Sunday, July 26, 2009

Koizumi's Feisty Daughters

Four years ago they were called “assassins”, but now they are known as “Koizumi’s daughters”. They are three women elected to Japan’s Diet (parliament) on the coattails of Japan’s last popular prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, in the 2005 general election.

Back then the Japanese press labeled these women, and others on the ruling party ticket, as “assassins” since they were handpicked to replace and defeat veteran candidates of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who had opposed the premier’s pet plan to privatize the postal system.

Now they are in a battle for their political lives in the face of what now appears to be an opposition party tsunami in the August 30 general election. Only this time they are led by an enormously unpopular premier and the only real issue is whether to give the LDP one more chance in governing or take a leap into the dark by putting an opposition party in power for the first time.

One thing is clear. T he three feisty Diet ladies – Kuniko Inoguchi, Satsuki Katayama and Yukari Sato - don’t plan to give up their seats without a fight. They plan to carry their campaigns to the Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) in their constituencies by squarely addressing issues and criticizing what they consider the weaknesses in the DJP platform.

Prime Minister Taro Aso dissolved parliament and called for an election at the end of August in the wake of the party’s embarrassing defeat in the July 12 election for the 127-seat Tokyo metropolitan legislature in which the DPJ added 20 seats new seats. It was an outcome that even LDP stalwarts admit was an election debacle.

Aso himself appeared before a meeting of his party’s parliamentarians and tearfully took the blame for the defeat. However, a short-lived move to replace him at the head of the ticket with somebody else - anybody else - failed even though polls now show that twice as many people prefer opposition leader, Yukio Hatoyama, as the next premier. The party will sink or swim with Aso.

It should be recalled that in 2005 Koizumi ran against his own party: “Change the LDP and change Japan” was his rallying cry. Since then the influence of “reformers” in the party has diminished greatly. A handful of “Koizumi’s children” have left the party to run as independents, but not the feisty three. “We’re the strongest reformers in the party; we must return,” says Inoguchi. Koizumi himself is not running for another term.

Meeting with the press at the foreign correspondents Club as a group, Inoguchi heaped praise on the former premier and touted his achievements. “We’re very disappointed that Koizumi is leaving politics,” she said. “He strengthened the hand of the politicians over bureaucrats.” Not one of the three even mentioned Aso’s name.

The candidates admit the governing party is battling against a very strong head wind. Public opinion polls are terrifying, the economy is in the pits, their party leader is unpopular. In a recent poll by Kyodo News Service, only 20 per cent of respondents supported the Aso government, 73 percent opposed it.

The LDP has a reputation of being Japan’s “Republican” party, but the three Diet ladies hardly sound like American-style conservatives. Said Katayama: “People want better social policies. We need a firm economic base so that we can expand these policies.”

Katoyama represents a constituency in the middle Japan which has a lot of automobile and motorcycle plants that have been hard-hit by the global economic recession, which would seem receptive to the opposition’s message of change. But she isn’t about to bow to the Democrats even on this.

“We’re a microcosm of the economy,” she said. But she is not prepared to cede the issue of unemployment to the Democrats. “Only we can do something about laid-off [temporary] workers. “The unions [which support the DJP] do nothing.”

Opinion polls indicate that the Japanese public is overwhelmingly focused on issues of social security, pensions, health care and job security. Foreign affairs, security (despite North Korea’s recent saber rattling) and constitutional reform barely show up in the polls.

The LDP began to go off the rails when the conservative wing, led by former premier Shinzo Abe, put most of its attention on rewriting the constitution to water down the pacifistic Article 9 while neglecting down home issues such as pensions. It paid a heavy price when the opposition seized control of the upper house in 2007 and still suffers from the perception that it ignores bread-and-butter issues.

The opposition DJP is almost giddy at the prospect of a huge electoral triumph at the end of August. Some are predicting that the party might win enough seats by itself to form a government without having to seek the support of minor parties. However, a little realism may be in order.

Koizumi’s greatest gift to his party was the huge bloc of seats it won in 2005. There are now 303 LDP members in the 480-seat House of Representatives, which determines the government. The alliance with the Komeito Party adds another 31 giving the coalition a secure two-thirds majority. The LDP could lose as many as 60 seats and still form a government.

Meanwhile, the Democrats currently hold 112 seats. In order to obtain a clear majority, it would have to more than double its representation in the Diet. No other major party in modern Japan has ever pulled off such a feat.

Nonetheless, wild swings are becoming the norm in Japanese politics. Koizumi’s landslide increased the LDP majority by more than 80 seats. A similar or even greater swing to the opposition this year seems probable, even if it doesn’t result in a clear majority.

