Friday, January 24, 2014

Opening The Diet With Abe Shinzo's Magical Tobacco Container

In a few hours the 186th Session of the Diet begins. The session promises to be both busy (80 bills and 18 treaties are in the docket) and fiery. The Diet will be debating the merits of an expanded liberty of action for Self Defense Forces under the existing Constitution -- a shadow play, as the Abe government has more than enough votes to pass the relevant bills right now, including the votes of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan -- and the just-passed special secrets protection act, which all the opposition parties (there is no point in referring to the gutted and purified Your Party as an opposition party anymore) are united in seeing at least amended, if not rescinded. Midway through the Session, which is scheduled to end on June 22, the much ballyhooed and probably quite reasonably feared rise of the consumption tax kicks in -- an imposition which will empty the nation's stores and showrooms (be prepared for the video of clerks standing around waiting for customers in vain on April 1).

Despite the challenges, the Abe government is in a sweet spot in terms of running the Diet as it pleases. The next national elections are in July 2016, unless, of course the House of Representatives is dissolved -- which is NOT going to happen. While the government would like Masuzoe Yo'ichi to prevail in February 9 by-election for Tokyo Governor -- which Masuzoe will do unless Hosokawa Morihiro hurries up and hires a bloody-minded press secretary soon -- Mr. Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party do not have any pressing elections of any kind before the so-called unified local elections in April 2015.

The distribution of seats and the continuing stumbling about of the opposition parties make the distant elections almost irrelevant. The LDP is currently allied with the New Komeito, giving it a super-majority in the House of Representatives and a majority in the House of Councillors. Should the LDP and the New Komeito part ways over policy -- a remote but not entirely zero possiblity during the upcoming session -- the LDP could easily and quickly craft new and sturdy coalitions with the Your Party and the Japan Restoration Party, giving the LDP even larger majorities in both Houses (see slides 26 through 29 of my Temple University Japan presentation of January 9, available online here).

In general, anything the PM wants to pass into law will become law, if Abe-san remembers to preserve appearances by offering opposing voices a chance to put on at least a show of resistance.

That certain elements within the Prime Minister's own party think that Abe has been shirking his duties in that department was made manifest yesterday. At a meeting inside LDP headquarters of the members of the Machimura Faction, the prime minister's nominal faction (his membership being suspended during his time in office) leader Machimura Nobutaka took members of the government to task for their insufficient consultations with LDP parliamentarians regarding the content of pending bills. As regards the ministers's having shelved, temporarily, a move to close debate on the so-called Third Arrow structural reforms, he crowed:


It's a good thing. The government has been saying, "Can you not see this personal tobacco container? Anything with a circle and Abe in it on it will pass." "This is so because it is Mr. Abe's will!" It was all getting a bit too noticeable.

(Link - J)
A little too esoteric for the lay reader?

Machimura was alluding to, in a oddly direct and simplified way*, one of the classic and recurring bits of Japanese television.

Poster for Mito Komon, season 35.
Image courtesy TBS.

"Can you not see this personal tobacco container?" (Kono inro ga mienai ka) is Machimura paraphrasing the recurring climactic line of the long-running (43 seasons) TBS television samurai drama Mito Komon. In every episode, at the very height of a pitched and protracted battle between local ruffians and corrupt officials on one side, and simple, honest citizens and their mysterious protectors on the other, the sidekick of the protagonist, a disguised Tokugawa Mitsukuni, raises a personal tobacco container (inro) bearing the trefoil crest of the Tokugawa House on it and cries, "Kono mondokoro ga me ni hairanu ka?" ("Does not this family crest enter thine eyes?") -- at which point everyone, villains and would be victims, realizing they have been misbehaving before the uncle of the shogun, all fall to the ground motionless in awe and fear.

[A scene that has to be seen to be believed. Unfortunately, TBS scours the Internet for snippets, meaning I cannot provide a decent video illustration.]

Machimura's allusion can be understood as being:

1) a petulant complaining about an inconvenient truth: that Abe's control of the party and government is so great that even his nominal factional superior cannot do anything but fall to the ground paralyzed at the sight of Abe's seal of approval on a piece of legislation.

2) the chiding of Abe's aides and allies in the party and the government for presuming that Abe's signature precludes the need to conduct preliminary discussions (ne mawashi) of pending bills and directives

3) both these things simultaneously.

Machimura has reasons, petty ones, for feeling slighted. He is the leader of the PM's faction and nominally the PM's patron. Machimura also ran against Abe for the post of party president in September two years ago. Unlike the other rivals in the presidential election, all of whom received Cabinet or party posts, Machimura received...nothing.

That Machimura would be willing to vent his anger at function attended by journalists indicates

a) the depth of the petty resentment he feels and

b) his sense of not being the only one with gripes vis-a-vis Abe and his people.

One of the few risks that Abe runs in the course of the next few years is an efflorescence of such resentment, burst from seeds of dissension sown through high-handed action. Until recently, Abe and his government have been restrained in their stimulation of jealousy and mistrust, not that they have not been willing to cut some rather important allies -- the New Komeito over Abe's visit to Yasukuni, rice farmers over their acreage-suppression subsidies (Link) and the elderly over their health and eldercare payments (Link) -- off at the knees.

As long as the betrayals have been couched as being reluctant and for the national good, the backlash has been subdued.

There have, nevertheless, been some disturbing signs of hubris and political tone deafness in political appointments of late, possibly indicative of Abe and his lieutenants becoming incautious.

The first was the terrible decision to appoint Watanabe Tsuneo, the don of the Yomiuri media empire, chairman of the government's advisory commission on implementation of the special designated secrets act (mentioned, with a link, here). Watanabe already received the gift of People's Honor Awards for two former members of the Yomiuri Giants baseball team -- more than a reward enough for the Yomiuri Shimbun's slavish service in support of Abe's premiership and his domination of the LDP. To put a man who does not and probably cannot understand the role the Fourth Estate plays in electoral politics in a modern democracy (imagine Rupert Murdoch being named chairman of Prime Minister Cameron's advisory council on press ethics and non-partisanship -- oh, OK, maybe that is too far) in charge of offering advice on how to safeguard press freedoms -- well, that's chutzpah.

The recent nomination, with Abe's fingers all over it, of Muto Toshio to be secretary-general of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizing committee (Link) seems similarly presumptuous. Muto may be a smart man with international connections and ties to all the heads of the major power centers in government and the business community (Link). If one wanted to send out a signal, though, that political and politically sensitive positions will be handed out not to the most capable and forward-thinking but old cronies and persons to whom favors are owed (Abe's former faction leader Mori Yoshiro has already been named chairman of the organizing committee), selling the Olympic dream out to Big Business and Big Government -- then annointing the twice-not-named-Governor-of-the-Bank-of-Japan and 70-years-of-age Muto is a good start.

When one has a magic tobacco container, though...therein temptation lies...

Later - In comments, "exex" provides a link to an illustrative video clip of a me ni hairanu ka scene from a Mito Komon episode.


* When one considers the reality that most adult Japanese have heard the original line hundreds of times, that Machimura would paraphrase it seems really odd.


Anonymous said...

Your blog is fantastic! It is so hard to find political commentary on Japan that is understandable.

exex said...

Is this the clip you were looking for?

MTC said...

exex -

Thank you. That will do nicely.