No, Maehara Seiji is not reckless. No, the government is not confused.
And no, you will not know any of this, even if you follow the news reports.
On NHK's Sunday 9 a.m. talk show, Maehara Seiji, the Democratic Party of Japan Policy Research Chairman, suggested that Japan could enter into talks to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) only to skip out at a later date, if the elements of the pact turned out to not be to Japan's liking (ja).
The political background for making such a suggestion is clear: the outlook for the DPJ leadership pushing the Diet to give its nod to Japan participating in TPP negotiations is growing murkier by the hour. It was expected that agriculture, forestry and fisheries would be dead set against Japan participating in negotiations. As a consequence, their representative organizations were given a day to vent their grievances before the DPJ TPP project team. However, the Central Union of Agriculture Cooperatives (Zenchu) has upped the ante by employing a rarely used constitutional maneuver of petitioning the Diet in order to stop Japan’s participation in TPP talks, saying that it had the support of 350 of the Diet’s members (en). At the same time, all kinds of organizations that had been expected to remain on the sidelines have come out against Japan precipitously joining TPP negotiations, including the Consumer’s Union of Japan (Nisshoren) and the Japan Medical Association (en).
With the complexity and breadth of the TPP becoming wider known, causing more and more organizations to come out against Japan’s participation, Maehara and the rest of the DPJ’s leadership have under tremendous pressure to get as many of the DPJ’s fence sitters down on the side of the TPP as soon as possible. The temptation must have been great to drum up support now by saying that Japan’s participation could be considered contingent -- that Japan could begin negotiations only to pull out later with no harm, no foul.
Maehara's statement of course sent heads whipping around. That Japan could enter into talks with an expressed ambivalence or indeed insincerity challenged the government's and TPP opponents' common view that the fight is over whether Japan will be a committed incipient partner or will just not show up. What Maehara was suggesting was there was room at the negotiations for Japan to have some kind of special observer status, neither fully in nor fully out.
The problem with Maehara's gambit is obvious. If any entity were to enter into negotiations with Japan, it would have to consider the possibility that Japan would whip out its "option to quit" card from out its back pocket at the first sign of stress. With the possibility that the government might retreat, no nation or organization would ever want to negotiate with the Japanese government.
Being that he is no idiot, Maehara realized that he had misspoken in a big way. In a streetside interview after the end of the NHK program, he refined his statement, saying that when he was talking about Japan backing out of TPP discussions, it would be in the context of heretofore unknown facts about the pact came to light, or some other such surprise.
Pay attention to the time indication in the top right corner of this TV Asahi replay of the Maehara streetside interview (ja). Note that it says, "After 10 a.m." -- ie., after Maehara had walked off the set at NHK. Note also that TV Asahi completely ignores Maehara's nuanced restatement of his position in favor of its own narrative -- that DPJ policy chief Maehara Seiji has suggested Japan will enter into negotiations with a clear option to pull out.
Unfortunately for Maehara, what one says on Nichiyo Toron, NHK's showcase political talk show, matters far more than what one says on the street afterward. Not even for a television network that is a rival to NHK that broadcasts on its news program the video of one's restating one's position.
Since Maehara's remarks on Nichiyo Toron and his restatement of his position immediately afterward, the government has been fighting a losing battle with the news media over what is or is not Japan's position on participating in TPP negotiations.
Fully aware that under the reorganization of the DPJ's policy making process Maehara has an influence on policy second only to the prime minister*, the news media has whippped Maehara’s Nichiyo Toron comment into a confection of confusion inside the government and the ruling party. When Chief Cabinet Secretary Fujimura Osamu on Monday defended Maehara's restated opinion, and said there were past instances of Japan pulling out of negotiations with similar characteristics, the news media treated Fujimura's support as being support for Maehara’s original statement on the Nichiyo Toron program. When on Monday afternoon Fujimura said that Japan considers its promises to the United States weighty and important, the news media portrayed this as Fujimura reversing his position of earlier in the day (en). When on Tuesday, Fujimura again reaffirmed there are numerous historical instances of Japan pulling out of negotiations, the reporting made it seem that Fujimura had reversed himself yet again (ja).
Of course, the new media's misuse of Maehara's position opened the door for the opposition to criticize the ruling party and the government, with Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Ishira Nobuteru blasting Maehara and Fujimura for having no sense of how diplomatic relations are conducted (ja)
Even editorial cartoonists, who should know better, have had misguided fun at Maehara's expense. Here is the Tokyo Shimbun's Tuesday morning edition cartoon, drawing parallels between Maehara's stance on Japan 's TPP negotiations to Kim Jong-il's stance on participation in the Six Party Talks.
Panel 1 – Label: TPP
President Barack Obama : "Japan has to quickly commit to participation."
Panel 2 – Label: In and out, in and out
Maehara: "If we participate, there's the option of pulling out."
Panel 3 – Label: The Six Party Talks
Kim Jong-il to Maehara – "That's right. There's the option. There's the option."
Title: "Doing It The DPRK Way"
Poor Foreign Minister Gemba Koichiro. He has had to go out of his way to reassure international partners that Japan is not entering into negotiations willy-nilly without any guarantee of sticking around (en). Not what he thought he would be doing when he accepted the job from Noda Yoshihiko, I am sure. Note also that the report on Gemba's refutation of the principle of Japan entering into negotiation with an option to pull out perpetuates the false narrative that Maehara and Fujimura are arguing for just such a right.
The press has bought into that narrative. The government and the citizenry are being swept up into it, no matter what anyone wants or does.
* There have been further additions to the policy making diagram since I wrote about it, putting one more advisory council in between the DPJ Policy Research Council and the Cabinet. In general, however, Maehara's special status has been preserved.
Image: Tokyo Shimbun of October 25, 2011.