A huge “floating” body of unattached voters means greater volatility in the election, and greater opportunity for the opposition. In the recent Kyodo News poll, 67 percent of the respondents said “no” to the question: “Is there a political party you usually support?

Asked what is the best thing that the Liberal Democratic Party has going for it in the coming election? Ms Katoyama said simply: ‘We still have forty days ahead”

Sunday, July 19, 2009

No, No and Maybe

For nearly 40 years the “Three Nos” regarding nuclear armaments has been a pillar of Japan’s foreign and defense policy. The Three Nos are, simply put, that Japan will never (1) possess, (2) manufacture nor (3) allow nuclear weapons to be brought into her territory.

The Three Nos were enunciated in 1971 by then prime minister Eisaku Sato and enshrined in a Diet (Japan’s parliament) resolution. This and his signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty were the reasons why Sato became the first Japanese awarded the Nobel Price for Peace in 1974

Every prime minister has reaffirmed the nonnuclear principles, but they are coming under considerable pressure because of the rise of a nuclear armed North Korea and China’s steadily modernizing armed forces, including building nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

Last week Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) indicated that his party might allow U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons to make port calls in Japan and pass through Japanese territorial waters without consulting Tokyo in advance.

Hatoyama said “Although Japan has maintained the three nonnuclear principles, I acknowledge that Japan has taken realistic response measures [in the past] regarding certain issues.” He was referring to a supposedly secret pact between Washington and Tokyo permitting nuclear weapons-laden ships to enter Japanese ports.

The Japanese press has been flogging this story heavily in recent weeks based on a former ranking foreign ministry administrative vice minister going on the record as stating that such a codicil to the 1960 security pact did exist. The government continues to deny its existence.

Nevertheless, it is was astonishing for the leader of a major political party, a man who looks increasingly likely to be Japan’s next prime minister, to speak so forthrightly about such a sensitive matter. This is so even if he did walk his comments back a little saying that “I did not say so” when asked if he intends to modify the three nonnuclear principles if his party takes over after the election scheduled for August 30.

“We cannot side step a reality we have to face up to. Once we assume power, we will fully discuss the issue with the U.S.” He said. Indeed, the two countries are not waiting for the new government to take over.

Last weekend, Kurt Campbell and Wallace Gregson visited Tokyo. They are respectively the new assistant secretaries for East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the state and defense departments in the Obama administration. They met with leaders of the government and opposition party.

The pair issued predictable denunciations of North Korea’s recent missile and nuclear bomb tests. “We’ve made it very clear that there will have to be consequences for the provocative steps that North Korea has taken,” said Campbell.

But the real purpose of the mission, besides reacquainting two new administration newcomers with Asian portfolios, was to discuss the nuclear umbrella, or as they prefer to call it “extended nuclear deterrence”. Campbell told the Nikkei newspaper in Japan that the two countries should hold regular discussions on America’s use of its nuclear deterrent to protect an Asian ally – a kind of nuclear umbrella forum.

There have been consultations and refinements of the “alliance” in the past, but it is fair to say that extended nuclear deterrence has not been on the agenda for a very long time, probably not since around 1970, when the issue of nuclear weapons on Okinawa was discussed in the context of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty in 1972.

As far as Japan and the United States are concerned, Northeast Asia has been a nuclear-free zone, ever since Okinawa reverted to Japan and came under the Three Nos and President George H.W, Bush ordered the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from South Korea and aboard naval warships.

Meanwhile, the strategic picture in the region has changed radically with the North Korean actions and the steady accumulation of Chinese capabilities. In the meantime, the nuclear umbrella has become something of an abstraction for most Japanese and Koreans, who see no evidence of its existence.

It gives conservative politicians in Japan a reason to play up Chinese/North Korean intentions while playing down U.S. capabilities and commitments while arguing for a more robust Japanese effort in its own self defense, including possibly going nuclear itself and abandoning the three nonnuclear principles.

So far, no prominent Japanese has gone quite that far, but there is plenty of talk about Japan acquiring a “first strike” ability against North Korean missile sites using conventional weapons such as cruise missiles, something not necessarily in U.S. interests and something that would certainly alarm South Korea.

One way to head that off would be to reintroduce some nuclear weapons back in the region either in South Korea or aboard US naval warships, such as Japan-based submarines equipped with nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles. Hatoyama seemed to be signaling to Washington that such a step would be okay with his government.

Such a move would obviously go against the craw of President Barack Obama, who would prefer to be seen as reducing nuclear stockpiles around the world, not re-introducing them were they have long been removed, but it may be necessary to maintain a semblance of deterrence in Northeast Asia.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Change Tokyo, Change Japan

It is 6 a.m. in front of the railroad station in Musashi-Sakai, a western suburb of Tokyo, and Reiko Matsushita is already up and campaigning. She stands in front of the station entrance catching the commuters as they head for the trains to go to work.

