Thursday, November 22, 2012

Last Hurrah

At age 80, when most people might be thinking about taking it easy and spending more time playing with grandchildren, former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara has taken on another kind of mission – to save Japan.

Save Japan from what?

The self-described “wild man” of Japanese politics wants to save Japan from bureaucrats, from the Chinese, from weak, vacillating and spineless politicians and even from genetically modified foods shoved down Japan’s throat by Americans.
Ishihara recently resigned as governor of Tokyo to found a new party, the Sunrise Party. This new political entity lasted all of two days before Ishihara dissolved the party and merged it with rising Osaka politician Toru Hashimoto’s new Japan Restoration Party (JRP).

The Restoration Party is making a bid to become a “third force” in Japanese politics. Public opinion polls show it running second to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the upcoming Dec. 16 general election. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s is running third.
The merger, with Ishihara becoming party president and Hashimoto vice-president, required some major concessions on both parts. In deference to Ishihara’s pro-nuclear power views, Hashimoto had to bury, at least temporarily, his support of “zero” nuclear power. Ishihara had to tone down his opposition to an enlarged Asian free trade zone.

A leader of the DPJ, ex-finance minister  Jun Azuma, noted the fundamental differences of the two leaders by calling it an “unholy alliance,” The LDP says similar things about the new party. For his part, Ishihara shrugs off such criticism, saying all parties make compromises for unity.
The advantages of the tie-up for Hashimoto’s new party are obvious. Ishihara potentially gives the Restoration Party, now based entirely in and around Osaka, Japan’s second city, some critical support in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures.

It is uncertain how this “unholy alliance” will last after the election, no matter what the outcome. Ishihara is not known to be a team player. He resigned from the LDP nearly 20 years ago, and he has run successfully for governor four times as an independent, regularly crushing candidates endorsed by the major parties including the LDP his former political home.
Hashimoto and Ishihara do see eye-to-eye on some issues, especially those that are connected with conservative causes such as revising Japan’s American-written constitution and eliminating the famous Article 9 which technically prohibits Japan from possessing a military. (Shinzo Abe, the new LDP leader shares similar views on the constitution.)

Ishihara created quite a stir when, during a speech last week to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo he said Japan should “simulate” having nuclear weapons. “It’s high time that Japan made simulations of possessing nuclear arms,” he said. “That would become a form of deterrence against China’s possible military encroachment.”
Simulation in nuclear weapons’ terms means the testing of existing weapons to ensure they are battle worthy without conducting underground explosions in violation of treaty obligations. How this applies to a non-nuclear weapons state like Japan is not clear. Ishihara probably doesn’t know either.

Whatever the purpose of the remark, it is undeniable that Ishihara almost single-handedly created the current crisis over the disputed Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call the Daioyu islands, when he proposed that the city of Tokyo buy the islands and made a call for private donations to accomplish this.
He essentially sand\-bagged PM Noda, whose government was quietly seeking to buy the islands which at the time were actually owned by a private individual. That forced Noda to have the national government openly buy the islands with taxpayer money.

Noda apparently hoped that Beijing would understand that it was far better to have the islands in the hands of the national government than “wild man”, China-bashing Ishihara. The Tokyo governor would have used ownership to build a small port or erect a lighthouse in contradiction to government policy.
Tokyo has resisted numerous attempts by Japan’s super nationalists to erect permanent fixtures on the Senkaku as a sign of ownership. If they were in Ishihara’s hands this would have been harder. Beijing, however, does not see things that way, and the dispute over the island’s sovereignty continues to percolate.

The official Restoration Party stance on the disputed islands, however, is more moderate. The platform says that the party will urge China to bring the Senkaku dispute to the International court of Justice for a ruling on which country has sovereign jurisdiction over the island.
Ishihara was a teenager in the final days of World War II and the difficult years immediately after the surrender, which helps to understand his views today. In many ways he is stuck in that era. For example, he still refers to China as “Shina”, the name that was often associated with Japan’s invasion and occupation.

He insists that Shina is not a derogatory word, and that the current word for China, “Chugoku”, meaning center country or middle kingdom, is overly fawning of the continental neighbor and subject to some confusion as the same word also refers to the region centered on Hiroshima in the far western part of Honshu.
While it is clear what Hashimoto gets out of this unwieldy alliance of convenience, one has to wonder what Ishihara gets from it. Perhaps he was bored after 13 years as governor of Tokyo. Perhaps he simply wants one more season in the sun or a platform where he can pontificate on his views. Or, to take him at his word, perhaps he believes he is the man to save Japan.

If the Restoration Party enters a coalition with the LDP after the election, which is one widely assumed scenario, however, he will probably have to leave the saving to others. Though he is certain to win a seat in parliament at the head of the Tokyo proportional representation list, he says he will not accept a ministerial post. “I’m too old,” he says.


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Hate Speech?

 Hate Speech?

