Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ministers Don't Cry

Minister for the Economy, Trade and Industry Kaieda Banri broke into tears yesterday while testifying at a House of Representatives Economy, Trade and Industry Committee meeting. Not just a single tear down the cheek of sorrow but eyes flushing red, grimacing and finally hand-over-the-face-in-loss-of-control tears (video clip).

It has been a terrible few months for Kaieda. First there is the whole Fukushima Daiichi mess, which he as the minister of the ministry that oversees the nuclear power industry has kept him in the hot seat since March 11. Second, he completed the delicate negotiations with the mayor of Genkai Township and the governor of Saga Prefecture over the restart of the Kyushu Electric Power Company’s Genkai nuclear power plant, giving his personal assurance that the plant was safe, only to be blindsided by Prime Minister Kan Naoto's suggestion that all of Japan’s nuclear power plants must be submitted to "stress tests" to prove their ability to resist natural disasters. Understandably, the mayor of Genkai and the governor, flabbergasted, demanded to know, in light of the prime minister's insistence that plants undergo stress testing, what it is indeed they agree to with Kaieda, and demanded he come down to them to give his personal explanation of what the hell is going on.

Earlier, Kaieda was stunned by revelations that a division manager inside Kyushu Electric Power (Kyuden) directed the managements of affiliates of Kyuden to have their employees email and phone in pro-nuclear messages to a televised public forum on reopening of the Genkai plant. He said that the actions of the company were inconceivable. He should have been imagining a lot harder, as it was revealed this week that in officials of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, the division of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry charged with ensuring the safety of Japan’s nuclear power industry, encouraged Chubu Electric Power to stock a public meeting on the much-maligned Hamaoka nuclear power plant with persons who would comment favorably about the plant.

In breaking down in front of the cameras, Kaieda pretty much guaranteed he will have very little chance in realizing his great ambition to become prime minister. Should he ever present himself as a candidate, either the TV networks or his rivals will point to his breakdown as evidence that he cannot stand the heat.

Kaieda also has demonstrated how difficult it is to be a minister under the mercurial Kan. Kan's penchant for shooting off his mouth, usually saying something that upon analysis is pretty sharp, without considering how his utterance interacts with current policy or the current political climate, is murder upon his ministers, who forever have to wonder when what they are saying today will be contradicted by Kan tomorrow.

If Kan is ever to be accused of incompetence, it will have been on his being unable to see implications of his declarations or the way they will be framed by either his opponents or the media. He is classically KY (an acronym for kuki ga yomenai – persons who are incapable of sensing the what is going on in their surroundings and because of this are pathetic). His pronouncement on the need to consider a rise in the consumption tax contributed to the size of the loss his party suffered in the 2010 House of Councillors election. His announcement of a need for stress tests for Japan's nuclear plants undercut Kaieda and put the restart of Japan's many currently offline plants on indefinite hold. His call for a non- or at least less-nuclear future for Japan blew up his own party's growth strategy, as a major target export market in the Democratic Party of Japan growth plan is the global nuclear power plant market. How convincing will the presentations by Japanese nuclear exporters be, if Japan, according to its prime minster, should be getting out of the business of nuclear power generation?

It is enough to set one to crying in frustration. However, if you are a government minister with prime ministerial ambitions, you shouldn't.

Later - Janne in Osaka goes on a tear about the latest revelations regarding the nuclear safety agency's urging power companies to stuff their public meetings with ringers.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Next DPJ Prime Minister

As of two days ago, the race to replace Kan Naoto as president of the Democratic Party of Japan officially began.

First out of the blocks was former Minister of the Environment Ozawa Sakihito, who released a policy statement and a declaration of his candidacy for the presidency of the DPJ on Wednesday. Among the policy recommendations he is making are 1) the study of Japan participating in collective security arrangements in areas limited to the Far East, 2) for the government and the Bank of Japan to target an inflation rate of 1% to 3% per annum and 3) for the reconstruction of areas hit by the earthquake and tsunami be based on the concept of environmentally sound communities.

Second among the potential candidates was Mabuchi Sumio, the former minister of transport. He paid a social call on a group of first- and second-termers, most of whom are still close to former party leader Ozawa Ichiro. During the meeting he made all the proper sounds for a candidate representing the younger generation of DPJ lawmakers, including about hating the government recommendation of a 10.3 trillion tax hike in order to pay for the reconstruction of the devastated areas of the northeast. Later when a reporter asked Mabuchi whether he intended to run for party president, he replied, "Each member of the DPJ has a duty to ask himself or herself, 'If I were to run for party leader, what would be my philosophy?'" That Mabuchi will soon publish an article outlining his thoughts on what kind of leadership Japan needs in a monthly magazine completes the circle on whether he is running or not, without a formal announcement.