For the next three hours, she will bow and repeat her name over and over again, while her campaign supporters hand out flyers to those who will take them. Most of the commuters walk past her, their heads held down, hurrying to catch their trains.

Matsushita, 38, is a first-term member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, the legislature of the capital, and is running for a second four-year term as a member of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DJP). Four years ago she defeated a longstanding member of the governing party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), for the seat, and she is fighting hard to retain it in a rematch.

Technically, the election to be decided on July 12 is a local election for the Tokyo legislature, but everyone knows that it is basically a warm-up match for the main event, a national and potentially historic general election that must be held by September when the current Diet’s (parliament) five-year term expires.

A recent poll indicated that 55 percent of the respondents in the Tokyo election will base their vote, not so much on the local issues but on their judgment of the national government and Prime Minister Taro Aso. The opposition hopes that a good showing in Tokyo will be the final push that allows it to displace the LDP in the first democratic change of government in modern Japanese history.

The Democrats have taken former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s winning slogan from the 2005 general election: “Change the LDP, change Japan” and turned it around. “Let’s change Tokyo and change Japan,” shouted DJP president Yukio Hatoyama at a downtown rally. With the stakes so high, both sides are pulling out the stops.

Seiji Maehara, a Diet member and vice-president of the DJP, certain to hold a major cabinet post if his party wins the next general election, joins Matsushita in front of the Musashi-Sakai railroad station to lend her support and urge the surging commuters to support his party in the Tokyo election.

Matsushita will spend the rest of the day roaming her district in a sound truck, repeating her name over and over on the loudspeaker, a grueling day of campaigning that will culminate in a rally in front of another railroad station, where she will be joined by another senior party leader, acting DJP president Naoto Kan.

His voice is raw from a full day of haranguing crowds of potential voters. It is 8 p.m. when he winds up, but he still has two more engagements at two more railroad stations. Kan, who holds a Tokyo Diet seat, has been assigned the task of assuring victory in the capital as a springboard to victory in the national election.

Kan was the only Tokyo DJP member to retain his Diet seat in the 2005 election debacle that saw the LDP capture 23 of Tokyo’s 25 single-member Diet seats, ousting Democrats. The party is hoping to regain 14-15 of those seats in the national election later this year, DJP leader Maehara said.

The LDP is working the political hustings heavily too. Prime Minister Aso put in an appearance in a rural distant corner of Tokyo before flying off to attend the G-8 Meeting in Italy. Tokyo’s governor, the famous nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, is also campaigning strenuously for his party the Liberal Democratic Party.

Ishihara’s job is not on the line in the election. Prefectural governors are directly elected in Japan, just like state governors in the U.S., and are not dependent on a majority in the legislature. Still a majority in the legislature is good to have, and Ishihara is fighting hard to keep it.

Currently, the LDP enjoys a 70-seat majority in alliance with another party in the 127-seat city assembly, while the DJP holds 34. The opposition is fielding 64 candidates, so if all were to win, a big if, it would give the DJP a one-vote majority. That may be a bridge too far, but polls show that the opposition party should increase its representation significantly.

Matsushita and her supporters hammer away at Ishihara for his support in moving the world-famous Tsukiji fish market from its traditional location in downtown Tokyo and his brainchild, the ShinGinko Tokyo (New Tokyo Bank), that has sucked up some JPY150 billion in public money.

The Democratic Party of Japan has been on a roll lately, having won a string of local victories, most recently the governor of Shizuoka prefecture south of Tokyo. The opposition party seems to have recovered fully from the political contributions scandal that forced their former leader Ichiro Ozawa to resign.

(Ozawa is one of the few prominent Japanese political figures who has not been seen campaigning in the Tokyo election, but then he is more focused on winning the party votes from rural, remote and distressed areas of Japan, places he has been visiting frequently).

After a brief uptick, Prime Minister Aso’s poll numbers have sunk again. The despair among LDP members, especially those who won marginal seats on Koizumi’s coattails in 2005, about their election prospects is palpable. Though it seems farfetched at this late date, there are still calls for Aso to resign or be replaced before the general election.

Some backbenchers have circulated a petition calling for another party presidential election before the general election to find a new leader. The petition is on hold during the Tokyo election, but could easily be revived if the party suffers a big defeat on July 12.

But for a party that has changed leaders three times since the last election, the idea of putting forward another face is not appealing, against what seems like a united opposition party sensing victory now within its grasp. But to retain the unpopular Aso is equally unpalatable. And time is rapidly running out.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

No Longer a Laughing Matter

When I worked for Asiaweek Magazine in Hong Kong back in the 1990s, we published a feature called the “50 Most Powerful People in Asia”. In the first edition we ranked Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej high on the list. He had earned that spot by defusing a potentially dangerous political stalemate after troops had fired on demonstrators in Bangkok.

