public (in the Nikkei poll 21%; in the Sankei poll 19.3%) wants him to resign right now. However, when 30% to 35% of respondents identify themselves supporters of the LDP, having around 20% of the people wishing your immediate ouster seems far less impressive.

A large plurality of the populace – 49% in the Nikkei poll, 46.3% in the Sankei – want Kan to continue in office until the reconstruction efforts in the Tohoku region and the cold shutdown of the damaged Daiichi reactors have reached a certain level of stability and progress (in J. ichi danraku). Given the severity and size of both of these projects, this will be quite a span of time. What the public therefore seems to be saying is that it wants Kan in place until the country has caught its breath and can start indulging such pitifully shallow matters as replacing a prime minister because he is not a Koizumi clone.

So why are the news reporters running around, following LDP President Tanigaki Sadakazu, LDP Diet Affairs Chairman Aizawa Ichiro, New Komeito Chief Representative Yamaguchi Natsuo, former DPJ leader Ozawa Ichiro, former prime minister Hatoyama Yukio and Tanaka Makiko, recording their every utterance or, when that is not possible (as is often the case with Ozawa Ichiro) reporting their purported utterances?

For the former trio, it is because the no confidence motion is the tiger from whose back they cannot descend. They have talked themselves silly and into a corner – they have to go through with the no confidence motion no matter what.

For the latter three, the threat of a no confidence motion provides an opportunity for a little brinkmanship with the current leadership of the DPJ, a chance for extorting some concessions, particularly in the matters of fiscal expansion and increased subsidies to target constituencies. The present DPJ leadership has tried to renege on the least popular or most profligate of the many generous promises the party made when it was under the control of Ozawa and Hatoyama. By issuing cryptic threats such as “at the time of decision we will decide” (in J. – ketsudan suru toki wa ketsudan suru”), Ozawa and Hatoyama seem to be trying to force the present party leadership to be nicer to them and to listen to their counsels – especially since the contractionary and fiscally cautious policies of present leadership seem to have been costing the party popular votes.

In any case, what we are witnessing is a media-fueled bout of hysteria going on within the confines of Nagata-cho, one in which the public is not a participant but a disinterested and perhaps disgusted by-stander. Because in all the polls run by the various news organizations, not one has asked the obvious question, “Do you support a no-confidence against the Kan government at this time?”


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this posting. I came to your blog for a respite from the repeated nonsense of the mainstream media on this topic.
Exactly what I was looking for!

Joe said...

An interesting little addition: the Yomiuri today mentioned that some of the younger members of the LDP are less than pleased with Tanigaki, et al's behaviour, saying that "we should be focusing on the reconstruction instead of playing political games."


PS. Very glad so see you back and writing your very informative posts again. I hope the long break wasn't anything too serious.

Hugh Ashton said...

Thank you for putting into words what almost everyone with any common-sense is thinking, and for filling in one or two gaps in my knowledge.

Another reason (in addition to the lack of charisma) why Kan is not popular with the KKK (Keidanren, Kasumigaseki, Kisha clubs) is, of course, that he is not a member of the Establishment (hereditary political aristocracy). The media love these families - the junior Koizumi was being asked for his comments yesterday - what is he expected to know as a first-time member that a more senior pol would not know? A little more excuse with Ishihara - he does (for the moment, at least) hold a position in the LDP - despite having campaigned for his father against LDP candidates in the past.

Glad to hear about the backbench backlash against Tanigaki - I'll bet the LDP put Koike in the hot seat next ("look, we're progressive - we even allow women to hold positions in our party").