That Ozawa and Mabuchi are first out of the blocks is not surprising. Ozawa is burdened with his last name, which gets him confused with the far more famous Ozawa Ichiro. As for Mabuchi, he has only three elections to the Diet – far too few for a formal candidate for the party's top post. He is also the response to the question “Wait, wasn’t Mabuchi the guy who resigned his post as Minister of Transport after the opposition-controlled House of Councillors censured him over the government’s handling of the Chinese fishing vessel collision? He is the one who will expected to try to work with LDP- and the New Komeito in passing legislation?" – the only answer to which seems to be "Yes, he has some issues. But he has such great hair!"

Beyond Ozawa and Mabuchi, there is a host of candidates, most of whom are keeping their heads down. Minister of Finance Noda Yoshihiko, Minister for National Strategy Gemba Koichiro and Minister of Agriculture Kano Michihiko have to remain silent because they are members of Kan’s Cabinet – though Noda has recently not taken pains to avoid looking bored at Cabinet meetings. Edano Yukio was once seen as a shoo-in thanks to his performance as the Cabinet's chief spokesman in the initial days and weeks after the March 11 disasters. His star as faded somewhat as the government has had to make excuses for falling behind the curve on such issues as the actual locations of the most radioactive areas around the Fukushima plant and the now national disaster of the feeding of contaminated rice straw to beef cattle.

In answer to question of who would be the people's choice in the non-existent national election of a DPJ leader, Kyodo News found respondents to its poll answering this way (all numbers are percentages):

Maehara Seiji 21.2
Okada Katsuya 15.8
Edano Yukio 15.6
Haraguchi Kazuhiro 3.9
Noda Yoshihiko 2.9
Ozawa Sakihito 2.3
Mabuchi Fumio 1.6
Sengoku Yoshito 1.6
Gemba Koichiro 1.3
Kano Michihiko 0.7
Tarutoko Shinji 0.6
Somebody Else 3.2
Don't Know/Can't Say 29.3

Maehara comes out the surprise winner – surprise because he not doing much of anything nowadays and he has the reputation of being a quitter when the chips are down (see the phony email fiasco and the Korean campaign contribution). In this poll he is probably benefiting from votes of those who in a national selection of leaders usually plunk down for Liberal Democratic Party members and tough talkers Ishiba Shigeru and Ishihara Nobuteru – Maehara being a hawk himself when it comes to security policy.

Nevertheless, Maehara will definitely be in the running when the time comes for truly viable candidates to step forward. He has the name recognition and ability to perform on camera necessary for the premiership in the post-Koizumi era; has served in several important party leadership and Cabinet positions; and is not really hated by anyone. He will also probably see this as his best chance of grabbing the post of party leader (and some of his dignity back) before even younger DPJ legislators start making their moves upward through the party ranks.

Okada, despite the seemingly high level of public support, has a near zero chance of running for the top spot. First, as the party secretary general he bears equal blame with Kan for the party’s recent string of electoral failures and current poor electoral chances. Second, he completely sold out the party’s core program of payments for families with children, calling it "a bit too indulgent." Amongst the party’s younger rank-and-file and in the prefectural party offices, Okada's name is mud.

Haraguchi is seen as the stalking horse for the pro-Ozawa Ichiro forces inside the party – forces the current leaders have been at pains to exorcise from having significant influence on party affairs. Sengoku is seen as too much the insider and is inconceivable as someone the LDP and the New Komeito could work with. Tarutoko, despite his strong showing against Kan in the party leadership contest of June 2010, is still much the non-entity he was back then. He may once again attract the interest of Ozawa Ichiro and former PM Hatoyama supporters, but these are fissioning forces in DPJ internal politics.

All of which avoids the 363.6 kg gorilla in the room as regards the DPJ leadership contest: whomsoever wins the party leadership election and subsequently the post of prime minister will still be stuck with a do-nothing LDP-New Komeito-Your Party majority in the House of Councillors which will stymie the passage any and all legislation other than budgets. Despite LDP and New Komeito cooing to the contrary, there will be no cooperation with a DPJ prime minister, no matter what his (and it will be a ‘his’) name will be.

So despite the flurry of activity and the breathless prose from the political press, the post-Kan song will remain the same.