 It has never been a secret that Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s father was a yakuza or that his gangster father hailed from a social underclass that has often been discriminated against in past years. Newspaper and magazine articles have alluded to this without making much of an issue out of it. Until now.
The mayor, who aspires to turn his regional-based political party into a national force, went ballistic recently over a magazine article that he said delved unfairly into his family’s past using terms that in other countries might ban as “hate speech” on the cover. It was the first article in the Shukan Asahi magazine in what was to be a four-part expose of his background.

What riled Hashimoto was the magazine’s decision to print a variation of his name – Hashishita – on the cover. Hashimoto is a common Japanese name, but the Chinese characters that comprise the name are open to some ambiguity. The mayor was not upset that his name was misspelled but that the magazine deliberately used a variant associated with an outcast class.
The magazine printed the name in katakana a Japanese alphabet, just to make sure that nobody missed the import of the name. Hashimoto loudly proclaimed the series character assassination and the term a kind of hate speech that might be banned in other countries.

The Shukan Asahi is a weekly publication of the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s three most important and widely read newspapers. Hashimoto has had a running feud with Asahi, which tends to lean to the left in its coverage while the mayor is mostly conservative. In this instance, the Asahi apologized for using the term and canned the series.
The burakumin are a class of Japanese stigmatized since feudal times because they engaged in work that Buddhists consider unclean or associated with deasth, such as being undertakers, executioners or leather workers. They were relegated to isolated villages (the term literally means “village people”) or to urban ghettos.

Hashimoto’s father reportedly was born in one such village near Osaka. Like so many in the stigmatized class, he drifted into the underworld of the yakuza. Later he committed suicide when Hashimoto was in the 2nd grade; he and and his mother moved to Osaka. It is unclear whether their neighborhood was a burakumin ghetto.
The future mayor went to Waseda University in Tokuyo, one of Japan’s most prestigious universities, obtained a law degree, became a television personality and a politician. He looks on himself, with good reason, as a person who pulled himself up by his own efforts. As mayor has even promised to end some of the subsidies to burakumin that are made to compensate for prejudice against them.

Ironically, the burakumin are more prevalent in the Kansai area of Japan (Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe) which is also Hashimoto’s political base. Relatively few live in Tokyo or to the northeast. Over time, prejudice has abated; there are a couple burakumin in parliament, and one served as chief cabinet secretary in a previous government.
Hashimoto and his allies control the governments of Osaka and Osaka prefecture, and they plan to field some 200-300 candidates in the next general election, which must be held by the summer but probably earlier. Some pundits give them a chance to win 50 seats or more in their region denying the two major parties a majority.

But the mayor isn’t the only in intriguing new politician on the scene, if the term “new” can be applied to the 80-year-old Shintaro Ishihara. He recently resigned as governor of Tokyo after serving more than 13 years in the post. He said he wanted to enter national politics at the head of some new but as of now unnamed political party.
The two would seem to be natural allies. Both are conservatives as the Japanese understand the term, which mostly means such nationalist objectives as dropping the no war Article 9 of the constitution and promoting “values education” in the schools. They also have their bases in the country’s two largest cities.

Nevertheless, Ishihara has not shown great interest in merging his projected party with Hashimoto’s new Japan Restoration Party JRP). While both are nationalists, Hashimoto does not share the other’s visceral dislike of the Chinese. Indeed, as governor he has visited China several times and happily sponsored an Osaka exhibit during the 2010 World’s Fair in Shanghai.
The Tokyo governor opposes phasing out nuclear power, while Hashimoto is for a nuclear power phase-out (or at least he was; his views have modified, and some members of his party oppose the phase-out). But there may be a more fundamental reason why they won’t unite into a third force: Japan isn’t big enough for two enormous egos.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s government continues to lose popularity according to opinion polls – a mere 17.8 percent say the government is doing a good job. It also continues to bleed members of parliament to other parties. Recently, two resigned to join a small splinter party headed by the Mayor of Nagoya.
That leaves Noda with a mere six-vote majority in parliament. Noda promised to hold an election “soon” to win opposition support for his move to raise the consumption (sales) tax. But “soon” was three months ago, and the opposition is getting restless. If Noda loses his slim majority, the opposition could force an election by winning a parliamentary vote of no confidence

The current session of the Diet still has important tasks, including passing legislation authorizing the government to sell more bonds to cover the one half of the national budget that is financed through borrowing and to correct voter discrepancies in the electoral districts. The former is needed to keep the government solvent, the latter to prevent the results of the next election being nullified as unconstitutional.
Noda wants to stave off an election as long as possible, hoping that something develops to turn things around for the beleaguered Democratic Party of Japan. He is going to Moscow in December. He may come back with some concessions on the vexing territorial dispute over several islands north of Hokkaido occupied by Russia since the end of World War II.

Any real progress in the issue of the islands the Japanese call the Northern Territories could lead to a signing of a formal treaty ending World War II hostilities, and that in turn could open up lucrative business opportunities for Japanese companies in Siberia. That might be enough to give his government a much needed boost.