Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Hunting Of The Snark

Ah, August 15! Here and gone at last. The last day of East Asia's long-running but still incredibly popular "I Know What You Did 60 Years Ago" series of remembrances. The sound of cicadas, bells, morality/immorality of Hiroshima debates, commentators warning of resurgent militarism, scholars complaining that not enough emphasis is being put on Russia's entering the war, the disorienting usage of NHK's "three seconds to the hour" theme at the official Budokan ceremony...all blessedly overshadowed by one of the most active and bemusing weeks ever in Japanese politics.

Everyone with half a brain knew that Prime Minister Koizumi was going to pull the trigger last Monday. What political junkies (yours truly included) did not expect was that the Japanese public would really get a kick out of the Diet dissolution. A head-snapping pair of announcements--Koike Yuriko's candidacy for Kobayashi Koki's seat and the jump in the approval ratings for the soon-to-be defunct Cabinet --sent the outlook for the election careening off into new directions on Wednesday morning.

In the aftermath of a House of Councilors defeat, Koizumi has been dominating the news cycles with periodic announcements of attractive LDP candidates, while LDP rebels fulminate and plot counterstrategies and the national and local LDP chapters prepare for civil war.

My object all sublime
I shall reveal in time
To make the punishment fit the crime
The punishment fit the crime

And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment
Of innocent merriment

- Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado

The postal savings and postal insurance programs (full disclosure - I participate in both) were the honey pots from which was drawn nearly every economic and ecological monstrosity of the last 25 years. Nevertheless, the 5 to 10 point jumps in the popularity of the Cabinet last week cannot be explained by popular expectations that postal investments may finally be de-politicized and rationalized. Given Japan's recent history, such expectations would be unwarranted.

I am most perplexed by the paucity of persons feeling pity for the rebels. Koizumi to my knowledge never stated that a vote against the legislation would lead to a de facto expulsion from the party. He never made clear that chickening out by abstaining preferable to actually taking a stand against the legislation (a terrible precedent, by the way, which will lead to future crises in the Diet). Furthermore, is there not something unseemly about punishing members of House of Representatives for a political failure in the House of Councilors?

I can see four main reasons for the sudden jump in both the Cabinet and the LDP's popularity following the dissolution of the Diet and Koizumi's announcement of a purge of party ranks:

1) Resignation to amputation. While Nagata-cho is used to focusing on the daily roller-coaster of political popularity and fortune the country at large has a long known of the deep structural problems within the LDP. Unless the party found a method of expelling its most recalcitrant members, it would never be able to embrace the policies necessary for Japan's transformation. As one astute observer on television put it, it was like a contest between two sets of singers, one singing Western music, the other singing enka-and the enka singers had to go.

2) Visual appeal. While certain of the rebels are attractive individuals--Noda Seiko, for example-a not insignificant number of them are, to put it bluntly, ugly as sin. If Watanuki and Kamei are both defeated, next year's "Homeliest Man in the Diet" contest will be thrown wide open. Koizumi has managed to ruthlessly exploit this disadvantage by choosing attractive and accomplished women as the challengers to the rebels.

3) The Germans have a word for it. Call it schadenfreude, call it die Gotterdammerung -- this is a rare chance to see some very powerful, very arrogant persons hack each other to bits in front of the cameras.

4) Strictly business. Kobayashi Koki was clearly singled out for special retribution for his now infamous left, right and center display of his "no" vote in the House of Representatives. What Kobayashi and the other rebels did not grasp that for Koizumi, postal reform legislation could never be just business. It was personal for him-a personal desire to see it enacted, a personal affront when it was rejected. He would never forgive and forget, not as long as he had the party machinery at his disposal.

Going into the second week

In the first weekend of the campaign, the election that was:

(((Koizumi + frightened LDP) vs. LDP renegades) ± uncertain Komeito) vs. (stolid DPJ - (non onmis moriar JCP + iam mortua DSPJ))

became, by the second weekend

("My way or the highway" Koizumi LDP + Komeito) vs. (immobile DPJ - (LDP outcasts + JCP + DSPJ))

We should be seeing a rollback of some of the LDP's gains this week as the public mood recovers from the Prime Minister's fiery leap out of the electoral starting gate. With fewer new names adding fuel to the news cycle, Koizumi will have to flesh out and defend the policies of his LDP. Going nose to nose with Okada Katsuya on policy is a lot harder (and a lot less fun) than cutting off rebel heads.