Later - Lucy Craft has produced a report (listen to it rather than read it; she has a sparkling voice) that comes the same conclusion.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Different Kind of Opposition

A few days ago, at a reunion of his high school classmates who had come up to Tokyo from Yamaguchi Prefecture, Prime Minister Kan talked about the rough treatment he has been forced to withstand from the opposition as prime minister. “Did I say such terrible things [about my opponents] when I was in the opposition?...I guess maybe I did. If so, it cannot be helped,” he sighed.

No, Mr. Prime Minister, you were not as rough on your opponents. Indeed, your whole party was not as rough.

One of the underreported stories of the Democratic Party of Japan’s time in power has been the bloody-minded irresponsibility of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. While the LDP’s inability to stymie government action prior to the 2010 House of Councillors election covered over and indeed muted the LDP’s tendencies and actions, since that election and the shift in power it created the LDP and its co-conspirator the New Komeito have been bent on simply gutting or killing any DPJ initiative. Whatever the House of Representatives passes, the House of Councillors delays. In Question Time or in Diet Committee interpellations (in particular those of the Budget Committee), the LDP and the New Komeito ignore current issues to range all over the map in quests against imagined corruption of government officials, the prime minister’s personal responsibility for worsening the Fukushima nuclear disaster or other such quixotica.

Did the Democrats not do the same when they were in the opposition and held control of the House of Councillors? Yes, of course they did. However, the crucial difference was that the Democrats in their questioning would be lashing out in frustration against the then ruling LDP’s willingness to even talk to the Democrats about upcoming legislation, or later on for the LDP’s cowardice at not calling an election. Slapping the prime minister and the Cabinet around in committee always had the goal of reminding the LDP that it had a real opposition to deal with, not some cardboard group of naysayers receiving payments under the table as during the era of the 1955 System, when the Socialists were the main opposition. What the Democrats seeking was reasonable behavior from the ruling coalition – a Sisyphean endeavor perhaps as the LDP had lost all legitimacy as a ruling party and was, during its last three years in power, merely kicking the ball around on its half of the playing field.

What has been lacking in reporting on Diet seikyoku (political maneuvering, as opposed to seiji, politics) is the knee-jerk naysaying of the LDP and New Komeito to anything the DPJ passed before July 2010 or is proposing today. Like Grumpy in Disney's Snow White, the LDP’s and New Komeito's response to whatever comes up from the House of Representatives is an ignorant “I don’t know, but I’m again’ ‘em.”

In a search for equivalents during the previous era, when the Democrats were out of power but in control of the House of Councillors, one could perhaps point to Democrat’s successful, albeit temporary, halting of the Indian Ocean refueling mission. There Democratic stalling could be interpreted as simple negation for the sake of being negative, without regard to the national weal.

However, in the case of the refueling mission, it had become, by the time the Democrats managed to interrupt it, no longer a demonstration of Japan’s commitment to its alliance with the United States or a commitment to the international fight against terrorism, but indeed a constitutionally questionable replacement for actual commitment to either. “We are refueling ships in the Indian Ocean so we’re in the loop” was cooperation on the cheap when Japan desperately needed to be doing more, or at least debating about doing something more. Ozawa Ichiro indeed called the government’s bluff on the refueling mission when he proposed its replacement with a “boots-on-the-ground” deployment of the Self Defense Forces in Afghanistan under United Nations auspices.

A demonstration of the crucial difference between the way the two parties have behaved in opposition is the current fight over the renewable energy bill. The bill, one of the three (now two, since the House of Councillors overwhelmingly voted for the second supplementary budget) bills Prime Minister Kan has said must pass before he is willing to step down, has really nothing in it that any conscionable opposition would oppose, especially in the light of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Public support for the bill is high, with 78% of respondents in favor of it, according to the most recent Kyodo News poll.

Nevertheless, the leadership of the LDP in the House of Councillors will not even consider bringing the bill to committee, for whatever reason. LDP Diet Affairs Chaiman Waki Masashi says that he will not allow his members to cooperate with any bills coming from the Kan Cabinet, except for those pertaining to the reconstruction and revival of the northeast. LDP Deputy Policy Research Council Chairman Yamamoto Ichita has cried out, with crocodile tears, “We are in the midst of debating energy policy within our own party. Until our direction on this is resolved, we cannot be considering revisions.”

Translation: if Kan wants to resign after this bill is voted on, then he will just have to wait, him and his party twisting in the wind.

The Democrats in opposition played hardball but they still played. The LDP and the New Komeito, they are just sitting on their hands, with delay after delay after delay, even when the prime minister tells them they will not get their wish for an immediate House of Representatives election.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Reading This Morning's Poll

Kyodo has a new poll out the this morning. Taken over the last few days, it delineates the increasingly tight confines within which the Kan government can function.

