The Crazy Japan Times

It's Not The Heat, It's The Humidity

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At long last, here in the middle of rainy season, enough crazy things have happened to warrant a new, rather long, CJT. Actually, many of them occurred a long time ago, but your humble editor has been busy turning over rocks to get the truth, changing diapers, etc.


In April, Japan finally got a new Prime Minister when PM Mori finally resigned (officially). There then ensued a fairly ugly contest for the leadership of the Liberal Democratic Party. The stakes were especially high as right before Mori's resignation, Akiko Domoto, a political novice with no party affiliation, destroyed the LDP candidate in the race for the governorship of Chiba. (Chiba, for those who don't know, is just east of Tokyo.) As Chiba has always been an LDP stronghold, the entire membership of the LDP panicked and started calling for party reform. As a result of rank-and-file pressure, the number of party leadership votes allotted for local constintuencies was raised from 47 to 141 and everyone began looking for suitable candidates.

Of course, none of the suitable ones applied. First there was former Prime Minister Hashimoto, whose platform was "My first year I will study Japan's problems. My second year I will try to implement new policies." (Translation: expect nothing, do nothing, hope the economy gets better on its own.) Second, was Chizuka Kamei, a sour faced, Old Guard LDPer involved in the Mori coup whose platform amounted to a leaking roof conundrum: "We should implement no reforms now lest we damage the economy further. Later, when the economy has recovered, we can implement reforms." (Translation: expect nothing, do nothing, hope the economy gets better on its own.) Third was Taro Aso, a youngish OG minded LDPer whose economic platform amounted to "It's best to invest in a country that has lots of rich Jews." (Translation: ???) That's more or less a direct quote, by the way.

Finally, two time party leadership race loser Junichiro Koizumi joined the race. His platform was that Japan, although in relatively good shape, has some serious problems and is in desparate need of reform. He would, if elected, do a quick study of what needed to be done and implement reforms as soon as possible. In choosing his cabinet, he would select the best people for the job, rather than rubber stamp the choices of the LDP's countless factions.

Needless to say, he didn't stand a chance.

Koizumi's rivals dusted off his perennial plan to privatise the post office and his call for a direct public election of the Prime Minister as evidence of his insanity. (As if his long, wild hair were not evidence enough. The other three all have perfectly slicked back short hair.) In a normal year, Koizumi would have lost and lost badly. However, he quickly realized that the key to victory was the rank-and-file vote and he spent a great deal of time outside of Tokyo. The other candidates behaved as if nothing had changed and focused instead on factional wheeling and dealing. Koizumi even left his party faction which would also, in normal years, be considered political suicide. However, his faction continued to express support for him, and as they were the second largest faction, he could, with a large portion of the rank-and-file vote, be within striking distance of a the required 244 vote majority. Even better, as the rank-and-file vote took place before the Diet vote, a good showing would put lots of pressure on MP's to bend to the will of the people.