When it came time to publish the second list the following year, we initially ranked the King much lower. There had evidently been no crisis to defuse in Thailand that year. Then we caught ourselves. We can’t demote the King!

If we kept the King at the same level as the previous year when he didn’t deserve it, we compromised the integrity of the list. If we moved him to a lower ranking we risked being accused of lese majeste (insulting the monarch), which might get our issue, or maybe even the entire publication, banned in Thailand. What to do?

Soon we hit upon a solution worthy of Solomon. We created a separate sidebar, called it “Asia’s Most Powerful Monarchs” and put the King of Thailand at the top. That was safe. No other monarch in Asia, indeed probably no other monarch the world, had as much prestige and subtle influence in his country’s affairs than King Bhumibol.

It made for an amusing story, something to pass along and chuckle about over a few drinks in the bar of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. But it might not be a good idea to do it around the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand these days. The club has been collectively accused of lese majeste, or at least the President Jonathan Head, Bangkok bureau chief of the BBC, and 12 other members of the FCCT board, including three Americans.

One Laksama Kornsilpa, a 57-year-old woman who works as a translator filed the complaint with the local police regarding a speech by Jakrabob Penkai. Like similar clubs all over Asia, the FCCT had invited Jakrabog, then a cabinet minister, to speak to the club. It later made a DVD of the speech to disseminate to members who had not been able to attend.

Laksama obtained a copy of the DVD and took offense at its contents, which was a rather rambling history of Thai kings over the past 700 year with some vague references to the “patronage system”. The speaker made no specific references to Thailand’s reigning monarch, his queen or the crown prince.

Never mind. In Thailand anyone can file a lese majeste complaint. The police are bound to follow up no matter how trivial or tangential the speech is to the monarch himself. The accuser saw the speech and the action by the FCCT as “acting in an organized fashion to undermine the credibility of the high institutions of Thailand.”

In making a direct assault on the foreign press Thailand seems to be going the way of Singapore in trying to punish outside publications. The Economist magazine’s Dec. 6-10, 2008, issue, for example, was banned for its frank reporting of the King. Probably no country, outside of China, spends more time and effort trawling the Internet to close down sites thought to be disrespectful.

The insidiousness of the threat posed by Thailand’s lese majeste laws comes less from any particular disrespect for the King himself. Indeed, much of the foreign reporting about King Bhumibol’s more than 60-year reign has been deservedly positive. The problem comes from the fact that various factions in Thailand long, grinding political struggle between supporters and opponents of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra use the law as a cudgel against opponents.

Say, for example, that the King gives a speech and describes the political situation in the country as a “mess,” as in fact he did so describe it a couple years back. So if you were to say that in your opinion it is not a mess, somebody can accuse you of lese majeste for contradicting and thus insulting the King.

Many prominent Thai politicians carry the added burden of defending multiple lese majeste accusations. Thai media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, a prominent opponent of former premier and leader of numerous anti-Thaksin demonstrations, has more than 30 lese majeste charges hanging over him - not to mention a couple of criminal libel convictions.

Ironically, the King himself has spoken out against the abuse of lese majeste laws, saying in 2005 “that if you say the King cannot be criticized, that is to suggest that the King is not human.” But at 81 it may be that the King is too feeble to affect any changes. He has said very little, in public at least, about the recent political turmoil.

Not every lese majeste case involves freedom of speech. People can be accused of disrespect for failing to stand for the royal anthem that introduces movies. In 2007 a longtime Swiss resident of Chiang Mai named Oliver Jurer was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison. His offense: defacing one of the countless portraits of the King with a can of spray paint.

King Bhumibol pardoned Jurer, as, in fact, he usually does for all foreigners and Thais convicted of lese majeste. But just the accusation means detention until a trail is convened, the public humiliation of being in prison garb and even shackles, the expense of lawyers, public approbation and finally expulsion from a country that the accused may have considered his home.

Even before the latest outrage, the world was beginning to take note of the abuse of lese majeste laws in Thailand and their effect on free speech. In March a delegation of prominent academics led by Noam Chomsky petitioned Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva to take steps to prevent future abuses.

The premier said he would look into the law and its application to ensure that it would not be abused by anyone. He said he would discuss the matter with police to ensure against frivolous or obviously politically-motivated abuses of the law, but nothing much came of it.

Perhaps the complaint against the FCCT adding to the extremely unfavorable international attention occasioned by such actions as the temporary closing of international airports in Bangkok that stranded thousands of businessmen and tourists last year, will bring global attention, and approbation, against this human rights abuse.