The headline number is that support for the Cabinet has fallen to 17% from 23% a month ago (June 28-29). Normally this would be a cause for predictions of catastrophe and petitions to the prime minister to step aside. However, with Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s pledge to resign following the passage through the Diet of three bills – the second supplementary budget, the bill raising the amount of bonds the government can issue to fund its activities and the renewable energy bill – the normal linkages between sub 20% readings and Cabinet collapses has been broken. Kan has already said he is on the way out, only he has parlayed his promise to leave into a little bit of leverage on leaving something of a legislative legacy.

Whether or not Kan will succeed in securing that legacy is an open question due to the really important numbers in the Kyodo poll: the party support numbers. I have seen it written elsewhere that the opposition Liberal Democratic Party despairs that the travails of the Hatoyama and Kan Cabinets have not led to huge shifts in support away from the Democrats and to the LDP, leaving the LDP uncertain about whether or not it should be so recalcitrant in the House of Councillors as to provoke Prime Minister Kan in to dissolving the Diet. While this may have once been true, it is so no longer. According to the latest Kyodo support numbers, the dissolution of the Diet and a House of Representatives election would result in a smashing electoral victory for the LDP.

Which party do you support? (Results of June 28-29 poll in [ ])
DPJ 14.7 [21.9]
LDP 25.9 [22.8]
Your Party 6.6 [5.3]
New Komeito 3.8 [3.6]
Japan Communist Party 3.0 [2.7]
Socialist Party 1.9 [1.2]
Sunrise Party 1.4 [1.4]
People’s New Party 0.4 [0.4
Other 0.4 [1.2]
Support No Party 40.9 [39.1]
Don’t Know 1.0 [0.8]

Back in the days when the Democratic Party of Japan was in the opposition, the size of the uncommitted electorate – let us call it 41% - would have been interpreted as an immense opportunity. However, since it is now the party in power, the members of the DPJ understand quite well that the uncommitted voters, if they show up at the voting booths at all, will vote for someone other than the DPJ, just to spite the government.

As a consequence, unless Prime Minister Kan has a Samsom-like desire to bring destruction upon himself and all those around him, he is not going to call a snap election. The results for the DPJ, some of whose members he still counts as friends, would be simply devastating.

Not having the threat of calling a snap election in his hand, however, makes it extremely unlikely Kan will achieve his goal of the passage of his three beloved bills. While the second supplementary budget is safely through the House of Representatives and predicted to pass smoothly through the House of Councillors (for who wants to be seen as holding up aid for those suffering from the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and loss of four reactors at Fukushima), the other two bills are in serious trouble. This is so even despite the whittling away of budget items promised in the DPJ Manifesto of 2009 in order to reduce the total bond request – the most prominent of which are pullbacks on the government payments to families with children and to farmers.

As for the renewable energy bill, it had been given new life by Prime Minister Kan’s promise to resign if it were passed. Without the extra push the possibility of a snap election provided, however, the prospects for the bill are now relatively poor. This is despite a public primed for a radical reworking of Japan’s energy mix, with 71% in the Kyodo supporting the prime minister’s call for a non-nuclear future and 78% supporting the passage of the renewable energy bill.

It is these numbers on energy policy that have some pundits thinking that Kan might be tempted “to pull a Koizumi.” In this scenario, Kan waits for the energy bill to become completely locked up in the Diet. At this moment, he dissolves the Diet, calling the House of Representatives elections a referendum on a post-nuclear energy future, in the same way that Koizumi turned the election of 2005 into a referendum on postal reform.

Now it is difficult to imagine a prime minister as media hostile as Kan trying to repeat the success of a master of television like Koizumi. However, unlike Koizumi, who had to, in the space of single month, turn the country around from majority against postal reform to majority in favor of it, Kan already has nearly three quarters of the electorate on his side. It is possible that all he would have to do is keep pounding away with a “No More Fukushimas!” message, despite the unpopularity of his anti-nuclear shift within the DPJ itself, to lure in some of the uncommitted voters currently dissatisfied with all the parties, securing a victory for his party against the institutionally pro-nuclear LDP.


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The Mouth From The South Resigns (Reprise) -- Kan's Final Desperate Moves?

Seiji sekinin -- the taking of political responsibility -- is going to weigh heavily on the shoulders of Prime Minister Kan Naoto over the next few days. The appointment of Matsumoto Ryu as Minister of Reconstruction, made as a part of a series of moves two weekends ago that weakened the Kan Cabinet, and that appointment's spectacular implosion, leave the PM with surrounded by disappointed former allies, now ready to move on to a new leader.