Surprisingly, it worked. Koizumi won 41 of the 47 districts for a grand total of 123 votes. Hashimoto earned 15 and Kamei 3. Aso was on the ballot, but didn't win his own district. The overwhelming majority caused a crisis of conscience in the LDP as it turns out district officials, like US Electoral College members, are not obligated to vote with the will of the people. The consensus, even in the Diet, was that the results should be respected rather than ignored, and calls were also made to allow open voting within factions. (Normally, as many of you know, factions vote in blocks as all members are under orders to vote a certain way.) Kamei, to his credit, quickly figured out the wind's direction and withdrew from the election, throwing his support towards Koizumi. The final result was Koizumi 298 votes, Hashimoto 155, Asso 26 (ish) and Kamei 8 (ish). (Some members of Kamei's faction voted for him anyway, as a token of respect.) Koizumi was sworn in as PM four days later, and the games began.
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Koizumi's first task was to appoint a cabinet. Normally, each LDP faction presents a list of candidates, usually chosen by seniority, and the cabinet is chosen from that list. One's own faction is favored and all but a few others are ignored completely. Koizumi, true to his word, chose people according to their abilities and still managed to choose one person from each faction. The highlights were: 1) He chose a man outspoken in his calls for reform as the head of a special committee for reforming the economy. This seat had previously been held by Hashimoto, which is a bit like appointing Senator Jesse Helms as ambassador to the United Nations. [My apologies to those not from the USA or North America.--DL] 2) He made Makiko Tanaka, the daughter of former Lockheed Scandal tainted PM Kakue Tanaka, Foreign Minister. She is the first woman to ever hold this position. She is charming, and speaks fluent English, but has no diplomatic experience. To make matters worse, she was apprently on the outs with the LDP and had been excluded from the Mori cabinet. (Out of respect for her father, she is usually granted a token position, at least.) Needless to say she was, and has remained, his most controversial choice. Much more on her later. 3) Koizumi appointed a woman with experience in education and art museum management as head of the Ministry of Education and Culture. 4) He kept Chikake Ogi, the most popular woman in Japan, as Minister of Land and Transport. In fact, his cabinet includes a total of five women, the largest number in Japanese history. This prompted one of the TV news programs to note that, as a result, the usual cabinet meetings seem more colorful. The women, you see, wear colorful clothes. (You've come along way, baby, indeed.) 5) He appointed an Economics professor from Keio University as a special financial policy advisor. The first non-bureaucrat to hold the position, and perhaps the most intelligent to ever hold it. The worst the opposition could come up with as a criticism of the cabinet was that he'd kept a couple members of the Mori cabinet.

The cabinet, with two exceptions, has been universally popular. Koizumi is nearly a rock star, garnering 80+ percent approval ratings. He appears on campaign commercials, draws crowds of screaming young women, and posters bearing his picture and autograph sell for hundreds of dollars on Japanese eBay. He even gave a rousing speech when he presented Takanohana with the Emperor's Cup. (More on that later, too.) He's so popular, that in a recent election for the mayor of Chiba City, he himself garnered 10% of the vote as a write-in candidate. He has, however, been hamstrung in what he can do by a Tokyo municipal election today and an upper house election in July. If the LDP does badly in either, he is almost certainly out. It remains to be seen what he will do once the election is over. The CJT gets the sense that he is merely biding his time, although that may just be wishful thinking.
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Unfortunately for Koizumi, his Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, although quite popular with the public, has been experiencing a brutal learning curve in her new job and has been underfire almost since day one, not only from the LDP and the press, but from her own ministry. Early in her tenure, high level members of the FM presented a report on the Discretionary Fund Scandal reported in the last CJT. (Also see the update.) The report said all the guilty had been caught and everybody else was, like O.J. Simpson, absolutely, 100% not guilty so there was no point in investigating any more now was there? Tanaka ignored the report and said further investigations were warranted. She also froze ambassadorial appointments pending further review. The man chosen for France, you see, has been implicated in another scandal. Not quite a week later, Tanaka "cancelled" a meeting with US representative Richard Armitage and was widely criticized for the act. Tanaka seemed puzzled and said her staff told her the meeting wasn't that important as it was being hastily arranged and would only be a courtesy anyway. Skipping it would, therefore, be okay. (She should actually be criticized for her stunning naivete.)

As that controversy was dying down, a report was leaked, from her ministry, that during a meeting of foreign ministers she had, in a private conversation with the Italian and South African FMs, criticized George Bush Senior's, er..., Junior's, National Missile Defense System. Tanaka faced a storm of criticism from the press and her own party and was forced to explain herself in the diet. (The opposition, enjoying their only chance to take potshots at the Koizumi cabinet, seemed to suddenly be members of the Old Guard LDP.) There was lots of talk of allies, and alliances and Mutual Defense Pacts, etc. but very little talk of arresting the leakers.