Not So Good

Watching Kan Naoto and Okada on the Sunday morning roundtables, I found myself dreaming I was Burgess Meredith,. "Get your HANDS UP, YOU BUMS!" I yelled as Kan and Okada took repeated metaphoric blows to the face from the announcers. "Stop trying to outline your formulas for reorganizing the accounts at the post office as detailed in your party's manifesto. Tell us what the post office is for and what it is not for! Koizumi's got you on the ropes. Defense! Defense!"

In truth, the DPJ representatives do have a point: talking about privatization of the post office is fine but the details really do matter. The private sector might be slavering over the idea of creaming off some of the 3.3 trillion yen in post office savings deposits and insurance plans. One has to wonder, though who would want to actually take on the currentl giga-portfolio of JTBs and IOUs from quasi-public corporations.

It will nevertheless be crucial for the DPJ's leaders to start throwing out some punchy, easy-to-understand answers to the questions being posed by journalists. Democrats desperately need a one-sentence explanation of contradiction between their claims of being the big tent party of reform and their unanimously vote against the most important reform bill of the last five years.

You want a receipt? The word of a faction leader is as good as gold!

Early in his career, comedian Steve Martin had a short, absurdist monologue on "How to Make a Million Dollars and Pay No Taxes" which went something like this:

"You ask me, 'Steve, how can I make a million dollars and not pay taxes?' First, find a million dollars...and then, when the tax man comes to your door, remember two little words -- just two little words: I forgot. I forgot that not paying taxes was a crime."

Perhaps because he is not a huge Steve Martin fan, former prime minister and faction leader Hashimoto Ryutaro actually tried the "I forgot" defense in regards to a 100 million yen check he received in 2001 from the Japan Dentists Federation. The "I forgot that taking a political donation and not declaring it was a crime" excuse won him little sympathy in closed-door session Diet testimony. It certainly did not prevent Hashimoto associates from being convicted of violations of campaign finance laws.

Through his sad attempt to cover up his illegal actions, Hashimoto managed to alienate support groups in his electoral district. He will retire with his court status hanging in the air.

Thus in ignominy ends a 43-year Diet career, second only to former prime minister Toshiki Kaifu's (46 years) in length among active politicians.

Hashimoto Ryutaro's exit from the scene highlights an extraordinary aspect of this election: the decapitation of the LDP factions. Of the current or former faction leaders, only three will be supported by the party:

Mori Yoshiro (Seiwa Seisaku Kenkyukai)
Ozato Sadanori (Ozato faction) and
Yamasaki Taku (Kin Mirai Seiji Kenkyukai).

Receiving only grudging LDP central party support will be:

Komura Masahiko (Bancho Seisaku Kenkyukai)

for abstaining from the vote on the postal reform package.

Running without LDP central party support will be:

Horiuchi Mitsuo (Koseikai)
Kamei Shizuka (former Shishikai)
Watanuki Tamisuke (former Heisei Kenkyukai)

All three voted against the postal reform legislation.

It is impossible to recall an election where faction leaders faced a real political challenge. Many of these old warriors will find a way to survive the threats posed by the LDP's money and their own dirty laundry. Nevertheless, it is extraordinary that so many of the once invincible faction leaders could be in this predicament.


As an old TV Asahi employee, I must finally note with extreme pleasure the continuing lack of ethical standards among video editors of Japanese news broadcasts. Their use of music, usually music with English lyrics, as a subversive subtext for video montages keeps alive my faith in the private ownership of terrestrial television networks. Fond memories have I of the Sagawa Kyubin perpetrators slouching into the Diet budget committee chamber to the tune of "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits.

My favorite montage so far in this electoral cycle was on a Saturday program. Video of Koizumi and Takebe was juxtaposed with video of various LDP postal legislation rebels, including a teary-eyed Noda Seiko, as Paul McCartney, accompanied by solo piano, sweetly warbled:

When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
(You know you did, you know you did, you know you di-id)
But if this everchangin' world we have to live in
Makes you give in and cry.

Cut to the doomed Kobayashi at the press conference where he first learns that Koike will be running against him:

Say Live and Let Die!

Cut to Kamei Shizuka and Tamisuke Watanuki.

Live and Let Die!

Cut to Horiuchi Mitsuo and Hosaka Takeshi.

Live and Let Die!

And over the crashing , driving symphonic bridge that follows ("Live and Let Die" was, after all, written for a Bond film), editors intercut footage of the rebels with footage of the mediagenic superstars recruited to run against them.


Later - For those of tender years, Sir Paul, Linda and the boys.

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