Created as a sop to the Liberal Democratic Party in order to bring them on board with other pending legislation, the position of Minister of Reconstruction is akin to a proconsul of the Northeast sector of the country, a superminister with the power to apply vast amounts of resources and energy to the task of rebuilding the shattered Tohoku region and elsewhere (the extent of damage is much, much greater than even the dramatic images on television have shown. In prefectures far from the epicenter and from the coast like Tochigi, Gunma and Niigata, homes and businesses have been seriously damaged.). Perhaps unavoidably, being given the powers of a proconsul, Matsumoto began to act like one -- with contempt for the political process and the pride of the little people under him

Kan's appointment a man who could not shift gears from being minister of a ministry renowned for its lack of clout (Environment) to what is arguably the third most powerful position in the government (after prime minister and chief cabinet secretary, pipping in political importance the minister of finance) in a mini-reshuffle that he carried out almost without consultation with other members of his government and the membership of his party is almost certainly going to have the words "seiji sekinin, seiji sekinin" echoing through the halls of the Diet. Kan will certainly get an earful of it tomorrow, when the Diet resumes regular business with a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee.

Until now, Kan has been able to sidestep taking responsibility the staggering loss of control of the House of Councillors due to a disastrous showing in last year's H of C election, the resignation of two of his ministers and a washout of the Democratic Party in local elections this past April. All these losses he could attribute to someone else's bungling. Responsibility for the Matsumoto appointment, however, is his alone. With vital allies like Finance Minister Noda Katsuhiko, Diet Affairs Chairman Azumi Jun and others now openly lamenting Kan's actions, the days ahead seem dark for the prime minister.

Just who will succeed Kan before the this month is out (I would put my current money on Noda rather than Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano Yukio) is all of a sudden a quite reasonable subject for rumination.

The Mouth From The South Resigns

Reconstruction Minister Matsumoto Ryu, who managed to pack a career's worth of weird into a single weekend, has resigned.

It is hard to pick the best of the moments he has given us since his appointment just one week ago:

- At an indoor press conference, his sudden donning of tinted shades in order to declare, "I hate the Democratic Party; I hate the Liberal Democratic Party and I hate the New Komeito." (He had to apologize for saying that he hated the LDP and the New Komeito. Evidently hating his own party is either natural or forgivable.)

- His upbraiding of the governor of Miyagi Prefecture for coming into their meeting after he had entered the room and sat himself down.

- His telling the press after the fact that his rude tirade at the governor of Miyagi Prefecture was off the record, with "anyone writing about it will suffer." (Cue video!)

- His coming to his meeting with the governor of Iwate Prefecture bouncing a soccer ball, then his drop kicking the ball at the unprepared governor, who had it bounce off his chest.

- His blaming his blood type for his bizarre behavior.

- His telling the press that his wife told him to reflect upon his behavior.

- His telling the governor of Iwate Prefecture that the central government would not help those in the prefectures unless they came to a consensus on what they wanted to do.

- His telling the governor of Miyagi Prefecture that the central government will not help those who do not show creativity in solutions to their problems.

How Matsumoto could serve as Environment Minister and State Minister for Disaster Management without a single problem, only to go completely bananas on a tour of the disaster area following his elevation to State Minister for Reconstruction, is a thing of wonder.

Matsumoto's well-regarded deputy, Hirano Tatsuo, has been tapped to replace Matsumoto. He is seen as a pair of safe hands, having been in charge of disaster response since the beginning of the crisis.

However, the Matsumoto appointment and its spectacular flameout has inflicted a potentially mortal wound to the premiership of Kan Naoto. The feelings of the members of the DPJ's leadership circle, particularly Diet Affairs Chairman Azumi Jun, which had been on the mend from being kneed in the groin by Kan's luring of the LDP's Hamada Kazuyuki into resigning from his party (The resignation was rejected. Instead, the LDP expelled Hamada today) in return for a government post, are now burning with anger. As is his usual bent, party elder Watanabe Kozo has demanded that Kan resign this instant. His views, which are normally well of the scale, are probably reflecting the thoughts of an increasing number of the party's center. Kan cannot run away from his having appointed Matsumoto just one weekend ago, seeing as the mini-Cabinet reshuffle was sprung upon the DPJ without so much as a by-your-leave. With his Cabinet's support ratio now descending once again in the sub 20% range, Kan may find himself surrounded by dagger-bearers who will demand that he resign well before his self-imposed deadline of the passage of the second reconstruction bill, the government debt bill and the renewable energy resources bill.