As this was dying down, another report was leaked, again from inside the Foreign Ministry, that in a talk with the Foreign Minister of Australia, Tanaka had again criticized the GBS, er J NMD system. The Japanese ambassador to the US reported that US officials had come to him and expressed concern about Tanaka's comments. Hashimoto, apparently trying to get back in the action, cited a conversation he'd had with Australia's FM during which he said the Aussie FM had also expressed great concerns about Tanaka's comments. Suddenly, the Australian FM issued a statement saying that he had not, and would not, make such comments to Hashimoto and that any claims to the contrary were false. Hashimoto then came out and said that he'd never said what he said about what the Australian FM had said and everything seemed to settle down. There were more potshots about hotels, etc. but most of it seemed petty. Tanaka went to the USA and, in the CJT's opinion, had a very successful meeting with Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Bush and Cheney and everything seemed hunky-dory. Until she got home.

Almost as soon as she landed, while she was briefing Koizumi, the Diet's Lower House foreign relations committee, which has, by the way, been trying to gain access to the top secret transcripts of Tanaka's conversations with other FMs--an act that would essentially destroy Japan's foreign policy credibility--suddenly announced it was issuing a formal censure in response to Tanaka's blatant attempts a few weeks ago to limit the question time of a fellow LDP member. This formal censure was the first in Japanese history and prompted Tanaka to apologize for her actions. The implication is that she did this before the meeting in an attempted backroom deal and there was lots of talk about disrespect and Separation of Powers, etc. What actually happened, as the CJT remembers it, was that during the standard question time, Muneo Suzuki, the powerful LDP MP in question, began asking personal questions not related to Tanaka's job. (Personal finance questions, etc.) Tanaka turned to the committee chair and asked, in effect, that the chair make Suzuki stick to the point, or end his question time. This, of course, is an action worth censuring. To make matters worse, there is now talk, among members of the LDP, of a no-confidence vote against Tanaka.

The CJT admits to being befuddled by all this as it's never seen a party do so much destroy one of its own leaders right before a key election and if it didn't know better, the CJT would suspect that the Hashimoto faction and other Old Guard factions were deliberately trying to cause the LDP to do poorly in the upcoming elections in order to oust Koizumi and prevent reforms. Or, as Tanaka's popularity was a key factor in Koizumi's good showing among the rank and file, the Old Guard may be seeking a pound of flesh. Or, the Discretionary Fund Scandal is much deeper and broader than anyone suspects. All the CJT can do is encourage Tanaka to hang in there, trust no one and, more importantly, follow the money.
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Fifty five years ago, all Japanese suffering from Hansen's Disease (Leprosy) were ordered into sanitariums by the Japanese government, essentially imprisoning them indefinitely. The plan was to control the spread of a disease about which, at the time, little was known, and about which there are thousands of years of bias. About 10 years later, a drug was created that controlled the disease and has essentially stopped its spread worldwide. Although the drug was administered to the hundreds of patients in Japan, the government neglected to rescind the order confining them to the sanitariums. They were, for all practical purposes, forgotten. Just last month, after years of pressure, the Diet finally lifted the order. Koizumi issued an apology and both the upper and lower houses of the Diet issued an apology for their neglect. An official government spokesman travelled to each sanitarium and read the apology and Koizumi has had many of the most outspoken patients visit him in his office.
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One of the studies Koizumi ordered has revealed that several large corporations and construction companies involved in many of Japan's largest public works projects, including Water Resources Development where your humble editor taught last autumn, are defacto branches of the government. It seems that over a thousand former bureaucrats now hold positions in companies to which they gave large contracts to build dams, roads, etc. What's worse, many of those former bureaucrats work only a few years before retiring with corporate pensions and bonuses of up to 5 million dollars US. Nothing suspicious here, eh? (Actually nothing terribly surprising either. This practice has traditionally been called "Descending from Heaven" in Japan and is probably practiced in every country on the planet.)
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Written June 2001
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