Monday, November 07, 2011

A Departure From Precedent

On Saturday, Speaker of the House of Councillors Nishioka Takeo died of pneumonia (en). In instances such as these I usually relate some charming anecdote or point to some significant contribution the deceased made to the national weal. Unfortunately, in Nishioka's case, nothing comes to mind – which may explain why the passing of a man has been marked with a collective national shrug – though Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko made a special trip to Nagasaki to be at his wake on November 5 and 2000 persons, including Nishioka's longtime patron Ozawa Ichiro, showed up for his memorial service in Nagasaki today.

For environmentalists, Nishioka will remembered as the chief Diet sponsor of the Isahaya Bay reclamation project: the most visible and needless environmental crime of the Japanese government against nature of the later quarter of the 20th century. The blocking of the entrance of Isahaya Bay and the consequent destruction of the wetlands there, in violation of Japan's international commitments to wetlands protection, remains the symbol of the imperatives of the Construction State running roughshod over decency and common sense.

For historians of the Diet, Nishioka will be remembered as a Speaker of the House elected with only the barest of majorities and the most blank ballots since the Lockheed scandal. The positions of Speaker and Deputy Speaker are filled by the choice of the ruling party and the top opposition party. The elections for these positions have been, or at least were, until Nishioka's election, mere formalities where the ruling and opposition parties vote en masse for each other's candidate. This tradition was preserved in the election of Deputy Speaker Otsuji Hidehisa of the Liberal Democratic Party. When it came time to elect Nishioka, however, members of the LDP and the New Komeito, incensed as they were at the selection of a candidate who had treated his peers in the opposition with contempt during his time as the Democratic Party's Diet Affairs Chairman, turned in ballot papers with nothing on them, if they showed up at all.

For members of the DPJ, Nishioka will be remembered as the Speaker who departed from the precedent of a Speaker's neutrality in order to lead a campaign of vociferous criticism of the government of Prime Minister Kan Naoto and its handling of the triple disaster of 3/11, criticism that proved to be without merit or substance when the Yomiuri Shimbun gave Nishioka the opportunity to write an open letter to Kan. The editors at the Yomiuri thought they had landed a whale when they won the exclusive right to publish Nishioka's criticisms. What they found at the end of the line, however, was a minnow: the only accusation Nishioka could muster was Kan's having departed from constitutional procedure in unilaterally ordering the dispatch of the Self Defense Forces to the disaster areas, rather than calling a meeting of the security council first.

For editorial cartoonists, Nishioka's passing means the loss of a politician whose ears and diminutive stature made him a subject of easy caricature. That Nishioka was forever in a snit about something made the drawing of him in an unflattering manner all the more justifiable.

In practical terms, Nishioka's death will mean that the DPJ will lose yet another seat in the House of Councillors, as the new Speaker, when he/she is elected, will resign from his/her membership in the party. If the DPJ wishes to limit the damage done by the election of a Speaker from out of the party's ranks in upper house does, it will bypass candidates for the post like former defense minister Kitazawa Toshimi or former METI minister Naoshima Masayuki in favor of Eda Satsuki, who has held the post once before and is therefore seen as being of too high stature to serve in a Cabinet post or major party post.

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